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Week-in-Review: Apples shipping a refresh for its worst device, but why?

Hello, weekend warriors. This is Week-in-Review where I get hopped up on caffeine and scour the hundred of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week and surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

First, an update on my newsletter last week: I dove into Trump’s Huawei ban and talked about some of the ill effects it could spell for American tech companies caught in the fray. Well, it looks like China is starting to build a list of “unreliable” foreign firms, most likely the partners that are severing ties with Huawei. This might just be a preliminary step, but I’m sure U.S. companies on the list won’t be psyched to be at the frontlines of a massive trade war/ tech cold war…

Onto this week’s topic, which is a new iPod from Apple. There’s really not much to it, it’s an iPod Touch with an A10 chipset, so why do I think this was even vaguely interesting?

Nobody was expecting an update for this device, it hadn’t been updated since 2015 and it remains Apple’s last pocketable mobile device without access to a mobile network. It’s the dumbest device Apple sells — a total anomaly — so why throw it a new refresh? As with every perplexing move that Apple makes lately, it comes down to how the Cupertino giant is acquiring customers and making revenue in 2019.

It doesn’t take much scouring through Apple’s marketing materials to understand who the new iPod Touch is for, the answer hits you in the face, it’s for kids. It’s a starter iPhone.

The company needs to wrench more revenue from high-value users buying their most expensive devices, but that equation doesn’t bode well for the youngest Apple users getting their first device. When the iPod Touch was last refreshed in 2015, the iPhone 6S had just been announced and 2-year carrier contract deals meant you could get your hands on one for $199. That’s not the case anymore.

In 2016, an oft-quoted study declared 10.3-years-old as the average age that kids got their first smartphone, there hasn’t been anything too serious done since then but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that number has gone anywhere but down. Parents are likely already on the fence about taking the plunge on the device that comes even earlier than a smartphone and devices running Android are cheaper and more plentiful. While Apple has maintained the $329 entry price of the iPad, the iPad Mini has jumped in price and the higher-end iPads are more expensive than ever.

The crazy thing is that as Apple and Google’s cloud services are getting more sand-boxed, it’s becoming more and more likely that these first devices could determine what operating system a kid sticks with once they have more of a say in what smartphone they’re getting. Where are their photos stored? What can they play the games they’ve already bought? At a certain point, will higher upfront costs for these entry-level devices hamper iOS growth further down the road?

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It’s all just an interesting head-scratcher, but more fundamentally while Apple is trying to wrench more cash out of its hardware acolytes, it still can’t afford to shy away from low-cost devices that entice people into high-cost services. In this way its torn between two strategies, and left in this strange evolutionary stage where it has to ensure it doesn’t screw itself over down the road.

Something like Apple Arcade could theoretically be a great sell for parents, games can be played offline and there are none of the pesky in-app purchases, but that only works when the parents aren’t buying a bargain Android tablet in the first place.

We’ll see how much Apple continues to support older hardware with its iOS 13 release Monday, but we’ll also see how much they continue to build out features and products to get kids engaged with Apple and iOS earlier and earlier. Likely with the goal of keeping them away from the cheap stuff that their skyrocketing hardware prices might push them towards.

What to expect at Apple’s WWDC 2019

On to the rest of the week’s news…

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Your Uber rating is: go order a Lyft
    Every Uber driver has a horror story and there’s a decent chance that for a lot of Uber drivers those horror stories involve some of the same riders. The company announced this week that they’re just straight-up banning some of the lowest-rated users, though it sounds like you’ll get a few warnings to clean up your act before any action takes place. Previously, drivers have faced potential deactivations if they drop below a 4.6 rating, but there’s no specific word on what the threshold is for unruly riders.
  • RIP: BBM
    This generation of tech giants has been riding high for the better part of the past decade, but it’s important to remember that everything has a way of crumbling. Case in point, Blackberry Messaging officially shut down on Friday. You can read more about the gradual degradation of the once-ubiquitous platform in our story.
  • Google harshes legal weed’s mellow
    Google is chasing after weed smokers and the reefer inclined with its latest announcement that companies can’t sell weed products through their apps if they’re downloaded off the Play Store. The apps will still be able to exist and showcase products, but the apps can’t host a shopping cart for users. The company isn’t leading the way in being a narc, Apple had already banned in-app purchases like these.
  • Leap Motion throws up its hands
    After $94 million in funding, missed opportunities and Apple acquisition offers, Leap Motion is packing its hand-tracking tech away and shipping it to London, after being acquired by UK-based UltraHaptics for a reported $30 million. That number might not sound too awful, but considering Leap Motion’s status as the rising star of the consumer tech world not too long ago, it’s hard to see the exit as anything but a disappointing end for the startup.

PreShow

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Amazon punts taking stance on facial recognition
    [Amazon defeated shareholder’s vote on facial recognition by a wide margin]
  2. Apple gets defensive after Supreme Court ruling:
    [Apple’s new App Store website takes aim at antitrust anti-competitive claims]

NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Kate Clark wrote about Slack’s odd beginnings as a weird little online game studio called Tiny Speck and how some of the young startup’s storied investors weren’t thrilled about its dramatic pivot into enterprise messaging.

The Slack origin story: How a whimsical online game became an enterprise software giant

“With the support of more than $15 million in venture capital funding — all before the game began beta testing — Tiny Speck hired more than 40 employees, wrote hundreds of lines of code and concocted big dreams for its zany, whimsical and absurdist universe.”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about SoftBank, and how to get VCs fighting over your startup idea…

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Foursquare buys Placed from Snap Inc. on the heels of $150M in new funding

Foursquare just made its first acquisition. The location tech company has acquired Placed from Snap Inc. on the heels of a fresh $150 million investment led by The Raine Group. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Placed founder and CEO David Shim will become president of Foursquare.

Placed is the biggest competitor to Foursquare’s Attribution product, which allows brands to track the physical impact (foot traffic to store) of a digital campaign or ad. Up until now, Placed and Attribution by Foursquare combined have measured more than $3 billion in ad-to-store visits.

Placed launched in 2011 and raised $13.4 million (according to Crunchbase) before being acquired by Snap Inc. in 2017.

As part of the deal with Foursquare, the company’s Attribution product will henceforth be known as Placed powered by Foursquare. The acquisition also means that Placed powered by Foursquare will have more than 450 measureable media partners, including Twitter, Snap, Pandora and Waze. Moreover, more than 50% of the Fortune 100 are partnered with Placed or Foursquare.

It’s also worth noting that this latest investment of $150 million is the biggest financing round for Foursquare ever, and comes following a $33 million Series F last year.

Here’s what Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck had to say about the financing in a prepared statement:

This is one of the largest investments ever in the location tech space. The investment will fund our acquisition and also capitalize us for our increased R&D and expansion plans, allowing us to focus on our mission to build the world’s most trusted, independent location technology platform.

That last bit, about an independent location technology platform, is important here. Foursquare is 10 years old and has transformed from a consumer-facing location check-in app — a game, really — into a location analytics and development platform.

Indeed, when Glueck paints his vision for the company, he lists five key areas of focus:

  1. Developer Tools to build smarter apps and customer engagement, using geo-context;
  2. Analytics, including consumer insights for planning;
  3. Audiences, so businesses can reach the right consumer segments for their message;
  4. Attribution, to test and learn which messages, segments and channels work best;
  5. Consumer, where through our own apps and Foursquare Labs’ R&D efforts we showcase what’s possible and inspire developers via our innovations around contextual location.

You’ll notice that its consumer apps, Foursquare and Swarm, are at the bottom of the list. But that’s because Foursquare’s real technological and strategic advantage isn’t in building the best social platform. In fact, Glueck said that more than 90% of the company’s revenue came from the enterprise side of the business. Foursquare’s advantage is in the accuracy of its technology, as afforded by the decade of data that has come from Foursquare, Swarm and the users who have expressly verified their location.

The Pilgrim SDK fits into that top item on the list: developer tools. The Pilgrim SDK allows developers to embed location-smart experiences and notifications into their apps and services. But it also expands Foursquare’s access to data from beyond its own apps to the greater ecosystem, yielding the data it needs to power analytics tools for brands and publishers.

With this acquisition, Placed will be able to leverage Foursquare’s existing map of 105 million places of interest across 190 countries, as well as tap into the measured U.S. audience of more than 100 million monthly devices:

Foursquare and Placed share a similar philosophy of building against a truth set of real consumer responses. Getting real people to confirm the name of their location is the only way to know if your technology is accurate or not. Placed has leveraged over 135 million survey responses in its first-party Placed survey apps, all from consumers opted-in to its rewards app. Foursquare expands the truth set for machine learning exponentially by adding in our over 13 billion consumer confirmations.

The hope is that Foursquare is accurate enough to become the de facto location analytics and services company for measuring ad spend. With enough scale, that may allow the company to break into the walled gardens where most of that ad spend is going: Facebook and Google.

Of course, to win as the “world’s most trusted, independent location technology platform,” consumers have to trust the platform. After all, one’s location may be the most sensitive piece of data about them. Foursquare has taken steps to be clear about what its technology is capable of. In fact, at SXSW this year, Foursquare offered a limited run of a product called Hypertrending, which was essentially an anonymized view of real-time location data showing activity in the Austin area.

Here’s what executive chairman and co-founder Dennis Crowley had to say at the time:

We feel the general trend with internet and technology companies these days has been to keep giving users a more and more personalized (albeit opaquely personalized) view of the world, while the companies that create these feeds keep the broad “God View” to themselves. Hypertrending is one example of how we can take Foursquare’s aggregate view of the world and make it available to the users who make it what it is. This is what we mean when we talk about “transparency” – we want to be honest, in public, about what our technology can do, how it works, and the specific design decisions we made in creating it.

With regards to today’s acquisition of Placed, Jeff Glueck had this to say:

Both companies also share a commitment to privacy and consumers being in control. Our Foursquare credo of “data as a privilege” only deepens as our company expands. We believe location should only be shared when consumers can see real value and visible benefits driven by location. We remain dedicated to elevating the industry through respect for transparency, user control, and instituting layers of privacy safeguards.

This new financing brings Foursquare’s total funding to $390.4 million.

Streem buys Selerio in effort to boost its AR teleconferencing tech

Streem, an AR startup that is meshing teleconferencing software with computer vision tech, has acquired a small U.K. startup called Selerio that’s also building out augmented reality technologies.

The startups were both members of betaworks’ VisionCamp accelerator program last year where they met and collaborated while tackling separate computer vision problems in the AR space.

Streem’s play is that they can create a kind of souped-up Skype call that enables home service providers to get more visual data in the course of chatting with home-owners. This can be something simple like character recognition that enables users to point their phone rather than reciting a 30-character serial number; the company can also take measurements or save localized notes.

The Portland startup has disclosed more than $10 million in funding, though they have also just closed a new bout of funding (they’re not sharing the amount yet).

Selerio’s focus is all about gaining a contextual understanding of a space. The startup was spun out of research from Cambridge University. The company has not disclosed its amount of seed funding, but betaworks, Greycroft Partners and GGV Capital are among its backers. All three of Selerio’s employees have joined Streem as part of the acquisition.

Slack narrows losses, displays healthy revenue growth

Workplace messaging powerhouse Slack filed an amended S-1 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday weeks ahead of a direct listing expected June 20.

In the document, Slack included an updated look at its path to profitability, posting first-quarter revenues of $134.8 million on losses of $31.8 million. Slack’s Q1 revenues represent a 67% increase from the same period last year when the company lost $24.8 million on $80.9 million in revenue.

For the fiscal year ending January 31, 2019, the company reported losses of $138.9 million on revenue of $400.6 million. That’s compared to a loss of $140.1 million on revenue of $220.5 million the year prior.

Slack is in the process of completing the final steps necessary for its direct listing on The New York Stock Exchange, where it will trade under the ticker symbol “WORK.” A direct listing is an alternative approach to the stock market that allows well-known businesses to sell directly to the market existing shares held by insiders, employees and investors, instead of issuing new shares. The method lets companies bypass the traditional roadshow process and avoid a good chunk of Wall Street’s IPO fees.

Spotify completed a direct listing in 2018; Airbnb, another highly valued venture capital-backed business, is rumored to be considering a direct listing in 2020.

Slack is currently valued at $7 billion after raising $1.22 billion in VC funding from investors, including Accel, which owns a 24% pre-IPO stake, Andreessen Horowitz (13.3%), Social Capital (10.2%), SoftBank, T. Rowe Price, IVP, Kleiner Perkins and many others.

London fintech Yapily raises $5.4M to offer a single API to connect to banks

Yapily, a London fintech startup that offers an Open Banking-based API platform to enable financial services providers and other types of enterprises, such as merchants, to connect to banks, has raised $5.4 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is HV Holtzbrinck Ventures and LocalGlobe. Investors also include Taavet Hinrikus (TransferWise chairman and co-founder), Ott Kaukver (Twillio’s CTO) and Roberto Nicastro (UniCredit’s former deputy CEO).

Founded in mid 2017 by ex-Goldman Sachs employee Stefano Vaccino, Yapily is another platform play aiming to grasp the opportunity of Open Banking by making it easier for various service providers to connect to banks. The platform provides a way to retrieve financial data and initiate payments via a “single secure API” that in turn connects to each supported bank’s open API.

Customers include accountancy firms, companies in the payment space, crypto currency providers, digital wealth applications and e-commerce companies.

“Yapily removes the technical barriers for enterprises that want to benefit from Open Banking, helping them to innovate and bring new products to life faster,” Vaccino tells TechCrunch. “Legislators have been implementing Open Banking differently in various countries and even within the same jurisdiction banks all have disparate technical implementations. For a service provider that wants to benefit from it, the technical barriers to integrating with hundreds or thousands of banks are very high.”

To that end, Vaccino says Yapily’s mission is to enable service providers to connect to all banks, both for data retrieval and payment initiation, via one single API. “We manage the upfront integrations and the ongoing maintenance of these connections,” he says, thus removing the technical obstacle for companies that want to benefit from “the Open Banking revolution.”

In that sense, similar to a cloud provider, Yapily is positioning itself as a pure technology enabler. “Our objective is to offer all the tools that an enterprise will need to manage this connectivity layer easily,” adds Vaccino.

To date, the Yapily API supports 35 of the biggest banks in Europe, both for data retrieval and payments initiation. This equates to 250 million bank accounts, the startup says. By the end of the year, Yapily aims to have connected to 536 banks, as more banks across Europe bring their open APIs online in order to adhere to European Union PSD2 legislation.

“By mid-September, 5,000 banks across Europe will need to have an API in place,” notes Yapily. “Governments in Australia, Japan, Canada, Singapore, South Korea, Mexico and several other countries are also committed to delivering open banking.”

Meanwhile, Yapily says this seed round will be used to help the company expand its tech team and further develop the platform. It also plans to build out a sales team to respond to demand for its Open Banking product.

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