Meet Projector, collaborative design software for the Instagram age

Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures bonded with Trevor O’Brien in prison. The pair, Suster was quick to clarify, were on site at a correctional facility in 2016 to teach inmates about entrepreneurship as part of a workshop hosted by Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the issue of mass incarceration.

They hit it off, sharing perspectives on life and work, Suster recounted to TechCrunch. So when O’Brien, a former director of product management at Twitter, mentioned he was in the early days of building a startup, Suster listened.

Three years later, O’Brien is ready to talk about the idea that captured the attention of the Bird, FabFitFun and Ring investor. It’s called Projector.

It’s the brainchild of a product veteran (O’Brien) and a gaming industry engineer turned Twitter’s vice president of engineering (Projector co-founder Jeremy Gordan), a combination that has given way to an experiential and well-designed platform. Projector is browser-based, real-time collaborative design software tailored for creative teams that feels and looks like a mix of PowerPoint, Google Docs and Instagram . Though it’s still months away from a full-scale public launch, the team recently began inviting potential users to test the product for bugs.

We want to reimagine visual communication in the workplace by building these easier to use tools and giving creative powers to the non-designers who have great stories to tell and who want to make a difference,” O’Brien told TechCrunch. “They want change to happen and they need to be empowered with the right kinds of tools.”

Today, Projector is a lean team of 13 employees based in downtown San Francisco. They’ve kept quiet since late 2016 despite closing two rounds of venture capital funding. The first, a $4 million seed round, was led by Upfront’s Suster, as you may have guessed. The second, a $9 million Series A, was led by Mayfield in 2018. Hunter Walk of Homebrew, Jess Verrilli of #Angels and Nancy Duarte of Duarte, Inc. are also investors in the business, among others.

O’Brien leads Projector as chief executive officer alongside co-founder and chief technology officer Gordon. Years ago, O’Brien was pursuing a PhD in computer graphics and information visualization at Brown University when he was recruited to Google’s competitive associate product manager program. He dropped out of Brown and began a career in tech that would include stints at YouTube, Twitter, Coda and, finally, his very own business.

O’Brien and Gordan crossed paths at Twitter in 2013 and quickly realized a shared history in the gaming industry. O’Brien had spent one year as an engineer at a games startup called Mad Doc Software, while Gordon had served as the chief technology officer at Sega Studios. Gordan left Twitter in 2014 and joined Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence before O’Brien pitched him on an idea that would become Projector.

Projector co-founders Jeremy Gordan (left), Twitter’s former vice president of engineering, and Trevor O’Brien, Twitter’s former director of product management

“We knew we wanted to create a creative platform but we didn’t want to create another creative platform for purely self-expression, we wanted to do something that was a bit more purposeful,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to see good ideas succeed. And with all of those good ideas, succeeding typically starts with them being presented well to their audience.”

Initially, Projector is targeting employees within creative organizations and marketing firms, who are frequently tasked with creating visually compelling presentations. The tool suite is free for now and will be until it’s been sufficiently tested for bugs and has fully found its footing. O’Brien says he’s not sure just yet how the team will monetize Projector, but predicts they’ll adopt Slack’s per user monthly subscription pricing model.

As original and user-friendly as it may be, Projector is up against great competition right out of the gate. In the startup landscape, it’s got Canva, a graphic design platform valued at $2.5 billion earlier this week with a $70 million financing. On the old-guard, it’s got Adobe, which sells a widely used suite of visual communication and graphic design tools. Not to mention Prezi, Figma and, of course, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, which is total crap but still used by millions of people.

There are many tools scratching at the surface, but there’s not one visual communications tool that wins them all,” Suster said of his investment in Projector.

Projector is still in its very early days. The company currently has just two integrations: Unsplash for free stock images and Giphy for GIFs. O’Brien would eventually like to incorporate iconography, typography and sound to liven up Projector’s visual presentation capabilities.

The ultimate goal, aside from generally improving workplace storytelling, is to make crafting presentations fun, because shouldn’t a corporate slideshow or even a startup’s pitch be as entertaining as scrolling through your Instagram feed?

“We wanted to try to create something that doesn’t feel like work,” O’Brien said.

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ARM halts Huawei relationship following US ban

The dominoes continue to fall for Huawei in the wake of a Trump-led U.S. trade ban. An internal memo from ARM lays out the chip giant’s decision to hit pause on “all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements,” per the BBC.

While based in Cambridge, England, the company believes itself to be impacted by the trade issue due to its use of technology originating in the States. The move is just another indication of how complex the issue of extracting U.S.-based technology from these devices will ultimately be. If upheld, many believe it could ultimately doom Huawei.

Huawei offered TechCrunch a fairly standard response to the news, once again chalking things up to politics. “We value our close relationships with our partners, but recognize the pressure some of them are under, as a result of politically motivated decisions,” it wrote. “We are confident this regrettable situation can be resolved and our priority remains to continue to deliver world-class technology and products to our customers around the world.”

Google was among the first to respond to Huawei’s inclusion on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s “Entity” trade blacklist, pulling support for Android. Other partners, including Microsoft have remained largely silent on the matter.

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Apple has a plan to make online ads more private

For years, the web has been largely free thanks to online ads. The problem is that nobody likes them. When they’re not obnoxiously taking over your entire screen or autoplaying, they’re tracking you everywhere you go online.

Ads can track where you go and which sites you visit and can be used to build up profiles on individuals — even if you never click on one. And when you do, they know what you bought and then they share that with other sites so they know you were up late buying ice cream, cat food, or something a little more private.

The obvious logic would be to use an ad-blocker. But that’s not what keeps the internet thriving and available. Apple says it’s figured out some middle ground that keeps ads alive but without their nefarious ad tracking capabilities.

The tech giant came up with Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution. Yes, it’s a mouthful but the tech itself shows promise.

A bit of background: Any time you buy something online, the store that placed the ad knows you bought something and so do the other sites where the ad was placed. When a person clicks on an ad, the store wants to know which site the ad was clicked on so they know where to keep advertising, known as ad attribution. Ads often use tracking images — tiny, near-invisible pixel-sized trackers embedded on websites that know when you’ve opened a webpage. These pixels carry cookies, which make it easy for ads to track users across pages and entire websites. Using these invisible trackers, websites can build up profiles on people — whether they click ads or not — from site to site, such as their interests, what they want to buy, and more.

Apple’s thinking, outlined in a blog post Wednesday, is that ads don’t need to share that you bought something from an online store with anyone else. Ads just need to know that someone — and not an identifiable person — clicked on an ad on a site and bought something on another.

By taking the identifiable person out of the equation, Apple says its new technology can help preserve user privacy without reducing the effectiveness on ad campaigns.

Apple’s new web technology, soon to be built into its Safari browser, is broken down into four parts.

Firstly, nobody should be identifiable based off their ad clicks. Ads often use long and unique tracking codes to identify a user visiting various sites and buying things. By limiting the number of campaign IDs to just a few dozen, an advertiser won’t be able to assign unique tracking codes to each ad click, making it far more difficult to track individual users across the web. Secondly, only the website where the ad was clicked will be allowed to measure ad clicks, cutting out third-parties. Thirdly, the browser should delay the sending of ad click and conversion data — such as when someone signs up for a site or buys something — at random by up to two days to further hide the user’s activity. That data is sent through a dedicated private browsing window to ensure it’s not associated with any other browsing data.

Lastly, Apple said it can do this at the browser level, limiting how much data the ad networks and merchants can see.

Instead of knowing exactly who bought what and when, the privacy ad click technology will instead report back ad click and conversion data without identifying the person.

“As more and more browsers acknowledge the problems of cross-site tracking, we should expect privacy-invasive ad click attribution to become a thing of the past,” wrote Apple engineer John Wilander in a blog post.

One of the core features of the technology is the limiting the amount of data that ads can collect.

“Today’s practice of ad click attribution has no practical limit on the bits of data, which allows for full cross-site tracking of users using cookies,” explained Wilander. “But by keeping the entropy of attribution data low enough, we believe the reporting can be done in a privacy preserving way.”

Simply put, by restricting the number of campaign and conversion IDs to just 64, advertisers are prevented from using long and unique values that can be used as a unique identifier to track a user from site to site. Apple says that restricted number will still give advertisers enough information to know how well their ads are performing. Advertisers, for example, can still see that a particular ad campaign leads to more completed purchases, based off a specific conversion ID, than other ad campaigns when they’re run on specific site in the last 48 hours.

But Apple concedes that real-time tracking of purchases may be a thing of the past if the technology becomes widely adopted. By delaying the ad click and conversion reports by up to two days, advertisers lose real-time insight into who buys what and when. Apple says there’s no way to protect a user’s privacy if attribution reports are sent as soon as someone buys something.

Apple is set to switch on the privacy feature by default in Safari later this year but knows it can’t go in alone. The company has proposed the technology as a standard to the World Wide Web Consortium in the hope other browser makers will pick up the torch and run with it.

Anyone with a short memory will know that web standards don’t always take off. The ill-fated Do Not Track web standard was meant to allow browser users to send a signal to websites and ad networks not to be tracked. The major browser makers adopted the feature, but mired in controversy, the standard never took off.

Apple thinks its proposed standard can succeed — chiefly because unlike Do Not Track the privacy ad click technology can be enforced in the browser with other privacy-minded technology. In Safari’s case, that’s intelligence tracking prevention. Other browsers, like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are also doubling down on privacy features in an effort to win over the privacy crowd. Apple is also betting on users actively wanting this privacy technology, while balancing the concerns of advertisers who don’t want to be shut out through more drastic measures like users installing ad and content blockers.

The new privacy technology is in its developer-focused Safari Technology Preview 82, released last week, and will be available for web developers later this year.

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Roku launches new ad tool to compare linear and streaming audiences

Roku has been getting more serious about its ad business, and today it’s launching a new tool designed to make advertisers comfortable with moving their spending over from traditional TV.

Alison Levin, Roku’s vice president of ad sales and strategy, pointed to data from Magna Global estimating that while over-the-top viewing accounts for 29 percent of all TV watch time, it only represents 3 percent of TV ad budgets. She argued that this is a wasted opportunity for advertisers because they’re struggling to reach cord-cutters and “light TV viewers.”

Why is ad spend lagging? The problem, Levin said, is “a lack of tools to understand that shift.”

“Streaming is mainstream — brands need to shift to OTT to become whole again and find the consumers they’ve lost on linear,” she said. “Roku as a platform is really uniquely positioned to solve this problem. We do understand and know the viewership pattern of the largest streaming platforms, which allows us to not only help brands find an audience, but also understand the landscape.”

The company’s new Activation Insights tool uses data from Roku’s 29 million users to determine the audience that an advertiser is already reaching through linear TV, plus the additional audience that it could be reaching by advertising on OTT and therefore the optimal ad spend on the Roku ad platform (which includes the ad-supported Roku Channel and other apps).

For example, the company says it’s already found that 86 percent of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 who saw a Baskin Robbins ad on Roku had not seen the ad on linear TV, leading to 10.6 percent incremental reach. Meanwhile, 81 percent of viewers between 25 and 54 who saw a RE/MAX ad on Roku had not seen the ad on linear TV, leading to 9.2 percent incremental reach.

When asked about advertisers who may want someone to independently verify Roku’s data, Levin said the company is “committed to working with third-party research partners.” However, those partners aren’t currently working on Activation Insights because “to date, there hasn’t necessarily been a third-party partner, a sophisticated partner [to help us] understand incremental and unduplicated reach.”

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KaiOS raises $50M, hits 100M handsets powered by its feature phone OS

While Android and iOS have locked up the market for smartphone operating systems, a feature phone platform that has the distinction of being the world’s third biggest mobile OS is announcing a hefty round of funding to continue its expansion. KaiOS, which makes the OS that powers devices like Nokia’s feature phones and Jio’s devices out of India, has raised $50 million from Cathay Innovation (which led the round) and previous investors Google and TCL Holdings.

The funding takes the total raised by KaiOS — which has now shipped 100 million devices across 100 countries — to $72 million. It comes less than a year after Google invested $22 million in the the business — a strategic round that also marked KaiOS beginning the process of creating native integrations of different Google services like Maps and (more recently) Assistant into the platform.

KaiOS is not disclosing its valuation but Sebastien Codeville, its CEO, confirmed to be that it is “definitely up.” (Pitchbook put it at a very modest $43.75 million last year on the back of Google’s earlier round.)

We actually knew a little about this round back in February, at MWC in Barcelona, when KaiOS announced new handset partners and a raft of new features. A spokesperson for KaiOS told TechCrunch that the delay in closing the deal and making it public was due to a need to coordinate with different stakeholders.

As it turned out, KaiOS’s timing for this announcement turned out to be pretty interesting. The big news this week in mobile is what kind of an impact Huawei will face in the wake of a US regulation barring it from  doing business in the US. One development in that story has been just how serious Huawei is about building its own operating system to replace Google’s Android and its related services.

This is big news because while Huawei is currently the world’s second-biggest mobile phone maker, we haven’t seen any platform gain reasonable mobile phone traction against the hegemony of iOS and Android outside of China — including the failure of Firefox OS, which retreated from the market only to reemerge, phoenix-like, as KaiOS two years ago — in part because of the extensive ecosystems that have coalesced around these two.

But while all eyes are on smartphones, KaiOS’s funding and general growth represents an interesting alternative for markets, carriers and consumers that might be in the market for what KaiOS refers to as “smart feature phones.”

Today, the company counts companies like Reliance Jio, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Orange, MTN and Qualcomm among its partners, and it’s been building an interesting, two-pronged strategy for targeting people both in developed and developing markets.

As Sebastien Codeville, the CEO of KaiOS, describes it, in emerging markets (which are KaiOS’s primary target), its devices are being purchased by first-time phone users, or those that have had very basic, non-data mobile phones and are upgrading without the big step and expense of smartphones. “We are bringing people to internet usage with a device they are familiar with,” he said of the form factor. “Other key characteristics are a long battery life, a keyboard, and a more resistant touch panel.”

The developed market, he added, was an interesting opportunity because of the amount of professionals and others who want pared-down devices for weekend use to unplug from their daily grind.

Many had left feature phones for dead with the growth in popularity of devices like the iPhone, app stores and of course apps themselves. But research from Counterpoint found that feature phones still accounted for almost 25 percent of all handset shipments in Q3 of last year, working out to a $28 billion dollar market opportunity in the years ahead. Today there are some 1.5 billion feature phone users, an interesting number to consider as smartphone sales continue to feel the crunch. 

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