Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, JavaScript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three-quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. 90 million people already tap its Shopping tags each month, it announced today. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can boost retail business’ sales for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel. With 25 million businesses on Instagram but only 2 million advertisers, the app has room to massively increase its revenue.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Founder Zain Jaffer may be looking to take back control of Vungle

Founder Zain Jaffer may be looking to take back control of Vungle

Zain Jaffer may be gearing up for a fight to take back control of Vungle, the mobile ad company he founded.

Jaffer was removed from his role as CEO last fall following his arrest on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and performing a lewd act on a child.

However, a San Mateo County judge subsequently dismissed the charges. The district attorney’s office released a statement offering more context for the dismissal, saying that they did not believe there was any sexual conduct on the evening in question, and that “the injuries were the result of Mr. Jaffer being in a state of unconsciousness caused by prescription medication.”

So what’s next for Jaffer and Vungle? There are hints in a recent letter from Jaffer’s attorney, John Pernick, which was sent to current Vungle CEO Rick Tallman.

TechCrunch has obtained a copy of the letter, which requests access to Vungle’s records, specifically the names and addresses of company shareholders. Pernick’s letter suggests that this could be a prelude to further action (emphasis added):

Mr. Jaffer is considering various options with respect to Vungle and his shares of Vungle. He has considered selling some portion of his Vungle shares. However, he is also considering pursuing a leadership change at Vungle through calling for a shareholders meeting for the purpose of voting on a new board of directors and/or purchasing shares of additional Vungle stock. Communicating with Vungle shareholders with respect to their interest in purchasing or selling Vungle stock or in a change in the board of directors is an entirely proper purpose for Mr. Jaffer’s request to inspect the shareholder information that will enable him to make these communications.

When TechCrunch contacted Pernick, he confirmed the authenticity of the letter but declined to comment further. A spokesperson for Jaffer also declined to comment, and Vungle did not respond to our inquiries.

As you can see in the quote above, the letter indicates that Jaffer is considering multiple courses of action.

But if he decides to pursue a leadership change at Vungle, either by winning over existing shareholders or by purchasing a controlling stake in the company, it sounds like there are investors willing to back him — for starters, Jun Hong Heng at Crescent Cove Capital Management confirmed that his firm is working with Jaffer.

“We think Zain and Vungle have incredible potential,” Heng said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Zain and giving him the support he needs to help him regain control of his company.”

We also reached out to Anne-Marie Roussel, who recently resigned from Vungle’s board of directors. Roussel said via email that “the Vungle controversy is an interesting proxy for a much larger debate: the fuzziness surrounding ethical conduct in the tech industry.”

She added, “My personal prediction is that boards of tech companies will be held increasingly accountable for the ethics of the key decisions they make.” As for how that applies to Vungle, she said:

How does it reflect on ethical values when a CEO is dismissed based on presumption of guilt? Don’t we live in a democracy where one of the key legal right is “presumption of innocence” (as in a defendant is innocent until proven guilty). Upholding that principle by collaborating with his defense team was what led to my resignation from Vungle’s board.

Letter to Vungle by TechCrunch on Scribd

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

WhatsApp finally earns money by charging businesses for slow replies

WhatsApp finally earns money by charging businesses for slow replies

Today WhatsApp launches its first revenue-generating enterprise product and the only way it currently makes money directly from its app. The WhatsApp Business API is launching to let businesses respond to messages from users for free for up to 24 hours, but will charge them a fixed rate by country per message sent after that.

Businesses will still only be able to message people who contacted them first, but the API will help them programatically send shipping confirmations, appointment reminders or event tickets. Clients also can use it to manually respond to customer service inquiries through their own tool or apps like Zendesk, MessageBird or Twilio. And small businesses that are one of the 3 million users of the WhatsApp For Business app can still use it to send late replies one-by-one for free.

After getting acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, it’s finally time for the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp to pull its weight and contribute some revenue. If Facebook can pitch the WhatsApp Business API as a cheaper alternative to customer service call centers, the convenience of asynchronous chat could compel users to message companies instead of phoning.

Only charging for slow replies after 24 hours since a user’s last message is a genius way to create a growth feedback loop. If users get quick answers via WhatsApp, they’ll prefer it to other channels. Once businesses and their customers get addicted to it, WhatsApp could eventually charge for all replies or any that exceed a volume threshold, or cut down the free window. Meanwhile, businesses might be too optimistic about their response times and end up paying more often than they expect, especially when messages come in on weekends or holidays.

WhatsApp first announced it would eventually charge for enterprise service last September when it launched its free WhatsApp For Business app that now has 3 million users and remains free for all replies, even late ones.

Importantly, WhatsApp stresses that all messaging between users and businesses, even through the API, will be end-to-end encrypted. That contrasts with The Washington Post’s report that Facebook pushing to weaken encryption for WhatsApp For Business messages is partly what drove former CEO Jan Koum to quit WhatsApp and Facebook’s board in April. His co-founder, Brian Acton, had ditched Facebook back in September and donated $50 million to the foundation of encrypted messaging app Signal.

Today WhatsApp is also formally launching its new display ads product worldwide. But don’t worry, they won’t be crammed into your chat inbox like with Facebook Messenger. Instead, businesses will be able to buy ads on Facebook’s News Feed that launch WhatsApp conversations with them… thereby allowing them to use the new Business API to reply. TechCrunch scooped that this was coming last September, when code in Facebook’s ad manager revealed the click-to-WhatsApp ads option and the company confirmed the ads were in testing. Facebook launched similar click-to-Messenger ads back in 2015.

Finally, WhatsApp also tells TechCrunch it’s planning to run ads in its 450 million daily user Snapchat Stories clone called Status. “WhatsApp does not currently run ads in Status though this represents a future goal for us, starting in 2019. We will move slowly and carefully and provide more details before we place any Ads in Status,” a spokesperson told us. Given WhatsApp Status is more than twice the size of Snapchat, it could earn a ton on ads between Stories, especially if it’s willing to make some unskippable.

Together, the ads and API will replace the $1 per year subscription fee WhatsApp used to charge in some countries but dropped in 2016. With Facebook’s own revenue decelerating, triggering a 20 percent, $120 billion market cap drop in its share price, it needs to show it has new ways to make money — now more than ever.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Why unskippable Stories ads could revive Facebook

Why unskippable Stories ads could revive Facebook

Prepare for the invasion of the unskippables. If the Stories social media slideshow format is the future of mobile TV, it’s going to end up with commercials. Users won’t love them. And done wrong they could pester people away from spending so much time watching what friends do day-to-day. But there’s no way Facebook and its family of apps will keep letting us fast-forward past Stories ads just a split-second after they appear on our screens.

We’re on the cusp of the shift to Stories. Facebook estimates that across social media apps, sharing to Stories will surpass sharing through feeds some time in 2019. One big reason is they don’t take a ton of thought to create. Hold up your phone, shoot a photo or short video and you’ve instantly got immersive, eye-catching, full-screen content. And you never had to think.

Facebook CPO Chris Cox at F8 2018 charts the rise of Stories that will see the format surpass feed sharing in 2019

Unlike text, which requires pre-meditated reflection that can be daunting to some, Stories are point and shoot. They don’t even require a caption. Sure, if you’re witty or artistic you can embellish them with all sorts of commentary and creativity. They can be a way to project your inner monologue over the outside world. But the base level of effort necessary to make a Story is arguably less than sharing a status update. That’s helped Stories rocket to more than 1.3 billion daily users across Facebook’s apps and Snapchat.

The problem, at least for Facebook, is that monetizing the News Feed with status-style ads was a lot more straightforward. Those ads, which have fueled Facebook’s ascent to earning $13 billion in revenue and $5 billion in profit per quarter, were ostensibly old-school banners. Text, tiny photo and a link. Advertisers have grown accustomed to them over 20 years of practice. Even small businesses on a tight budget could make these ads. And it at least took users a second to scroll past them — just long enough to make them occasionally effective at implanting a brand or tempting a click.

Stories, and Stories ads, are fundamentally different. They require big, tantalizing photos at a minimum, or preferably stylish video that lasts five to 15 seconds. That’s a huge upward creative leap for advertisers to make, particularly small businesses that’ll have trouble shooting that polished content themselves. Rather than displaying a splayed out preview of a link, users typically have to swipe up or tap a smaller section of a Story ad to click through.

And Stories are inherently skippable. Users have learned to rapidly tap to progress slide by slide through friends’ Stories, especially when racing through those with too many posts or that come from more distant acquaintances. People are quick with the trigger finger the moment they’re bored, especially if it’s with an ad.

A new type of ad blindness has emerged. Instead of our eyes glazing over as we scroll past, we stare intensely searching for the slightest hint that something isn’t worth our time and should be skipped. A brand name, “sponsored” label, stilted product shot or anything that looks asocial leads us to instantly tap past.

This is why Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg scared the hell out of investors on the brutal earnings call when she admitted about Stories that, “The question is, will this monetize at the same rate as News Feed? And we honestly don’t know.” It’s a radically new format advertisers will need time to adopt and perfect. Facebook had spent the past year warning that revenue growth would decelerate as it ran out of News Feed ad inventory, but it’d never stressed the danger as what it was: Stories. That contributed to its record-breaking $120 billion share price drop.

The shift from News Feed ads to Stories ads will be a bigger transition than desktop ads to mobile ads for Facebook. Feed ads looked and worked identically, it was just the screen around them changing. Stories ads are an entirely new beast.

Stories ads are a bigger shift than web to mobile

There is one familiar format Stories ads are reminiscent of: television commercials. Before the age of TiVo and DVRs, you had to sit through the commercials to get your next hit of content. I believe the same will eventually be true for Stories, to the tune of billions in revenue for Facebook.

Snapchat is cornered by Facebook’s competition and desperate to avoid missing revenue estimates again. So this week, it rolled out unskippable vertical video ads it actually calls “Commercials” to 100 more advertisers, and they’ll soon be self-serve for buyers. Snap first debuted them in May, though the six-second promos are still only inserted into its longer-form multi-minute premium Shows, not user-generated Stories. A Snap spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on future plans. But I’d expect its stance will inevitably change. Friends’ Stories are interesting enough to compel people to watch through entire ads, so the platform could make us watch.

Snapchat is desperate, and that’s why it’s already working on unskippable ads. If Facebook’s apps like Instagram and WhatsApp were locked in heated battle with Snapchat, I think we’d see more brinkmanship here. Each would hope the other would show unskippable ads first so it could try to steal their pissed-off users.

But Facebook has largely vanquished Snapchat, which has seen user growth sink significantly. Snapchat has 191 million daily users, but Facebook Stories has 150 million, Messenger Stories has 70 million, Instagram Stories has 400 million and WhatsApp Stories (called Status) leads with 450 million. Most people’s friends around the world aren’t posting to Snapchat Stories, so Facebook doesn’t risk pushing users there with overly aggressive ads, except perhaps amongst U.S. teens.

Instagram’s three-slide Stories carousel ads

That’s why I expect we’ll quickly see Facebook start to test unskippable Stories ads. They’ll likely be heavily capped at first, to maybe one to three per day per user. Facebook took a similar approach to slowly rolling out auto-play video News Feed ads back in 2014. And Facebook’s apps will probably only show them after a friend’s story before your next pal’s, in-between rather than as dreaded pre-rolls. Instagram already offers carousel Stories ads with up to three slides instead of one, so users have to tap three times to blow past them.

An Instagram spokesperson told me they had “no plans to share right now” about unskippable ads, and a Facebook spokesperson said “We don’t have any plans to test unskippable stories ads on Facebook or Instagram.” But plans can change. A Snap spokesperson noted that unlike a full 30-second TV spot, Snapchat’s Commercials are up to six seconds, which matches an emerging industry trend for mobile video ads. Budweiser recently made some six-second online ads that it also ran on TV, showing the format’s reuseability that could speed up adoption. For brand advertisers not seeking an on-the-spot purchase, they need time to leave an impression.

By making some Stories ads unskippable, Facebook’s apps could charge more while making them more impactful for advertisers. It would also reduce the creative pressure on businesses because they won’t be forced to make that first split-second so flashy so people don’t fast-forward. Employing unskippable ads could also create an incentive for people to pay for a hypothetical ad-free Facebook Premium subscription in the future.

If Facebook makes the Stories ad format work, it has a bright future that contrasts with the doomsday vibes conjured by its share price plummet. Facebook has more than 5X more (duplicated) Stories users across its apps than its nearest competitor Snapchat. The social giant sees libraries full of Stories created each day waiting to be monetized.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Google gets slapped with $5BN EU fine for Android antitrust abuse

Google gets slapped with BN EU fine for Android antitrust abuse

Google has been fined a record breaking €4.34 billion (~$5BN) by European antitrust regulators for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has tweeted to confirm the penalty ahead of a press conference about to take place. Stay tuned for more details as we get them.

In a longer statement about the decision, Vestager said:

Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic. It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans. Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.

In particular, the EC has decided that Google:

  • has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
  • made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
  • has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).

The decision also concludes that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services; licensable smart mobile operating systems; and app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

During the press conference Vestager said the Commission had determined that Google had breached its competition rules with Android since 2011. (Although its press release also notes that during 2013, after being called out by the Commission, Google gradually stopped making illegal payments to device manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google Search. “The illegal practice effectively ceased as of 2014,” it adds.)

“The decision today concludes that the restrictions Google imposed on manufacturers and network operators using Android have breached [EU] rules since 2011,” said Vestager. “First that’s because Google’s practices have denied rival search engines the possibility to compete on their merits. They made sure that Google search engine is pre-installed on practically all Android devices, which is an advantage that cannot be matched.

“And by making payments to major manufacturers and network operators on condition that no other search app or search engine was pre-installed — well, then rivals were excluded from this opportunity.”

“Google’s practices also harmed competition and further innovation in the wider mobile space, beyond just Internet search — and that’s because they prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with the pre-installed Google Chrome browser.

“Finally they obstructed the development of Android forks. This could have provided a platform for rival search engines as well as other app developers to thrive.”

She raised the example of Amazon’s Android fork, Fire OS, as a rival Android platform that has suffered from Google’s contractual arrangements with device manufacturers.

“In 2012 and 2013 Amazon tried to license to device manufacturers its Android fork, called Fire OS. It wanted to co-operate with manufacturers to increase its chances of commercial success. And manufacturers were interested but due to Google’s restrictions, manufacturers could not launch Fire OS on even a single device,” she said.

“They would have lost the right to sell any Android phone with key Google apps. Nowadays, very few devices run with Fire OS. Namely only those manufactured by Amazon themselves. And this is not a proportionate outcome. Google is entitled to set technical requirements to ensure that functionality and apps within its own Android ecosystem runs smoothly. But these technical requirements cannot serve as a smokescreen to prevent the development of competing Android ecosystems.

“Google cannot have its cake and eat it.”

Vestager also made a point of characterizing Google’s actions as monopolistic towards data, saying that by blocking rival apps and services it “also denied rivals access to valuable data from increased user traffic which in turn could have allowed rivals to improve their products”.

What about breaking Google up?

During the press conference she was asked several times about whether breaking up Google might not be a more effective remedy than the cease & desist decision the Commission has reached today — which hands responsibility for Google to come up with a compliance remedy for its illegal behavior with Android (albeit, subject to ongoing monitoring by the Commission).

She replied that she wasn’t sure that breaking up Google would make for an effective competition remedy, arguing there are “no silver bullets” to ensuring competitive markets.

“Here we have a decision that is very clear, which will allow mobile device producers to have a choice — that will us, as consumers, to have a choice as well. That’s what competition is about. And I think that is much more important than a discussion of whether or not breaking up a company would do that,” she said, when asked whether she would exclude the possibility of breaking up Google — so she was sidestepping a direct answer to that.

“I think what will serve competition is for more players to have a real go, to be able to reach consumers so that we can use our choice to find what suits us the best,” she added. “Test out new search engines, new browsers, have maybe a phone that works in a slightly different way [via an Android fork]… maybe the totality of the phone, in the way it was presented, that would work to allow others to compete on the merits, to show consumers what can we do, what have we invented, this is where we put our efforts, this is the that innovation we want to present for you. This I think would enable competition.”

She also emphasized the importance of passing proposed EU legislation related to transparency and fairness for businesses that are reliant on online platforms.

“I think there is a very important discussion which is to discuss how to pass the legislation that my colleagues have tabled — legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship,” she said.

“So that if you’re a business and you find that ‘oh, my traffic has stopped’, that you know why it happened, when it happened and what to do to get your traffic back…. Because this will change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses.”

Google has tweeted an initial reaction to the decision, claiming Android has created “a vibrant ecosystem, rapid innovation and lower prices”.

A company spokesperson confirmed to us that it will appeal the Commission’s decision.

In a lengthy blog post response, CEO Sundar Pichai expands on the company’s argument that the Android ecosystem has “created more choice, not less” — writing for example:

Today, because of Android, there are more than 24,000 devices, at every price point, from more than 1,300 different brands,including DutchFinnishFrenchGermanHungarianItalianLatvianPolishRomanianSpanish and Swedish
phone makers.

The phones made by these companies are all different, but have one thing in common — the ability to run the same applications. This is possible thanks to simple rules that ensure technical compatibility, no matter what the size or shape of the device. No phone maker is even obliged to sign up to these rules — they can use or modify Android in any way they want, just as Amazon has done with its Fire tablets and TV sticks.

He also has a veiled warning about the consequences should Google’s “free distribution” model for Android come unstuck, writing:

The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators—it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers. If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.

The fine is the second major penalty for the ad tech giant for breaching EU competition rules in just over a year — and the highest ever issued by the Commission for abuse of a dominant market position.

In June 2017 Google was hit with a then-record €2.4BN (~$2.7BN) antitrust penalty related to another of its products, search comparison service, Google Shopping. The company has since made changes to how it displays search results for products in Europe.

According to the bloc’s rules, companies can be fined 10 per cent of their global revenue if they are deemed to have breached European competition law.

Google’s parent entity Alphabet reported full year revenue of $110.9 billion in 2017. So the $5BN fine is around half of what the company could have been on the hook for if EU regulators had levied the maximum penalty possible.

“It’s a very serious illegal behavior”

The Commission said the size of the fine takes into account “the duration and gravity of the infringement”.

It also specified it had been calculated on the basis of the value of Google’s revenue from search advertising services on Android devices in the European Economic Area (per its own guidelines on fines).

Pressed during the press conference on how the Commission had determined the size of the penalty, which is double the penalty it issued in the Google Shopping case, Vestager emphasized the time period over which it had been going on, the fact of it having three components, and the effect of it, combined with Google’s rising turnover — adding finally for emphasis: “It’s a very serious infringement. It’s a very serious illegal behavior.”

Google will have three months to pay the fine but has confirmed it will appeal the decision — and legal wrangling could drag the process out for many years.

Vestager confirmed that while antitrust fines must technically be paid to the EU within the three month deadline they are placed in a closed account until the end of any appeals process — meaning the money cannot be used in the meanwhile.

So, in the Android case, the $5BN will likely be locked up until the late 2020s — assuming Google’s appeals aren’t successful. Should Google fail to overturn the Commission’s decision in the courts, Vestager said the money would be returned to EU Member States “using the same key as the contribution to the European budget”.

“You can impose a fine if someone has done someone wrong, you cannot impose a fine because you need the money. That would be wrong,” she added. “This of course means that it will take quite some time… if we win in court — and I can assure you we have done our best to make that possible — then, eventually, the money will come back to Member States to serve European citizens.”

Prior to the Commission’s record pair of fines for Google products, its next highest antitrust penalty is a €1.06BN antitrust fine for chipmaker Intel all the way back in 2009.

Yet only last year Europe’s top court ruled that the case against Intel — which focused on it offering rebates to high-volume buyers — should be sent back to a lower court to be re-examined, nearly a decade after the original antitrust decision. So Google’s lawyers are likely to have a spring in their step going into this next European antitrust battle.

The latest EU fine for Android has been on the cards for more than two years, given the Commission’s preliminary findings and consistently prescriptive remarks from Vestager during the course of what has been a multi-year investigation process.

And, indeed, given multiple EU antitrust investigations into Google businesses and business practices (the EU has also been probing Google’s AdSense advertising service — a separate investigation that Vestager today confirmed remains ongoing).

The Commission’s prior finding that Google is a dominant company in Internet search — a judgement reached at the culmination of its Google Shopping investigation last year — is also important, making the final judgement in the Android case more likely because the status places the onus on Google not to abuse its dominant position in other markets, adjacent or otherwise.

Announcing the Google Shopping penalty last summer, Vestager made a point of emphasizing that dominant companies “need to be more vigilant” — saying they have a “special responsibility” to ensure they are not in breach of antitrust rules, and also specifying this applies “in the market where it’s dominant” and “in any other market”. So that means — as here in the Android case — in mobile services too.

While a one-off financial penalty — even one that runs to so many billions of dollars — cannot cause lasting damage to a company as wealthy as Alphabet, of greater risk to its business are changes the regulators can require to how it operates Android which could have a sustained impact on Google if they end up reshaping the competitive landscape for mobile services.

In search of a remedy

At least that’s the Commission’s intention: To reset what has been judged an unfair competitive advantage for Google via Android, and foster competitive innovation because rival products get a fairer chance to impress consumers. Although it is avoiding prescribing any specific remedies — beyond telling Google to stop it.

For instance Vestager was asked whether the Commission might want Google to send push notifications to existing Android users to highlight alternatives, and thereby offer a remedy to consumers who had already been impacted by the choice constraints it placed on device makers and carriers.

“It is for Google to figure out how to lift this responsibility,” she told reporters. “It’s for them to do this… Google may make that kind of choice [i.e. sending push notifications] — on that we have taken no position.”

However the popularity and profile of Google services suggests that even if Android users are offered a choice as a result of an EU antitrust remedy — such as of which search engine, maps service, mobile browser or even app store to use — most will likely pick the Google-branded offering they’re most familiar with.

That said, the antitrust remedy could have the chance to shift consumers’ habits over time — if, for instance, OEMs start offering Android devices that come preloaded with alternative mobile services, thereby raising the visibility of non-Google apps and services. Which is clearly the Commission’s hope.

Interestingly, Google has been striking deals with Chinese OEMs in recent months — to brings its ARCore technology to markets where its core services are censored and its Play Store is restricted. And its strategy to workaround regional restrictions in China by working more closely with device makers may also be part of a plan to hedge against fresh regulatory restrictions being placed on Android elsewhere. 

Complainants in the EU’s earlier Google Shopping antitrust case continue to express displeasure with the outcome of the remedies Google has come up with on that front. And in a pointed statement responding to news that another EU antitrust penalty was incoming for Android, Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem, the lead complainant in Google Shopping case, said: “Fines make headlines. Effective remedies make a difference.”

So the devil will be in the detail of the Android remedies that Google comes up with.

“The decision requires Google to bring its illegal conduct to an end within 90 days in an effective manner,” said Vestager today. “At a minimum, our decision requires Google to stop and not to re-engage in the three types of restrictions that I have described. In other words our decision stops Google from controlling which search and browser apps manufacturers can pre-install on Android devices, or which Android operating system they can adopt. But it is Google’s sole responsibility to make sure that it changes its conduct in a way that brings the infringements to an effective end.”

“We will monitor this very closely,” she added, warning that failure to comply would invite further penalty payments — of up to 5% of the average daily turnover of Alphabet for each day of non-compliance, back dated to when the non-compliance started. “Our decision requires Google to change the way it operates and face the consequences of its action.”

Aptoide, one of the original app store complainants — which filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission in 2014 complaining that Google’s policies did not allow any alternative app stores which competed with the Play Store to be valid content — welcomed today’s decision, albeit cautiously, as a “positive first step”. So there’s a lot of ‘wait and see’ in the air.

CEO Paulo Trezentos told us: “The EU’s ruling justifying our antitrust arguments is a positive first step forward, for a market more open, more competitive and better tailored for the users. It is these types of decisions that push industries to bigger levels and we hope that this will help everyone evolve.”

On the Google Shopping compliance front, Vestager had some additional words of warning for Google — saying: “We have not yet taken a position on whether Google has complied with the decision. And since we haven’t done so this remains very much an open question.”

She also said the Commission is continuing to investigate other elements of Google’s business practices related to other vertical search services.

“I cannot prejudge the outcome of these ongoing investigations,” she said, also citing the ongoing AdSense probe, and adding that they continue to be “a top priority for us”.

Android as an antitrust ‘Trojan horse’

The European Commission announced its formal in-depth probe of Android in April 2015, saying then that it was investigating complaints Google was “requiring and incentivizing” OEMs to exclusively install its own services on devices on Android devices, and also examining whether Google was hindering the ability of smartphone and tablet makers to use and develop other OS versions of Android (i.e. by forking the open source platform).

Rivals — banding together under the banner ‘FairSearch‘ — complained Google was essentially using the platform as a ‘Trojan horse’ to unfairly dominate the mobile web. The lobby group’s listing on the EU’s transparency register describes its intent as promoting “innovation and choice across the Internet ecosystem by fostering and defending competition in online and mobile search within the European Union”, and names its member organizations as: Buscapé, Cepic, Foundem, Naspers, Nokia, Oracle, TripAdvisor and Yroo.

On average, Android has around a 70-75% smartphone marketshare across Europe. But in some European countries the OS accounts for an even higher proportion of usage. In Spain, for example, Android took an 86.1% marketshare as of March, according to market data collected by Kantar Worldpanel.

In recent years Android has carved an even greater market share in some European countries, while Google’s Internet search product also has around a 90% share of the European market, and competition concerns about its mobile OS have been sounded for years.

Last year Google reached a $7.8M settlement with Russian antitrust authorities over Android — which required the company to no longer demand exclusivity of its applications on Android devices in Russia; could not restrict the pre-installation of any competing search engines and apps, including on the home screen; could no longer require Google Search to be the only general search engine pre-installed.

Google also agreed with Russian antitrust authorities that it would no longer enforce its prior agreements where handset makers had agreed to any of these terms. Additionally, as part of the settlement, Google was required to allow third parties to include their own search engines into a choice window, and to allowing users to pick their preferred default search engine from a choice window displayed in Google’s Chrome browser. The company was also required to develop a new Chrome widget for Android devices already being used in Russia, to replace the standard Google search widget on the home screen so they would be offered a choice when it launched.

A year after Vestager’s public announcement of the EU’s antitrust probe of Android, she issued a formal Statement of Objections, saying the Commission believed Google has “implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general Internet search”; and flagging as problematic the difficulty for Android users whose devices come pre-loaded with the Google Play store to use other app stores (which cannot be downloaded from Google Play).

She also raised concerns over Google providing financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile carriers on condition that Google search be pre-installed as the exclusive search provider. “In our opinion, as we see it right now, it is preventing competition from happening because of the strength of the financial incentive,” Vestager said in April 2016.

Google was given several months to respond officially to the antitrust charges against Android — which it finally did in November 2016, having been granted an extension to the Commission’s original deadline.

Thriving competition?

In its rebuttal then, Google argued that, contrary to antitrust complaints, Android had created a thriving and competitive mobile app ecosystem. It further claimed the EU was ignoring relevant competition in the form of Apple’s rival iOS platform — although iOS does not hold a dominant marketshare in Europe, nor Apple have a status as a dominant company in any EU markets.

Google also argued that its “voluntary compatibility agreements” for Android OEMs are a necessary mechanism for avoiding platform fragmentation — which it said would make life harder for app developers — as well as saying its requirement for Android OEMs to use Google search by default is effectively its payment for providing the suite for free to device makers (given there is no formal licensing fee for Android).

It also couched “free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone” — arguing it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while “still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play”.

In addition, Google sought to characterize open source platforms as “fragile” — arguing the Commission’s approach risked upsetting the “balance of needs” between users and developers, and suggesting their action could signal they favor “closed over open platforms”.

During today’s press conference, Vestager was asked whether she has concerns that the costs of handsets might rise should Google respond to the antitrust remedy by deciding to charge a licensing fee for OEMs to use Android, instead of distributing it for free.

She pointed to the revenue Google generates via the Play Store. “The revenue made from that is quite substantial so I think there is still a possibility for Google to recoup the investment made in developing the Android operating system,” she suggested.

“I think a number of different choices can be made by Google and it is for Google to make these choices,” she added. “What we see in general is that competition makes prices come down, gives you better choices. So you can have a theory that prices will come up, it is as likely that prices will come down because of more competition. The thing is now it’s open — there can be competition as to how this should work. And that’s the very point of the decision.”

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Tilting Point expands its user acquisition fund to $132M in annual spending

Tilting Point expands its user acquisition fund to 2M in annual spending

Mobile games publisher and marketer Tilting Point is dramatically increasing its commitment to its user acquisition fund.

The company announced a $12 million fund at the end of 2016, which it said would help developers grow their games while remaining independent. Today it  revealed that it’s committing $132 million in annual spending to the fund.

CEO Kevin Segalla said that as mobile app stores become more and more crowded, “user acquisition has gotten incredibly complicated,” so most indie developers “don’t have the tech and the expertise to do it.”

That’s where Tilting Point comes in. President Samir El Agili said the company has built “machine learning technology to maximize and optimize user acquisition.” It likes to work on games that are at the “crossroads,” taking a solid game with a sustainable business model, then dramatically accelerating its growth with advertising.

The initial fund led to partnerships on Disruptor Beam’s Star Trek Timelines and Nukebox Studios’ Food Truck Chef.

Segalla said that given the fund’s success, the question became, “How can we do this at a much larger scale?” which led to the much larger fund commitment, thanks to capital committed by CFC Capital (Tilting Point’s majority shareholder) and Metropolitan Partners Group.

Just to be clear, the $132 million isn’t a price tag that Tilting Point is putting on its own services, and instead represents money that will actually be spent on advertising.

Segalla argued that the deals are structured in a way where Tilting Point’s incentives are properly aligned with the developer’s.

“This is not a loan that we’re giving them, it’s not something where we’re looking for equity, there’s no ongoing revenue share,” he said. Instead, the company is betting that the spending will pay off in its relationship with developer and the resulting fees: “What we’re doing is risking our own capital because we believe in our marketing, our tech and our team.”

Tilting Point says it’s open to partnering with developers in any genre, and is also looking to work with developers internationally. Segalla predicted that fund could allow Tilting Point to work with 20 new games each year, though El Agili noted that the exact number will depend on the games: “The truth is, if get two to three games that do extremely well right away, we can start spending a lot of money.”

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

All charges against ex-Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including lewd act on a child, dismissed by judge

All charges against ex-Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including lewd act on a child, dismissed by judge

All charges against former Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including sexual abuse of a child, have been dropped. According to a statement from Jaffer’s representatives, San Mateo County Judge Stephanie Garratt dismissed the charges today. Jaffer was arrested last October and charged with several serious offenses, including a lewd act on one of his children, child abuse and battery on a police officer.

The dismissal is confirmed by San Mateo County Superior Court’s online records. The case (number 17NF012415A) had been scheduled to go to jury trial in late August.

Jaffer, whose full name is Zainali Jaffer, said in a statement that:

Being wrongfully accused of these crimes has been a terrible experience, which has had a deep and lasting impact on my family and the employees of my business. Those closest to me knew I was innocent and were confident that all of the charges against me would eventually be dismissed. I want to thank the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for carefully reviewing and considering all of the information and evidence in this case and dropping all the charges. I am also incredibly grateful for the continued and unwavering support of my wife and family, and look forward to spending some quality time with them.

Vungle, the fast-rising mobile ad startup Jaffer co-founded in 2011, removed him from the company immediately after they learned about the charges in October. TechCrunch has contacted Vungle and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Facebook launches Brand Collabs search engine for sponsoring creators

Facebook launches Brand Collabs search engine for sponsoring creators

Facebook wants to help connect brands to creators so they can work out sponsored content and product placement deals, even if it won’t be taking a cut. Confirming our scoop from May, Facebook today launched its Brand Collabs Manager. It’s a search engine that brands can use to browse different web celebrities based on the demographics of their audience and portfolios of their past sponsored content.

Creators hoping to score sponsorship deals will be able to compile a portfolio connected to their Facebook Page that shows off how they can seamlessly work brands into their content. Brands will also be able to find them based on the top countries where they’re popular, and audience characteristics like interests, gender, education, relationship status, life events or home ownership.

Facebook also made a wide range of other creator monetization announcements today:

  • Facebook’s Creator app that launched on iOS in November rolled out globally on Android today (this link should be active soon once the app populates across Google Play). The Creator app lets content makers add intros and outros to Live broadcasts, cross-post content to Twitter and Instagram, see a unified inbox of their Facebook and Instagram comments plus Messenger chats, and more ways to connect with fans.

  • Ad Breaks, or mid-video commercials, are rolling out to more U.S. creators, starting with those that make longer and original content with loyal fans. Creators keep 55 percent of the ad revenue from the ads.
  • Patreon-Style Subscriptions are rolling out to more creators, letting them charge fans $4.99 per month for access to exclusive behind the scenes content plus a badge that highlights that they’re a patron. Facebook also offers microtransaction tipping of video creators through its new virtual currency called Stars.

  • Top Fan Badges that highlight a creator’s most engaged fans will now roll out more broadly after a strong initial reaction to tests in March.
  • Rights Manager, which lets content owners upload their videos so Facebook can fingerprint them and block others from uploading them, is now available for creators not just publishers.

Facebook also made a big announcement today about the launch of interactive video features and its first set of gameshows built with them. Creators can add quizzes, polls, gamification and more to their videos so users can play along instead of passively viewing. Facebook’s Watch hub for original content is also expanding to a wider range of show formats and creators.

Why Facebook wants sponsored content

Facebook needs the hottest new content from creators if it wants to prevent users’ attention from slipping to YouTube, Netflix, Twitch and elsewhere. But to keep creators loyal, it has to make sure they’re earning money off its platform. The problem is, injecting Ad Breaks that don’t scare off viewers can be difficult, especially on shorter videos.

But Vine proved that six seconds can be enough to convey a subtle marketing message. A startup called Niche rose to arrange deals between creators and brands who wanted a musician to make a song out of the windows and doors of their new Honda car, or a comedian to make a joke referencing Coca-Cola. Twitter eventually acquired Niche for a reported $50 million so it could earn money off Vine without having to insert traditional ads. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman was a co-founder of Niche.]

Vine naturally attracted content makers in a way that Facebook has had some trouble with. YouTube’s sizable ad revenue shares, Patreon’s subscriptions and Twitch’s fan tipping are pulling creators away from Facebook.

So rather than immediately try to monetize this sponsored content, Facebook is launching the Brand Collabs Manager to prove to creators that it can get them paid indirectly. Facebook already offered a way for creators to tag their content with disclosure tags about brands they were working with. But now it’s going out of its way to facilitate the deals. Fan subscriptions and tipping come from the same motive: letting creators monetize through their audience rather than the platform itself.

Spinning up these initiatives to be more than third-rate knockoffs of Niche, YouTube, Patreon and Twitch will take some work. But hey, it’s cheaper for Facebook than paying these viral stars out of pocket.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Facebook demands advertisers have consent for email/phone targeting

Facebook demands advertisers have consent for email/phone targeting

Facebook is hoping to avoid another privacy scandal by adding new accountability and transparency requirements for businesses that use its Custom Audiences too to target you with ads based on your email address or phone number. Starting July 2nd, advertisers will have to declare whether contact info uploaded for ad targeting was collected with proper user consent by them, one of their partners or both. Users will be able to see this info if they opt to block future ads from that business.

Companies can only share Custom Audiences info with partners like ad agencies if they’re formally connected through Facebook’s business manager tool. And Facebook will start to show advertisers reminders that they need consent for contact info ad targeting and force all users connected to an ad account to confirm these terms.

The new consent tool launch confirms TechCrunch’s scoop from March that Facebook would crack down on Custom Audiences targeting without consent. Facebook has always technically required consent, but it hasn’t necessarily done much to enforce those rules. That same approach to API rules produced the Cambridge Analytica debacle. Facebook began to safeguard Custom Audiences a few months ago when it blocked third-party data brokers like Datalogix and Acxiom from work with Facebook to upload data sets as Partner Categories that advertisers could target. But that still let businesses just upload the same data themselves.

[Update: Two days after the March announcement, Facebook also announced it would be shutting down Managed Custom Audiences, which let data brokers upload data sets on behalf of marketers. But in doing so, Facebook also formalized its policy that advertisers could still buy these data sets from data brokers and upload them themselves.]

Custom Audiences is one of Facebook’s most valuable revenue generators because it allows businesses to hit up their former customers to buy more. A scandal surrounding the targeting mechanism could be seriously detrimental to the social network’s business in a way that the rest of its recent public image problems haven’t, judging by the recovery of Facebook’s share price.

Since 2012, Facebook has offered Custom Audiences as a way for businesses to upload privacy-safe hashed lists of customer contact info. Facebook matches that against its users’ info to show them the business’ ads, rather than companies having to pay to try to reach those people through demographic targeting. That way, a company that already sold you a car and got your email signup could target you a few years later with ads to trade in and buy a new vehicle. Businesses can also use Facebook’s lookalikes targeting to reach people with similar characteristics to their existing customers.

Now at least Facebook will show this “Original Data Source” field asking who collected the uploaded phone numbers or emails. Users can check out this info if they click the “Why Am I Seeing This Ad?” button in the drop-down. However, Facebook stops short of scanning the lists for suspicious info, such as blocks of contact info that match hacked or purchased data sets.

That means Facebook is trusting advertisers to tell the truth about consent for targeting… despite them having a massive financial incentive to bend or break those rules. Today’s update will give Facebook more plausible deniability in the event of a scandal, and it might deter misuse. But Facebook is stopping short of doing anything to actually prevent non-consensual ad targeting.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch