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Moolah Mobile partners with Surge to offer free mobile service with ads – TechCrunch

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Moolah Mobile is teaming up with SurgePhone Wireless to offer people a new way to pay their cell phone bills — by putting ads on their homescreens.

Moolah CEO Vernell Woods (pictured above) said the startup has already been offering gift cards and other rewards to users who view its homescreen ads. So this is a similar model, except instead of earning gift cards, the ads are subsidizing cell phone service from Surge.

The ads show up on users’ homescreens during interstitial moments between using apps, so the goal is to offer free service without consumers having to change their behavior. Woods said all that ad time adds up, with “the average person who’s using their phone on a consistent basis” viewing “easily between two to three hours” of homescreen ads each day. And that’s enough to pay for the “equivalent” of Surge’s $10 monthly plan.

On the other hand, if for some reason a subscriber isn’t hitting the necessary total, Woods said they can also earn more points by accepting offers or taking surveys.

Moolah isn’t the only company using advertising to make previously paid products free. Just last week, I wrote about PreShow, a startup promising a free movie ticket for watching 15 to 20 minutes of ads. (Not everyone was crazy about the idea.)

Moolah Mobile screenshot

But Woods said he’s doing this because he wants to make wireless service more affordable to people in low-income communities. In the announcement, Moolah investor Tip “T.I.” Harris said it’s “one of the few tech companies I’ve seen who truly want to help everyday people have access to technology.”

But could this also be seen as a way to harvest personal data from a vulnerable population? Woods said he wants to protect against that with a blockchain initiative set to launch this fall, allowing users to see exactly what data is being shared with advertisers.

“No personal information should be going to advertisers without users knowing about it,” he said, adding that companies “definitely should not be making money off” personal data without giving users a cut of the profits.

The subsidized wireless service should be available on Surge Volt Android devices with Moolah install kits, as well as through SIM Starter Kits distributed by Surge. Moolah and Surge said they will roll this out in Florida, Virginia, Georgia and Texas initially, with an aim of reaching 40,000 locations by the end of the year.

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iOS 15 is now available to download – TechCrunch

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Apple has just released the final version of iOS 15, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. iPad users will also be able to update to iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8 today.

The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to “Do not disturb,” you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.

There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime, and more. Safari also has a brand-new look.

The new version of iOS also scans your photos for text. Called Live Text, this feature lets you highlight, copy and paste text in photos. It could be a nice accessibility feature as well; iOS is going to leverage that info for Spotlight. You can search for text in your photos directly in Spotlight and it’ll pull out relevant photos. These features are handled on-device directly.

Paid iCloud users have been upgraded to iCloud+. In addition to more storage, iCloud+ subscribers get a handful of new features. iCloud Private Relay, which is available as a beta feature, lets you browse the web with increased privacy. Hide My Email lets you create randomly generated email addresses to create new accounts around the web. iCloud email users can also switch to a personal domain name.

The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device to your computer for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device to your computer to do a manual backup in Finder or iTunes for Windows (or do both, really).

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ You should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

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Facetune maker Lightricks raises $130 million ahead of M&A plans – TechCrunch

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Facetune developer Lightricks, which operates over a dozen subscription-based photo and video editing apps across iOS and Android, now has $130 million in new funding to further grow its business. The company’s newly announced Series D round includes $100 million in primary and $30 million in secondary funding, and now values the company at $1.8 billion. To date, Lightricks has raised $335 million.

The new round was co-led by New York-based VC firm Insight Partners and Hanaco Venture Capital and includes new investors Migdal Insurance, Altshuler Shaham, and Shavit Capital. Existing investors Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Clal Tech, Harel Insurance and Finance, and Greycroft, also participated.

The company’s last round of funding was its pre-pandemic raise of $135 million, which minted the company as a unicorn.

Based in Jerusalem, Lightricks has been best known for its photo-editing app Facetune, which puts Photoshop-like retouching tools into the hands of consumers. The app quickly gained traction as online influencers tweaked their Instagram photos to look more polished, perfected, and blemish-free. This growth wasn’t without controversy, however, as some argued how image editing apps like Facetune took airbrushing too far, contributing to body image issues that now, Facebook’s internal research indicates, could have a negative effect on teenagers’ mental health.

But Facetune was only the beginning for what’s since become a mobile editing empire for Lightricks, at a time when everyone is trying to look their best online and create compelling content. Over the years, the company has rolled out the more powerful Facetune 2, along with other creativity and mobile photo apps that weren’t focused on selfies. It also expanded its product lineup beyond the creator crowd to bring a suite of tools to online marketers and small businesses. And last year, Lightricks more directly responded to the growth in online video as a form of self-expression with a new selfie retouching tool called Facetune Video — essentially the Facetune for the TikTok era.

Image Credits: Lightricks

The company benefitted from Covid-19 lockdowns, as well, as more people participated online and creators, as a group, became more well-established as a way for brands to reach consumers. During peak lockdowns, the company saw a 90% increase in usage across its apps in the U.S. Meanwhile, downloads for its popular Videoleap video editing apps jumped 70% since the start of the pandemic, as TikTok adoption also grew.

Across its suite of apps, the company now touts 29 million monthly active users, where over 5 million are paid subscribers. Its users average around 78 million monthly exports, indicating Lightricks’ sizable impact on the creator economy. In 2021, Lightricks is on track for over $200 million in revenue and plans to grow that figure by 40% in the year ahead.

To do so, the company’s strategy will change. Instead of just developing its own apps, it’s now on the hunt for potential acquisitions.

“Our plan is to grow into a one-stop-shop creator platform, supporting creators throughout their journey, from content creation to monetization,” says Zeev Farbman, CEO and Co-Founder of Lightricks. “To do so, we are broadening our acquisition activity, while developing other services in-house—our overall M&A objective is advancing our shift into the creator’s platform. To begin, we are planning between three to five acquisitions, each with a budget of tens of millions of dollars. However, we are also on the lookout for larger ticket size deals if there is enough conviction on both sides,” he notes.

Image Credits: Lightricks

The company will also enhance its own technology to develop tools and services that will help all creators with content production and monetization, and it will grow its team.

Currently, Lightricks has 460 employees and plans to add 60 more by the end of 2021. The longer-term goal is to grow the team to 1,000 employees by the end of 2023, across roles that include developers, designers, and marketing. While most of this growth to date has taken place in Jerusalem, over the next two years, the company plans to grow its teams locally in Haifa, as well as internationally in  London and Shenzhen. It may add on other locations through M&As, as well.

The U.K. office is now the largest outside of Lightricks’ headquarters, with 23 people. This number is expected to climb to 35 by year-end and be closer to 50 or 60 by the end of 2022, with growth focused on the production of the company’s new photography app plus Customer Experience and Marketing teams, which were previously only in Israel.

In the U.S., Lightricks is focused on content.

“Our U.S.-based activity will focus mostly on our content efforts that will provide a vast array of original, acquired, and co-produced content to inspire, educate and entertain creators across the entirety of their careers,” notes Farbman. “This includes written, video, audio, short and long-form, fun and informative content,” he says.

Investors say they see the potential for Lightricks to continue to grow as the creator economy booms.

“The creator economy has changed the way we, as a society, experience social networks,” said Pasha Romanovski, Co-Founding Partner of Hanaco Ventures, in a statement. “Audiences constantly consume information through the different content channels daily. Lightricks’ platform enables creators to have a broader, more professional, and higher-quality set of tools to optimize content. At a time when we are seeing content creators monetize content on social media at new levels, it is clear that Lightricks’ platform has the ability to create a one-stop shop that will be meaningful to its users,” he added.

 

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Roku debuts new Streaming Stick 4K bundles, software update with voice and mobile features – TechCrunch

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Weeks after Amazon introduced an updated Fire TV lineup that included, for the first time, its own TVs, Roku today is announcing its own competitive products in a race to capture consumers’ attention before the holiday shopping season. Its updates include a new Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick 4K+ — the latter which ships with Roku’s newer hands-free voice remote. The company is also refreshing the Roku Ultra LT, a Walmart-exclusive version of its high-end player. And it announced the latest software update, Roku OS 10.5, which adds updated voice features, a new Live TV channel for home screens, and other minor changes.

The new Streaming Stick 4K builds on Roku’s four-year-old product, the Streaming Stick+, as it offers the same type of stick form factor designed to be hidden behind the TV set. This version, however, has a faster processor which allows the device to boot up to 30% faster and load channels more quickly, Roku claims. The Wi-Fi is also improved, offering faster speeds and smart algorithms that help make sure users get on the right band for the best performance in their homes where network congestion is an increasingly common problem  — especially with the pandemic-induced remote work lifestyle. The new Stick adds support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10+, giving it the “4K” moniker.

This version ships with Roku’s standard voice remote for the same price of $49.99. For comparison, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick Max with a faster processor and speedier Wi-Fi is $54.99. However, Amazon is touting the addition of Wi-Fi 6 and support for its game streaming service, Luna, as reasons to upgrade.

Roku’s new Streaming Stick 4K+ adds the Roku Voice Remote Pro to the bundle instead. This is Roku’s new remote, launched in the spring, that offers rechargeability, a lost remote finder, and hands-free voice support via its mid-field microphone, so you can just say things like “hey Roku, turn on the TV,” or “launch Netflix,” instead of pressing buttons. Bought separately, this remote is $29.99. The bundle sells for $69.99, which translates to a $10 discount over buying the stick and remote by themselves.

Image Credits: Roku

Both versions of the Streaming Stick will be sold online and in stores starting in October.

The Roku Ultra LT ($79.99), built for Walmart exclusively, has also been refreshed with a faster processor, more storage, a new Wi-Fi radio with up to 50% longer range, support for Dolby Vision, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a built-in ethernet port.

Plus, Roku notes that TCL will become the first device partner to use the reference designs it introduced at CES for wireless soundbars, with its upcoming Roku TV wireless soundbar. This device connects over Wi-Fi to the TV and works with the Roku remote, and will arrive at major retailers in October where it will sell for $179.99.

The other big news is Roku’s OS 10.5 software release. The update isn’t making any dramatic changes this time around, but is instead focused largely on voice and mobile improvements.

The most noticeable consumer-facing change is the ability to add a new Live TV channel to your home screen which lets you more easily launch The Roku Channel’s 200+ free live TV channels, instead of having to first visit Roku’s free streaming hub directly, then navigate to the Live TV section. This could make the Roku feel more like traditional TV for cord-cutters abandoning their TV guide for the first time.

Other tweaks include expanded support for launching channels using voice commands, with most now supported; new voice search and podcast playback with a more visual “music and podcast” row and Spotify as a launch partner; the ability to control sound settings in the mobile app; an added Voice Help guide in settings; and additional sound configuration options for Roku speakers and soundbars (e.g. using the speaker pairs and soundbar in a left/center/right) or in full 5.1 surround sound system).

A handy feature for entering in email and passwords in set-up screens using voice commands is new, too. Roku says it sends the voice data off-device to its speech-to-text partner, and the audio is anonymized. Roku doesn’t get the password or store it, as it goes directly to the channel partner. While there are always privacy concerns with voice data, the addition is a big perk from an accessibility standpoint.

Image Credits: Roku

One of the more under-the-radar, but potentially useful changes coming in OS 10.5 is an advanced A/V sync feature that lets you use the smartphone camera to help Roku make further refinements to the audio delay when using wireless headphones to listen to the TV. This feature is offered through the mobile app.

The Roku mobile app in the U.S. is also gaining another feature with the OS 10.5 update with the addition of a new Home tab for browsing collections of movies and shows across genres, and a “Save List, which functions as a way to bookmark shows or movies you might hear about — like when chatting with friends — and want to remember to watch later when you’re back home in front of the TV.

The software update will roll out to Roku devices over the weeks ahead. It typically comes to Roku players first, then rolls out to TVs.

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