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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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Android

The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

Judhajeet Das

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It might be time to move on from BBM. The consumer version of the BlackBerry Messenger will shut down on May 31. Emtek, the Indonesia-based company that partnered with BlackBerry in 2016, just announced the closure. It’s important to note, BBM will still exist and BlackBerry today revealed a plan to open its enterprise-version of BBM to general consumers.

Starting today, BBM Enterprise will be available through the Google Play Store and eventually from the Apple App Store. The service will be free for the one year and after that, $2.49 for six months of service. This version of the software, like the consumer version, still features group chats, voice and video calls, and the ability to edit and retract messages.

As explained by BlackBerry, BBMe features end-to-end encryption.

BBMe can be downloaded on any device that uses Android, iOS, Windows or MAC operating systems. The sender and recipient each have unique public/private encryption and signing keys. These keys are generated on the device by a FIPS 140-2 certified cryptographic library and are not controlled by BlackBerry. Each message uses a new symmetric key for message encryption. Additionally, TLS encryption between the device and BlackBerry’s infrastructure protects BBMe messages from eavesdropping or manipulation.

BBM is one of the oldest smartphone messaging services. Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s original name, released the messenger in 2005. It quickly became a selling point for BlackBerry devices. BBM wasn’t perfect and occasionally crashed, but it was a robust, feature-filled messaging app when most of the world was still using SMS. Eventually with the downfall of RIM and eventually BlackBerry, BBM fell behind iMessage, WhatsApp, and other independent messaging platforms. Emtek’s partnership with BlackBerry was supposed to bring the service into the current age, but some say the consumer version ended up bloated with games, channels and ads. BlackBerry’s BBMe lacks a lot of those extra features so consumers might find it a better platform for communicating.

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Alibaba will let you find restaurants and order food with voice in a car

Judhajeet Das

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Competition in the Chinese internet has for years been about who controls your mobile apps. These days, giants are increasingly turning to offline scenarios, including what’s going on behind the dashboard in your car.

On Tuesday, Alibaba announced at the annual Shanghai Auto Show that it’s developing apps for connected cars that will let drivers find restaurants, queue up and make reservations at restaurants, order food and eventually complete a plethora of other tasks using voice, motion or touch control. Third-party developers are invited to make their in-car apps, which will run on Alibaba’s operating system AliOS.

Rather than working as standalone apps, these in-car services come in the form of “mini apps,” which are smaller than regular ones in exchange for faster access and smaller file sizes, in Alibaba’s all-in-one digital wallet Alipay . Alibaba has other so-called “super apps” in its ecosystem, such as marketplace Taobao and navigation service AutoNavi, but the payments solution clearly makes more economic sense if Alibaba wants people to spend more while sitting in a four-wheeler.

There’s no timeline for when Alibaba will officially roll out in-car mini apps, but it’s already planning for a launch, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Making lite apps has been a popular strategy for China’s internet giants operating super apps that host outside apps, or “mini-apps”; that way users rarely need to leave their ecosystems. These lite apps are known to be easier and cheaper to build than a native app, although developers have to make concessions, like giving their hosts a certain level of access to user data and obeying rules as they would with Apple’s App Store. For in-car services, Alibaba says there will be “specific review criteria for safety and control” tailored to the auto industry.

alios cars alibaba

Photo source: Alibaba

Alibaba’s move is indicative of a heightened competition to control the operating system in next-gen connected cars. For those who wonder whether the e-commerce behemoth will make its own cars given it has aggressively infiltrated the physical space, like opening its own supermarket chain Hema, the company’s solution to vehicles appears to be on the software front, at least for now.

In 2017, Alibaba rebranded its operating system with a deep focus to put AliOS into car partners. To achieve this goal, Alibaba also set up a joint venture called Banma Network with state-owned automaker SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which is the French car company’s China venture, that would hawk and integrate AliOS-powered solutions with car clients. As of last August, 700,000 AliOS-powered SAIC vehicles had been sold.

Alibaba competitors Tencent and Baidu have also driven into the auto field, although through slightly different routes. Baidu began by betting on autonomous driving and built an Android-like developer platform for car manufacturers. While the futuristic plan is far from bearing significant commercial fruit, it has gained a strong foothold in self-driving with the most mileage driven in Beijing, a pivotal hub to test autonomous cars. Tencent’s car initiatives seem more nebulous. Like Baidu, it’s testing self-driving and like Alibaba, it’s partnered with industry veterans to make cars, but it’s unclear where the advantage lies for the social media and gaming giant in the auto space.

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Waymo launches robotaxi app on Google Play

Judhajeet Das

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Waymo is making its ride-hailing app more widely available by putting it on the Google Play store as the self-driving car company prepares to open its service to more Phoenix residents.

The company, which spun out to become a business under Alphabet, launched a limited commercial robotaxi service called Waymo One in the Phoenix area in December. The Waymo One self-driving car service, and accompanying app, was only available to Phoenix residents who were part of its early rider program, which aimed to bring vetted regular folks into its self-driving minivans.

Technically, Waymo has had Android and iOS apps for some time. But interested riders would only gain access to the app after first applying on the company’s website. Once accepted to the early rider program, they would be sent a link to the app to download to their device.

The early rider program, which launched in April 2017, had more than 400 participants the last time Waymo shared figures. Waymo hasn’t shared information on how many people have moved over to the public service, except to say “hundreds of riders” are using it.

Now, with Waymo One launching on Google Play, the company is cracking the door a bit wider. However, there will be still be limitations to the service.

Interested customers with Android devices can download the app. Unlike a traditional ride-hailing service, like Uber or Lyft, this doesn’t mean users will get instant access. Instead, potential riders will be added to a waitlist. Once accepted, they will be able to request rides in the app.

These new customers will first be invited into Waymo’s early rider program before they’re moved to the public service. This is an important distinction, because early rider program participants have to to sign non-disclosure agreements and can’t bring guests with them. These new riders will eventually be moved to Waymo’s public service, the company said. Riders on the public service can invite guests, take photos and videos and talk about their experience.

“These two offerings are deeply connected, as learnings from our early rider program help shape the experience we ultimately provide to our public riders,” Waymo said in a blog post Tuesday.

Waymo has been creeping toward a commercial service in Phoenix since it began testing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in suburbs like Chandler in 2016.

The following year, Waymo launched its early rider program. The company also started testing empty self-driving minivans on public streets that year.

Waymo began in May 2018 to allow some early riders to hail a self-driving minivan without a human test driver behind the wheel. More recently, the company launched a public transit program in Phoenix focused on delivering people to bus stops and train and light-rail stations.

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