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MWC 2018: How Brits are at the cutting edge of conversation

Mobile World Congress is open for business, and the brightest business minds from around the globe have descended to chart new paths across the technology landscape.

The coming days will witness cutting-edge conversations around hot topics like 5G, blockchain and the Internet of Things — the outcomes of which will help set the direction for the industry in the coming year. It’s here that British experts are actively staying ahead of the curve, shaping those discussions and sharing their insights and technology. 

We’ll be updating this article every day with the latest trends from MWC 2018 and examples of dynamic British companies forging ahead in these areas. Read on below for what we’ve learned so far.


The IoT needs to get serious about security

The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing rapidly. To keep all devices protected, the tech industry need to agree on how to create a set of comprehensive IoT security guidelines that fit all enterprise scenarios.

This is the issue that British expert Ian Hughes, senior IoT analyst at 451 Research, aimed to tackle while chairing a MWC mini-lecture series. He introduced insights from the likes of Cisco, who called for the creation of a global, isolated, secure private network to combat the “catastrophic” security risks industrial IoT poses. 

The idea of this global IoT network would be to isolate assets from prying eyes on the internet, ensure attribution and attestation, and bridge roots of trust across hardware and humans.

Ian Hughes later referred to this approach as core to the IoT development. After all, if data is the currency that will fuel the value of these new IoT services, how will we ensure the secure transport of this data?

Satellite redefines edge infrastructure


While edge computing has been defined as a way to streamline the flow of traffic from IoT devices, British expert JP Hemingway of SES Networks confesses “my definition of the edge is maybe a little different to what we usually think of.”

He believes edge computing is the delivery of high quality online experiences to people in all locations — from rural Africa to Latin America. By placing satellite cell towers and supporting innovation in shared infrastructure, he believes that satellite could be the key to rolling out consistent user experiences to “even the edge of the network.”

For Hemingway, making satellite technology the vehicle to deliver edge infrastructure is how we’ll create a truly connected world.

A 50/50 gender split will change more than you think

Alongside these big tech questions, championing the drive for a gender diverse tech ecosystem has been high on the agenda. The goal, states GSMA’s Chief Strategy Officer Laxmi, is for all tech-focussed ventures to have a 50/50 gender split — a ratio that in turn, she says, ensures a company’s success alongside wider cultural change where more women naturally join the company.

BBC presenter Sasha Twining pointed out that recent research has shown that venture capitalists often invest in people most similar to them. In other words, if you don’t have women in the VC space, you won’t get women running the next big innovative company.

GSMA is the British company that built MWC from the ground up and represents the worldwide mobile industry. The organisation has a 51% female workforce in offices around the globe.

Stay tuned for the next installment on the British presence at MWC. To connect with innovative British companies at the event, visit stand 7B41 or click here to learn more about the UK technology landscape and its range of potential partners for your organisation.

As billionaires call for regulation, Facebook throws money at journalism scholarships

Facebook is an addictive platform that should be regulated like the cigarette industry, suggested Salesforce CEO and billionaire Marc Benioff earlier this week.

But Facebook actually does care about the news industry and well-being of journalists. At least, that’s what its latest philanthropic decision might suggest.

On Friday, Facebook announced it’s donating $1 million toward supporting diversity in journalism. The donation will take the form of 100 scholarships for students pursuing a career in news and media.

It’s a meager offering compared to Facebook’s gigantic $545 billion market capitalization, but regardless of scale, the move is definitely a good thing for this world. 

It’s especially great because Facebook isn’t the one choosing who the scholarship winners are, rather Facebook is helping empower four expert-led organizations: the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association, and National Lesbian and the Gay Journalists Association. 

Still, Facebook’s gift appears to stem from a deep confusion over its relationship with the media. As my colleague Jason Abbruzzese said on Twitter:

When we asked Facebook why the language in its press release implied applicants are required to be pursuing a degree in media, news, or communications, a company spokesperson told Mashable, “It’s intended to ensure these applicants are committed to a career in journalism … It’s not meant to be restrictive. It’s meant to inclusive.” 

When asked if they were simply throwing money at fixing their reputation with the news industry, a Facebook spokesperson replied, “That’s a cynical point of view.” 

Indeed, that may be true, but not without warrant. Facebook’s donation is somewhat opposed to the values the company has prioritized in recent years. To put it another way, if Facebook were my boyfriend, I would end our relationship right away because I wouldn’t be able to handle the identity crisis mixed with the lack of commitment and the notion that money can solve every problem.

In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the News Feed during his first-ever public question-and-answer session by saying, “Our goal is to build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world. We’re trying to personalize it and show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”

At that time, News Feed wasn’t primarily being populated by what friends share. Rather, Facebook Pages, those run by media companies and brands, had taken over. That sat fine with Zuckerberg. As he said later in the session, “If you’re a business owner thinking about how to use your free page on Facebook, I would just focus on trying to publish really good content that’s going to be compelling to your customers and the people that are following you.”

But that’s not the game anymore. Earlier this month, Facebook upended media outlets by turning back the dial on the News Feed traffic. As Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 19, “Last week, I announced a major change to encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption. As a result, you’ll see less public content, including news, video, and posts from brands. After this change, we expect news to make up roughly 4 percent of News Feed — down from roughly 5 percent today.”

A 1 percent drop may seem small, but in the scale of Facebook, that’s a major decline. While Facebook was once some publishers main traffic source, now there’s a growing need to rebuild website traffic via search engines and look toward Apple News, Flipboard, or their own news apps.

For publishers and consumers, the change is an ideological shift. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote, “Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.”

As news organizations are diversifying away from Facebook, that very company is financially supporting the people who could, in the future, be inside those newsrooms. 

Not every media outlet has been handling the issue well. If they were paying close attention to the state of Facebook — the fake news problem and the test of a “pay-to-play” feed — they’d know that Facebook was looking to make changes to how news spreads on its network. Facebook’s News Feed changes “confirm trends we’ve seen over the platform in recent months and have already taken steps to evolve alongside,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson told Digiday

But news organizations are slowly moving away from Facebook as a news distribution tool. Sure, the donation is nice, especially because it’s devoted to diversifying media, and yet, it comes after years of Facebook upheaving newsrooms and how people consume media. 

Once again, Facebook is flexing its power and influence when it comes to affecting news and media. 

For years, Facebook has wined and dined the media by describing the strengths of its platforms via sheer scale and also the money they could offer them. They convinced publishers to use Facebook Live in part by financially supporting the endeavor. The team also paid for new video on demand shows as it began to test and then officially announced its Netflix-like player Facebook Watch. (Full disclosure: Mashable has been a partner in both projects.) 

While some publishers are loving Watch, Facebook is undergoing a reckoning from people in power. This week, billionaire George Soros called Facebook and Google a “menace” to society while enjoying some fine dining at the the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Soros’s comment came only one day after billionaire Marc Benioff said Facebook should be regulated like the cigarette industry.

Of course, Soros and Benioff aren’t the ones who can regulate Facebook directly. But U.S. lawmakers are keeping a close eye on the company. Another group with power are the people who use it. As Mashable’s Foster Kamer recently wrote, your news and entertainment diet can come from your browser bar — not just the News Feed. 10de 5085%2fthumb%2f00001

CNN is killing its Snapchat news show only four months after its debut

CNN is giving up on its Snapchat news show, which launch only four months ago. “The Update,” as the program was called, had been designed for Snapchat’s vertical video format, but didn’t feature video produced only for Snapchat, nor did it have dedicated anchors. Instead, the news featured on “The Update” was a curated selection of CNN’s reporting from its reporters and correspondents worldwide, which was then edited into a roughly 3-minute long format with around five stories.

According to The WSJ, which was first to report the show’s ending, the issue at hand was the show’s potential path to profitability – or rather, the lack thereof. The news network had been one of Snapchat’s launch partners for Discover – a deal that had included licensing fees for its content. But with those fees soon going away, the only avenue to monetization was ad sales, the report said. The implication here is that there wasn’t enough incoming ad revenue to continue to support the show’s further production.

CNN confirmed to TechCrunch it will stop producing the daily show in 2018, but said this doesn’t represent the end to its experiments with Snapchat, or its other plans to publish to Snapchat’s platform.

Snap and CNN also issued a joint statement about the decision to stop production on “The Update,” which said:

“Snap and CNN have built a great partnership over the years and our teams have enormous admiration for each other. We plan to keep working together and mutually decided to hit pause as we explore the best opportunities for doing that. Our relationship will very much be continuing.”

CNN’s news show launched in late August, shortly after NBC News reported early success with its twice-daily show “Stay Tuned,” which was watched by more than 29 million unique viewers in its first month.

However, NBC had taken a different approach to Snapchat – its program is hosted by two dedicated anchors, Gadi Schwartz and Savannah Sellers, for starters. It runs through some five major news and pop culture stories largely sourced from other NBC News programs, but also brought on on-camera guests and did on-the-ground reporting, at times.

The audience captured by “Stay Tuned” is very young, NBC said earlier this year, with 60 percent of its audience under the age of 25.

NBC News told us the show is still going well, reaching “tens of millions” of unique viewers per month, now two-thirds of whom are under 25.

The majority of viewers watch the entire show without skipping through ads, NBC also said.

“We launched this show to reach a new audience. And we’ve been successful in that endeavor, as is evidenced by the tens of millions of under-25 year olds that watch the show every month,” said Nick Ascheim, SVP of digital at NBC News Group. “It’s not easy to do. It requires a different skill set, which we found in the stellar team we put together, it requires close collaboration with a partner, which we have with Snapchat, and it requires perseverance and a willingness to adapt.”

NBC and CNN aren’t the only news outlets in Snapchat’s Discover section. Others include The Washington Post, VICE, NowThisNews, BuzzFeed, The WSJ, Wired, The NYT, The Economist, and Mashable.

Taiwanese media startup The News Lens lands deal with top video studio Dawin

Taiwanese digital media startup The News Lens launched only four years ago, but it quickly became one of the country’s most prolific news sources by leveraging social media to reach younger viewers. Today it took another big step by announcing a strategic partnership with Dawin, one of Taiwan’s top video and film production companies, that will help it reach a wider audience.

Based in Taipei, with an office in Hong Kong, The News Lens now claims 7 million monthly unique visitors and publishes four online editions: Chinese-language sites for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia and an English-language site aimed at international readers.

Its partnership with Dawin gives The News Lens access to resources like video and audio recording studios and personnel to create weekly programs and other content. As part of the agreement, The News Lens will create videos for distribution on TV channels and OTT platforms (deals haven’t been announced yet, but one obvious candidate is iQiyi, which is sometimes called “China’s Netflix” by Western media), as well as its own sites.

Co-founder and chief executive Joey Chung tells TechCrunch that The News Lens is one of the first digital media startups in the region in to partner with a major video production company, which not only gives it the ability to create original programming with high production values, but also land distribution deals that will significantly boost its viewership. The News Lens has gained a reputation for appealing to viewers in their twenties and thirties, many of whom were turned off by raucous, celebrity-obsessed Taiwanese media outlets, by focusing on news analysis and using social media. Working with TV channels will allow The News Lens to reach new demographics, including older and more affluent viewers, which in turn helps increase its monetization opportunities.

The News Lens also announced that Ben Tsiang, the co-founder of and documentary production non-profit CNEX, has joined its roster of angel investors and advisors. Tsiang’s presence gives The News Lens another tie to major media companies. Its investors include North Base Media, which was launched by former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editor Marcus Brauchli and Media Development Loan Fund co-founder Sasa Vucinic to invest in independent media startups, Wiskey Capital, Walden International and Trinity Investment.

Featured Image: kecl/Getty Images

Meet “Genies”, the lifelike personalized avatars that reenact news

“We plan on making Bitmoji obsolete” says Akash Nigam, CEO of Genies. Bragging about beating one of the world’s top apps before his has even launched is emblematic of Nigam’s and Genies‘ brash style. But with $15 million in funding at a valuation over $100 million, top investors like NEA and Hollywood royalty like CAA are buying into the avatar startup. It already has 680,000 kids waitlisted to sign up for the Genies iOS app that launches today.

If god forbid Donald Trump bombs North Korea, you’ll see your Genie riding a nuke to North Korea” says Nigam. Whether that idea makes you giggle or roll your eyes, this is Genies’ plan “to be the next BuzzFeed”, the 24-year-old CEO tells me. Your Genie is the star of the show. The script is whatever happens in the world that day.”

It all starts with customizing your big-headed, photorealistic Genie avatar. While Snapchat-owned Bitmoji look like a comic strip, Genies are closer to Pixar. First you’ll select a personality type that determines some of the scenes you’ll see, based on clouds of brands like Coachella, BuzzFeed, and Supreme for cool kids or TechCrunch and the BBC for techies. Then using the Genies trait selector wheels, you can quickly scrub through tons of options for a dozen characteristics like face shape, hair, and eyes. Finally, you’ll outfit your Genie in clothes ranging from generic shirts to popular brands.

Genies sends you 10 to 15 animated scenes throughout each day that are around 10 seconds long and feature your avatar. They include quirky little situations for holidays like Christmas, cultural staples like hungover Sundays, and ones based on the top daily news for your personality type. Human editors review the scenes for factual accuracy, coherence, and humor, and can tweak them before they’re sent out. Typically, new scenes will arrive quietly in the Genies app, with notifications reserved for huge breaking news or batched digests of updates.

Nigam says Genies taps over 1 million sources with a focus on reputable news outlets to figure out what’s trending as early as possible. He claims that Genies art team and AI have built millions of pre-designed creative assets, and that the AI can actually piece them together to automatically create the animated scenes. If all the blogs are reporting Elon Musk’s plan to colonize mars, then it will cobble together space, stars, and Elon himself to show your Genie rocketing to the red planet alongside the headline.

You can swipe up to read the top source article for the news. But what Genies really encourages is you messaging the video scenes to friends via other apps like Instagram Direct, Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat. “Everyone has Giphy but they use it everywhere else. Exact same thing with us” Nigam tells me.

The idea is to leverage vanity to make the news seem interesting and shareable, and deliver it through a social app instead of a traditional media publisher. “At our age, we get the majority of our news from Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram.” And for added virality and personalization, many scenes include an empty silhouette you can fill with a celebrity of your choice like Trump or Kylie Jenner, or insert a friend so you act out the scene with your buddy. If Facebook taught us anything, it’s that people will always open a notification if they get tagged in an image.

Overall, the Genies look great, with much more nuance than you see in alternatives with either fewer customization options or that rely on facial detection. Nigam says he’s not a believer in technologies for automatic avatar generation, saying that even small inaccuracies can be jarring, and testers enjoyed the personalization process. If Genies just released an emoji keyboard with the avatars so you could use them anywhere, it could prove popular.

But the animated scenes are often gimmicky, crass, or even offensive. Over a few days of testing, I saw ones advocating for beer bonging, pot brownies, study drugs like Adderall, and pouring crappy vodka into Grey Goose bottles to save money. Nigam defended the content saying these were “party oriented” for a “young demo where they share and learn through the lens of pop culture”. Others like “Wanted: Holiday Bang Buddy” might be too lewd even for college kids. And one even parodied the important NFL protests of racism and police brutality featured students “taking a knee” to get out of a pop quiz. That should never have made it past the human editors.

Those that weren’t worrisome often felt mediocre, like showing two avatars building a sandcastle to represent an article about Facebook launching the Messenger Kids app. Your Genie runs across the screen dropping Bitcoin before someone bursts the bubble in one of today’s scenes. Perhaps the best one I saw was a mock-up for what Genies could have sent after the Las Vegas mass shooting tragedy that encouraged people to read a Newsweek article about how to give blood.

As a social app, the avatars are too contorted into specific situations for general use, and as a news reader, it feels haphazard and inefficient. The team has a powerful idea, and the graphics are pretty, but the execution on the content needs work.

Trying To Make Magic

“We did a bunch of apps, and they sucked” Nigam says about previous products his team built before Genies. “We’d think they were gonna blow up and there’d be 16 users.” Born and raised in Silicon Valley’s Mountain View, Nigam is the kind of guy who’s been dreaming of launching his own app since he was old enough to be allowed to use them.

Genies co-founder and CEO Akash Nigam

He met his co-founders during hackathons while studying computer science at University Of Michigan. They raised a seed round and built a failed group chat app called Blend while working out of a tiny room attached to a mosque in San Jose. They had a weak exit opportunity for Blend and turned it down. Seeing Bitmoji hover around App Store #1 for years convinced them there were greater riches in the avatar space.

Now they’ve pivoted Blend into Genies with $15 million over a few rounds of funding from traditional investors like NEA, Foundation Capital, Box Group, Great Oaks, Lerer Ventures, and Trinity Ventures. The entertainment industry was also hot to trot, with backing coming from CAA Ventures, production company Management 360, Prizeo/Represent’s Bobby Maylack, and former Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull. And strategic celebrities are also funding the startup, including NBA star Russell Westbrook, the football great Joe Montana, musician Shawn Mendes, and former Vine stars Cameron Dallas and Jake Paul.

They see plenty of revenue opportunities in Genies, which could easily do product placement and sponsored content in its animated scenes. “Your Genie doing a Gatorade shower” Nigam suggests. “We can monetize any time we want to turn on the spigot.” The startup also plans to let you buy the clothes you put on your Genie, or even get your avatar plastered on custom merchandise. “Brands get really fascinated by the wheels. We could do an entire Supreme wheel” he explains, referring to the trendy urban fashion wear line.

Now the company has Silicon Valley and LA offices, plus engineering in Bucharest. “We take kids from the streets into our office every day for testing” says, noting San Francisco doesn’t always know what’s hip. The startup spent the summer on an aggressive college marketing campaign, with tons of scantily clad models wearing Genies merchandise and signs asking the company to “Make My Genie”. All those waitlist sign-ups could help it score some traction today.

When asked about what he’d do if Snapchat’s Bitmoji started acting out the news too, Nigam fired back that they’d “force you to live inside Snapchat itself” rather than share elsewhere. And just to dig the dagger a bit deeper, he said “They’re a trend that may have already reached its peak.”

Perhaps I’m showing my age by being put off by some of  the content. Nigam boldly states “We don’t really trust people in product unless they’re actively talking to teens all the time.” But being a news publisher, even one that looks nothing like the rest, can be more complicated than it seems. Snapchat has had to go to great lengths to teach news outlets how to make Discover channels for Gen Z. And Facebook is reckoning with how much damage can be done with fake news.

Genies has a ton of potential. The idea of a mini-you visually depicting the news is fun, and piggybacking on other messaging apps instead of trying to build another feed is wise. Still, the content feels rushed and half-baked at times, and could either fail to entice users or be too thin to persist as more than a fad. It has plenty of money and connections to find the talent necessary to improve the scenes, though. And if the avatars become something everyone wants, that could be enough in the meantime.