Instagram Launches Cinema, Its Fix For The iPhone’s Shaky Camera


Instagram today finally unveiled its anticipated video service and served it with a kicker, which is great for those of us with shaky hands. It launched Cinema: a way to stabilize the video captured with the iPhone.

Right now this is an iPhone-only app. And for good reason. Since the launch of the iPhone 5, Android phone makers have embraced higher-quality cameras than Apple with many flagship devices already featuring superior image stabilization.

Of course a lot of this is hearsay right now. Image stabilization performed by software, as is done here, historically gets the job done at the sacrifice of image quality. Either it introduces more digital noise or messes with the flow of the image. But most of the time the image does improve in some way.

This feature gives Instagram a solid leg up over Vine and other camera apps. Like when taking pics with Instragram, the photos often look better with a slight adjustment. Other apps, like Camera+, feature similar tools, but Instagram bakes in features that make their pics, and now videos, look as good as possible — and then adds a social layer on top.

Cinema is built into Instagram’s iOS app, which is available in the app store now.

Hike, India’s Mobile Messaging Upstart, Expands Language Support & Adds Offline Messaging, Stickers & More To Fuel Growth


There’s no room at the digital inn for more mobile messaging apps, but that’s not stopping them crowding in. Hike, an Indian mobile messaging app that’s only been around six months but has amassed more than five million registered users in that time, is doubling down on its home market while expanding its accessibility further afield too.

Version 2.2 of the hike app adds support for four new languages — Spanish, French, Russian, and Portuguese — building out the previously supported two: English and German. The company said it plans to aggressively expand its language support each month as it chases after scale. And, evidently, as it chases competitors such as Japan’s Line which is also expanding into global markets such as Europe and LatAm.

“We’re targeting those languages which we’ve seen the most demand for,” says the company. “With these languages, and English and German already supported, we’ll be supporting approximately more than 85% of the world’s mobile population. In addition to this, we’ll also be adding support for four new languages every month.”

Interestingly, hike does not yet support any Indian languages owing to the linguistic landscape being so diverse, with more than 15 major languages spoken across the region. It does plan to start tackling this though, with Hindu support likely coming next to cover off a significant chunk of the population. It also intends to build native Indian language support and keyboards for all major languages into its app so it doesn’t have to depend on the OS/device (OS fragmentation is another big issue in the region).

“We’ll probably be launching Hindi support next (which’d cover a significant portion of the Indian population), as well as some other top languages. You can expect much deeper local language support in the coming months,” it says.

As well as extending its global reach by bolstering language support, the new version of the hike app adds a feature hike is hoping will give it serious uplift in its home market. Offline messages is an SMS conversation tech the company told TechCrunch about back in May. The feature allows users in India to keep in touch, regardless of whether the person they are sending a message to has 3G data enabled or not because messages are converted to SMS for delivery if there’s no viable data connection.

Other new features in v2.2 of hike’s app include, somewhat inevitably, sticker packs — showing how hike is following in the footsteps of messaging competitors such as Line and Viber by sharpening its entertainment credentials. As Line has, hike has launched its own brand characters in sticker form, along with various other types of sharable imagery such as “expressions, rage faces, and some localised stickers targeted specifically at the Indian market”.

Click to view slideshow.

“It’s been around 15 hours since we launched, and we’re seeing the usage of stickers increase every hour. We’ll easily hit more than one million stickers shared on Day 1,” it says. “We expect it to grow significantly, both organically and through some innovative marketing efforts that we’ve lined up to take them mass market in India.”

For now hike’s stickers are free but it intends to launch paid packs to monetise the feature in future — as Line has successfully been doing. “We do expect stickers to become a significant revenue stream going forward,” it says, but adds that its focus is not yet on revenue.

For the moment, hike’s focus is on building out features to help it grow, since occupying such a competitive space as messaging absolutely necessities maintaining momentum — or the risk is to fall by the wayside as rivals streak ahead.

Other new features introduced in v2.2 of hike include a mode called Last Seen, which allows users to share with chosen friends when they were last online. Hike also says it has improved the operation of a Walkie-Talkie feature — which it notes offers an accessible messaging option to Indian users who can’t use an English keyboard — to make that easier to use.

“After this update, we plan to add a couple of really good features geared mostly towards growth and in-app engagement. We’ve observed that personalized content drives conversations, and we’ll leverage that in a very clever way soon to drive conversations on hike. We also plan to ride existing social networks and bring groups of friends on hike,” it adds.

Blackboard Co-Founder Michael Chasen Raises $12.75M Series A For SocialRadar, A New Take On Location-Based People Discovery Apps


If you thought the “ambient location” craze has passed, prepare to be surprised. A company called SocialRadar is announcing today that it has raised $12.75 million in Series A funding from NEAGrotech Ventures, and others including Steve Case, Ted Leonsis, Dave Morin and Kevin Colleran for a mobile, location-based people discovery app arriving first on the iPhone.

What’s notable about the app, besides the fact that it’s arriving at a time when many have written off “people finders” as passé, is that the company’s founder and CEO is Michael Chasen, the former co-founder and CEO of Blackboard, who stepped down from his position at the company in late 2012, following its $1.64 billion exit to Providence Equity Partners in mid-2011.

Blackboard may not be the most beloved learning-management system, but it did establish itself as a leader in the space, which new edtech startups today hope to disrupt. And now, Chasen believes he can push SocialRadar to the top of the “people discovery” heap as well.

“One of the interesting things about Blackboard is that even though we were an enterprise software company, we really considered ourselves to be closer to the consumer,” Chasen explains. “I spent all my time on college campuses dealing with students and faculty to help put courses online.” While there, he noticed several interesting trends. Though only 56 percent of U.S. users have online profiles, on college campuses, it’s almost 95 percent. Smartphone penetration is around 60 percent in the U.S., but on college campuses, it’s over 90 percent, he says.

Not only are the students more likely to carry these devices, they also use them in different ways. “They’re openly using their smartphones as location beacons and sharing their location with other people, as well as sharing their social information,” he says.

But Chasen thought it was strange that although this is now the default behavior (at least within a particular demographic), there isn’t a simple way to just walk into a room, launch an app and find out who’s there and how you’re connected to them.

Of course, that’s not entirely true.

A number of startups including Highlight, Banjo, Sonar, and more have attacked the location-based, people discovery space with gusto over the past couple of years, with the movement really coming to a head at the annual SXSW event in Austin in 2012. Since then, however, many of the apps have struggled to find mainstream adoption. Some, like Glancee and Glassmap have sold. Others, like Kismet, have moved into new product categories. Intro pivoted.

Chasen insists that SocialRadar is different from that lot, though.

“I get that those applications use both location and sharing of information,” he says. One of his favorites in the group is Highlight, which he explains runs in the background and, when you’re near someone it thinks you’re interested in, it will give you an alert. “It is certainly a great app for meeting new people nearby that the Highlight algorithm thinks that you should meet, but it doesn’t give you the power to take out your phone when you walk into a room and see who’s around you,” says Chasen.

Meanwhile, an app like Sonar – which does in fact tell you which of your friends are near you (and how close by) — Chasen describes as just a “straight list of people,” accompanied by others who are friends of friends.

SocialRadar will instead focus on not just who’s nearby, but how you know them. For example, it would show you people who you work with, people you went to college with, and so on, not just names.

But the other big differentiator between SocialRadar and the other apps, which often mine publicly available check-in data to find those nearby connections or have disregarded real privacy concerns, is that SocialRadar is meant to offer users more control. Users can choose to share their location with all others, with friends only, or stay anonymous.

Users can also control how the app is run, choosing whether or not it’s background-enabled. That’s something that addresses one of the major pain points for end users of other location-based people finders like Highlight, which was said to have negative impacts on battery drain.

And SocialRadar will allow for custom alerts, letting you tell it when to bother you with notifications and which people or groups you’re interested in tracking. (E.g. when my best friend is nearby, when a fellow frat brother is in town, when my co-workers are at this event, etc.)

These differences, Chasen claims, will allow SocialRadar to succeed where others have stagnated. “There were hundreds of social networks before Facebook came out,” he says. “A lot of these other apps in the space I consider to be version one, toe-in-the-water. I wouldn’t even necessarily even put them in the same circle of competitors.”

Them’s fighting words.

SocialRadar, now a 10-person team based in Washington, D.C., is announcing its funding today, but the company was only formally founded eight weeks ago. However, the technology has been in development for much longer, Chasen says.

Still, it’s very early days. “We got office space seven or eight weeks ago, and I was literally building chairs in my office three weeks ago,” he says with a laugh. (Side note: at Blackboard, Chasen says they had so many people, he had a division of the company that built office furniture. How things have changed for him now.)

The iPhone version of SocialRadar will arrive in beta in a couple of weeks.

Twitter The Ad Player Wants To Push More TV Buttons, Adds Viacom To Its Partner List


The Cannes Lions mega advertising event is in full swing today in the south of France and while Twitter is marking its official presence there with a big sign at the entrance to the main venue (pictured here), and a big data keynote (led by Twitter’s new chief media scientist Deb Roy) to go along with it, it’s also continuing to ink deals. The latest is with Viacom, which joins ESPN, Fox and Discovery among the broadcasters who will link up ads on Twitter’s platform to ads they’re running alongside their programs.

The idea behind Twitter’s ad targeting platform Amplify, first launched in May, is to create ever more, and smarter, links between the two screens to better capture the ever-fickle consumer. Video will be a key feature of Amplify, and is another reminder of why other social media platforms like Facebook are also making video moves (with its hot photo property Instagram expected to add video services very soon).

Twitter’s first Viacom deal is picking an easy target: the two will create social video campaigns that will run on Twitter during the popular MTV Video Music Awards on August 25. Last year’s Video Music Awards, Twitter says, was the most popular news event on its platform last year, with 52 million votes cast via Tweets for the “Most Sharable Video” and the show itself generating 14.7 million Tweets. The biggest peak of the night went to the moment cheesy manufactured pop band One Direction won Best Pop Video with 98,307 Tweets per minute, Viacom notes. That says quite a lot about how Twitter pitches itself as mainstream, and also about how it gets used.

The aim will be, in future, for at least some of those tweets — if not all — to get linked up in two ways. One will be in terms of analytics to help give advertisers and TV companies an idea of what their viewers are interested in. The other will be to figure out when and where they are most likely to see an ad, based on their interactions on Twitter.

“Our technology has automated ad detection. We know where and when each national commercial airs,” Roy noted today during his Cannes Lions presentation. “It’s no accident that Twitter [has] emerged as the prime platform for social soundtrack. It’s live [and] goes hand in hand with TV,” he added later.

Roy, an associate professor at MIT’s Media Lab, came to Twitter via the company’s acquisition of BlueFin Labs, where he was the co-founder, and he made liberal use of his big data chops, with visuals of what he called the “social soundtrack” for different locations that visualized the “noise” coming from them across different times of day.

This is more to try to indicate that this works than to give any huge insight. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for example, the highlighted sections indicate times when people are tweeting less. Those coincide with calls to prayer, he noted:

Going down the line, future Viacom campaigns will also involve social video — likely appearing the form of Twitter cards — which will take place around events on VH1, CMT, Nickelodeon, COMEDY CENTRAL, TV Land and Spike and more.

“The VMAs virtually pioneered the social TV moment, triggering a demand among marketers to tap into the fan conversations and trending topics that Viacom networks create every day,” Jeff Lucas, Head of Sales, Music and Entertainment, Viacom Media Networks, said in a statement. “Through this partnership, we’re allowing marketers to insert their brands seamlessly into the torrent of fan activity and engagement around our networks on Twitter.”

“As events happen in life, we continue to see Twitter as the place people share those moments, especially when those events happen on TV,” Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue at Twitter, added also in the news release.

Image: Twitter

With $1M In Funding, Bunch Aims To Be The Center Of Your In-Depth, Topic-Based Discussions

bunch logo

The Internet isn’t lacking for sites and services where people can post their comments and thoughts, but Andrew Sider, co-founder and CEO of a startup called Bunch, argues that there’s still something missing: “How do we connect with people, not around friends, not around social networks, but around a topic that they care about deeply?”

After all, Sider said that many of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers probably aren’t passionate about the same things that you are. He acknowledged that online forums have filled this role in the past, but he said those forums are now intimidating to casual users and also kind of uncool. (Other attempts at reinventing the forum include a new startup called Discourse.)

“The new reality is, I don’t believe in 20 years our generation will use forums,” Sider said.

So Bunch tries to have to combine the accessibility of a social network with a commitment to depth and topic-based groups. When you first sign up, you have to sign in with your Facebook account, so your comments are tied to your real identity. Then you can join the communities that interest you — but you can only join three. After joining, you can view and participate in a stream of conversations around a given topic.

Sider said these features should encourage people to only join the communities that they really care about and to post substantive, civil comments there. He added that Bunch is experimenting with other features that encourage depth, such as a bigger comment box and a minimum number of characters in each comment.

I liked what I saw in the brief demo that Sider gave me, but I pointed out that it could be a big challenge to recruit a user base that comes from a number of disparate online communities. Sider said his initial strategy is integrating with other social networks — for example, users can cross-post their content between Tumblr and Bunch. (Apparently some of the early beta testers like the quality of conversation on Bunch enough that they’ve started to treat it as their default blogging platform.) Plus, users get a journal page showing their activity across different communities, and it’s visible to non-Bunch members, so you can promote it on other social networks. After all, Sider said that if you’ve got a good conversation going, you want to get other people involved, too.

After a closed beta test of about 20,000 users (who have created more than 50 communities), Bunch is opening to the public today. It’s also releasing its iPhone app and announcing that it has raised $1 million in funding from Real Ventures, 500 Startups, BDC Venture Capital, Round 13 Capital, and undisclosed angel investors.

Vine Will Survive!

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Instagram is planning to launch video functionality in two days. But don’t go deleting Vine just yet. Before shoving Vine’s into the deadpool, let’s just calm it down a second.

Vine has been declared by many as the “Instagram for Video.” Instagram’s own video product is likely already too late to squash Vine like a bug. Heck, Facebook couldn’t even get Poke and Messenger off the ground after incumbents clobbered the space. What makes anyone think Instagram video would be any different?

Vine launched in January of this year, just after the holidays, and spent a few months ramping up the user base before launching on Android a few weeks ago. At the time, Vine had 13 million downloads. Not too shabby for approximately five months of work. It took Vine a few days to swing to the top of the App Store, and the same was true on Google Play following the Android launch.

When Instagram launched on Android, seventeen months after launching on iOS, it had around 30 million users. Obviously, users are a different metric than downloads, but you can see how Vine’s growth is relatively astounding given the timeframe. Especially when you factor in the less pointed evidence: Vine shares have surpassed Instagram shares on Twitter, for example, or even just hearing the term “Vine it” regularly in every day life. And having Twitter as a parent company doesn’t hurt either.

Vine is already established, and better yet, making waves. Vine was used by the Tribeca Film Festival for a special #6SecFilm Contest. The app has been toyed with by designers and advertisers to build new interactive music videos. Brands love Vine because it lets products move in ways that Twitter and Facebook don’t.

And Vine, of course, is still iterating quickly. We’ve seen the team respond to feature requests like the ability to use front-facing camera as well as rear-facing camera, and I wouldn’t be suprisedt to see interesting additions like Voiceover or Animation pop up soon.

Instagram is a powerful foe. The app has over 100 million users, and is now owned by the most powerful social network in the world. But this is far from the end of Vine.

First, Vine is the end product of what Instagram was built to be. Vine skipped past still photos, and filters to make those photos (taken with bad mobile cameras) look prettier, and the slow grind of adding @mentions and photo maps and all those iterative feature tweaks.

Instead, Vine launched as a true Instagram for video, which now has an active and seemingly happy user base. It’s not Twitter’s Cleaner fish, even if Twitter bought up the app and launched it into existence (unlike Instagram’s organic growth that was later bought up by Facebook).

But where Instagram feels like a consumption app first (a time sink, almost), Vine doesn’t. Scrolling through my Vine stream is like having a hangover during an earthquake. Most often, it’s a lot of clanging and wind noise coupled with shaky video of my friends’ latest vacation.

Still, Vines are excellent content. I am utterly pleased when I see a link pop up in my Twitter stream, or surface in someone’s Facebook Timeline. I’m even more elated by a link sent to my desktop. I like to watch the six-second thrill ride in all its glory. There’s something special about getting a glimpse (in video no less!) into someone’s world.

Instagram is a different story. There was a time when I could scroll through Instagram for days. I’m not so entranced by the photo-sharing phenom anymore. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I get a sense of Instagram fatigue, both on the creative and consumptive side.

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’m all hopped up on Vine. Maybe Instagram’s had its time?

People like consuming video, sure, but it’s almost shocking how much people love making videos, too. Especially when given the right tools. When I see something cool happening out in the world, Instagram is no longer enough. I pray to the social media gods that this wondrous, hilarious, or downright insane scene before me will last the six seconds I need. I sense how strongly other people feel the same as I do.

Instagram for video might offer a similar creative experience, but it’ll be hard to do so without copying Vine’s ability to string together multiple clips in such an easy manner. Easy is the key. And we all know what happens when Facebook tries to copy a threat. Messenger launched after WhatsApp and Viber were blowing up. Poke launched to (shamefully) combat Snapchat. And here comes Instagram, ready to take on Vine.

But will Vine crumble where other competitors stood firm? Will it lay down and die?

Oh no! Not Vine! Vine will survive.

Amazon’s New Social Gifting Service “Amazon Birthday Gift” Leverages Facebook, Competes With Facebook’s Own Gifts


Stealing a page right out of a startup called Aggregift’s playbook, Amazon today launched a new feature called “Amazon Birthday Gift,” which allows a group of Facebook friends to go in on an Gift Card together. That gift isn’t posted to the recipients’ Facebook Timeline until their big day arrives.

To get started with the service, a user buys an gift card, then invites other mutual friends to donate using the Birthday Gift website here. When the birthday arrives, the recipient is tagged in a Facebook Timeline wall post, receiving the digital card and everyone’s birthday greetings.

The new addition is a further expansion of Amazon’s deepening integration with Facebook, as the company last December launched a “Friends and Family Gifting” feature just ahead of the holidays to generate Facebook-enabled gift suggestions, send out reminders, and enable gift list sharing via both email and social networks. Online competitor Walmart, too, had previously launched a similar Facebook-based gift recommendation service in 2011, which was added to the site ahead of the 2012 holiday season.

Social gifting is still very much in the experimental phase, despite the support from e-commerce giants like Walmart, Amazon and others. For instance, Facebook has also dabbled in this area with the fall 2012 debut of Facebook Gifts (built on top of former social gifting startup Karma). The service is meant to tie into one of Facebook’s most regular draws — its birthday reminders. The idea is that users could visit the site, and in addition to wishing their friend “happy birthday,” they could also add a gift to accompany that message. The social network offers gifts like iTunes digital Gift Cards and physical goods, and it even launched its own self-branded “Facebook Card” earlier this year.

However, even with Facebook’s broad reach, its Gifts service has been struggling to generate serious revenue, and certainly falling short of earlier projections and estimations regarding its potential. Meanwhile, some startups like Sincerely (with Sesame) and recently funded Wrapp, carry on in this space, while others head off in new directions. Giftly, for instance, exited to this March, while Boomerang has turned its focus to the B2B market instead in recent months.

That being said, Amazon still has a shot at winning the social gifting space with its new Amazon Birthday Gift feature, since it can be argued that users don’t associate Facebook’s brand with spending or shopping the way they do with Amazon. (See also: various f-commerce struggles). Plus, Amazon’s cards are the go-to for the “generic” gift option, which people buy when they don’t know what to get, or when they need something last minute.

However, the new service is still limited today to smaller gift amounts ($1, $5, $10 and $25), which can be a challenge for those attempting to raise funds for a larger present like an electronics purchase. Plus, being tied only to birthdays eliminates the big holiday, graduation or wedding presents users may want to go in on together. Often these larger presents are led by a close family member or friend who puts in a big chunk of change, to which others pile on. Not supporting these other types of gifting narrows the already potentially narrow market for digital, social gifting even further.

Amazon Birthday Gift is live now here for interested users.

This Is The Best Ad Campaign In App History

Rando billboard

What better way for an anti-social app to get noticed than by insulting its target audience? London-based app design studio ustwo has just put up a pair of billboards in the hipster heartland of Shoreditch, East London, a stone’s throw from where its own studio is based, which brazenly proclaim: You have no friends and No one likes you.

The billboards, which will be teasing Shoreditch’s hipsters for two weeks, are an experimental ad campaign for one of ustwo’s recent apps: random photo-sharing app Rando, which launched back in March on iOS. Rando has now also been rolled out on to Android and Windows Phone. Last month ustwo said the app had racked up a full five million of its entirely social-less random photo shares after around two months in the wild.

So what’s with the anti-social insults? Rando’s schtick is that it eschews all the usual social paraphernalia developers typically embed in their apps. There’s no Facebook sign-in, zero social sharing options at all, no comments, no likes, no favourites, no followers/followees. There’s also no way to tell who gets the photos you share/receive, beyond a general location. It’s deliberately — liberatingly — stripped of context.

Turning to a fixed-location, paper-based advertising medium may seem pretty old school but Silicon Valley has long had a bit of a thing with billboards. ustwo’s Matt Miller tells TechCrunch that’s certainly one reason he was keen to experiment with papering giant fliers atop one of Shoreditch’s busier junctions. “I’ve always been interested in billboards since flying out to San Fran in 2012. I remember during a taxi journey over there, being really impressed with the billboards and thinking to myself how I’d love to see our work pushed that way back home,” he says.

The cost of the Rando billboard campaign is “around the same amount it would cost us to develop a small app”, according to Mills. But it’s the only paid marketing ustwo intends to do for Rando — relying instead on “the virality of the concept” to keep it travelling, which, ironically enough, has led to plenty of organic chatter on social sites like Twitter and Instagram.

“The irony of Rando is that the majority of promotion very much is driven by the virality of the concept. We’ve had a range of people talking about it on Twitter and Instagram — with a lot saying how much they love the anti-social element of the app. Other than the billboards we won’t be advertising though…we’d rather someone influential picks is up organically and spreads the word,” he says.

The point of the billboards is thus to provoke and spark debate – ustwo is certainly not expecting them to trigger a goldrush of downloads — but if it’s virality you’re after, debate and controversy are your (anti-social) friends. “We hope people will talk, and be intrigued,” Mills adds.

That said, he does also reckon the billboards help to “validate Rando as a quality brand” — showing how, despite everything going digital, paper advertising is still clinging to cachet and a lasting sheen, perhaps even more so as digital ads have cheapened and proliferated. And that despite the impact of paper-based marketing being far more elusive vs measurable clicks.

“We wanted to raise awareness of Rando within the tech and design scene in and around our studio in East London. Also to make the point that in a world so dominated by digital development, we still believe that old school display advertising has the power that no digital can match on a local level in terms of making a big statement,” he says.

“We originally came up with the straplines a few months back and mocked them up into billboards. We had a lot of interest with people asking if they were real or not – which made us decide to actually run them. The ‘no one likes you’ and ‘you have no friends’ message was something we wanted to get out there. The straplines themselves are perfect for Rando and so far removed from the majority of other advertising messages you see out there by big brands, that we had to go for it.”

As for the anti-social stuff in general — that’s always been and continues to be another experiment for ustwo. “Consolidation of anything that people want to engage in, without social validation, is something that really fascinates us and hopefully Rando means we learn a lot more about it,” he adds.

So yeah, Shoreditch hipsters, for the next few week read this and weep…