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To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself – TechCrunch

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Evan Spiegel has finally found a way to fight back against Mark Zuckerberg’s army of clones. For 2.5 years, Snapchat foolishly tried to take the high road versus Facebook, with Spiegel claiming “Our values are hard to copy”. That inaction allowed Zuckerberg to accrue over 1 billion daily Stories users across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook compared to Snapchat’s 186 million total daily users. Meanwhile, the whole tech industry scrambled to build knock-offs of Snap’s vision of an ephemeral, visual future.

But Snapchat’s new strategy is a rallying call for the rest of the social web that’s scared of being squashed beneath Facebook’s boot. It rearranges the adage of “if you can’t beat them, join them” into “to beat them, join us”. As a unified front, Snap’s partners get the infrastructure they need to focus on what differentiates them, while Snapchat gains the reach and entrenchment necessary to weather the war.

Tinder lets you use Snapchat Stories as profile photos

Snapchat’s plan is to let other apps embed the best parts of it rather than building their own half-rate copies.

Why reinvent the wheel of Stories, Bitmoji, and ads when you can reuse the original? A high-ranking Snap executive told me on background that this is indeed the strategy. If it’s going to invent these products, and others want something similar, it’s smarter to enable and partly control the Snapchatification than to try to ignore it. Otherwise, Facebook might be the one to platform-tize what Snap inspired everyone to want.

The “Camera company” corrected course and took back control of its destiny this week at its first ever Snap Partner Summit in its hometown of Los Angeles. Now it’s a camera platform thanks to Snap Kit. Its new Story Kit will implant Snapchat Stories into other apps later this year. They can display a more traditional carousel of your friends’ Stories, or lace them into their app in a custom format. Houseparty’s Stories carousel shares what your buddies are up to outside of the group video chat app. Tinder will let you show off your Snapchat Story alongside your photos to seduce potential matches. But the camera stays inside Snapchat, with new options to share out to these App Stories.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel presents at the Snap Partner Summit

This is how Snapchat colonizes the native app ecosystem similarly to how Facebook invaded the web with the Like button. Snap’s strong privacy record makes these partners willing to host it where now they might fear that Facebook and its history with Cambridge Analytica could tarnish their brand.

Instead of watching these other apps spin up mini competitors that further fragment the Stories world, Snap saves developers the slow and costly hassle while instantly giving them best-in-class tools to boost their own engagement. Each outpost makes your Snapchat account a little more indispensable, grants its camera new utility, and reminds you to visit again. It’s another reason to stick with Snap rather than straying to other versions of Stories.

If Spiegel knows what’s up, he’ll douse the Story Kit partnerships team with resources so they can sign up as many apps as possible before Facebook can copy this idea too. For now, Snap isn’t injecting ads into App Stories, but it could easily do so and split the cash with its host. This would attract partners, generate revenue, and give Snap’s advertisers more reach.

Houseparty embeds Snapchat Stories

Either way, Snap will score those benefits with its new Ad Kit. Later this year the Snapchat Audience Network will launch allowing partners to host Snap’s full-screen vertical video ads and earn an as-yet-undisclosed revenue share. They won’t have to build up an ad sales force or build an auction and delivery system, but just drop in an SDK to start displaying ads to both Snapchat users and non-users. The company’s message again is that it’s becoming easier to cooperate with Snapchat than copy it.

Snap’s new ad network

Giving its advertisers more reach and reusability for Snap’s somewhat proprietary ad unit format helps Snap address its core challenge: scale. Snap’s 186 million total users can look small in comparison to Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, especially since that count sank in Q2 and Q3 before stabilzing in Q4 of last year. That makes it tougher for advertisers to justify the chore of spending on Snapchat. Ad Kit and potentially Story Kit give Snap more reach even without user growth.

Added size could tip the cards in Snap’s favor given it’s already popular with an extremely important demographic. Snapchat now reaches 75 percent of 13 to 34-year olds in the US, and 90 percent of 13 to 24-year olds there. It claims to now reach more of that younger age group than Facebook in the most lucrative countries: the US, Canada, UK, France, and Australia.

Facebook has massively neglected this segment. Case in point: Facebook Messenger’s Stickers feature that’s popular with kids has hardly improved since its launch in 2013, which I hear was a fight to get approved internally. Meanwhile, Snapchat keeps growing its lead on virtual identity with Bitmoji. Now Snap will let you put your personalized Bitmoji avatar on your FitBit smart watch face, use them to joke about Venmo purchases, and even represent yourself with one in Snap’s new multiplayer games platform.

Again, Snap wants partners to integrate the real thing rather than try to build some half-assed facsimile of Bitmoji. Surprisingly, Facebook’s Avatars have been mired in development for over a year and Apple’s Memoji can’t escape iMessage and FaceTime yet. That’s why Snapchat would be wise to double-down on trying to make Bitmoji the ubiquitous way to represent yourself without a photograph. Facebook’s lack of design cool and Bitmoji’s massive headstart with this differentiated product is a powerful way for Snap to wedge itself into partnerships.

Snap needs all the help it can get if the underdog is going to carve out a substantial and sustainable piece of social networking. Teaming up was the theme of the rest of the Snap Partner Summit. It’s built ways for Netflix, GoFundMe, VSCO, and Anchor to share stickers and for publishers like the Washington Post to share articles back to Snapchat. It’s got Zynga and ZeptoLab building real-time multiplayer Snap Games that live inside chat and are a clever way of slipping ads into messaging.

Snapchat’s new Scan augmented reality utility platform has signed up Giphy and Photomath as well as former partners Shazam and Amazon to let you squeeze extra interactivity out of your surroundings. And since the physical world is too vast for any one developer to fill with AR experiences, Snap beefed up its Lens Studio platform with new templates and creator profiles so developers add to its warchest of 400,000 special effects. Facebook may be able to clone Snap’s features, but not its developer army.

“If we can show the right Lens in the right moment, we can inspire a whole new world of creativity” says Snap co-founder Bobby Murphy . From partnerships to utilities to toys, all the new announcements drive attention back to Snapchat’s camera. That makes it ripe to become the augmented reality brower of the world.

It all feels like a coming of age moment for Snapchat, punctuated by the glitzy press event where media bigwigs gnoshed on Chinese steak buns and played with AR art installations in West Hollywood.

Spiegel has discovered a method of capitalizing on his penchant for inspiring mobile product design. With this strategy in place and Snap’s reengineered Android app and new languages rolling out now, I believe Snapchat will grow again, at least in terms of deeper engagement if not also total user count. Perhaps it will need a little bit more funding to get it over the hurdle, but I expect it will reach profitability before the end of 2020. 

During a pre-event press briefing with a dozen Snap executives including Spiegel and Murphy (that was on ‘background’ so we can’t quote or specify who said what), one Snap higher-up joked that Facebook has been copying it for seven years so it’s started to feel normal. Zuckerberg recently declared he wanted to reorient Facebook around privacy, ephemerality, and messaging — the core tenets of Snapchat. But a Snap leader used some colorful language to describe how they don’t care what Facebook says its philosophy is until it fixes the 2 billion-user product that keeps doing harm.

Subtly throwing shade from the stage, Spiegel concluded that “Our camera lets the natural light from our world penetrate the darkness of the Internet . . . as we use the Internet more and more in our daily lives, we need a way to make it a bit more human.” That apparently means making other apps a bit more Snapchat.

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Google consolidates its Chrome and Android password managers – TechCrunch

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Google today announced an update to its password manager that will finally introduce a consistent look-and-feel across the service’s Chrome and Android implementations. Users will soon see a new unified user experience that will automatically group multiple passwords for the same sites or apps together, as well as a new shortcut on the Android home screen to get access to these passwords.

In addition to this, Google is also now adding a new password-related feature to Chrome on iOS, which can now generate strong passwords for you (once you set Chrome as an autofill provider).

Image Credits: Google

Meanwhile, on Android, Google’s password check can now also flag weak and re-used passwords and help you to automatically change them, while Chrome users across platforms will now see compromised password warnings.

With this release today, Google will now also finally let you manually add passwords to its passwords manager (“due to popular demand,” Google says) and the company is bringing Touch-to-Login to Chrome on Android to log you in to supported sites with a single tap.

Image Credits: Google

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TaskHuman lands $20M to expand its virtual coaching platform – TechCrunch

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TaskHuman, a professional development platform focused on coaching, today announced that it raised $20 million in Series B funding led by Madrona with participation from Impact Venture Capital, RingCentral Ventures, Sure Ventures, USVP, Gaingels, PeopleTech Angels, Propel(x) and Zoom Ventures. The latest infusion brings the company’s total raised to $35 million, which CEO Ravi Swaminathan said is being put toward product development, marketing and sales efforts.

Swaminathan and Daniel Mazzella co-founded TaskHuman in 2017, with the goal of connecting users with specialists on topics related to their personal and professional lives. Swaminathan was previously a program and logistics manager at Dell and VP of software solutions at SanDisk, while Mazzella was a system admin at Stamps.com. The two met at Wizr, a startup developing AI systems to analyze security camera footage.

“When it comes to learning and personal development, no amount of generic articles or watching pre-recorded videos [can replace] a real person with experience in a given area. Creating TaskHuman was our response to solve this challenge,” Swaminathan told TechCrunch in an email Q&A. “We started by offering foundational needs, including health and wellness, physical fitness, mental, spiritual, emotional wellbeing, and more. Since then, we’ve continued to expand and support the entire needs of an individual for personal and professional growth, like financial wellbeing, sales and leadership coaching, pet training, travel planning, and more.”

TaskHuman users connect with experts over live video chats. The company claims to have a network of over 1,000 “coaches” across nearly 50 countries, each specializing in distinctive areas. An AI-powered search feature lets users search for topics and coaches in natural language (e.g., “I want to lose weight”), while a recommendation engine attempts to personalize the browsing experience by suggesting, for example, similar coaches based on past sessions.

“TaskHuman has a direct relationship with each coach, and we pay them according to the terms of our relationship for their coaching contributions. They are all contractors globally,” Swaminathan said, when asked about the coaching payment structure.

Users can buy access to the TaskHuman network with “TaskHuman minutes,” which can be applied to a chat session with any specialist or topic, Swaminathan says. Alternatively, companies can subscribe to TaskHuman to offer unlimited access to their employees as well as in-app content and group sessions.

Image Credits: TaskHuman

Swaminathan makes the case that the enterprise in particular stands to benefit from TaskHuman’s platform. It’s true that corporate training programs tend to be a mixed bag, with only 25% of respondents to a McKinsey survey saying that their company’s training improved their job performance. According to another survey, 75% of managers were dissatisfied with their company’s learning and development function in 2019.

“At the board and C-suite level, many companies view insufficient attention to employee well-being as a threat to productivity and, conversely, a strong commitment to each worker’s physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity as a competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining talent in a time of labor shortages and the ‘Great Resignation,’” Swaminathan said. “From case studies, we have found return on investment in four main areas: preventing burnout, reducing employee attrition, improving employee engagement and recruitment, and reducing medical cost claims.”

Competition in the crowded e-learning field spans BetterUp, CoachHub and Torch. Swaminathan argues that his company’s offering is broader in scope, however, and offers superior access to specialists because it doesn’t require scheduling sessions in advance.

“We have found that the pandemic really allowed people to go beyond their comfort zones and embrace video technologies like TaskHuman, Zoom, RingCentral, and others,” Swaminathan said. “We feel a need to accelerate our mission during these difficult times to help people in both their personal and professional lives, and we feel an urgency to combat the current mental health crisis and Great Resignation culture by fulfilling the dire craving for 1:1, personalized engagement for personal and professional growth.”

Certainly, TaskHuman has benefited from the pandemic, which spurred coaches of all types to move online. According to a 2021 survey by the International Coaching Federation, 83% of coaches increased their use of audio-video platforms for coaching during the health crisis while 82% saw a decrease for in-person sessions.

TaskHuman says that its customers include Zoom, Dr. Scholl’s, RingCentral and public and government institutions like Purdue University, Oakland Housing Authority and Job Corps centers run by the U.S. Department of Labor. While Swaminathan declined to disclose financials, he said that annual recurring revenue has grown by more than 5 times year over year.

“Our company is laser-focused on global expansion and scaling its network of coaches,” Swaminathan said. “We will be continually adding to the set of human experience and expertise that are available on the platform and expanding support for providers in even more languages and countries around the world.”

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European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade – TechCrunch

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Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.

The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.

This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.

The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.

Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.

The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).

“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”

The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.

The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.

But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.

Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”

Transparency

Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.

The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.

“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.

The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.

“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.

“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”

The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.

“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”

The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.

Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.

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