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Squad is the new screensharing chat app everyone will copy – TechCrunch

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Squad could be the next teen sensation because it makes it easy to do nothing… together. Spending time with friends in the modern age often means just being on your phones next to each other, occasionally showing off something funny you found. Squad lets you do this even while apart, and that way of punctuating video chat might make it the teen girl “third place” like Fortnite is for adolescent boys.

With Squad, you fire up a video chat with up to six people, but at any time you can screenshare what you’re seeing on your phone instead of showing your face. You can browse memes together, trash talk about DMs or private profiles, brainstorm a status update, co-work on a project or get consensus on your Tinder swipe. It’s deceptively simple, but remarkably alluring. And it couldn’t have happened until now.

How Squad screensharing looks

Squad takes advantage of Apple’s ReplayKit for screensharing. While it was announced in 2015, it wasn’t until June 2018’s iOS 12 that ReplayKit became stable and easy enough to be built into a consumer app for teens. Meanwhile, plus-size screens and speedy LTE and upcoming 5G networks make screensharing watchable. And with Instagram aging and Snapchat shrinking, there’s demand for a more intimately connected social network.

Squad only launched its app last week, but droves of Facebook and Snap employees have signed up to spy on and likely copy the startup, co-founder and CEO Esther Crawford tells me. Screensharing would fit well in group video chat startup Houseparty too. To fuel its head start, Squad has the $2.2 million it raised before it pivoted away from Molly, the team’s previous App where people can make FAQs about themselves. That cash came from betaworks, Y Combinator, BBG Ventures, Basis Set Ventures, Jesse Draper, Gary Vaynerchuk, Niv Dror, and [Disclosure: former TechCrunch editor] Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine. Next, Squad wants to let people tune in to screenshares via URL to unlock a new era of Live broadcasting, and equip other apps with the capability through a Squad SDK.

“People under 24 do video chat way different than people 25 and above” says Crawford. Adding screensharing is “an excuse for hanging out.”

Serious ideas are preludes to toys

Screensharing has long been common in enterprise communication apps like Webex, Zoom and Slack. I even called a collaborative browsing and desktop screensharing app my favorite project from Facebook’s 2011 college hackathon. But we don’t just use our screens for work any more. Teens and young adults live on the digital plane, navigating complex webs of friendships, entertainment and academia through their phones. Squad makes those experiences social — including the “social” networks we often scroll through in isolation. Charles and Ray Eames said “Toys are preludes to serious ideas,” but this time, it is happening in reverse.

Squad co-founders from left: Ethan Sutin, Esther Crawford

“The idea came from a combination of things — a pain we were experiencing as a team,” Crawford recalls. My development team is constantly sending each other screenshots and screen recordings. It seemed ridiculous that I can’t just show you what’s on my screen. It was a business use case internally.” But then came the wisdom of a 13-year-old. “My daughter over the summer was bugging me. ‘Why can’t I just show what’s on my screen with my friends?’ I said I think it’s not technically possible.” That’s when Crawford discovered advances in ReplayKit meant it suddenly was possible.

Crawford had already seen this cycle of tool to toy before, as she was an early YouTuber. Back in the mid-2000s, people thought of YouTube as a place to host videos about eBay listings, professional presentations or dating profile supplements. “They couldn’t imagine that if you let people just reliably and easily upload video content, there’d be all these creative enterprises.”

Use cases for Squad

After stints in product marketing at Coach.com and Stride Labs, she built Estherbot — a chatbot version of herself that let people learn about her. Indeed, 50,000 people ended up trying it, convincing her people needed new ways to reveal themselves to friends. She met Ethan Sutin through the project and together they co-founded FAQ app Molly before it fizzled out and was shut down. “Molly wasn’t working; it had high initial engagement sessions, but then they would drop off. Maybe it’s not the right time for the augmented version of you,” noted Crawford.

Crawford and Sutin pivoted Molly into Squad to keep exploring new formats for vulnerability. “What excited Ethan and I was this mission to help people feel less lonely.”

Alone, together

Squad recommends apps to screenshare

Squad worked, thanks to a slick way to activate screensharing. The app launches to the selfie camera similar to Snapchat, but with a + button for inviting friends to a video call. Tap the screenshare button at the bottom, select Squad and start the broadcast. To guide users toward the best screensharing experiences, a menu of apps emerges encouraging users to open Instagram, TikTok, Bumble, their camera roll and others.

People can bounce back and forth between screensharing and video chat, and tap a friend’s window to view it full-screen. And when they want another friend to see what they’re seeing, Squad goes viral. One concern is that Squad breaks privacy controls. You could have friends show you someone’s Instagram profile you’re blocked by or aren’t allowed to see. But the same goes for hanging out in person, and this is one reason Squad doesn’t let you download videos of your chats and is considering screenshot warnings.

What’s so special about Squad is that it lacks the intensity of traditional video chat, where you constantly feel pressured to perform. You can fire up a chat room, and then go back to phoning as you please with your screen displayed instead of your blank face (though the Android version in beta offers picture-in-picture so you can show your mug and the screen).

“There’s no picture-in-picture on iOS, but younger users don’t even really care. I can point it at the bed and you can tell me when there’s something to look at,” Crawford tells me. A few people, alone in their houses, video chatting without looking at each other, still feel a sense of togetherness.

The future of Squad could grant that feeling to a massive audience of a celebrity or influencer. The startup is working on shareable URLs that creators could post on other social networks like Twitter or Facebook that their fans could click to watch. Tagging along as Kylie Jenner or Ninja play around on their phone could bring people closer to their heroes while serving as a massive growth opportunity for Squad. Similarly, colonizing other apps with an SDK for screensharing could allow Squad to recruit their users.

Squad makes starting a screenshare easy

The startup will face stiff technical challenges. Lag or low video quality destroy the feeling of delight it delivers, Crawford admits, so the team is focused on making sure the app works well even in rural areas like middle America where many early users live. But the real test will be whether it can build a new social graph upon the screensharing idea if already popular apps build competing features. Gaming tools like Discord and Twitch already offer web screensharing, and I suggested Facebook should bring the feature to Messenger when in late-2017 it launched in its Workplace office collaboration app.

Helping a friend choose when to swipe right on Tinder via Squad

In June I wrote that Instagram and Snapchat would try to steal the voice-activated visual effects at the center of an app called Panda. Snapchat started testing those just two months later. Instagram’s whole Stories feature was cloned from Snapchat, and it also cribbed Q&A Stories from Polly. Overshadowed, Panda and Polly have faded from the spotlight. With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it. Squad will have to hope first-mover advantage and focus can defeat a screensharing feature bolted on to apps with hundreds of millions or even billions of users.

But regardless of who delivers this next phase of sharing, it’s coming. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality. The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations,” Crawford wrote.

Perhaps there’s no better antidote to the poison of social media success theater that revealing that beyond the Instagram highlights, we’re often just playing around on our phones. Squad might not be glamorous, but it’s authentic and a lot more fun.

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Afterpay unveils BNPL subscription offering for US customers – TechCrunch

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“Buy now, pay later” company Afterpay announced Wednesday that it was going after the $1.5 trillion global subscription payments market by offering to its U.S. customers payment installments for subscriptions, like gym memberships, entertainment subscriptions and online services.

The service will launch in both the U.S. and Australia beginning early in 2022 and will be free for customers who pay on time. IPSY, BoxyCharm, Savage X Fenty and Fabletics are among the initial list of merchants that will offer the feature. The company plans to expand the feature in-store and into other regions later, including Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and Europe.

In addition to paying for subscriptions in installments, Afterpay is also enabling its offering to be used on preordered items, where users can pay in four installments over time once the item ships. Another feature coming soon will allow merchants to accept deposits on custom items.

“By offering customers the option to pay for subscriptions with Afterpay, we’re not only giving consumers flexibility to pay for more expensive monthly costs, but we’re also helping our merchant partners capture a wider consumer base through this convenient experience,” said Zahir Khoja, general manager of North America for Afterpay, in a written statement.

Klarna, Afterpay’s competitor in the BNPL space, also announced news this week for its U.S. customers that it was offering its “Pay Now” option.

Meanwhile, in August, Square announced that it was buying Afterpay in an all-stock deal valued at $29 billion. Afterpay has also been on a roll with feature debuts recently, launching both Afterpay Ads, a suite of advertising products for brands to engage with shoppers within the ecosystem, and merchant analytics tool Afterpay IQ, in August.

Afterpay works with 100,000 retailers and has approximately 10.5 million active customers in North America as of June 30, up from 5.6 million the year prior. North America is the company’s “largest region in terms of underlying sales,” which grew 145% year over year, or from $4 billion in fiscal year 2020 to $9.8 billion in fiscal year 2021, according to the company.

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Fairphone hits software support longevity akin to Apple’s iPhone – TechCrunch

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Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise dedicated to making consumer electronics (more) sustainable and ethical, including by supporting repairability so that users can hold onto their hardware for longer, has announced public testing of Android 10 for the six-year-old Fairphone 2.

Owners of the modular handset that was first released back in 2015, running Android 5, should expect to be able to upgrade to Android 10 (released date: 2019) in early 2022, Fairphone said today, announcing the beta rollout of the upgrade.

Fairphone stopped producing (but not supporting) the Fairphone 2 back in 2018 — going on to release the Fairphone 3 (in 2019), the Fairphone 3+ (in 2020, also available as a modular upgrade to the 3) and, earlier this fall, the Fairphone 4, its first 5G handset — which it said would be supported until at least 2025.

Given the Fairphone 2’s impending update to Android 10 next year — which will mean it will have been supported for a total of seven years — 2025 looks like a conservative estimate of how long Fairphone 4 owners should expect to receive software support.

Fairphone says it collaborated with its community of users for the Android 10 upgrade project — and with a software developer in India, Bharath Ravi Prakash, which it says worked as a volunteer open source dev — and by doing that says it was able to streamline the process and shrink the time required to carry out the upgrade.

So while the prior Fairphone 2 OS update (to Android 9) took 18 months, this time the process has been condensed to 10 months.

Google, meanwhile, has gone on to release Android 11 (2020) and Android 12 (last month) — for a sense of how far behind the Fairphone 2 upgrades are trailing the latest OS release.

“The company learned a lot from the Android 9 upgrade and although still complex, Android 10 was more predictable than Android 9,” Fairphone notes in a press release, which also quotes its head of software longevity & IT, Agnes Crepet, who writes: “Our unique approach to software has allowed us to help our users keep their devices for as long as possible. We’re pleased to be able to provide our Fairphone 2 community with yet another software upgrade, reaching our goal to provide at least five years of support from launch for our phones and with the Android 10 upgrade, we’re going beyond that to seven years of support. We are constantly raising the bar for ourselves and the industry, showing that doing things more sustainably in software is possible.”

Seven years’ support puts Fairphone into Apple iPhone software support timespans. But of course the average Android-based handset can expect fair fewer years of software love — typically Android smartphones only get around three years’ support. So it’s a major achievement.

And while Fairphone may only now be catching up to Apple on the software longevity front it is already years ahead of Cupertino in another respect: Hardware sustainability through repairability via modular construction and offering direct-to-consumer spare parts.

Earlier this month Apple announced that, starting next year, it would kick off a “Self Service Repair” program — shipping spare parts and repair tools to iPhone and Mac users to let them perform basic repairs at home.

It’s by no means full modularity from the company that has — historically — loved a hermetically sealed, stupidly thin, often literally glued shut box, but it is a small step in a more sustainable direction. And one that Fairphone has long pioneered.

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Spotify tests a TikTok-like vertical video feed in its app – TechCrunch

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TikTok has seen its short-form video feed copied by a host of competitors, from Instagram to Snap to YouTube and even Netflix. Now it looks like you can add Spotify to that list. The company has confirmed it’s currently testing a new feature in its app, Discover, which presents a vertical feed of music videos that users can scroll through and optionally like or skip. For those who have access to the feature, it appears as a fourth tab in the navigation bar at the bottom of the Spotify app, in between Home and Search.

The new addition was first spotted by Chris Messina, who tweeted out a video of the Discover feature in action. He described it as a “pared-down version” of a TikTok-style feed of music videos.

Messina told us he found the feature in Spotify’s TestFlight build (a beta version for iOS), where a new icon in the navigation toolbar brings you immediately to the video feed when tapped. You can then swipe up and down to move through the feed, much like you would on TikTok. In addition to tapping the heart to like songs, you also can tap the three-dot menu to bring up the standard song information sheet, he notes.

Messina also speculated the feature may be taking advantage of Spotify’s existing Canvas format.

Introduced broadly in 2019, Canvas allows artists to create videos that accompany their music on the Spotify app. The feature had mixed reviews from users, as some reported they preferred to see just the static album art when listening to music and found the video and its looping imagery distracting. But others said they liked it. Canvas, however, appears to drive the engagement metrics that Spotify wants — the company reports that users are more likely to keep streaming, share tracks or save tracks when they see a Canvas.

From the video Messina shared and others we viewed, we can confirm that the videos playing in the vertical feed are the artists’ existing Canvas videos. But Spotify would not confirm this to us directly.

TechCrunch asked Spotify for further information on the feature, including whether it had plans to roll this out further, whether it was available on both iOS and Android, which markets had access to the feature and more. The company declined to share any details about the feature but did confirm, via a statement, it was exploring the idea of a vertical video feed.

“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Some of those tests end up paving the way for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We don’t have any further news to share at this time,” they added.

In other words, the test is still very early and may not make its way to the public. But if it did, it wouldn’t be a surprising move on Spotify’s part. The company has before looked to popular social media formats to engage its users. In the past, Spotify tested a Stories feature that allowed influencers to post Stories to introduce their own, curated playlists. But that option never became available to all Spotify users.

While the TikTok format has been adopted by top social platforms, including Instagram (Reels), Snapchat (Spotlight), YouTube (Shorts) and Pinterest (Idea Pins), it’s also proving to be an ideal format for content discovery. Netflix, for instance, recently adopted the short-form vertical video feed in its own app with the launch of its “Fast Laughs” feature, which offers clips from its content library and tools to save the programs to a watch list or just start streaming them. Similarly, Spotify’s video-based Discover feature could help introduce users to new music and offer a way to signal their interests to Spotify in a familiar format.

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