Samsung saves Opera Max browser app from the deadpool

Opera Max lives on after Samsung acquired the mobile browser to save it from oblivion.

The browser was one of the first data-friendly mobile browsers and it later added privacy-focused settings, including safeguards against insecure WiFi connections and a VPN. The popular app clocked up more than 500,000 installs, but that didn’t stop parent company Opera — which is owned by a consortium of Chinese firms — from announcing its closure last year.

“Opera has now decided to discontinue Opera Max. The product had a substantially different value proposition than our browser products, and represented a different focus for Opera,” it wrote at the time. “We, therefore, focus on our browsers and other upcoming services.”

Step forward Samsung, which said today that it has picked up the service and turned it into ‘Samsung Max’ — as first spotted by VentureBeat.

Screenshots of Samsung Max for Android

Opera Max users will get an update that brings them over to the now-Samsung-owned version, while other users can get their hands on the Android app or check the Galaxy Apps store. Bad news though, it’ll only be available on Samsung phones rather than all Android devices as had previously been the case.

In addition, Samsung plans to preload the app on its devices in a number of emerging markets: Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

“At Samsung, we’ve been committed to creating inclusive data saving and privacy protection services for all our devices. Because of this, we are now introducing Samsung Max to our mid-range devices as an exclusive and unique service that sets Samsung devices apart from the rest of the smartphone market,” Seounghoon Oh, VP of Samsung R&D Institute India, said in a statement.

It’s unclear how much Samsung paid for the service, if anything at all, but you’d imagine it wasn’t a lot since it was destined for closure.

Google says more than 40 carriers and device manufacturers now support RCS, the next generation of SMS

Rich Communication Services (RCS) is basically the standard for the next generation of text messaging, with apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, LINE and others now offering features that go far beyond the standard SMS-based messaging apps that tend to ship with your phone — unless, of course, you are an Apple and iMessage user.

As Google announced today, more than 40 carriers and device manufacturers now support RCS. That’s up from the 27 Google cited last year.

RCS is a GSM standard, but its biggest champion has long been Google, which looks at the service to allow its Android platform to get at least some feature parity with Apple’s iMessage service.

With Mobile World Congress coming up next week, it’s no surprise that Google wants to talk a bit more about RCS ahead of the event. Specifically, the company today noted Business Messaging as one of the central features of the new service. With this, businesses can send verified rich messages with boarding passes, credit card fraud alerts and package delivery notifications, for example. Those messages can include suggested replies and actions (change seat, call airline, etc.).

The standard Android Messages app started supporting it a year ago and with Jibe, Google offers a platform for launching and managing RCS services.

Over the course of the last year, a number of new carriers in Europe and Latin American have signed on to Google’s Jibe RCS cloud, including America Movil, AT&T, Celcom Axiata, Freedom Mobile, Oi, Telia and Telefonica.

Among the partners is messaging service Twilio, which today announced it has added support for RCS to its service. “By making rich, interactive messaging features available to consumers in their default messaging app, RCS has the potential to be as ubiquitous as SMS is today,” Patrick Malatack, VP of Product and GM of Messaging at Twilio told me. “Developers choose to build this messaging experience using Twilio because instead of wrestling with variations in APIs and tooling, they can integrate every messaging channel — including RCS — into their applications through one simple API. We can’t wait to see what our customers build.”

Other partners Google has worked with include 3C,, Mobivity, OpenMarket and Smooch.

Featured Image: Tero Vesalainen/Getty Images

Airbnb is rolling out a new tier aimed at higher-end travelers

Airbnb today is rolling out a few new additions to their home-booking system, including new tiers that are aimed at higher-end customers called Airbnb Plus and Beyond by Airbnb.

The new Airbnb Plus tier has homes that are verified for “quality and comfort,” rolling out with around 2,000 homes to start that have been inspected against a thorough checklist. The Luxury tier, called Beyond by Airbnb, is built around whole trips including hospitality, custom experience and — of course — higher-end homes. Each appears to be targeting verticals within the travel space that make sense based on the typical hospitality industry, but weren’t specifically singled out on Airbnb.

Rather than just searching for a home on Airbnb and flipping through the photos or reviews, the new tiers may offer customers willing to spend more an opportunity to tap into the same expectations they’d get from a luxury resort — or, at least, a higher-end one aiming to hit the status of something like the Sofitel in Bangkok, Thailand. Frequent business travelers often have accumulated massive piles of reward points (and maybe have bigger travel budgets) and may be accustomed to this, and there’s also plenty of opportunity to target the same kinds of experiences that something like an Atlantis full-service resort in the Bahamas might offer.

In addition to those tiers, which are being announced at an event at San Francisco this morning (I overheard that there may be more than 1,000 employees at this event as well as a few dozen “super-hosts”), the company is also adding new ways to search for property on its service. The new brackets are vacation home, unique space, B&B, and Boutique. All these basically already existed on the platform, but that segmentation wasn’t there yet. Hosts are going to have an opportunity to have a more granular way of classifying their homes.

In fact, you’ll often find these kinds of setups already in place when you’re searching for places to stay abroad. You might find several rental units in the same building, or of the same configuration, all by the same host. It’s almost like a kind of faux hotel system, but this will offer an opportunity for Airbnb hosts to differentiate themselves for users that are looking for something more specific.

As Airbnb has tried to begin turning itself into a kind of experience machine with the launch of Experiences, it’s trying to cater itself as an alternative and more robust option in the hospitality industry. Rather than just booking a hotel at a luxury resort you find on TripAdvisor, Airbnb is trying to build the credibility that it can offer unique experiences you won’t find in those hotel environments — whether that’s a tiny apartment in the middle of Shinjuku, Japan, to a beautiful condo in the middle of Ponta Delgada in the Azores. All this comes back to the hosts, which now have an opportunity to try to craft those experiences and, in the end, pick up an additional revenue stream on the property they might already own.

Still, Airbnb is going to continue to face challenges, ranging from some criticism for its expansion in cities like New York to the recent departure of its CFO Laurence Tosi. Airbnb is pegged as one of the next major consumer IPOs, which is highly anticipated given the nigh-flop of Snap and the most-definite flop of Blue Apron as everyone holds their breath for Uber’s IPO in 2019. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has said there are no plans for an IPO in 2018, but it doesn’t change that it has to set itself up as a company that has the capacity to be a robust competitor in the hospitality space.

Featured Image: Carl Court/Getty Images

Indigo Fair raises $12M to connect wholesalers with smaller retail outlets with a smarter service

Max Rhodes was walking around that weird little parklet in Hayes Valley in San Francisco after taking a break from a five-year stint at Square to figure out what he wanted to do next — and he kept seeing Square registers everywhere.

It was spotting them over and over again in smaller retail shops dotted throughout the city that made him think about the connections between the average product maker — that kind of small group making a bespoke funny candle — and those retailers. That’s what prompted him to start Indigo Fair, a platform that connects those two entities in order to streamline the process of getting those products into smaller retail stores that are looking for just those kinds of weird candles throughout major urban areas. The company said it has raised $12 million in new financing from Forerunner Ventures and Khosla Ventures, with Forerunner’s Kirsten Green joining the board of directors.

“I started to think about the fact that you have all these stores adopting cloud-based PoS systems and inventory systems and, generally all their data is becoming available through their media profiles and inventory systems,” Rhodes said. “If there were some way that you could get all that data and know what is selling where, you could actually predict how well a given product is gonna sell in a store. That was the starting point.”

As so-called “big box” shopping increasingly shifts online, the theory is that there will be more and more niche retail outlets looking for interesting products that try to capitalize on the core original shopping experience, which is more social and curated.

Indigo Fair receives hundreds of applications from makers every week — though, as more and more tools become available to create more complex products, that’s probably only going to increase — and the team accepts about 5% of those applications. Part of the reason is to keep a good handle on the company’s growth and still make sure it has that curated feel for retailers, who know they are getting their hands on a good product. They send in some information and then start getting orders, print out a shipping label, and then start sending the product out to those retailers.

On the retailer end, the shops sign up and immediately have access to those products available through those wholesale makers. Indigo Fair aims to cut out the process of spending tens of thousands of dollars on trips to trade shows with makers to find the right products and then get them in their stores with the hope that they’ll sell. If you go into one of the stores on Valencia Street in San Francisco, you’ll probably find quite a bit of weird stuff that those stores hope to sell. Indigo Fair looks to try to streamline that process and make it easier to get those products in-house without all the travel and hassle.

Of course, even using public data as a starting point, gathering the data to make the model defensible is the harder part. After all, there are a lot of online platforms looking to empower wholesale makers to get their goods into the hands of consumers, though the company today said it’s actually partnering with Shopify and Square. But as the company gets more and more information about what’s selling, what isn’t, and who’s returning what, it gets a better sense of consumer demand for a product — and where to put it — to keep the cost for both of those entities down.

“In so many ways it’s the age old challenge of marketplaces,” Green said. “I think it requires you to be very scrappy, it requires you to find good customers that believe in the proposition and the potential for the product that they’re willing to start working with you in that regard. There is a lot of info you can readily access online today. Just having the patience and the commitment to try to put a bunch of that together on your own platform so you can start building the dataset is just some of the heavy lifting involved.”

Rhodes’ hope, amid increasing competition and different models and approaches like Simon — which wants to help startups get pop-up shops in malls — is that with his experience dealing with the problems first-hand, and with enough data, Indigo Fair will become a go-to service for both retailers and product makers. Rhodes, a former consultant at Bain who helped build Square Cash, with his cofounders Marcelo Cortes and Daniele Perito, look to lean on everyone’s experience getting an expensive umbrella in stores and selling it across North America to enable every product maker to get the same thing done.

Robinhood rolls out zero-fee crypto trading as it hits 4M users

Coinbase has some serious competition. Today Robinhood starts rolling out its no-commission cryptocurrency trading feature in California, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana and New Hampshire. Users can buy and sell Bitcoin and Ethereum with no extra fees, and track those and 14 other coins in its sleek app. That’s compared to paying 1.5 to 4 percent fees in the US on Coinbase. Users can sign up on the Robinhood Crypto site to waitlist for access.

Robinhood has a chance to usurp Coinbase as the defacto crypto trading site app by vastly undercutting its fees. When people are buying thousands of dollars of cryptocurrencies at a time, Coinbase’s 1.5 to 4 percent fees in the US can quickly add up.

But Robinhood sees giving away the service for free as a powerful way to gain users for its existing service that lets people trade stocks, ETFs, and options without additional charges. It’s stylish, retro-future Tron interface is also a super easy way to check on pricing and news about 16 coins: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin, Ripple, Ethereum Classic, Zcash, Monero, Dash, Stellar, Qtum, Bitcoin Gold, OmiseGo, NEO, Lisk, and Dogecoin.

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Robinhood Crypto first announced the feature last month, with one million people signing up in just the first four days. That interest has driven Robinhood’s total registered user count to over 4 million, up from 3 million in November. Those users have transacted over $100 billion to date, saving $1 billion in commission fees.

On most stock trading services like E*Trade and Scottrade, customers pay around $7 per trade to cover these companies’ marketing, physical branches, and sales reps. Founded in 2013, Robinhood ditches those fees by running a lean operation centered around engineers and its app. It makes money on the interest of cash its customers keep with it, or by selling monthly Robinhood Gold subscriptions that let users borrow money to trade with.

That business has allowed the startup to raise $176 million, most recently at a $1.3 billion valuation. And with its free crypto trading, it may have found a way to luring in a fresh class of amateur investors. Keeping security locked tight will be critical, especially given disastrous breaches at other crypto companies. But as crypto draws a new generation into the world of finance, Robinhood wants to help them play the market, day or night.

For more, read our full story on the debut of Robinhood Crypto

[Disclosure: The author of this story owns small positions in Bitcoin and Ethereum]

Product Hunt launches no-spam tech news digest app Sip

“We didn’t want to create another app thirsty for attention” writes Product Hunt CEO Ryan Hoover. So instead of a constant stream of fresh stories and alerts, Product Hunt today is releasing what’s essentially a tech industry newsletter in iOS and Android form. Sip distills the day’s big headlines into a set of Twitter Moments-esque slideshows delivered via silent notification at 5pm.

Combining explanations, commentary tweets, links to news outlets, Product Hunt pages, and polls, Sip offers a bite-sized alternative to long-winded articles. Skewing trendy, not wonky, you’ll find Sip highlighting 2018’s most innovative companies, Elon Musk selling flamethrowers, or Uber’s new bus killer.

“Our ultimate goal is to create an experience people want to come back to every day that might appeal to those that don’t already use Product Hunt” Hoover explains. It’s essentially a user growth play, rather than a revenue driver for the startup bought by AngelList for around $20 million in 2016. “As I shared earlier in the year with the community, we’re aiming toward profitability and have made some great progress through various initiatives, but Sip is not one of them. We don’t have plans to monetize Sip in the short term as we focus on growing its user base.”

With Facebook purposefully reducing the amount of news surfaced by its feed, Twitter full of bots and trolls, and Google Reader gone, people need better ways of keeping up with the world. Like Reddit, Hoover sees Product Hunt as a community first, though one that “has always played a role in delivering news”.

Doubling down here could unlock new demographics. Not everyone gravitates towards the site to discover the latest beta tests, hackathon projects, Chrome extensions, and fledgling startups. But the top stories about tech’s titans, our social media society, and the hottest new apps have become must-read news for many. Sip could become their gateway into the Product Hunt fold.

“Sip is an experiment” Hoover tells me. “The app was designed and built by Chad on our team to give us an opportunity to surface different types of content and stories that wouldn’t necessarily inside Product Hunt today.” Sip already has 3000 people signed up for its beta. The app will have to compete with traditional tech sites and their emails, the constant flow of Twitter and other social apps, various newsletters like Hacker Noon, and reader apps like Feedly and Flipboard. But Sip is set apart by boiling down the news into snackable nuggets.

Product Hunt needs to continue finding ways to engage the younger, scrappier techies at the core of its audience. Launched in 2013 as a newsletter, the startup’s buzz peaked in 2014 and 2015 after it raised a $7 million round led by Andreessen and was accepted into Y Combinator. Its parties in San Francisco became legendary, drawing over 1000 people with a line around the block. These were the heady days of mobile, when tech was still an underdog to some degree and the backlash about its ills had yet to surge.

Product Hunt CEO Ryan Hoover(left) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2014

After years of the crowd-ranking daily product launches on its site, fatigue seems to have set in since AngelList bought Product Hunt. While well-aligned, Product Hunt lost some of its cool by joining up with more dignified tech adults. Last year it launched Ship for helping startups release their products, and an Ask Product Hunt recommendations feature. Hoover even debuted his own $3 million Weekend Fund. Yet Product Hunt’s luster has waned. Though in a much glitzier venue, this winter’s Product Hunt party saw no line out the door. They weren’t even checking RSVPs.

The next generation of Product Hunters might not be as religiously bound to their phones, delighted by a non-stop barrage of alerts. Instead, they seem to value an undistracted sense of flow and more mindful tech usage. Sip could appeal to them. “My phone is often warm with alerts” says Hoover. “Many app creators overwhelm their users with numerous push notifications throughout the day or even unwelcome text messages. We don’t want Sip to add to the clutter.”

Apple said to debut voice-activated Siri AirPods in 2018, water-resistant model in 2019

Apple is preparing a couple of updating models of AirPods, according to Bloomberg. The popular fully wireless earbud-style headphones that Apple introduced last year are currently on track for a refresh in 2018 with the addition of a new version of the “W” line of chips that Apple created specifically to manage and improve Bluetooth-based connections between gadgets.

The 2018 hardware refresh would include not only an improved W chip (possibly the W2 added to the Apple Watch last year, or perhaps even a W3) but also the ability to activate Siri just by voice, rather than by physically tapping the AirPod in your ear, as is the case currently.

Like with Amazon’s Echo devices or the iPhone, a user would be able to trigger the virtual assistant simply by saying the wake word aloud – “Hey Siri,” in this case. That would indeed to a step-up in terms of shifting AirPods to a voice-first interface device.

As for the successor currently planned for 2019 (though Bloomberg notes those plans could easily change between now and then), it will add a new level of water-resistance, which Bloomberg reports will be designed to protect against “splashes of water and rain,” rather than full submersion like the current Apple Watch.

AirPods are doing well by all accounts, so putting them on an update cycle similar to the iPhone and other of Apple’s high-demand products seems fairly logical. It’ll be interesting to see if customers choose to upgrade in the same way they do with Apple’s other high selling devices, and what other updates might be in store (please made variable fit tip design, Apple, so that I can finally wear these things without requiring a little foam sleeve).