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Main article: Mobile

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Instagram Direct one-ups Snapchat with replay privacy controls

20:26 | 20 February

Messaging is the heart of Snapchat, so after cloning and augmenting Stories, Instagram is hoping to boost intimate usage of Direct with privacy controls not found elsewhere. Now when you send an ephemeral photo or video from the Instagram Direct camera, you can decide whether recipients can only view it once, replay it temporarily, or will see a permanent thumbnail of it in the chat log.

Previously, all messages could be replayed temporarily but then would completely disappear. Snapchat always lets you temporarily replay a photo or video message, with no way for senders to deactivate the option.

The replay controls could encourage Instagrammers to send more sensitive imagery by allowing them to prevent replays that can give people time to take a photo of their screen with another camera without triggering a screenshot alert to the sender. Whether it’s silly or sexy, some messages are only meant to be seen once. Meanwhile, non-sensitive messages can be set to permanent so it’s easy to look back and reminisce, or prevent a conversation from losing context if someone forgets or misses what was in a visual message.

Instagram tells me it rolled out the new “Keep in chat” option last month after introducing “allow replay”, or “view once” options in November. Remember, senders are able to see if you replay a message.

Snapchat’s private messaging was proved to be its most resilient feature after a leak saw The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz dump a ton of the company’s usage data. In August, Snapchat users were 64 percent more likely to send a private snap to a friend than broadcast to Stories. While the number of daily users who post to Stories stagnated during Q3 last year in the face of Instagram’s competition, the number of users sending messages continues to rise.

That’s why now that Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status both have over 300 million daily active users, dwarfing the 187 million total daily users on Snapchat, Facebook trying to revamp its ephemeral messaging options. Instagram combined ephemeral and permanent Direct messaging last April, and in December began testing a standalone Direct app. Snapchat has managed to turn around its business and revive growth, so Instagram could use some momentum.

Snapchat’s number of users posting to Stories stagnated last year…

…while daily users sending Snapchat messages kept growing

Instagram and Snapchat continue to see distinct behavior patterns despite the former’s attempt to become the latter. Instagram Stories was supposed to let you share more than the permanent feed highlights of your life. But users still seem to prefer to share private, provocative, and ridiculous Stories and messages on Snapchat, while Instagram gets more polished and posed posts and re-sharing of memes.

Being able to block replays or keep messages from entirely disappearing could let Direct encompass a wider range of visual communication.



Tenor hits 12B searches in its GIF keyboard every month

20:00 | 20 February

David McIntosh’s startup Tenor builds a GIF keyboard — but he actually hopes you’ll spend as little time searching on it as possible.

Instead, Tenor’s aim has been to collapse the amount of time it takes for you to find a GIF you like and send it to a friend. Instead of trying to get people to come to the service and kind browse around on the keyboard or a different website, Tenor’s goal has been to figure out what you are trying to say in some kind of a GIF and get it out the door as quickly as possible. And with that approach, Tenor says its users now search for GIFs on its keyboard more than 400 million times a day and 12 billion times a month.

“It comes down to search, fundamentally we’re a search product, unlike Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snap,” Tenor CEO David McIntosh said. “They succeed by grabbing more minutes, our success is getting you the right thing faster. Can we take that 25 second session time and make it 20 seconds, or even 15 or 10. There’s a viral loop in place where every time you make search a little better it’s faster.”

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This more or less dovetails with an approach for some companies that are focusing on pitching engagement instead of a raw active user metric. Snap, for example, has stressed to investors that it is getting people to come back to the service more and more and spend more time on it. It’s roughly the same principle in terms of using Tenor, which McIntosh says is more of a search engine than an actual hub or portal. Basically, you want to communicate what you want to tell a friend in as little words as possible — except with something silly from Friends. Tenor works across a number of platforms, but now its sights have shifted abroad.

That might even be more true as Tenor begins to expand internationally, planting people on the ground to figure out what localized versions of the service look like. One of the appeals of GIFs is that it can compress a ton of information (McIntosh refers to it as “emotion”) into a short semi-video object in a messenger screen rather than having to type out a bunch of text. As it expands to more and more countries, Tenor is able to start picking off that low hanging fruit, as making small tweaks in certain regions can lead to dramatic improvements in engagement and usage, McIntosh said.

“Western content is so heavily exported all over the world that these things have almost become globally recognized object,” McIntosh said. “Often western content with a local caption will perform better. Sometimes the local content performs better. You gotta have the right set of search data, share data, community uploads, it’s the combination of all of them. It’s kind of like chicken and egg problem, it’s a slow grind until a spark happen — you’re guessing what’s gonna work. Once the flywheel is spinning really quickly you have so much data.”

It’s also begun running its first partner campaigns internationally as it’s started to expand, with the idea that it can go to potential advertisers and tell them that because people use the keyboard so much they’ll actually share that content. That includes campaigns with companies in even India and Germany. The whole goal is to, again, figure out how to get the right GIF in front of the right person in those couple of slots when they open the app and actually want to share it.

There is, of course, a data component to that problem as well. But with 12 billion searches every month, Tenor can start slightly tweaking each search to figure out what a person is looking for based on a wider array of parameters — and maybe figure out how to get that Tom Brady strip-sack in the expiring minutes of the Super Bowl this year in front of people more quickly. Two months ago, Tenor says it had 10 billion monthly searches monthly (around 330 million daily).

It might sound a little ridiculous now, but in retrospect there’s been a blossoming ecosystem around both creator tools for GIFs as well as ones for sharing them in messenger products or the web. Gfycat, which targets creators with more robust tools, says it has 130 million monthly active users, while Giphy says it has 300 million daily active users. Either way, it means that there is both a lot of competition and a lot of interest in this space — including venture financing.



Snapchat adds GIF stickers via Giphy, plus new Friends and Discover screen tabs

17:54 | 20 February

Snapchat is bringing one of the best recent features of Instagram Stories to its own app, with the ability to add GIF stickers from Giphy to your posts. This is a notable reversal of the typical pattern we’ve seen of Instagram cloning Snapchat features, but it’s a good one for users since GIF stickers for Stories are basically the greatest thing ever invented on social media.

The new GIF options, also powered by Giphy as mentioned, are loaded in the Sticker Picker alongside existing options from Snapchat. But that’s not the only change rolling out today: Snapchat is also adding tabs to both the Friends and the Discover screens within the app, which will make it easier for users on the platform to follow along with the Stories they want to see whenever they want to see them, letting you do things like viewing friends with active stories and Group Chats in one tab and subscriptions you maintain in the other.

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Snapchat CEO and founder Evan Spiegel noted on the company’s recent quarterly earnings call that Snapchat remains convinced their recent redesigns has “made our application simpler and easier to use,” and also noted improved ad performance post-overhaul, despite vocal user complaints. Spiegel also noted, however, that Snapchat is “constantly monitoring the rollout of the redesign and making improvements based on what we learn from our community and their usage of Snapchat,” and this design tweak seems to fall into that category.



Wikipedia’s free-to-access program for developing countries is being sunset

21:49 | 19 February

A half-dozen years after launching Wikipedia Zero, The Wikimedia Foundation is sunsetting the program. Announced in 2012, it was the result of partnerships with mobile carriers, designed to waive the cost of accessing the free encyclopedia in developing countries, where data fees presented a barrier to accessing the site’s seemingly bottomless well of information.

The Foundation says it provided free access to more than 800 million people, through 97 carrier partnerships in 72 countries over the course of the program’s life. Still, it cites “low awareness of Wikipedia outside of North America and Europe” as a key factor in its decision to discontinue the program. Changes in mobile data costs are also a factor here — Wikimedia says interest in and adoption of the Zero program have both dropped sharply since 2016.

As such, no additional partnerships will be formed this year, and those still in existence will be allowed to expire. Meantime, the organization says it’s exploring more ways to service the developing world, including campaigns designed to raise awareness of Wikipedia’s missions in various countries. In a blog post, the Foundation mentions on-going partnerships in Iraq and Nigeria.

“These successes have given us several ideas for where we may take our partnership work next,” it writes, “and over the coming year, we will explore other ways we can leverage the findings from our research and the Wikipedia Zero program to direct future work with partners.”



How ad-free subscriptions could solve Facebook

20:22 | 17 February

 At the core of Facebook’s “well-being” problem is that its business is directly coupled with total time spent on its apps. The more hours you pass on the social network, the more ads you see and click, the more money it earns. That puts its plan to make using Facebook healthier at odds with its finances, restricting how far it’s willing to go to protect us from the harms… Read More



Zelle users are finding out the hard way there’s no fraud protection

22:01 | 16 February

Scammers have taken to Zelle, the Venmo alternative backed by U.S. banks, to defraud consumers who believe the service includes the same protections they’ve come to expect from PayPal. A number of customers report having lost hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, over Zelle, when they used it for transactions with people they didn’t know – like tickets bought off a Craigslist posting, for example.

Here’s how the scam works. The seller will ask the buyer to pay them through Zelle instead of PayPal – the latter which has long been the standard for these sorts of anonymous transactions.

In many cases, the buyer isn’t aware of Zelle, but they do a little googling to read up on it. They discover it’s a digital payments service that’s backed by their bank, which makes them feel more comfortable. Zelle is also found in some banks’ mobile applications themselves, which adds to that sense of trust.

The buyer, now feeling that Zelle is a legit service, then transfers the money, assuming their bank will step in to help if anything goes wrong. After all, they’re sending money directly to another bank account – so surely the seller knows they could be tracked down and caught if they attempt fraud?!

Unfortunately, that’s not proving to be the case.

The seller – actually a scammer – will keep the money, then shut down their bank account, and disappear. The tickets, or whatever else they were purportedly selling, never arrive. In other cases, the scammer may not even need to go to that extreme because the victim’s bank just tells their customer there’s nothing they can do, since the customer had authorized the Zelle transaction.

As one victim told TechCrunch, the only thing their bank did was call the seller’s bank to follow up on the matter, and then the victim’s bank sent a letter stating that they would not help.

When the victim tweeted to Zelle Support to help in desperation, Zelle only responded by sharing a link that explains why Zelle should only be used with family and friends.

If you scroll down Zelle’s Twitter timeline, you’ll see a number of responses like that to similar inquiries.

Another victim of this scam recently posted about his experience on Reddit to warn others.

After negotiating on the price for some concert tickets, he suggested to the buyer that he could send his payment electronically as the seller was outside of town. (The scammer was very good at social engineering too, if you read the whole story.)

The post reads:

“I transferred him money through Zelle. I used Wells Fargo, he used Bank of America. He gave me his name, email address and phone number. He said this was the service he was most comfortable with. Since I had used it before – and he gave me all the details – I wasn’t that concerned with it. The transfer went through. He called me about 5 minutes later to confirm he received the money and said he was logging into Ticketmaster, and I’d have the tickets in the next 5 minutes….. I didn’t receive them and called him back, he answered right away and said he had initiated the transfer and it might just take a few minutes.”

Of course, then the scammer disappeared. His phone was turned off; he never responded to any emails. He was gone.

We spoke to the victim to find out how the issue was handled by his bank.

“My bank, Wells Fargo, as well as the other bank using the Zelle system, Bank of America, were not able or willing to do anything after I was scammed,” the victim (who prefered to remain anonymous), told us. “I submitted complaints with the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] and eventually received a ‘courtesy’ refund from Wells Fargo,” he said.

A third victim told us she was defrauded $2,000 through one of these scams after trying to buy event tickets on Craigslist.

Again, the seller asked the victim to use Zelle.

“He actually had a Bank of America account, as well, which was also less alarming since you had to log into Bank of America to initiate the transfer,” she told TechCrunch. “After transferring the money, he shut down his Bank of America account. I have filed two claims with Bank of America, who has denied any form of protection or refund because I initiated the payment,” she said.

She’s since filed a ticket with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, but doesn’t believe anything will come of it.

Another victim, a USAA customer, published a warning about Zelle to the bank’s community forums site after being defrauded – again, while trying to purchase concert tickets from a seller.

They write:

“I was hesitant but noticed it was available through USAA, so I figured it must be a trusted app and that USAA would stand behind anything that is available right there in their USAA app! Right after I sent my payment, the seller stopped responding to me and would not answer any phone calls or texts, and never transferred the tickets to me on Ticketmaster like was promised.”

As of the time of posting, USAA has not helped the victim get their money back.

These are not isolated incidents. The banks are doing nothing to help victims of Zelle scams and seem to have no legal obligation to do so. Instead, they’re saying because the buyer “authorized the transaction,” there’s nothing they can do to help recoup the stolen money.

What consumers don’t realize is that Zelle is actually more like Venmo than PayPal – meaning it’s only meant to be used for peer-to-peer digital payments with people you trust, like friends and family. Just like Venmo, Zelle does not offer fraud protection for buyers or sellers on its transactions.

Scammers know people aren’t aware of this, because Zelle is brand-new. They also know that people will choose to trust Zelle because it’s backed by their bank, and because it’s a feature within their bank’s own app.

What’s worse is that Zelle is not making an effort to spell out how it’s different from PayPal on its website.

While this information is disclosed in Zelle’s FAQ, it’s not one of the “featured” FAQ’s on Zelle’s homepage, where it would be more noticeable.

The Zelle homepage does not at all make it clear that this is a payments service for family and friends only – it only says you can use Zelle to send money to “almost anyone you know” – language that reads more like marketing speak than a strict warning that you should, well, actually know them.

Venmo, by comparison, specifically uses the wording “friends and family” when explaining its service.

Reached for comment, Zelle simply stated that it’s not meant for these sorts of transactions between buyers and sellers.

“Consumers should not use Zelle for transacting with people they do not know and/or aren’t sure they will get what they paid for – for example, items bought from an online bidding or sales site,” a spokesperson said. “Zelle is not responsible for goods or services that are not received or are received but do not meet expectations.”

That’s good information to know, but it’s coming too late for many of Zelle’s early adopters. And as word gets around that Zelle and the banks are not helping people who were scammed, it will ultimately damage Zelle’s reputation and impact its adoption.



Uber is reportedly preparing to sell its Southeast Asian business to Grab

21:50 | 16 February

Uber is preparing to sell its Southeast Asian business to Grab in exchange for a stake in the Singaporean ride-sharing company that has a big presence in that region, according to a new report from CNBC.

This wouldn’t be an unfamiliar story for Uber, which was handily beaten by Didi in China before eventually caving and selling the company to the dominant ride-sharing startup in China. Uber sold its Chinese business to Didi in August 2016, which involved an equity deal. In that sense, Uber may be acknowledging where it’s getting beaten, and instead looking to pick up stakes in those companies as a hedge on its ability to expand globally. Should Didi — or Grab, in the case of this report — end up being bombshell successes, Uber would experience its own significant windfall and have some good news to report to its shareholders.

Uber CEO Dara Kosrowshahi said at the Goldman Sachs Internet and Technology conference this week that, if it wanted to be, Uber could be profitable — though it is heavily investing in emerging markets and new technology like autonomous driving. That means assessing which markets would be loss leaders as it looks for growth versus some of its better-performing markets. Uber is all over the globe, but it faces stiff competition in Southeast Asia from Grab (and, formerly, Didi in China). Kosrowshahi acknowledged that it made more sense to try to pick up stakes in the local ride-sharing companies like Didi and Russia’s Yandex.

“The amount we’re investing in developing markets is a significant negative but that’s an optional investment,” Kosrowshahi said. “We think it should be on and it’s gonna be on for a while. And the big bets, autonomous [driving and other bets], increase the negative. If someone says forget about all this stuff, all I want is the core and sell all the stuff, you’d have a business for a quarter was cash flow break even. I’m pretty darn confident we can turn the knobs to even on a full basis profitable if we wanted to, but you would sacrifice growth.”

Kosrowshahi’s job since joining has been to essentially try to rid Uber of its negative baggage and figure out a way to transform it into a business that will be ready to IPO sometime in 2019. It’s made the somewhat peculiar move of reporting some of its financial performance, which has shown heavy losses, though Kosrowshahi suggests that the company would be able to dial back its investments (like international expansion) to get those financials in order as it looks at an IPO. Uber is one of the largest privately held companies in the world, with its long cap table looking forward to a significant liquidity event — something Uber will have to set itself up for if it’s going to deliver.

We reached out to both Uber and Grab for comment and additional context, and will update the story when we hear back.

Featured Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images



Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon

20:09 | 16 February

The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.



As tech automates, Blinkist keeps its book summary service very human

01:52 | 16 February

When I first heard of Blinkist, a service that breaks down recent nonfiction books to easily digestible snippets and audio, I was afraid it would turn out to be some machine-learning-driven auto-summary thing. But in talking to co-founder Niklas Jansen at Blinkist’s headquarters in Berlin, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company is still very much people-powered — and in fact, that may be the root of its continuing success.

The basic idea of Blinkist is to take the best of new nonfiction and condense it into pieces just a minute or two long, with entire books summed up in a series of these “blinks” totaling fifteen minutes or so. Titles are added regularly, harvested from best sellers, top ten lists, and user wishlists and suggestions.

So far, so normal. But where Blinkist tries to differentiate is in the quality of these summaries. Anyone can read a book and give you a rundown of each chapter, and there are automated summary services that will do something like that as well. But it takes someone familiar with the field and well-versed in how to communicate that information to do it well.

But wouldn’t it take a huge collection of experts, PhDs, authors, and so on to keep up with the variety of nonfiction being published? Yes it would, and building just such a collection is where Blinkist has put a great deal of its resources.

As a subscription service, it has steady revenues that it can deploy intelligently, maintaining a large network of experts whom it can call on to do the critical work of dissecting a book, picking out its important parts, and writing them up in a compelling way. But these summaries aren’t intended to be comprehensive — that’s why they’re called summaries.

“What’s important is that Blinkist is not intended to replace the book,” Jansen said. “We think of Blinkist as the bridge between no book and the book. There’s always a case why you should go on and buy the full book afterwards.” (And of course a link is provided.)

I was afraid, going in, that I would find out that Blinkist also did this for fiction, which I feel would defeat the point of reading it. After all, the idea in fiction is not to learn some core ideas and see them demonstrated or evidenced, but to experience a story — and the pacing, language, and dialogue are critical to that. Fortunately, Blinkist understands this as well, and that is the very reason the team has not attempted it. Nonfiction is just a much more logical choice.

I must admit here that I don’t read a lot of modern nonfiction — none, really. But that doesn’t mean none of these books sound interesting to me. Blinkist seems to cater to types like myself: readers with more curiosity than time.

It’s reassuring to see a modern startup relying so heavily on the human element. Blinkist costs $50 a year to start, which sure isn’t free, but you could think of it like a “feed the humanities PhDs” fund.



Snap CEO Evan Spiegel says the Snapchat redesign is here to stay

23:07 | 15 February

Despite a lot of backlash over a big redesign for the Snapchat app — which to be sure is a very big deal for a product-centric company like Snap — Snap CEO Evan Spiegel basically said the redesign is here to stay and people need to get used to it.

Spiegel said at the Goldman Sachs Internet & Technology Conference that even people complaining about the app was a sort of validation that the changes the company wants to happen are, indeed, happening. Snap aimed to try to separate the idea of communication and broadcasting with Snap into similar buckets, rather than the features being kind of mixed up (like Stories being on a right swipe).

“The tech is an important piece but I think the harder part you can’t get around is the time it takes to learn,” Spiegel said. “You do need folks to use the product, to communicate wit their friends to learn how to better provide that feed. The tech to some degree is a solved problem, the time to… to learn is a hard problem to solve. Even the complaints we’re seeing reinforce the philosophy. Even the frustrations we’re seeing really validate those changes. It’ll take time for people to adjust, but for me using it for a couple months I feel way more attached to the service.”

Of course, Spiegel can say these things on stage and then end up changing his mind. But as Snap faces increasing competition from companies looking to clone some of its products — Instagram stories, basically — Snap has had to look at some pretty significant changes to see if it can hold onto its users and continue to grow. Of course, Spiegel said on stage that it’s basically flattering that people want to copy the app. (Founders often call this “validation of the business,” because why not.)

Snap reported its fourth-quarter earnings earlier this month, which beat some expectations and sent the shares soaring at essentially rocket ship status. Snap has come quite close to recovering from the significant crash it had through its first year as a public company, something Spiegel said — like many fresh CEOs often say — has made them a better company. As a public company, Snap is much more beholden to public investors and has a newfound fiduciary duty to get its business in order.

Spiegel also said the company is less focused on specific geographies as it looks to continue to grow, and more focused on making sure its users actually understand the app when the join and are able to start communicating with your friends. “We’re really focused on, how when you come into our service, do you understand stories, do you understand maps,” Spiegel said.

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Spiegel has repeated the refrain that Snap is going to be a camera company, emphasizing that the idea of what a camera is used for has changed over time. But Snap has also created a kind of portfolio of products around Snapchat like content and the Snap Maps feature. Spiegel also said, for example, that 30 million people have watched content related to the Olympics at the conference. All this is geared toward getting people to find a bunch of different use cases for the app, which can get them to come back over and over and keep more engaged.

“The thing that drives the business is fundamentally the engagement around the products,” Spiegel said. “That needs to be there first. Even at the time full-screen vertical video ads, no one will make those, what we’ve seen is the value delivered by getting the fundamentals right will drive the business… There’s creation, people making snaps, there’s communication which drives the frequency of use — sometimes people don’t realize, we monetize across all three behaviors.”

Featured Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images


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