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May 23, 2019
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messaging

Instagram is killing Direct, its standalone Snapchat clone app, in the next several weeks

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As Facebook pushes ahead with its strategy to consolidate more of the backend of its various apps on to a single platform, it’s also doing a little simplifying and housekeeping. In the coming month, it will shut down Direct, the standalone Instagram direct messaging app that it was testing to rival Snapchat, on iOS and Android. Instead, Facebook and its Instagram team will channel all developments and activity into the direct messaging feature of the main Instagram app.

We first saw a message about the app closing down by way of a tweet from Direct user Matt Navarra: “In the coming month, we’ll no longer be supporting the Direct app,” Instagram notes in the app itself. “Your conversations will automatically move over to Instagram, so you don’t need to do anything.”

The details were then confirmed to us by Instagram itself:

“We’re rolling back the test of the standalone Direct app,” a spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We’re focused on continuing to make Instagram Direct the best place for fun conversations with your friends.”

From what we understand, Instagram will continue developing Direct features — they just won’t live in a standalone app. (Tests and rollouts of new features that we’ve reported before include encryption in direct messaging, the ability to watch videos with other people, a web version of the direct messaging feature,

Instagram didn’t give any reason for the decision, but in many ways, the writing was on the wall with this one.

The app first appeared December 2017, when Instagram confirmed it had rolled it out in a select number of markets — Uruguay, Chile, Turkey, Italy, Portugal and Israel — as a test. (Instagram first launched direct messaging within the main app in 2013.)

“We want Instagram to be a place for all of your moments, and private sharing with close friends is a big part of that,” it said at the time. “To make it easier and more fun for people to connect in this way, we are beginning to test Direct – a camera-first app that connects seamlessly back to Instagram.”

But it’s not clear how many markets beyond ultimately have had access to the app, although Instagram did expand it to more. The iOS version currently notes that it is available in a much wider range of languages than Spanish, Turkish, Italian and Portuguese. It also includes English, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian Bokmål, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

But with Instagram doing little to actively promote the app or its expansion to more markets, Direct never really found a lot of traction in the markets where it was active.

The only countries that make it on to AppAnnie’s app rankings for Direct are Uruguay for Android, where it was most recently at number 55 among social networking apps (with no figures for overall rankings, meaning it was too low down to be counted); and Portugal on iOS, where it was number 24 among social apps and a paltry 448 overall.

The Direct app hadn’t been updated on iOS since the end of December, although the Android version was updated as recently as the end of April.

At the time of its original launch as a test, however, Direct looked like an interesting move from Instagram.

The company had already been releasing various other features that cloned popular ones in Snapchat. The explosive growth and traction of one of them, Stories, could have felt like a sign to Facebook that there was more ground to break on creating more Snapchat-like experiences for its audience. More generally, the rise of Snapchat and direct messaging apps like WhatsApp has shown that there is a market demand for more apps based around private conversations among smaller groups, if not one-to-one.

On top of that, building a standalone messaging app takes a page out of Facebook’s own app development book, in which it launched and began to really accelerate development of a standalone Messenger app separate from the Facebook experience on mobile.

The company has not revealed any recent numbers for usage of Direct since 2017, when it said there were 375 million users of the service as it brought together permanent and ephemeral (disappearing) messages within the service.

More recently, Instagram and Facebook itself have been part of the wider scrutiny we have seen over how social platforms police and moderate harmful or offensive content. Facebook itself has faced an additional wave of criticism from some over its plans to bring together its disparate app ecosystem in terms of how they function together, with the issue being that Facebook is not giving apps like WhatsApp and Instagram enough autonomy and becoming an even bigger data monster in the process.

It may have been the depressingly low usage that ultimately killed off Direct, but I’d argue that the optics for promoting an expansion of its app real estate on to another platform weren’t particularly strong, either.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Instagram is now testing a web version of Direct messages

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Insta-chat addicts, rejoice. You could soon be trading memes and emojis from your computer. Instagram is internally testing a web version of Instagram Direct messaging that lets people chat without the app. If, or more likely, when this rolls out publicly, users on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, a non-Android or iPhone or that access Instagram via a mobile web browser will be able to privately message other Instagrammers.

Instagram web DMs was one of the features I called for in a product wish list I published in December alongside a See More Like This button for the feed and an upload quality indicator so your Stories don’t look crappy if you’re on a slow connection.

A web version could make Instagram Direct a more full-fledged SMS alternative rather than just a tacked-on feature for discussing the photo and video app’s content. Messages are a massive driver of engagement that frequently draws people back to an app, and knowing friends can receive them anywhere could get users sending more. While Facebook doesn’t monetize Instagram Direct itself, it could get users browsing through more ads while they wait for replies.

Given Facebook’s own chat feature started on the web before going mobile and getting its own Messenger app, and WhatsApp launched a web portal in 2015 followed by desktop clients in 2016, it’s sensible for Instagram Direct to embrace the web too. It could also pave the way for Facebook’s upcoming unification of the backend infrastructure for Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct that should expand encryption and allow cross-app chat, as reported by The New York Times’ Mike Isaac.

Mobile reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong alerted us to Instagram’s test. It’s not available to users yet, as it’s still being internally “dogfooded” — used heavily by employees to identify bugs or necessary product changes. But she was able to dig past security and access the feature from both a desktop computer and mobile web browser.

In the current design, Direct on the web is available from a Direct arrow icon in the top right of the screen. The feature looks like it will use an Instagram.com/direct/…. URL structure. If the feature becomes popular, perhaps Facebook will break it out with its own Direct destination website similar to https://www.messenger.com, which launched in 2015. Instagram began testing a standalone Direct app last year, but it’s yet to be officially launched and doesn’t seem exceedingly popular.

Instagram’s web experience has long lagged behind its native apps. You still can’t post Stories from the desktop like you can with Facebook Stories. It only added notifications on the web in 2016 and Explore, plus some other features, in 2017.

Instagram did not respond to requests for comment before press time. The company rarely provides a statement on internal features in development until they’re being externally tested on the public, at which point it typically tells us “We’re always testing ways to improve the Instagram experience.” [Update: Instagram confirms to TechCrunch it’s not publicly testing this, which is its go-to line when a product surfaces that’s still in internal development. Meanwhile, Wong notes that Instagram has now cut off her access to the web Direct feature.]

After cloning Snapchat Stories to create Instagram Stories, the Facebook-owned app decimated Snap’s growth rate. That left Snapchat to focus on premium video and messaging. Last year Instagram built IGTV to compete with Snapchat Discover. And now with it testing a web version of Direct, it seems poised to challenge Snap for chat too.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Microsoft’s latest Teams features take aim at shift workers

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Collaboration tools tend to be geared towards workers who are sitting at a desk for much of the day, but there are plenty of shift workers, also known as first line workers, who rarely use a computer, but still need to communicate with one another and management. Microsoft released several new features today aimed at including these workers.

In a blog post announcing the new features, Emma Williams, Microsoft corporate vice president for modern workplace verticals, wrote that there are two billion such workers. By making the product more mobile-friendly and linking to existing enterprise employee management systems, Microsoft can make Teams more relevant for shift employees.

For starters, Microsoft is making mobile Teams more flexible to meet the needs of a variety of shift worker jobs. Some might need to record and share audio messages, while others might need to share their location or access the camera. Whatever the requirements, Microsoft has started with a Firstline Worker configuration policy template, which IT can customize to meet the needs of various worker types.

The mobile tool also includes a navigation bar, which allows workers to add the tools they use most often for easy access. The idea is to make it as simple as possible to access the tools they need, given that these workers tend to be on their feet or on the move a good part of the day.

Photo: Microsoft

Next, the company has released a new API to help IT connect Teams to existing workforce management systems. The Graph API for Shifts enables first line managers, who are responsible for setting up worker schedules to share data between a company’s workforce management system and Teams, allowing employees to get all of their shift information in one tool. This will be available in public preview later in the quarter, according to the company.

Finally, the tool now includes a new Praise feature, designed to let managers recognize good work by their employees by issuing badges with messages like “Thank you” and “Problem solver.”

The company wants Teams to be more than a tool for knowledge workers. These new features provide a way to include workers that are sometimes left out of these kinds of collaboration tools. The new features also help Microsoft compete with a number of startups who trying to attack the same problem.

These include Crew, a startup that scored a $35 million Series C round just last month, and has raised almost $60 million, and Zinc, which also takes aim at the deskless worker, and has raised $16 million, according to Crunchbase.

Whether Microsoft can appeal to both the knowledge worker and the first-line variety in the same tool remains to be seen, but these updates are clearly an effort to take on this space.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Stealthy wants to become the WeChat of blockchain apps

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Meet Stealthy a new messaging app that leverages Blockstack’s decentralized application platform to build a messaging app. The company is participating in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF and launching its app on iOS and Android today.

On the surface, Stealthy works like many messaging apps out there. But it gets interesting once you start digging to understand the protocol behind it. Stealthy is a decentralized platform with privacy in mind. It could become the glue that makes various decentralized applications stick together.

“We started Stealthy because Blockstack had a global hackathon in December of last year,” co-founder Prabhaav Bhardwaj told me. “We won that hackathon in February.” After that, the #deletefacebook movement combined with the overall decentralization trend motivated Bhardwaj and Alex Carreira to ship the app.

Blockstack manages your identity. You get an ID and a 12-word passphrase to recover your account. Blockstack creates a blockchain record for each new user. You use your Blockstack ID to connect to Stealthy.

Stealthy users then choose how they want to store their messages. You can connect your account with Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc.

Every time you message someone, the message is first encrypted on your device and sent to your recipient’s cloud provider. Your recipient can then open the Stealthy app and decrypt the message from their storage system.

All of this is seamless for the end user. It works like an iMessage conversation, which means that Microsoft or Amazon can’t open and read your messages without your private key. You remain in control of your data. Stealthy plans to open source their protocol and mobile product so that anybody can audit their code.

Some features require a certain level of centralization. For instance, Stealthy relies on Firebase for push notifications. If you’re uncomfortable with that, you can disable that feature.

The company also wants to become your central hub for all sorts of decentralized apps (or dapps for short). For instance, you can launch Graphite Docs or Blockusign from Stealty. Those dapps are built on top of Blockstack as well, but Stealthy plans to integrate with other dapps that don’t work on Blockstack.

“We have dapp integrations in place right now and we want to make it easier to add dapp integrations. If somebody wants to come in and start selling messaging stickers, you could do that. If you want to come in and implement a payment system to pay bloggers, you could do that,” Bhardwaj said. “Eventually, what we want to be is to make it as easy as submitting an app in the App Store.”

When you build a digital product, chances are you’ll end up adding a messaging feature at some point. You can chat in Google Docs, Airbnb, Venmo, YouTube… And the same is likely to be true with dapps. Stealthy believes that many developers could benefit from a solid communication infrastructure — this way, other companies can focus on their core products and let Stealthy handle the communication layer.

Stealthy is an ambitious company. In many ways, the startup is trying to build a decentralized WeChat with the encryption features of Signal. It’s a messaging app, but it’s also a platform for many other use cases.

A handful of messaging apps have become so powerful that they’ve become a weakness. Governments can block them or leverage them to create a social ranking. Authorities can get a warrant to ask tech companies to hand them data. And of course, the top tech companies have become too powerful. More decentralization is always a good thing.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Landbot gets $2.2M for its on-message ‘anti-AI’ chatbot

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Who needs AI to have a good conversation? Spanish startup Landbot has bagged a $2.2 million seed round for a ‘dumb’ chatbot that doesn’t use AI at all but offers something closer to an old school ‘choose your adventure’ interaction by using a conversational choice interface to engage potential customers when they land on a website.

The rampant popularity of consumer messaging apps has long been influencing product development decisions, and plenty of fusty business tools have been consumerized in recent years, including by having messaging-style interfaces applied to simplify all kinds of digital interactions.

In the case of Landbot, the team is deploying a familiar rich texting interface as a website navigation tool — meaning site visitors aren’t left to figure out where to click to find stuff on their own. Instead they’re pro-actively met with an interactive, adaptive messaging thread that uses conversational choice prompts to get them the information they need.

Call it a chatty twist on the ‘lazyweb’…

It’s also of course mobile first design, where constrained screen real estate is never very friendly to full fat homepages. Using a messaging thread interface plus marketing bots thus offers an alternative way to cut to the navigational chase, while simultaneously creaming off intent intelligence on potential customers. (Albeit it does risk getting old fast if your site visitors have a habit of clearing their cookies.)

Landbot, which was launched just over a year ago in June 2017, started as an internal experiment after its makers got frustrated by the vagaries of their own AI chatbots. So they had the idea to create a drag-and-drop style bot-builder that doesn’t require coding to support custom conversation flows.

“Since we already had a product, a business model, and some customers, we developed Landbot as an internal experiment. “What would happen with a full-screen conversation instead of the regular live-chat?,” we thought. What we got? A five times higher conversion rate on our homepage! Ever since, our whole strategy changed and Landbot, born from an experiment, became our core product,” explains CEO and co-founder Jiaqi Pan.

At the same time, the current crop of ‘cutting-edge’ AI chatbots are more often defined by their limitations than by having impressively expansive conversational capacities. Witness, for example, Google’s Duplex voice AI, heavily trained to perform very specific and pretty formulaic tasks — such as booking a hair appointment or a restaurant. Very few companies are in a position to burn so much engineering resource to try and make AI useful.

So there’s something rather elegant about eschewing the complexity and chaos of an AI engine (over)powering customer engagement tools — and just giving businesses user-friendly building blocks to create their own custom chat flows and channel site visitors through a few key flows.

After all, a small business knows its customers best. So a tool that helps SMEs create an engaging interface themselves, without having to plough resources they likely don’t have into training high maintenance chat AIs which are probably overkill for their needs anyway, seems a good and sensible thing.

Hence Pan talks about “democratizing the power of chatbots”. “Most landbot customers are marketing managers from small and medium companies that want to discover new ways of optimizing their conversion rates,” he tells us, saying that most are using the tool to convert more leads in their home/landing page; add dynamic surveys/forms to their websites; or explain their services — “in a more engaging way while scoring leads and being able to take over conversations when necessary”. (Buddy Nutrition is a Landbot customer, for example).

“We started our chatbot journey using Artificial Intelligence technology but found out that there was a huge gap between user expectations and reality. No matter how well trained our chatbots were, users were constantly dropped off the desired flow, which ended up in 20 different ways of saying “TALK WITH A HUMAN”,” he adds. “But we were in love with the conversational approach and, inspired by some great automation flow builders out there, we decided to give Conversational User Interfaces a try. Some would call them ‘dumb chatbots’.

“The results were amazing: The implementation process was way shorter, the technical background was removed from the equation and, finally, costs dropped too! Now, even companies with 100% focus on AI-based chatbots use Landbot as a truly cost-effective prototyping tool. We ended up creating the easiest and fastest chatbot builder out there. No technical knowledge, just a drag and drop interface and unlimited possibilities.”

Despite the startup-y hyperbole, the team does seem to have hit a sweet spot for their product. In less than a year since launching — via Product Hunt — Landbot has signed up more than 900 customers from 50+ countries, and is seeing a 30-40% MRR Growth MoM, according to Pan. Although they are offering a (branded) freemium version to help stoke the product’s growth, as well as paid tiers.

The $2.2M seed round is led by Nauta Capital, with Bankinter and Encomenda Smart Capital also participating. The plan for the funding is to grow headcount and pay for relocating Landbot’s head office from Valencia to Barcelona — to help with their international talent hunt as they look to triple the size of the team.

They’ll also be using the funding on their own brand marketing, rather than relying on viral growth —   acknowledging that marketing spend is going to be important to stand out in such a crowded space, with thousands of competing solutions also vying for SMEs’ cash.

And, indeed, other conversational UIs out in the wild delivering a similarly chatty experience on the customer end, though Landbot’s claim is it’s differentiating in the market behind the scenes, with easy to use, ‘no coding necessary’ customization tools.

On the competition from, Pan names the likes of Chatfuel and Manychat as “powerful but channel-dependent” rival chatbot builders, while at the more powerful end he points to DialogFlow or IBM Watson but notes they do require technical knowledge, so the market positioning is different.

“Landbot tries to bring chatbots to the average Joe,” he adds. “While still keeping features for developers that demand complex functionalities in their chatbots (they can achieve by configuring webhooks, callbacks, CSS and JS customization).”

He also identifies players in the automated lead generation space — such as Intercom (Operator) and Drift (Drift bot) — saying they are aiming to transform sales and marketing processes “into something more conversational”. “The flow customization possibilities are fewer but the whole product is robust as they cover each stage of the conversion funnel, all the way to customer service,” he adds.

In terms of capabilities, Landbot also rubs up against survey/form offerings like SurveyMonkey and Google Form — or indeed Barcelona-based Typeform, which has raised around $50M since 2012 and bills itself as a platform for “conversational data collection”.

Pan rather delightfully characterizes Typeform as “bringing that conversational essence to the almighty sequences of fields”. Though he argues it’s also more limited “in terms of integrations and real-time human take-over capabilities”, i.e. as a consequence of wrangling those “almighty sequences”. So basically his argument is that Landbot isn’t saddled with Typeform’s form(ulaic) straightjacket. (Though Typeform would probably retort that its conversational platform is flexible.)

Still, where customer engagement is concerned, there’s never going to be one way. Sometimes the straight form will do it, but for another brand or use case something more colloquial might be called for.

Commenting on the seed round in a statement, Jordi Vinas, general partner at Nauta Capital, adds: “Landbot has experienced strong commercial traction and virality over the past months and the team has been able to attract customers from a variety of countries and verticals. We strongly believe in Jiaqi’s ability to continue scaling the business in a capital efficient way.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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