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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Judhajeet Das

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Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Startups Weekly: #CodeCon, the ‘techlash’ and ill-prepared CEOs

Judhajeet Das

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Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s noteworthy venture capital deals, funds and trends. Before I dive into this week’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Peloton’s upcoming initial public offering. Before that, I noted the proliferation of billion-dollar companies. 

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here. 

Now I know this newsletter is supposed to be about startups, but we’re shifting our focus to Big Tech today. Bear with me.

I spent the better part of the week in Scottsdale, Ariz. where temperatures outside soared past 100 and temperatures inside were icy cold. Both because Recode + Vox cranked the AC to ungodly levels but also because every panel, it seemed, veered into a debate around the “techlash” and antitrust.

If you aren’t familiar, the Financial Times defines the techlash as “the growing public animosity toward large Silicon Valley platform technology companies.” Code Conference has in the past been an event that underscores innovation in tech. This year, amid growing tensions between tech’s business practices and the greater good, things felt a little different.

The conference began with Peter Kafka grilling YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki. Unfortunately for her, CodeCon took place the week after an enormous controversy struck YouTube. You can read about that here. Wojcicki wasn’t up to the task of addressing the scandal, at least not honestly. She apologized to the LGBTQ community for YouTube’s actions but was unable to confront the larger issue at hand: YouTube has failed to take necessary action toward eliminating hate speech on its platform, much like other social media hubs.

From there, The Verge’s Casey Newton asked Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Facebook vice president of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth point blank if Facebook should be broken up. Unsurprisingly, neither of the two men are fond of the idea.

“Personally, if we split [Facebook and Instagram] it might make my life easier but I think it’s a terrible idea,” Mosseri, who was named CEO of Instagram last fall, said. “If you split us up, it would just make it exponentially more difficult to keep people safe. There are more people working on safety and integrity issues at Facebook than all the people that work at Instagram.”

Bosworth, who manages VR projects at Facebook, had this to say: “You take Instagram and Facebook apart, you have the same attack surfaces. They now aren’t able to share and combine data … So this isn’t circular logic. This is an economy of scale.”

Wojcicki, when asked whether YouTube should separate from Google, had a less nuanced and frankly shockingly ill-prepared response:

There’s more where that came from, but this newsletter isn’t about big tech! It’s about startups! Here’s all the startup news you missed this week.

IPO Corner

CrowdStrike’s IPO went really well: After pricing its IPO at $34 per share Tuesday evening and raising $612 million in the process (a whole lot more than the planned $378 million), the company’s stock popped 90% Wednesday morning with an initial share price of $63.50. A bona fide success, CrowdStrike boasted an initial market cap of $11.4 billion, nearly four times that of its last private valuation, at market close Wednesday. I chatted with CrowdStrike CEO George Kurtz on listing day. You can read our full conversation here.

Fiverr climbs: The marketplace had a good first day on the NYSE. The company priced its IPO at $21 per share Wednesday night, raising around $111 million. It then started trading Thursday morning at $26 apiece, with shares climbing for most of the day and closing at $39.90 — up 90% from the IPO price. Again, not bad. Read TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha’s conversation with Fiverr CEO Micha Kaufman here.

Get ready for … Slack’s highly-anticipated direct listing next week (June 20). Catch up on direct listings here and learn more about Slack’s journey to the public markets here.

Bird confirmed its acquisition of Scoot

As is usually the case with these things, parties from both Bird and Scoot declined to tell us any details about the deal, so we went and found the details ourselves! First, The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Roof reported the (mostly stock) deal was valued at roughly $25 million. We confirmed with our sources that it was indeed less than $25 million and came after Scoot struggled to raise additional capital from venture capital investors.

Fortnite throws a Houseparty 

While we’re on the subject of M&A, Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, acquired Houseparty, a video chatting mobile app, this week. The deal comes shortly after Epic Games raised a whopping $1.25 billion. Founded in 2015, Houseparty is a social network that delivers video chat across a number of different platforms, including iOS, Android and macOS. Like Fortnite, the offering tends to skew younger. Specifically, the app caters toward teen users, providing a more private and safer space than other, broader platforms.

Startup Capital

Symphony, a messaging app, gets $165M at a $1.4B valuation
BetterUp raises $103M to fast-track employee development
Neurobehavioral health company BlackThorn pulls in $76M from GV
Against Gravity, maker of the VR hit ‘Rec Room,’ nabs $24M
Simpo secures $4.5M seed round to help drive software adoption

~Extra Crunch~

If you’ve been unsure whether to sign up for TechCrunch’s awesome new subscription service, now is the time. Through next Friday, it’s only $2 a month for two months. Seems like a no-brainer. Sign up here. Here are some of my personal favorite EC pieces of the week:

Silicon Valley’s founder fetish infantilizes public companies

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I debate dual-class stock, discuss my takeaways from #CodeCon and review the biggest rounds of the week. You can subscribe to Equity here or wherever else you listen to podcasts.

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Shazam for Android now recognizes music played through headphones

Judhajeet Das

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Shazam, the Apple -owned app that helps users identify songs playing around them, can now recognize songs you’re listening to through your headphones when using an Android phone or tablet.

Acquired by Apple for $400 million last year, the company introduced a feature called ‘Pop-Up Shazam’ to its Android app recently, which when enabled, works with any other Android app to track and identify songs playing externally or internally on the phone.

It’s a feature that many users have requested for years. Prior to this, when a user would chance upon a music track in say a YouTube video, they only had two inconvenient ways to shazam the song. They could either unplug the earphones from the phone and let the audio play through the built-in speakers, or draw an earpiece close to the mic of the phone.

The new feature enables Shazam to track the audio signal beaming off of other apps, thereby not completely relying on just output from the surrounding and a phone’s speaker. The app is tapping the audio signal by using a persistent notification that floats around and could be dragged — like the ones from Facebook Messenger — and can be activated by a single tap.

In our test, the feature worked as advertised through both wired and wireless earphones (amusingly, Apple’s AirPods) and on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube apps. iPhone users hoping to use a similar feature will likely have to patiently wait as persistent notification isn’t something that Apple’s mobile operating system currently supports. Apple did integrate Shazam into Siri in 2014, so it is possible that it may someday explore ways to further expand songs recognition feature on its platform.

Google has taken a shot at audio recognition in recent years, too, after it introduced a ‘Now Playing’ feature in its Pixel 3 series smartphone last year. If enabled, the phone actively looks for songs playing in the surrounding, identifies them and keeps a log.

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Most US mobile banking apps have security and privacy flaws, researchers say

Judhajeet Das

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You might figure the biggest U.S. banks would have some of the most secure mobile apps. Spoiler alert: not so much.

New findings from security firm Zimperium, shared exclusively with TechCrunch, say most of the top banking apps have security flaws that put user data at risk. The security firm, which has a commercial stake in the mobile security business, downloaded the banks’ iOS and Android apps and scanned for security and privacy issues, like data leaks, which put private user data and communications at risk.

The researchers found most of the apps had issues, like failing to adhere to best coding practices and using old open-source libraries that are infrequently updated.

Some of the apps were using open-source code from GitHub from more than three years ago, said Scott King, Zimperium’s director of embedded security.

Worse, more than half of the banking apps are sharing customer data with at least one advertiser, the researchers said.

An unnamed iOS banking app with an 86/100 risk score (Image: Zimperium)

Two unnamed Android banking apps each with an 82/100 risk score (Image: Zimperium)

The researchers, who didn’t name the banks, said one of the worst offending iOS apps scored 86 out of 100 on the risk scale for several privacy lapses, including communicating over an unencrypted HTTP connection. The same app was vulnerable to two known remote bugs dating back to 2015. The researchers said the risk scores for the banks’ corresponding Android apps were far higher. Two of the apps were rated with a risk score of 82 out of 100. Both of the apps were storing data in an insecure way, which third-party apps could access and recover sensitive data on a rooted device, said King.

One of the Android apps wasn’t properly validating HTTPS certificates, making it possible for an attacker to perform a man-in-the-middle attack. Several of the iOS and Android apps were capable of taking screenshots of the app’s display, increasing the risk of data leaking.

Zimperium said two-thirds of the Android banking apps are targeted by several malware campaigns, such as BankBot, which tricks users into downloading fake apps from Google Play and waits until the victim signs in to a banking app on their phone. Using an overlay screen, the malware campaigns steal logins and passwords.

The security firm called on banking apps to do more to bolster their apps’ security.

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