Video app maker Flipagram is trying to find a buyer

Or should we say flip itself.

Flipagram is looking for a new home.

The LA-based startup, which makes an app that lets users stitch together photos and videos into montages up to a minute long, is shopping itself around in hopes of finding a buyer, according to numerous sources.

Flipagram is approaching the top-tier tech and media companies first, these sources say — folks like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat. Flipagram is using a banker.

The catalyst for the sale: Growth, or lack of it in Flipagram’s case. The app started as a utility — a way to create cool slideshows that you then shared on other networks, like Facebook or Instagram. That changed about a year ago when Flipagram transitioned into more of a social network and feed similar to what you’d find in other apps, like Instagram.

That approach takes time, of course, but it has gone more slowly than expected, sources say, and Flipagram is having trouble luring people back to the app for anything beyond the creative features it built its reputation on. It hopes an acquisition will help jump-start things on the growth side.

Flipagram’s user base is not small, at least according to Flipagram itself. CEO Farhad Mohit told Recode back in March that it has 36 million monthly active users. Sources say that number is not growing or growing very slowly. (We asked for an updated number, but didn’t get one.)

It’s unclear how much money Flipagram is seeking from a buyer, but it clearly won’t have much leverage. One source familiar with the company said that finding a buyer to pay the company’s most recent valuation — somewhere between $300 million and $400 million after a $70 million funding round last July — would be considered a great outcome.

A company spokesperson declined to comment, as did reps for the other companies we believe Flipagram is reaching out to.

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Just like Netflix and Hulu, now CBS will let you watch its shows online without ads

Actually, it’ll still have a few ads. And it will cost you, of course.

CBS will let people watch its newest shows online, without watching ads — if they’re willing to pay up.

CBS is rolling out a (mostly) ad-free version of its CBS All Access digital TV service, which gives subscribers the ability to watch CBS programming live and on demand.

All Access normally costs $5.99 per month, but CBS is selling a “commercial-free” option for $9.99.

That brings CBS in line with Hulu, which launched an ad-free version of its service last year that also cost an extra $4 a month. And Netflix, of course, shows all of its programming without ads.

There are some caveats to CBS’ “commercial-free” option. CBS isn’t spending much time highlighting these asterisks, but they tell you interesting things about the TV ecosystem in 2016:

  • If you stream a CBS show live, when it first airs, you’ll still see ads — the same ones you’d see on conventional TV, depending on the local TV market you’re in.
  • CBS says “select on-demand shows will include promotional interruptions.” I talked to a CBS rep for a translation: The “promotional interruptions” will be brief, but un-skippable, promos — 15 seconds at most, and no more than two promos per half-hour — for other CBS shows. They’ll show up in about 10 percent of CBS’ episodes, and about 20 percent of its titles — generally its newer shows. That’s because CBS has sold on-demand rights to some of those shows to subscription services like Amazon or Netflix, and in some cases those services have exclusive rights to an ad-free “window” for those shows.

So: Mostly ad-free, for an extra $4 a month.

The big picture is that CBS is still very much in the advertising business, and will be for a very long time. So it is presumably betting that the ad-free option will only be interesting to a subset of its All Access subscribers, who are a small subset of its total audience.

This summer, CEO Les Moonves said the digital service had about a million subscribers; he had previously promised to get it to four million by 2020. CBS launched All Access in October 2014.

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Facebook’s new skunkworks photo team wants to bring virtual reality to the masses

Facebook needs everyone to create VR content — not just Hollywood.

From the sunny rooftop patio at Facebook’s satellite office in Seattle, research scientist Matt Uyttendaele showed off just how easy it’s become to masquerade as a professional photographer.

Arm outstretched, holding a smartphone-sized 360-degree camera he bought on Amazon, Uyttendaele smiled in the general direction of the camera’s tiny lens.

“It really doesn’t matter where I point because it’s going to capture everything,” he said. “Cheese!”

With the click of a button, the camera did capture everything, from the blue waters of Lake Union to the tippy top of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. “That’s it. Just one shot,” Uyttendaele added. “If I posted this photo to Facebook, you’d be able to pan around with your phone so that you can experience this spot that we’re standing in.”

The photo turned out great. It also relied on a camera that retails for $350.


Matt Uyttendaele / Facebook

When Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus back in 2014, it did so under the assumption that virtual reality would be the next big platform — the mobile phone after the mobile phone. That’s probably not going to happen if capturing the perfect 360-degree photo or video requires hundreds of dollars in camera equipment.

That’s what Uyttendaele is trying to solve, along with the handful of other longtime software engineers that make up Facebook’s new computational photography team. That group was founded late last fall by three veterans with a combined 60+ years building photography tools nearby at Microsoft. Its task at Facebook: Make photo and video features that will make virtual reality stick with the masses.

Talk to anyone in the virtual reality world and they’ll tell you the industry’s greatest obstacle is finding an abundance of great content. And user-generated content — the “shot on my iPhone” kind of photos and videos that keep apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat alive — isn’t really possible for VR right now.

This team wants to change that.

One of Uyttendaele’s first projects after joining Facebook last November was ensuring Facebook could support 360-degree photos, the kind of images that also work inside a VR headset. Today, Facebook announced automated video stabilization for 360-degree videos uploaded to the service. This is designed to iron out the jumps and shakes from 360-video footage to make sure it’s actually watchable.

“360-degree video stabilization makes all the difference,” said Rick Szeliski, the head of Facebook’s computational photography team and another former Microsoft veteran. “If you put on a VR headset and the video’s wobbling around, you get motion-sick in just a few seconds.”

Capturing that kind of video is not yet mainstream. (Remember the $350 camera?) But eventually, Facebook believes it will be, which is why the team is also working to bring VR creation to the devices you already own.

Szeliski says the computational photography team is already working on 3D photo software for smartphones. It’s possible the product could work as a standalone app — à la Instagram’s Hyperlapse app — but it’s too soon to tell how something like this might materialize.

“I think we could write an app today that is very similar to iPhone panoramas, that captures a bit more information and creates a left eye-right eye [stereoscopy experience],” Uyttendaele said in regards to bringing 3D content to Facebook. “I’m not saying that we’re necessarily going to, but it’s possible.”

Getting VR content right, and simplifying the process for users, will be key for Facebook’s master plan. The VR industry is growing, thanks in large part to Facebook’s bet on Oculus and ensuing commitment to making it work. Facebook is building all of the tools needed for VR, from Oculus Rift headsets to $30,000 360-degree cameras. So it makes sense that consumer creation tools would be on its radar, too.

VR AR Investment Activity

Szeliski and his team don’t only focus on VR, though. The trio of Szeliski, Uyttendaele and Michael Cohen all joined Facebook with extensive backgrounds building photo software, things like Microsoft’s hyperlapse product and its 3-D photo technology Photosynth. Szeliski and Cohen are affiliate professors at nearby University of Washington in the areas of computer vision and graphics; Cohen also used to teach classes at Cornell and Princeton.

It’s no surprise, then, that the team has already grown from the initial three members up to nine in less than a year. And more are on the way. “Our management tells us that they want to invest heavily in this area,” Cohen said with a chuckle.

The team has a number of other consumer products already in the works. It helped build out Instagram’s Boomerang feature earlier this year; the team is working on stabilizing technology around live video; it also helps out on Masquerade, a startup Facebook acquired in March that creates the kind of face-distorting features that Snapchat made popular.

“We’re just trying to dream up new experiences,” Cohen said. “Once you know where the face is, what it’s doing, what its geometry is, you can now begin to extract expressions …. It just opens up a floodgate of ideas.”

Facial recognition is also relevant for — you guessed it — virtual reality. Facebook demoed what it called social VR at its F8 developer conference earlier this year, essentially human interactions in a virtual world. At the time, Facebook discussed the idea of users scanning their faces in order to create their avatars. That’s Masquerade’s specialty.

Nothing guarantees these ideas will work, of course.

360-degree photos and videos are new and still rare. They’re novel, but will probably always require more thought and effort to compose than a simple snapshot, and aren’t particularly gripping in the context and noise of the Facebook News Feed. Boomerang, meanwhile, lives inside what is still primarily a photo-sharing app (though the Instagram team is also trying to aggressively push video creation to its users).

But Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — who often speaks of a time when most of Facebook’s content will be video — are always thinking years into the future. The computational photography team has that same luxury.

“We’re not just gilding the lily, we’re not just making small improvements,” Szeliski says. “We work on the big, high-impact things.”

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Samsung announces its new smartwatch just in time to scoop Apple

The Gear 3 packs fast cellular abilities and GPS, among other features.

Just as they do in phones, Apple and Samsung are now duking it out for smartwatches. And with Apple expected to update the Apple Watch at next week’s event, Samsung is hoping to beat it to the punch.

On Wednesday, it introduced the Gear 3 smartwatch, which adds GPS and the option of a faster LTE cellular connection. The Gear 3, like its predecessor, uses Samsung’s homegrown Tizen operating system rather than relying on Google’s Android Wear.

That helps it stand out from the pack, but also makes it harder to get others to write apps for the watch.

Samsung didn’t give pricing or exact availability, but said to expect the S3 to arrive later this year in the U.S. It comes in two models, the LTE-equipped “frontier” edition and the “classic” model which has just bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

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This startup will give you money when you shop on other apps

And it thinks it has solved the big tech obstacle to making that happen smoothly.

Ibotta isn’t well known in Silicon Valley, but it probably should be.

The startup, which is based in Denver, lets shoppers get cash back via the Ibotta app when they buy certain products at participating grocers and retailers. It may be unsexy — no “on-demand” or subscription here — but it is currently in the Top 20 free shopping apps in both the Apple and Google app stores.

In recent years, however, Ibotta wanted to start playing a role in e-commerce rebates, too. Two years ago, it tried sending its app users to the mobile websites of retailers to complete purchases, but it killed the experiment because the experience had some kinks.

Now, it just added a selection of popular shopping apps to its cash rebate program — ones like Groupon, Jet and the Costco-like grocery app Boxed. The app gives rewards — say, 5 or 15 percent cash back — just for shopping on these apps, with the apps giving Ibotta a referral fee for bringing sales to them. Ibotta says it drove $1 million in sales to its app partners in the first week of the program.

To make the program function on the tech side, Ibotta is working with deep-linking startup Button, which lets shoppers click from one app to a specific point or product page within another app. After a purchase, the Ibotta user quickly is notified of their cash reward. If an Ibotta user doesn’t have one of the partnering apps on their phone, Button works behind the scenes to help them install it.

From a technology standpoint, the program is miles ahead of the experiment it tried two years ago when it partnered with retailers’ mobile sites, according to CEO Bryan Leach.

“You’d have to pinch and zoom and you wouldn’t get immediate feedback that you had earned anything,” he said.

On Button’s back end, the shopping apps can set rules to determine different sized rebates for different customers; first-time users of their app may get 40 percent cash back while existing customers only 5 percent.

This approach, which he called “dynamic segmentation,” has largely been ignored in the world of affiliate networks in e-commerce up to now, Leach said. As a result, retailers are sometimes giving big discounts to customers who were going to shop with them anyway.

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Mossberg: The post-Jobs Apple has soared financially, but lacks a breakthrough product

It’s still too soon to judge the Tim Cook era.

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.


Five years ago last week, the legendary Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO after an amazing 14-year run that took the technology company from the edge of disaster to the heights of glory. He personally selected his COO, Tim Cook, as the new CEO, and passed away six weeks later.

So, how has Apple changed in the first five years of the Tim Cook era? How is it different from the peak of the Jobs era?

The short answer is that the company has surged financially to heights Jobs likely never dreamed of. It has also refined its popular product line and retained most of its senior talent.

But Cook’s Apple has yet to produce the kind of new, game-changing product Jobs was famous for launching. Or, if it has, we don’t know it yet.

However, hard as it may be to believe, five years may be too short a time in which to judge the Cook era. But with a new iPhone launch expected next week, it’s worth looking back on how the company has changed in the past five years.

Dollars and sales

As a longtime product reviewer, I’m less interested in any company’s financials than I am in its products. But the financials can’t be ignored. You’ll find a very good summary giving a sense of Cook’s reign in this five-chart post by Recode Editor in Chief Dan Frommer.

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But there are some notable highlights. Over his five-year tenure, CEO Cook has roughly doubled Apple’s revenues and profits to an astounding $234 billion and $53 billion, respectively. Recent quarters have shown a rare downward trend, but the five-year pattern is still impressive. And this summer Apple sold its billionth iPhone, less than a decade after its introduction. That’s fewer units than all Android phones combined, but phenomenal for a single, premium product line. In just one quarter last December, iPhone sales exceeded the annual total for Jobs’s entire last year in fiscal 2011. But, again, sales have recently been declining.

Evolving products

Cook has evolved Apple’s core products in ways we don’t know whether Jobs would have done, with considerable success. In 2014, he launched two models of the iPhone 6, one of which matched the large screen size of Samsung’s phones. It was well done, and sales soared. Last year, slightly revised 6s models in the same sizes also sold well. He also introduced a huge 13-inch iPad Pro, with a snap-on physical keyboard, which Jobs thought unnecessary, and a stylus, which Jobs mocked and hated, even scorning the idea during the original iPhone launch. This year, Cook followed up with a smaller iPad Pro. The IPad Pro is doing well in the enterprise market, but it doesn’t appear to have yet reversed overall falling iPad sales.


Cook has also launched a beefed-up, app-based Apple TV, which finds itself in a crowded, confusing market of set-top boxes and so-called smart TVs. But it’s only a remnant of a big TV package, replete with a new programming service, that the company had long been hoping to provide. It’s ambitious, but lags in sales behind Roku and Amazon devices, partly due to its high price of $149 for the base model, and $199 for a model with more memory.

New products

When Jobs was CEO, he dazzled the tech world by running the table with a string of new products that other companies scrambled to match: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and the iPad. That’s a hard act to follow, and Apple has struggled to do so in the last five years.

Cook’s biggest hardware bet, the Apple Watch, which began shipping last year, dominates the tiny global market for smartwatches, but has yet to become either the tech must-have or the popular fashion accessory it was meant to be. A new model may appear as soon as next week, with a completely revised user interface, which is in effect an admission that the initial interface wasn’t good enough.

Meanwhile, the Mac lineup has stagnated, with some models approaching years without an update. The only new Mac introduced recently is the MacBook, which offers a vision of the future, but is costly, slow, requires adapters to work with its forward-looking single USB C port, and has an odd, flat keyboard I find uncomfortable. Updates to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are reported to be in the works, however.

A female model dressed very retro-seventies wears an Apple Watch with an orange Hermès band.
Apple

Apple Pay, a contactless payment system for recent iPhones and the Apple Watch, is making steady progress, but it depends on external factors, like merchant acceptance.

Apple Music, the company’s new streaming service based on its acquisition of Beats, is being overhauled in iOS 10 — at least in terms of its user interface — because it was lambasted for complexity and errors.

3D Touch, a new navigation tool that detects pressure on the iPhone screen to perform quick actions and peer into items like emails without opening them, hasn’t gained wide acceptance. It’s in some apps, but it’s still too hard to discover, missing on the iPads, and absent on Apple’s surprisingly popular iPhone SE.

Mitigating factors

But there are some major mitigating factors. First, the global economy is in the slowest economic recovery anyone can recall. Second, Cook is having to compete with a much more polished Android and a much more polished line of Samsung phones than Jobs ever did. The smartphone market in developed countries seems saturated. PC and tablet replacement cycles are longer.

Finally, it’s crucial to remember that Jobs’s successes didn’t happen overnight. While it was introduced in 2001, the iPod didn’t really take off big-time until 2004-2005. And it took a few years from its 2007 launch for the iPhone to begin hitting double-digit quarterly unit sales. So the jury is out on the Apple Watch.

Expanding markets


VCG / Getty
A hand holding an iPhone; half the apps’ names are written in Chinese.

Cook’s real innovation may lie in his efforts to broaden the company’s markets. He has worked tirelessly to grow Apple’s presence in China, even in the face of some great native Chinese phones. And, in a move Jobs would likely have scorned, he has partnered with enterprise companies like IBM, Cisco and Box to sell vastly more Apple devices into big companies by creating specialized apps and tools for them. This effort especially focuses on the iPad, whose consumer sales have been crumbling.

But, again, it’s much too soon to know if these bets will be winners or losers in the long run.

Privacy and security

Cook has shown a big commitment to both privacy and security by encrypting most iPhone data end-to-end and in a way that even Apple can’t decrypt. And he showed real guts earlier this year by refusing an FBI demand that he weaken that encryption to help the Bureau search a dead suspect’s phone. He argued that any software Apple built to do that would likely fall into the hands of bad actors and be sought by dictatorships worldwide.

Jobs was personally committed to privacy and security, and though we can’t know if he would have put the company on the line in this fight, Cook was firm in protecting the values of the company.

What’s next

With iPhone and company sales falling in recent quarters, and likely to do so again, Apple needs the all-new product breakthrough that has eluded Cook — sooner rather than later. The company is seriously working on augmented reality, though I don’t know details. Like everyone else, it’s toiling away on artificial intelligence and machine learning, though it’s focused more on building smarts into individual devices rather than in the cloud, like most of its competition. And it continues to work on automotive technology, though it isn’t clear whether that means an entire car.

But all of those potential payoffs are a ways off. Right now, Apple just needs an exciting new iPhone. After I saw Samsung’s gorgeous new Galaxy S7 in March, I wrote a column calling for the next iPhone to be “spectacular. Based on rumors, that much oomph may not be in the offing until 2017.

Still, the 2016 iPhone 7 we expect to see unveiled next week needs to provide a jolt of the old Jobs-ian product excitement while Cook’s biggest bets, known and unknown, slowly build.

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Apple and Washington fire back at EU tax ruling | Recode Daily: August 31, 2016

Europe’s $14.5 billion tax bill could signal trouble ahead for companies like Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook.

.Unfair. A cheap money grab. No basis in fact or in law. That was some of the invective coming out of Cupertino and Washington in response to an EU ruling that Apple benefited from a sweetheart tax deal with Ireland and must pay $14.5 billion in back taxes and penalties. The appeals process will run for years, but the ruling could signal more immediate consequences for multinational companies like Alphabet, Amazon, Netflix and Facebook, and could reboot long-stalled efforts at corporate tax reform in the U.S.
[David Morgan and Jason Lange | Reuters]

.Back in May, Google started a limited test of a ride-sharing service based on Waze, its crowdsourced mapping and navigation app. Now it’s expanding the carpool-oriented service to all Waze users in San Francisco. So, does this mean Google is going up against Uber head on? Not just yet.
[Johana Bhuiyan | Recode]

.The integration of Nest, maker of smart thermostats and smoke alarms, first into Google and then Alphabet has not been smooth, marked by disappointing performance and leadership changes. Now there’s some more reshuffling: Several dozen Nest platform engineers are being moved into the Google team working on its “living room” initiatives, like Google Home, the company’s answer to Amazon’s Echo speaker.
[Nick Statt | The Verge]

.As a destination for viewing videos, Twitter trails far behind YouTube. To try to close the gap, Twitter is finally going to do something YouTube has done for a while: Share ad revenue with its top video creators — and it’s offering a more generous split.
[Kurt Wagner | Recode]

.PayPal is looking for a cloud computing provider, and right now Google is the front-runner, ahead of market leaders Amazon and Microsoft, in what would be a big win for Google cloud chief Diane Greene.
[Ari Levy | CNBC]

Facebook
By Peter Kafka
Will a chart convince you? Okay. Here’s a chart.
TV
By Peter Kafka
A skinny bundle is better than no bundle at all.
Smartphones
By Ina Fried
Could dragging our knuckles actually be a step forward in the evolution of smartphones?

What with three hurricanes churning things up, now might be a good time to check out an interactive, real-time map of global winds. Windyty is the one with the buzz right now, but this one from Cameron Beccario is also excellent.

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