Phos, the UK fintech that offers a software-only POS for smartphones, raises €1.3M

Phos, the U.K. fintech that offers a software-only PoS so that merchants can accept payments directly on their phones without the need for additional hardware, has raised €1.3 million in funding. The round was led by New Vision 3, an early-stage VC based in Bulgaria (where a part of the Phos team is based), with participation from a number of unnamed angel investors.

It brings the total raised by Phos to date to €2.5 million, and will be used to grow the development team. This will see new features introduced, such as ‘PIN on Phone,’ a Software Development Kit (SDK), and a new integrated loyalty system.

Founded in 2018, Phos has developed software that turns any NFC-equipped Android device into a payments terminal, negating the need for additional hardware and reducing total cost of ownership. The startup says its solution is quick to deploy, and is “uniquely” phone and bank agnostic i.e. any bank can act as the acquirer.

“Millions of traders and merchants do not accept card payments because they find the current hardware inconvenient or expensive,” Phos co-founder Ivo Gueorguiev tells TechCrunch . “Most of the merchants who accept card payments find the cost of ownership of the hardware high, [while the] current POS hardware offers no additional value, with the exception of very expensive smart terminals like Clover”.

To remedy this, Gueorguiev says Phos’ technology accepts contactless card payments directly on Android phones and other Android devices without the need for additional hardware, as well as helping merchants make better use of data.

“We offer merchants an alternative to old and expensive technology, namely [by using] devices they already own – their phones,” he explains. “We also offer merchants the ability to use their transaction data for other business applications. This includes e-commerce tools, marketing automation, loyalty, payroll, and more.

In terms of go-to-market, Phos is focused on a B2B model, seeing the fintech work with partners to distribute the product, such as banks, acquirers, PSPs/ISOs, large direct merchants, and platform players.

“The final user of the product will be mostly merchants at the long tail of the business, who are notoriously difficult to reach in a cost effective way,” adds Gueorguiev.

He cites use cases as small merchants and market traders, where traditional POS solutions are not appropriate due to costs and maintenance issues; direct sales and multilevel marketing; couriers and delivery services (“in certain markets ‘pay on delivery’ is still a predominant payment method with over 90% in cash,” says Gueorguiev); tradespeople; taxi drivers; insurance field sales; and even large retailers that can empower sales people to close sales in the aisles and reduce queues.

Adds Konstantin Petrov, Partner at NV3: “We are very happy to lead the investment round in phos and truly believe in the high potential of the company. The all important prerequisites for success are there: a strong and visionary team with years of experience in the field, a huge under-served market of small merchants who do not accept payments other than cash and an innovative technology providing first-mover advantage. In addition, fintech is considered a strategic vertical in the investment strategy of NV3 Fund, so phos is clearly a perfect add to our portfolio.”

WhatsApp introduces new limit on message forwards to fight spread of misinformation

WhatsApp is imposing additional restriction on how frequently a message can be shared on its platform in its latest effort to curtail the spread of misinformation.

The Facebook -owned instant messaging service said today that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that WhatsApp will roll out this change to users worldwide today.

Today’s move builds on WhatsApp’s effort from last year when it limited users from forwarding a message to more than five users at once. The service, used by more than 2 billion users, said the move allowed it to reduce the volume of message forwards globally by 25%.

The end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp — which the company is fighting for in several markets — prevents it from reading the content of a message, so it relies on metadata of a message to gauge its spread.

“Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not,” the company wrote in a blogpost today. “However, we’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

More than a dozen deaths in recent years — several in WhatsApp’s biggest market, India — have been linked to viral circulation of misinformation on Facebook’s service.

Facebook has moved to take several efforts in recent weeks as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, it announced free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on Messenger and WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch. The Indian government also launched a helpdesk bot on WhatsApp last month.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

WhatsApp has also been testing a feature on the beta version of its Android app that gives users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

A spokesperson said the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

Internet of Elephants launches Wildeverse, an AR game about endangered animals and conservation

On Friday, the Kenyan augmented reality game developer Internet of Elephants launched its latest game in partnership with the conservation science experts from the Borneo Nature Foundation, Goualougo Triangle Ape Foundation, Zoo Atlanta and Chester Zoo.

The new game, called “Wildeverse”, uses AR to create a virtual forest that players can explore to find certain animals — or clues to an animal’s whereabouts.

Though the game was intended to be played outdoors, the COVID-19 crisis forced the team to pivot, creating an option that lets people move about virtually using in-game controls, or walk around in more confined spaces.

The game starts with a chat-based segment introducing players to the gameplay and setting up some context around the virtual environment players will be exploring. Its graphics aren’t focused on recreating a completely immersive jungle environment, but create an abstracted forest and canopy of trees which players explore. A timer keeps track of how long a player takes to complete a mission, which involve identifying certain animals or looking for traces of their presence in the AR-created forest.

Once a mission is complete, the player runs through a scripted interaction with an actual conservationist who helped the Internet of Elephants game developers come up with the concept for the game and provided research assistance and support for the actual animals represented in the gameplay.

Image courtesy of Internet of Elephants

The game can be played on any iOS or Android device that support ARKit or ARCore.

Challenges range from searching for the animals themselves or their footprints, food leftovers or poop to looking for illegal human activity and threats to the habitat of four real orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.

To make the game, Internet of Elephants developers led by company founder Gautam Shah, actually went to the jungles of Borneo and Congo to speak with conservationists about their work and scout for wildlife to use in te game, the company said in a statement. The game developers tracked several families of monkeys 

 

“Ape populations are being decimated across the world. Wildlife protection will only become a global priority if enough people take an interest. Conservationists on the ground are fighting an uphill battle with the support of only a handful of people,” said Shah in a statement. “We are on a mission to turn the 2 billion people playing games today, into wildlife lovers and supporters of conservation efforts.”

For Shah, the newest launch for Internet of Elephants continues the company’s mission, which began in 2015 when the American-born Shah forsook a career in consulting to launch his AR-based gaming company. Other members of the Internet of Elephants team have equally interesting stories, including product lead, Jake Manion, who had spent six years as the creative director for Aardman Animations, the Academy-award winning studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

Shah sees three primary conservation elements to the Wildeverse game. First, he says, it creates a link between players and the conservation societies that the company works with, giving people a better sense of what conservation organizations actually do. The game also forces players to confront issues like forest fires, illegal logging, poaching, and the challenges surrounding conservation work that are exacerbated by development and human consumption changing the composition of the jungles these animals call home. Finally there’s an educational element to the game.

“You really really do learn a lot of juicy stuff and we don’t shy away from getting technical,” says Shah. “All that collectively is about creating a connection between you sitting in St. Louis and someone in Borneo trying to study orangutans,”

Originally, the game was meant to be played outdoors, with a thirty-meter radius of space to get the full sense of the gameplay, but it can work in a small studio apartment in Los Angeles equally well, given the modifications the team made before the game’s launch.

The text component of the game is informative and gives players a chance to learn about the foods orangutans eat, their habitat and their lives in the jungle. The script is slightly clunky, but not tiresome, and is based on conversations with the actual conservationists working in these different forests.

Ultimately Shah hopes to expand the number of habitats and the breadth of the game so players can explore different geographies and learn about endangered species on every continent.

There’s no monetization in the game yet and it will remain free-to-play, but Shah hopes to add some revenue-generating elements as development continues along with multi-player features, he said.

Ultimately, the game is about connecting and educating a new generation to the wonders of nature conservancy through the newest tech tools and gameplay.

“We want to make wildlife a positive, exciting topic of daily conversation for millions of people currently unconnected to conservation. We want to make Fio, Buka, Chilli and Aida celebrities, just like Kim Kardashian, Messi, and Donald Trump,” says Shah. “People’s attention matters so much more than they think.”

Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Microsoft brings Teams to consumers and launches Microsoft 365 personal and family plans

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people) at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. They are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50 gigabytes of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products for businesses with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three months of free access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”