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Music app AmpMe lowers pricing after accused of being an App Store scammer – TechCrunch

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Around the same time Apple was touting its sizable App Store revenue growth this week, developer and noted App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou brought to light what appeared to be yet another App Store scammer hiding in plain sight. On Twitter, Eleftheriou documented the earnings for a music syncing app called AmpMe, which claims to boost your music’s volume by syncing it across devices, including friends’ phones, Bluetooth speakers and computer speakers. AmpMe, he found, had been charging an incredible $10 per week for this basic service, which it had been promoting on the App Store by way of fake reviews.

The AmpMe iOS app doesn’t require a subscription to use some of its features, but does if you want to synchronize your music to other devices — the main reason users likely downloaded the app in the first place.

Eleftheriou noted this offering was priced at what he called “an absurd $10/week (~$520/year).” The subscription also auto-renews, as most in-app subscriptions do. And while Apple makes it easy to sign up and stay subscribed, subscription cancelations can only be performed from your Account page’s Subscriptions section, which you can get to from the App Store or the iPhone’s Settings app. You can’t cancel inside the app itself.  

AmpMe hadn’t been trying to trick users about its pricing, at least. The sign-up page clearly stated its free trial was offered for just three days and would then be followed by a $9.99 per week subscription.

But where the app ran afoul of the App Store’s rules was how it marketed itself to potential customers.

AmpMe had purchased a ton of fake reviews, as evidenced by its large slate of five-star ratings associated with nonsensical names. These names — like Nicte Videlerqhjgd or Elcie Zapaterbpmtl, for example — looked like someone just mashed buttons on a keyboard. But the reviewers were sure to have left positive feedback, like “It’s sooo good!” or “super useful” or “Don’t need any other music apps!”

(Interestingly, these same reviewers left glowing five-star reviews on other apps, too, and all on the same day! That’s suspicious!)

The fake reviews gave the app an overall rating of 4.3 stars on the App Store, making it seem like a legitimate and useful music syncing tool. Meanwhile, the real reviews — where legitimate App Store customers complained about the outrageous pricing, basic functionality or the obvious fake reviews — were drowned out by the spam.

Apple had not taken action on this deceptively marketed app for years. And to make matters worse, it had even promoted it several times through App Store editorial collections, Eleftheriou pointed out. 

The conclusion he draws from this is that not only is Apple lax on hunting down App Store scammers, it may actually be disincentivized to do so because of scam apps’ earnings potential. (The only other possible conclusion here is that Apple is just inept when it comes to keeping the App Store safe for consumers… which isn’t really a good look either.)

Citing data from Appfigures, Eleftheriou notes AmpMe has pulled in $13 million in lifetime revenue on the App Store, after Apple’s cut.

Another firm puts the figure even higher. Apptopia told TechCrunch the app has earned $16 million since it began monetizing through in-app purchases in October 2018; $15.5 million of that was through the App Store and another $500,000 came through Google Play. The majority (or 75%) of the in-app purchase revenue came from consumers in the U.S. To date, AmpMe has seen 33.5 million lifetime installs, 38% of which are from the U.S.

In a response provided to TechCrunch, AmpMe disputed some of the claims being made.

The company said its users aren’t paying $520 per year — what a $10 per week subscription would add up to if users stayed subscribed. Instead, AmpMe said across its paying users, its average yearly subscription revenue is around $75. This would indicate users are taking advantage of the free trial then canceling the subscription after some time. AmpMe also said that, internally, this reinforced its belief that its pricing is transparent and its opt-out procedures are easy.

The company did not, however, have a great answer as to why its App Store Listing is filled with fake reviews, opting to toss blame on an anonymous third party instead.

“Through the years, like most startups, we’ve hired outside consultants to help us with marketing and app store optimization. More oversight is needed and that’s what we are currently working on,” a statement sent by an unnamed AmpMe representative said. (They had signed the email “The AmpMe Team.”)

In addition, the company said it was responding to this recent feedback by releasing a new version of the app with a lower price point.

“We always adhere to Apple’s subscription guidelines and are continually working to ensure their high standards are met,” the email read. “We also respect and value the community’s feedback. Therefore, a new version of the app with a lower price has already been submitted to the App Store for review.”

That version has since gone live and sees the weekly subscription reduced to $4.99 from $9.99.

Today, Eleftheriou tells us it looks like a manual cleanup of the fake reviews is now underway.

On Monday at 11 AM, he documented the app had 54,080 reviews. By Tuesday at 9 PM, after AmpMe saw a fair bit of bad press, the app’s review count had dropped to 53,028. By 7 AM on Wednesday, the review count dropped again to 50,693. But the app’s overall rating hasn’t been meaningfully impacted. This could be because the reviews being removed are those submitted by the fake App Store users instead of the ones where the app was given a five-star rating but no review text or reviewer name is visible. That means the cleanup process will make it less obvious the app had purchased fake reviews. 

Also of interest, perhaps, is AmpMe’s CEO: the Canadian technology entrepreneur Martin-Luc Archambault. His Wajam software-turned-adware was previously investigated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), and found to have violated Canadian internet privacy laws by collecting user data without consent. It also used several methods to evade detection by antivirus software, reports claimed at the time. When the OPC announced its findings, Archambault claimed the Canadian user data in question had been destroyed and Wajam had sold its assets to a Chinese company. Over its lifetime, the adware had been installed millions of times, the OPC’s report said.

In other words, this does not sound like someone who would be opposed to buying some fake reviews!

AmpMe hasn’t responded to further follow-up questions beyond its original statement, and Apple has not responded to a request for comment.

To date, AmpMe had raised $10 million in VC funding, per Crunchbase data.

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Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch

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Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.

The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.

Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.

Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.

“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.

Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”

Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”

“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”

“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”

Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.

Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.

Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.

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Ahead of a February event, Samsung teases Galaxy S/Note merger – TechCrunch

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Last summer, Samsung announced that – for the first time in a decade – it wouldn’t be releasing a new Note. The future of the well-loved phablet was a big, open question, as the hardware giant acknowledged a shift in focus to foldables, a form factor it felt was finally ready for a truly mainstream push.

Further muddying the waters is the Galaxy S line – Samsung’s primary flagship, which has steadily been blurring the line separating itself from the Note. “Instead of unveiling a new Galaxy Note this time around,” the company’s president wrote at the time, “we will further broaden beloved Note features to more Samsung Galaxy devices.”

That’s meant a fairly steady increase in the S series’ screen sizes over the years, culminating with the addition of S-Pen functionality for the S21 Ultra last January. In August, the company also brought its proprietary stylus to the Galaxy Fold line leaving some wondering whether the Note was quietly being phased out.

Coming fresh off CES and staring down the face of MWC, we find ourselves entering Unpacked territory – the time of year when the company announces the latest additions to the S series. Roh is back with another somewhat vaguely worded post that celebrates the life of the Note’s life, pointing out how its 5.3-inch display caused a minor stir back in 2011. It seems quaint now, though it’s worth pointing out for those who weren’t at the IFA unveiling, that big screens meant much larger and thicker devices than they do now.

The post strongly suggests a proper merging of the two flagships to make more room for its foldables.

“With every fresh evolution of Samsung Galaxy devices, we have introduced features that redefine the entire mobile category,” the executive writes. “And we’re about to rewrite the rules of industry once again. At Unpacked in February 2022, we’ll introduce you to the most noteworthy S series [emphasis added by TC] device we’ve ever created. The next generation of Galaxy S is here, bringing together the greatest experiences of our Samsung Galaxy into one ultimate device.”

“Noteworthy” could mean a lot of things in this context. The most obvious seems to be an S22 Ultra becoming the S22 Note. Does that mean a proper stylus slot? Could we be seeing further S Pen integration across the lines? I’d say most likely not to that one, if only because the carefully worded post uses the singular “noteworthy device.” There are still some big questions in the lead up to the event – which may or may not be answered early, given the frequency of leaks surrounding these devices. Also on-tap for the line are improved night/low-light photos and a more sustainable design, which has become a priority for the company in recent years.

Samsung is once again betting that consumer excitement and brand loyalty will be enough to get users on-board, sight unseen as it gets set to open reservations for the new smartphone and an unnamed Galaxy tablet tomorrow.

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a16z, Avenir and Google back South African mobile games publisher Carry1st in $20M round – TechCrunch

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Carry1st, a South African publisher of social games and interactive content across Africa, has raised a $20 million Series A extension led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). This is a16z’s first investment in an Africa-headquartered company (the firm has previously invested in Branch and Zipline, companies with some of its operations in Africa but headquartered in the U.S).

Carry1st also received investments from Avenir and Google; it’s the latter’s second check from its Africa Investment Fund.

A couple of prominent individual investors, including Nas and the founders of Chipper Cash, Sky Mavis and Yield Guild Games, took part.

The round — which is an extension of the Series A Carry1st raised last May from Riot Games, Konvoy Ventures, Raine Ventures and TTV Capital — also saw the same investors double down on their investments in the company. 

Andreessen Horowitz general partners David Haber and Jonathan Lai will join Carry1st’s board as observers. 

Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu founded Carry1st in 2018. The South Africa-based company, which currently has a team of 37 people across 18 countries, wants to use this additional capital to scale interactive content across Africa.

The company started as a game studio where it conceptualized, developed (from system designs to artwork and engineering), and launched mobile games. Over time, it switched to a hybrid model, adopting a publishing role and handling distribution, marketing and operations.

Carry1st co-founder and chief executive Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch that Carry1st has mainly focused on its publishing arm since it went hybrid.

The three-year-old company has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios globally, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st recently launched in Africa. Others include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel, a studio with over 120 million downloads across its portfolio.

Carry1st said it provides a full-stack publishing solution, handling user acquisition, live operations, community management and monetization for its partners.

“We have a full-suite service that starts with distribution and partnerships. We help them create bespoke marketing materials from short-form advertising videos to statics, and we customize their content to resonate with individuals in different countries,” said Robbin-Coker.

“And then we operate the game and we also monetize. So we’ve built out our monetization engine to allow users to be able to pay for content that they want more easily across Africa.”

It also enhances monetization in the region through its embedded payments solutions, where customers can pay via a range of local payment options, including bank transfers, crypto and mobile money.

L-R: Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu, Lucy Hoffman and Cordel Robbin-Coker

Shortly after closing its Series A round, Carry1st launched its online marketplace for virtual goods. On this marketplace, called Carry1st Shop, users of a Carry1st game can purchase virtual goods such as airtime, mobile data, entertainment vouchers, grocery store vouchers and gaming currency.

Games revenue has increased 90% month-on-month since the second half of last year, the company said. It’s not unexpected considering the astonishing growth of games in terms of quantity and revenue (gaming apps accounted for nearly 70% of all App Store revenue last year) on both Apple and Google stores since the pandemic.

The company’s online marketplace is noticing even faster growth, said Robbin-Coker, especially among users in South Africa and Nigeria.

Carry1st will use this funding to expand its content portfolio, grow its product and engineering teams, and obtain “tens of millions” of new users on the back of this revenue growth in its games and marketplace products.

In a statement, the company said it intends to acquire more users by expanding into game co-development with studios. It is also eyeing the possibility of developing infrastructure to support play-to-earn gaming in Africa, thus venturing into web3.

Cryptocurrency tokens such as SLP, AXS and MANA are used in play-to-earn games. They can be withdrawn to a crypto wallet and traded for another cryptocurrency like bitcoin or ultimately sold for fiat cash to be used in the real world. Carry1st wants to create on- and off-ramps (platforms that convert fiat into crypto and back) and accept crypto at point-of-sale in its marketplace.

“When we think about Carry1st, we want to be the leading consumer internet company in the region. And we think that the best kind of wedge would be able to do that is a combination of gaming and micropayments and online commerce,” the CEO said.

“These industries are being pretty significantly disrupted or augmented with web3 and crypto. And as more gaming content starts to integrate with NFTs and cryptocurrencies, we think there’s a really big opportunity to partner with those studios the same way we partner with free-to-play studios.”

Africa is the next major growth market for gaming globally. The rapid tech adoption from its 1.1 billion millennials and GenZs is a significant driver for this. Carry1st released a report last year with Newzoo showing that the number of games in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 275% in the next decade. Gaming revenues are projected to see a 728% increase in the same period.

These stats present a much bigger addressable market than what Carry1st envisioned when it launched four years ago. And with the company’s converging at the intersection of gaming, fintech and web3, there is a broader set of opportunities (which we can see in other emerging markets) to go after in Africa. It’s one factor that piqued a16z’s interest in the company.

“We are delighted to be making our first investment in an Africa-headquartered company in Carry1st, a next-generation mobile games and fintech platform,” Haber said in a statement. “We see immense opportunity for the company to mirror outstanding successes we’ve seen in markets like India, China, and Southeast Asia. We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with founders Cordel, Lucy, Tino, and the Carry1st team on their mission to build the Garena of Africa.”

Carry1st was seemingly intentional about the investors it brought into this round, especially as it looks to move deep in gaming, web3 and fintech across Africa.

As one of the largest crypto-centric funds, at over $3 billion, a16z brings unmatched expertise in gaming and web3. Google, via its products and phones, will help Carry1st deepen penetration and engagement in Africa. At the same time, Avenir continues to make a big push in African fintech following its big-sized check in Flutterwave.

As for the individual investors, Nas has been fairly prolific with his crypto investments, and Axie Infinity founders own the world’s biggest web3 gaming company.

“It’s a heavyweight group. We’re excited, and we think that their combination will be beneficial for us. Hopefully, it’s a sign that we’re on the right track and this helps drive strategic partnerships for us in the future,” said Robbin-Coker.

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