They scaled YouTube. Now they’ll shard everyone with PlanetScale

When the former CTOs of YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox seed fund a database startup, you know there’s something special going on under the hood. Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane saved YouTube from a scalability nightmare by inventing and open sourcing Vitess, a brilliant relational data storage system. But in the decade since working there, the pair […]

When the former CTOs of YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox seed fund a database startup, you know there’s something special going on under the hood. Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane saved YouTube from a scalability nightmare by inventing and open sourcing Vitess, a brilliant relational data storage system. But in the decade since working there, the pair have been inundated with requests from tech companies desperate for help building the operational scaffolding needed to actually integrate Vitess.

So today the pair are revealing their new startup PlanetScale that makes it easy to build multi-cloud databases that handle enormous amounts of information without locking customers into Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s infrastructure. Battletested at YouTube, the technology could allow startups to fret less about their backend and focus more on their unique value proposition. “Now they don’t have to reinvent the wheel” Vaidya tells me. “A lot of companies facing this scaling problem end up solving it badly in-house and now there’s a way to solve that problem by using us to help.”

PlanetScale has quietly raised a $3 million seed round in April led by SignalFire and joined by a who’s who of engineering luminaries. They include YouTube co-founder and CTO Steve Chen, Quora CEO and former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, former Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal, PayPal and Affirm co-founder Max Levchin, MuleSoft co-founder and CTO Ross Mason, Google director of engineering Parisa Tabriz, and Facebook’s first female engineer and South Park Commons Founder Ruchi Sanghvi. If anyone could foresee the need for Vitess implementation services, it’s these leaders who’ve dealt with scaling headaches at tech’s top companies.

But how can a scrappy startup challenge the tech juggernauts for cloud supremacy? First, by actually working with them. The PlanetScale beta that’s now launching lets companies spin up Vitess clusters on its database-as-a-service, their own through a licensing deal, or on AWS with Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure coming shortly. Once these integrations with the tech giants are established, PlanetScale clients can use it as an interface for a multi-cloud setup where they could keep their data master copies on AWS US-West with replicas on Google Cloud in Ireland and elsewhere. That protects companies from becoming dependent on one provider and then getting stuck with price hikes or service problems.

PlanetScale also promises to uphold the principles that undergirded Vitess. “It’s our value that we will keep everything in the query pack completely open source so none of our customers ever have to worry about lock-in” Vaidya says.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Battletested, YouTube Approved

He and Sougoumarane met 25 years ago while at Indian Institute Of Technology Bombay. Back in 1993 they worked at pioneering database company Informix together before it flamed out. Sougoumarane was eventually hired by Elon Musk as an early engineer for X.com before it got acquired by PayPal, and then left for YouTube. Vaidya was working at Google and the pair were reunited when it bought YouTube and Sougoumarane pulled him on to the team.

“YouTube was growing really quickly and the relationship database they were using with MySQL was sort of falling apart at the seams” Vaidya recalls. Adding more CPU and memory to the database infra wasn’t cutting it, so the team created Vitess. The horizontal scaling sharding middleware for MySQL let users segment their database to reduce memory usage while still being able to rapidly run operations. YouTube has smoothly ridden that infrastructure to 1.8 billion users ever since.

“Sugu and Mike Solomon invented and made Vitess open source right from the beginning since 2010 because they knew the scaling problem wasn’t just for YouTube, and they’ll be at other companies 5 or 10 years later trying to solve the same problem” Vaidya explains. That proved true, and now top apps like Square and HubSpot run entirely on Vitess, with Slack now 30 percent onboard.

Vaidya left YouTube in 2012 and became the lead engineer at Endorse, which got acquired by Dropbox where he worked for four years. But in the meantime, the engineering community strayed towards MongoDB-style key-value store databases, which Vaidya considers inferior. He sees indexing issues and says that if the system hiccups during an operation, data can become inconsistent — a big problem for banking and commerce apps. “We think horizontally-scaled relationship databases are more elegant and are something enterprises really need.

Database Legends Reunite

Fed up with the engineering heresy, a year ago Vaidya committed to creating PlanetScale. It’s composed of four core offerings: professional training in Vitess, on-demand support for open source Vitess users, Vitess database-as-a-service on Planetscale’s servers, and software licensing for clients that want to run Vitess on premises or through other cloud providers. It lets companies re-shard their databases on the fly to relocate user data to comply with regulations like GDPR, safely migrate from other systems without major codebase changes, make on-demand changes, and run on Kubernetes.

The PlanetScale team

PlanetScale’s customers now include Indonesian ecommerce giant Bukalapak, and it’s helping Booking.com, GitHub, and New Relic migrate to open source Vitess. Growth is suddenly ramping up due to inbound inquiries. Last month around when Square Cash became the number one app, its engineering team published a blog post extolling the virtues of Vitess. Now everyone’s seeking help with Vitess sharding, and PlanetScale is waiting with open arms. “Jiten and Sugu are legends and know firsthand what companies require to be successful in this booming data landscape” says Ilya Kirnos, founding partner and CTO of SignalFire.

The big cloud providers are trying to adapt to the relational database trend, with Google’s Cloud Spanner and Cloud SQL, and Amazon’s AWS SQL and AWS Aurora. Their huge networks and marketing war chests could pose a threat. But Vaidya insists that while it might be easy to get data into these systems, it can be a pain to get it out. PlanetScale is designed to give them freedom of optionality through its multi-cloud functionality so their eggs aren’t all in one basket.

Finding product market fit is tough enough. Trying to suddenly scale a popular app while also dealing with all the other challenges of growing a company can drive founders crazy. But if it’s good enough for YouTube, startups can trust PlanetScale to make databases one less thing they have to worry about.

Facebook Watch is finally growing as payouts get spread thin

Both Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV have yet to become superstar video platforms, leaving Facebook at risk as more people seek streaming entertainment instead of status updates. So today Facebook is trying to build some buzz for Watch with new stats and rollouts. The free video hub that combines original content, sports, and cult favorite […]

Both Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV have yet to become superstar video platforms, leaving Facebook at risk as more people seek streaming entertainment instead of status updates. So today Facebook is trying to build some buzz for Watch with new stats and rollouts. The free video hub that combines original content, sports, and cult favorite TV shows like Firefly now has 400 million users watching at least one minute per month. That’s not a ton of engagement amongst a wide audience. But on the brighter side there are 75 million users watching at least one minute per day with a much more promising average of 20 minutes per day.

Though that’s just 5 percent of Facebook’s 1.5 billion daily users, it indicates that if Facebook can get people hooked on its ad-supported shows, it could squeeze serious viewing time out of them. Just four months ago, Facebook was saying that only 50 million people spent at least 1 minute per month on Watch, so it’s making strong progress.

Watch is now available worldwide on desktop and Facebook Lite as well as the main Facebook app. And it’s rolling out ad breaks to 40 countries after an initial launch in 5 in August. It’s also renewing four shows for a second season: Huda BossFive PointsSacred Lies & Sorry For Your Loss.

But The Information reports that news media executives feel that while some shows are getting satisfactory viewership, ad revenue has been underwhelming. Six months ago, Facebook commissioned news programs from outlets like CNN and Buzzfeed. Facebook reportedly now plans to pay news video content producers less per show as it seeks to spread the same $90 million budget across more programs, potentially with a greater focus on international markets. That cut-back could make producing some shows tough, but at least the execs believe Facebook understands it must prioritize monetization for its content partners.

To the end, Facebook plans to offer more options for advertisers like more targeting capabilities, and expanding its In-Stream Reserve premium ad inventory inside the top quality Watch shows. For individual video creators, Ad Breaks will become more widely available including within game streams from eSports stars. Facebook is also planning to expand its Brand Collabs Manager to additional countries so creators can get hooked up with sponsorship deals, and let more creators sign up fans for Patreon-style subscription payments.

The viewing stats have likely been bolstered by the addition of all episodes of Joss Whedon’s old TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly that users can binge watch for hours on end. 12 million Watch Party group video sessions have been launched to date, helping shows go viral. Facebook is now testing live picture-in-picture commentating that could let actors host viewing parties that feel like you’re sitting in the living room beside them. Facebook’s VP of video Fidji Simo writes that “With Facebook Watch, we set out to demonstrate what it looks like to build deep bonds through watching online video, instead of just having a passive viewing experience.”

Simo also notes that “People can find videos on Facebook in a number of different places — Watch, News Feed, Search, Pages and more — and all of these can feel different. We want to make the experience of watching video feel immersive no matter where you discovered it. As part of this effort, we’ll be testing a few things in the coming months, like creating a darker background whenever you immerse yourself into a video on mobile.”

Facebook has yet to concentrate its funding on a blockbuster tentpole video series — its Game Of Thrones or House Of Cards. The closest thing it has is the Elizabeth Olsen show Sorry For Your Loss, though viewership has been somewhat weak. Next year Facebook Watch will debut a revived and social media-infused web version of MTV’s Real World. But tapping its deep pockets to pay for one must-see original scripted series could help wedge Watch into people’s lives.

Robinhood launches no-fee checking/savings with Mastercard & the most ATMs

Robinhood is undercutting the big banks by forgoing brick-and-mortar branches with its new zero-fee checking and savings account features. With no overdraft or monthly fees, a juicy 3 percent interest rate, and a claim of more US ATMs than the five biggest banks combined, Robinhood is using the scalability of software to pass impressive perks […]

Robinhood is undercutting the big banks by forgoing brick-and-mortar branches with its new zero-fee checking and savings account features. With no overdraft or monthly fees, a juicy 3 percent interest rate, and a claim of more US ATMs than the five biggest banks combined, Robinhood is using the scalability of software to pass impressive perks on to customers. The free stock trading app already used that approach to attack brokers like E*Trade and Charles Schwab that charge a per trade fee. Now it’s breaking into the larger financial services market with a model that could put the squeeze on Wells Fargo, Chase, and Bank Of America.

Today Robinhood launches checking and savings accounts in the US with a Mastercard debit card issued through Sutton Bank that starts shipping December 18th. Users earn 3 percent on all the dough they keep with Robinhood, yet there’s no minimum balance or fees for monthly membership, overdrafts, foreign transactions, or card replacements. That’s a pretty sweet deal compared to the other leading banks that all charge for some of that or offer much lower interest rates. The tradeoff is that while customers get 24/7 live text chat support, they won’t be able to walk into a local bank branch. Users who want early access can sign up here.

Robinhood expects to turn a profit thanks to a lean 300-employee operation, earning a margin on investing your money in US treasuries, and a revenue share with Mastercard on interchange fees charged to merchants when you swipe. The launch could be critical to keeping Robinhood worthy of its $5.6 billion valuation from when it took a $363 million Series D in March just a year after raising at a $1.3 billion valuation. The 6 million-user app invested in launching a free cryptocurrency trading exchange early this year only to see coin prices plummet and mainstream interest fall off. But with banks hammering users with surprise fees and mediocre user experience, there’s a huge opportunity for a mobile-first startup to disrupt how we store money.

“Brick-and-mortar locations are costly. Our goal with this product was to build a completely digital experience so we can reduce our overhead so we can pass more of the value back to customers” Robinhood co-CEO Baiju Bhatt tells me. [Disclosure: I know Bhatt and co-CEO Vlad Tenev from college] “Saving accounts in the US pay on average 0.09 percent and we all know the banks are making far more than that from the deposits. With Robinhood you earn 3 percent off all of your money. Mental math is hard so if you look at the median US household that has about $8000 in liquid savings, they’d earn $240 a year.”

Robinhood will be sending invites to users in January for the new feature that they can use exclusively or alongside their existing bank. Anyone approved to use Robinhood’s stock brokerage is eligible, but users can also sign up directly for checking and savings with no obligation to trade stocks. Robinhood claims signing up won’t impact your credit score. Users get to customize a Robinhood-branded debit card that’s accepted wherever Mastercard is.

One of the most appealing features of Robinhood checking and savings is getting access to 75,000 free-to-use ATMs in places like Target, Walgreens, and 7-Eleven. Users won’t be able to tell just by looking at an ATM whether it’s in the network, but the Robinhood app features a map for finding the nearest one. You can deposit checks via Robinhood’s app too, and if you need to send a check, you can just tell the startup how much to deliver to whom and it will mail the check for you.

Robinhood will have to convince users it’s worthy of their trust, as a security breach could be disastrous. There’s also the question of whether people are ready to ditch their bank branch. “Behaviors about and going into a branch are definitely changing” says Bhatt. My biggest concern was not having any consistency in who I talk to when I need banking helpf. Bhatt tells me the company plans to roll out more personalized customer service features in the coming months.

Getting into banking could open a lucrative revenue stream for Robinhood as it charts its path to IPO. The startup recently hired Jason Warnick, a 20-year veteran of Amazon, to be its CFO and get it prepped to go public. Wall Street will want to see a more robust business that’s not as vulnerable to foes like stock brokerage Charles Schwab which is already lowering fees to stay competitive with Robinhood. Not only will checking and savings see users move more money into their Robinhood accounts that it can invest to earn a profit, but it also poises the startup to tackle more financial services in the future.

Postmates unveils Serve, a friendlier autonomous delivery robot

San Francisco partially banned delivery robots because they obstructed pedestrians, so Postmates built one with eyes, turn signals, and a mandate to yield. Serve is Postmates’ new cooler-meet-autonomous-stroller that it hopes can cut costs and speed up deliveries. The semi-autonomous rover uses cameras and LIDAR to navigate sidewalks, but always has a human pilot remotely […]

San Francisco partially banned delivery robots because they obstructed pedestrians, so Postmates built one with eyes, turn signals, and a mandate to yield. Serve is Postmates’ new cooler-meet-autonomous-stroller that it hopes can cut costs and speed up deliveries. The semi-autonomous rover uses cameras and LIDAR to navigate sidewalks, but always has a human pilot remotely monitoring a fleet of Serves who can take control if there’s a problem. There’s even a “Help” button, touchscreen, and video chat display customers or passers-by can use to summon assistance.

Serve will be rolling out in various cities over the next year. It does deliveries to customers that unlock its cargo hatch with their phone or a passcode, but it also can grab food from restaurants in congested areas and bring them to a Postmates dispatch hub from which delivery people can take packages the last mile. That could save Postmates money on delivery labor, but the company didn’t provide any information on how it might help transition delivery staff to other roles or careers.

“Somehow as a society we’re OK with moving a 2-pound burrito with a 2-ton car. All the energy is used to move the car, not the burrito, and there all the congestion it introduces” says Ali Kashani, VP of Postmates X special projects. So Postmates spent the last couple of years piloting autonomous rovers built by Starship and Robby before deciding only it had the on-demand experience to build the right bot.

Serve can carry 50 pounds of goods for 25 miles on a single charge — enough to make around a dozen deliveries per day. Thanks to a low center of gravity achieved by building the battery into the bottom of the chassis, it’s less likely to get cow-tipped. It uses Velodyne Lidar and a NVIDIA XAVIER processor to tell where it’s going.  A Postmates spokesperson tells me that the scalability and efficiency of the rovers, it hopes to eventually make its infrastructure available to customer at nearly zero cost.

We took time to figure out what is the language for the rover and pedestrians to interact with each other. If a robot is at sidewalk and wants to be able to cross the street, it needs to show its intent to cross” Kashani tells me. Thanks to a light ring around the top with turn signals and eyes that can indicate where it’s trying to go, Kashani believes Serve can be a respectful and natural part of the urban environment. 

Avoiding becoming an obstacle to seniors, children, and people in wheelchairs will be critical if cities are going to allow robots like Serve to operate. In December, San Francisco nearly banned the bots by limiting companies to three robots each with only nine total in the city that are relegated to low-population areas, can’t travel more than three miles per hour, and must be supervised remotely by humans.

Postmates tells me it’s been working with the SF board of supervisors including Norman Yee and a coalition of logistics companies to develop a regulatory framework for issuing permits allowing limited autonomous deliveries. Postmates’ permit application is under review by the City of SF. Postmates is working with SF’s Emerging Technology Working Group, local merchant associations, and pedestrian safety groups to figure out how to balance innovative tools that could increase local retail sales and reduce traffic with the public’s need for right of way on the sidewalks.

Facebook relaunches search ads to offset slowing revenue

It’s an ad duoply battle. Facebook is starting to test search ads in its search results and Marketplace, directly competing with Google’s AdWords. Facebook first tried Sponsored Results back in 2012 but eventually shut down the product in 2013. Now it’s going to let a small set of automotive, retail, and ecommerce industry advertisers show […]

It’s an ad duoply battle. Facebook is starting to test search ads in its search results and Marketplace, directly competing with Google’s AdWords. Facebook first tried Sponsored Results back in 2012 but eventually shut down the product in 2013. Now it’s going to let a small set of automotive, retail, and ecommerce industry advertisers show users ads on the search results page on mobile in the US and Canada.

They’ll be repurposed News Feed ads featuring a headline, image, copy text, and a link in the static image or carousel format that can point users to external websites. Facebook declined to share screenshots as it says the exact design is still evolving. Facebook may expand search ads to more countries based on the test’s performance.

The reintroduction of search ads could open an important new revenue stream at a time when Facebook’s revenue growth is quickly decelerating as it runs out of News Feed ad space, the Stories format that advertisers are still adapting is poised to overtake feed sharing on social apps, and users shift their time elsewhere. In Q3 2018, revenue grew 33 percent year-over-year, but that’s far slower than the 49 percent YOY gain it had a year ago, and the 59 percent from Q3 2016. Opening up new ad inventory for search could reinvigorate the sagging revenue growth rate that, combined with Facebook’s privacy and security scandals, has put intense pressure on Facebook’s leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook’s revenue growth rate has slowed significantly over the past two years

“We’re running a small test to place ads in Facebook search results, and we’ll be evaluating whether these ads are beneficial for people and businesses before deciding whether to expand it” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani to TechCrunch in a statement. The announcement of the search ads comes as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is under fire from Congress over data privacy, though the move could help Google look less like it has a monopoly in search.

Back in 2012, Facebook desperately sought extra revenue streams following its botched IPO. Sponsored Results let game companies, retailers, and more inject links to their Facebook apps, Pages, and posts as ads in the search typeahead results. Since advertisers could target searches for specific other Pages and apps, brands and game developers often tried to swoop in and steal traffic from their competitors. For example, dating app Match.com could target searches for competitor OkCupid and appear above its results. Facebook isn’t allowing advertisers to be quite as cutthroat with this test.

Facebook’s 2012 Sponsored Results ads let competitors swoop on each other’s traffic

With the relaunch, advertisers with access will be able to simply extend their existing Newss Feed ads to the new “Search” placement through the Facebook Ads Manager, similar to how they’d pick Facebook Audience Network or Instagram. No videos ads will be allowed, and search ads won’t appear on desktop. Marketplace search ads will appear on iOS and Android, while Facebook search ads are only testing on Android. For now, advertisers won’t pick specific keywords to advertise agains, and instead may appear in search terms related to auto or retail topics. Still, the placement will let advertisers dive deeper down the conversion funnel to reach people who might already have intent to buy something and fullfill that demand. Facebook’s News Feed ads (other than those retargeted based on web browsing) are better for demand generation, and sit higher in the funnel reaching users who don’t know what they want yet.

Ads will featured a “Sponsored” tag, and are subject to the same transparency controls around “Why Am I Seeing This?” Facebook plans to evaluate the benefits for users and advertisers in order to determine whether to roll out the ads to more countries and categories. Users will not be able to opt out of seeing search ads. They can “hide” ads using the drop-down arrow as with News Feed ads, but that won’t prevent different ones from showing up in search later.

Facebook’s share of the $279.56 billion total worldwide digital ad market will grow to 19.5 percent this year, trailing #1 Google which has 31.5 percent. After gaining multiple percentage points of share the last few years, eMarketer estimated Facebook’s cut of total digital ad spend would fall to around 1 percent the next two years. Unlocking search ad inventory could perk up those projections. Facebook would only need to hit 3.3 percent of talk search ad share to surpass Microsoft for the #3 spot, or 6.5 percent to top Chinese search engine Baidu.

One major concern is that Facebook already collects as much information as possible about people and their behavior to target its ads. With the reintroduction of search ads, it’s even more incentivized to gather what we do online, what we buy offline, and who we are.

Facebook will have to balance the injection of the ads with remaining an easy way to search for friends, content, businesses and more. Search is far from the core of Facebook’s offering, where users typically browse the News Feed for serendipitous content discovery rather than go looking for something specific. The most common searches are likely for friends’ names which won’t be great ad candidates. But given how accustomed users are to search ads on Google, this new revenue stream could help Facebook boost its numbers without too much disruption to its service.

Instagram launches walkie-talkie voice messaging

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today. Users can hold down the microphone […]

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today.

Users can hold down the microphone button to record a short voice message that appears in the chat as an audio wave form that recipients can then listen to at their leisure.  Voice messages are up to one-minute long, stay permanently listenable rather than disappearing, and work in one-on-one and group chats on iOS and Android. The feature offers an off-camera asynchronous alternative to the video calling feature Instagram released in June. It will have to compete with Viber, Zello, and Telegram as well as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for the use case.

Hands-free Direct messaging could make Instagram a more appealing chat app for drivers, people on the move with their hands full, or users in the developing world who want a more intimate connection without having to pay for the data for long audio or video calls. It could also be a win for users in countries with less popular languages or ones that aren’t easily compatible with smartphone keyboards, as they could talk to friends instead of typing.

The launch deepens Facebook’s entry into the voice market. From its first voice messaging and VOIP features back in 2013 to its new voice control system Aloha that works on its recently launched Portal video chat screen, Facebook has long taken an interest in the accessibility of voice but only got serious about building it across its products in 2018. Along with Instagram video calling, today launch raises the question of whether Portal and Instagram will team up. That could make Portal more useful…but also risks making Instagram less cool by tightening its ties to Facebook.

How Uber will become an ad company, starting with Eats Pool

Where there is discovery in an app, there is paid discovery. Google helped you choose between links, then sold ads that promote a few. Facebook helped you choose between pieces of content, then sold ads that promote a few. And eventually, as Uber helps you choose between restaurants, it will sell ads that promote a […]

Where there is discovery in an app, there is paid discovery. Google helped you choose between links, then sold ads that promote a few. Facebook helped you choose between pieces of content, then sold ads that promote a few. And eventually, as Uber helps you choose between restaurants, it will sell ads that promote a few. It could become the marketing platform through which the physical world vies for your attention.

We got our first glimpse of this future last week when I reported that Uber Eats was offering restaurants in India bonus visibility in a Specials section if they’d offer discounts on meal bundles to Uber’s customers. Knock some rupees off the price of a sandwich, fries, and a drink, and a restaurants wins itself some enhanced discoverability. Whether a chef wants to boost orders during slow hours, get rid of surplus food, preference high margin items, or just score new customers, there’s plenty of reasons to pay Uber — even if currently only indirectly through discounts instead of a direct ad buy.

But now Uber’s senior director and head of Eats product Stephen Chau has confirmed to me the company’s intentions to become an ad company. “There’s a bunch of different ways we can work with restaurants over time. If we have all the restaurants on the marketplace and we give them tools to help them grow, then this will be a very efficient marketplace. They’re going to be spending those ad dollars somewhere” Chau tells me. “One of the things we’ve been experimenting with is allowing retailers to create promotions themselves and show them within the product.”

This conversation emerged from TechCrunch spotting Uber’s latest effort to influence where people choose to eat. To be worthy of ad dollars, Uber has to build leverage over restaurants by accruing sway over how people decide between restaurants. And with Uber confidentially filing to go public last week, it needs to prep new revenue streams. So it’s created what’s effectively “Uber Eats Pool”.

Gaining Leverage With Eats Pool

In response to our inquiry, Uber confirmed it’s now testing in some markets a system designed to batch multiple orders from different customers nearby each other to a single restaurant. That way, a single delivery driver can pick up all the orders at once and then speedily distribute them to neighbors or co-workers. Uber must incentivize customers who are close to each other to pick the same restaurant in rapid succession, so it offers a discount.

“$2 off your order — share a courier with a nearby order” the promotion announces atop the Uber Eats homescreen above a carousel of restaurants where you can grab the discount. It’s equipped with a countdown timer to when it will refresh the list of restaurants that follows users on an eatery’s order page. This triggers a sense of urgency to hurriedly buy through Uber Eats (and not check competitors), but also to ensure orders come in close enough together that the first one cooked won’t have to wait long for the last before they’re all scooped up for delivery.

Some customers actually play the Uber Eats Pool discounts like a game they can beat, waiting through several rounds of the timer until they spot one of their favorite restaurants, Chau says with a laugh. For now, passengers don’t ride alongside food orders, though that’s certainly a possibility in the future. And if Uber Eats can batch your order into a Pool with other customers, it will retroactively give you the discount.

“It’s similar to what we did with Uber Pool” Chau tells me. “Generally people are coming in with an intent to eat but there are many, many options available to them. We’re giving you a discount on the food delivery by using machine learning to understand these are some restaurants it might make sense to order from. When multiple people order from the same restaurant, delivery drivers can pick up multiple people’s food.”

Therein lies the leverage. As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson writes about aggregation theory, internet companies are gaining great influence by becoming marketplaces that connect customers with suppliers when previously customers preemptively chose a particular supplier. These platforms not only gain enormous amounts of data on customer preferences, but they also hold the power to point customers to certain suppliers that are willing to play ball.

Uber Builds A Toll Bridge

With all the data, the platforms know just who to show the ads to for a maximum conversion rate. And over time as the aggregator’s perks lure in more customers, it can pit suppliers against each other to further drop their prices or pay more for ads. Spotify used its own playlists to control what songs became popular, and the artists and record labels became beholden to cutting it sweeter deals to stay visible. Amazon looks like the best place to shop because it makes merchants fiercely fight to offer the lowest prices and best customer experience. With Uber Eats Pool, Uber is flexing its ability to influence where you eat, training you to trust where it points you when businesses eventually pay directly to be ranked higher in its app.

“Eats proves the power and potential of the Uber platform, showing how our logistics expertise can create the easiest way to eat” Chau tells me. “We partner with a wide selection of restaurants and bring our trademark speed and coverage to the food delivery experience. This feature shows how leveraging the Uber network allows us to offer people even more affordable dining options.” That quote is even more telling than at first glance. It’s the logistic network that accrues the power and creates leverage over the supplier to benefit customers with the lowest prices.

“We can see on Eats how much more business they’re bringing in and how much is incremental new business. Eventually we’ll be able to do very precise targeting. ‘People who haven’t tried my restaurant before, let’s give them a discount'” Chau tells us. Restaurants are asking him how to grow delivery as a percentage of their orders. “We can see the types of food people are ordering right now but also what they’re searching or are not able to order [because that cuisine isn’t available nearby]. We’re working with them to create new options to fill that gap. They’re able to get much more utilization of their fixed assets and iterate on these concepts much faster than they’re used to.”

Uber demonstrated the data science it could dangle over restaurants with its review of Uber Eats 2018 trends it published this morning. It predicts clean eating, plant-based foods, smoothie bowls, milk alternatives, fermented items like kimchi, and Instagrammably dark ‘goth food’ will rise in popularity next year. Meanwhile, now-tired social media bait ‘rainbow-colored foods’, brussel sprouts, and seaweed are on the decline.

It becomes easy to imagine restaurants running Uber Eats software for tracking order trends and predicting spikes to better manage food and staffing resources, with a baked-in option to buy ads or give deeper discounts to get seen by more hungry people. Chau concludes “Restaurants can think of Uber Eats as a platform that gives them this intelligence.”

FB QVC? Facebook tries Live video shopping

Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app. […]

Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app.

Facebook confirms the new shopping feature is currently in testing with a limited set of Pages in Thailand, which has been a testbed for shopping features. The option was first spotted by social media and reputation manager Jeff Higgins, and re-shared by Matt Navarra and Social Media Today. But now Facebook is confirming the test’s existence and providing additional details.

The company tells me it had heard feedback from the community in Thailand that Live video helped sellers demonstrate how items could be used or worn, and provided richer understanding than just using photos. Users also told Facebook that Live’s interactivity let customers instantly ask questions and get answers about product specifications and details. Facebook has looked to Thailand to test new commerce experiences like home rentals in Marketplace, as the country’s citizens were quick to prove how Facebook Groups could be used for peer-to-peer shopping. “Thailand is one of our most active Marketplace communities” says Mayank Yadav, Facebook Product Manager for Marketplace.

Now it’s running the Live shopping test, which allows Pages to notify fans that they’re going broadcasting to “showcase products and connect with your customers”. Merchants can take reservations and request payments through Messenger.  Facebook tells me it doesn’t currently have plans to add new partners or expand the feature. But some sellers without access are being invited to join a waitlist for the feature. It also says it’s working closely with its test partners to gather feedback and iterate on the live video shopping experience, which would seem to indicate it’s interested in opening the feature more widely if it performs well.

Facebook doesn’t take a cut of payments through Messenger, but the feature could still help earn the company money at a time when it’s seeking revenue streams beyond News Feed ads as it runs out of space their, Stories take over as the top media form, and user growth plateaus. Hooking people on video viewing helps Facebook show lucrative video ads. The more that Facebook can train users to buy and sell things on its app, the better the conversion rates will be for businesses, and the more they’ll be willing to spend on ads. Facebook could also convince sellers who broadcast Live to buy its new Marketplace ad units to promote their wares. And Facebook is happy to snatch any use case from the rest of the internet, whether it’s long-form video viewing or job applications or shopping to boost time on site and subsequent ad views.

Increasingly, Facebook is setting its sights on Craigslist, Etsy, and eBay. Those commerce platforms have failed to keep up with new technologies like video and lack the trust generated by Facebook’s real name policy and social graph. A few years ago, selling something online meant typing up a generic description and maybe uploading a photo. Soon it could mean starring in your own infomercial.

[Postcript: And a Facebook home shopping network could work perfectly on its new countertop smart display Portal.]

Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.” Facebook had previously enforced that policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used […]

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

Facebook had previously enforced that policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

The move will significantly reduce the risk of building on the Facebook platform. It could also cast it in a better light in the eyes of regulators. Anyone seeking ways Facebook abuses its dominance will lose a talking point. And by creating a more fair and open platform where developers can build without fear of straying too close to Facebook’s history or road map, it could reinvigorate its developer ecosystem.

A Facebook spokesperson provided this statement to TechCrunch:

We built our developer platform years ago to pave the way for innovation in social apps and services. At that time we made the decision to restrict apps built on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality. These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple. We regularly review our policies to ensure they are both protecting people’s data and enabling useful services to be built on our platform for the benefit of the Facebook community. As part of our ongoing review we have decided that we will remove this out of date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible. We think this is the right thing to do as platforms and technology develop and grow.

The change comes after Facebook locked down parts of its platform in April for privacy and security reasons in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Diplomatically, Facebook said it didn’t expect the change to impact its standing with regulators but it’s open to answering their questions.

Earlier in April, I wrote a report on how Facebook used Policy 4.1 to attack competitors it saw gaining traction. The article, “Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors,” advocated for Facebook to make its social graph more portable and interoperable so users could decamp to competitors if they felt they weren’t treated right in order to coerce Facebook to act better.

The policy change will apply retroactively. Old apps that lost Find Friends or other functionality will be able to submit their app for review and, once approved, will regain access.

Friend lists still can’t be exported in a truly interoperable way. But at least now Facebook has enacted the spirit of that call to action. Developers won’t be in danger of losing access to that Find Friends Facebook API for treading in its path.

Below is an excerpt from our previous reporting on how Facebook has previously enforced Platform Policy 4.1 that before today’s change was used to hamper competitors:

  • Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie-style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he thought that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted toward business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
  • MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
  • Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
  • Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its six-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.

Uber Eats test lets restaurants trade discounts for ranking boost

Uber Eats has effectively invented its own native ad unit. Uber confirmed to TechCrunch that a test quietly running in markets around India allows restaurants to bundle several food items together and sell them at a discounted price in exchange for promoted placement by Uber Eats in a featured section of local “Specials”. In some […]

Uber Eats has effectively invented its own native ad unit. Uber confirmed to TechCrunch that a test quietly running in markets around India allows restaurants to bundle several food items together and sell them at a discounted price in exchange for promoted placement by Uber Eats in a featured section of local “Specials”. In some cases, restaurants foot the cost of the discount, while in others Uber pays for the discounts.

The Uber Specials feature demonstrates the massive leverage awarded to food delivery apps that aggregate restaurants. Users often come to Uber Eats and its competitors without a specific restaurant in mind. Uber can then point those customers to whichever food supplier it prefers. The suppliers in turn will increasingly compete for the favor the aggregators — not just in terms of food quality, speed, and review scores, but also in terms of discounts. The aggregators will win users if they offer the best deals, creating a network effect makes restaurants more keen to play ball.

TechCrunch first learned of Uber’s ambitions in the space from a mock-up of the Promoted Items Value Section feature spotted in its app by mobile researcher and frequent TC tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The fictional food items included “Best Beer” that “is made from only the finest gutter swill” and “Weird Fries” that “will so utterly decimate your sense of good food that you will be permanently reduced to a whimpering shell of your former self!” This jokey text that seemingly was never meant for public viewing also noted that the fries are so good you should “throw all your other food in the garbage right now!” Uber assured us these weren’t real.

But what it did confirm is that the discounts for promoted placement test is live in India. “We’re always experimenting with ways to make it easier to find your favorite foods on Uber Eats”, according to a statement provided by an Uber spokesperson.

The feature allows restaurants to create a bundled meal at certain price point, such as a chicken sandwich, french fries, and a drink at a price that’s less than the sum of its parts. The company tells me the goal is to take the friction out of ordering by giving people pre-set meals at a better price prominently available in the app. Attracting more customers that have plenty of other options could offset the discount. Businesses could also use it to bundle high margin items like soft drinks in with meals, or to get rid of overstock.

Ben Thompson’s aggregation theory describes how power accrues to aggregators that match supply with demand

It’s already common for restaurants to make ‘specials’ out of food they have too much of. That butternut squash ravioli might only be featured because they can’t get rid of it. In that sense, you could think of Uber Specials as the inverse of surge pricing. When supply is too high, restaurants can offer discounts to gain more demand. It’s also not far off from Google Search’s keyword ads where business pay for more visibility.

Uber wouldn’t discuss whether it plans to bring the strategy to other markets, but it makes sense to assume it’s considering expansion. Done wrong, it could look a bit like Uber Eats is pressuring restaurants to surrender discounts if they want to be discoverable inside its app. If restaurants within Uber Eats get into heated competition to offer discounts, it could drive down their profits. But done right, Specials could look like a triple-win. Restaurants can offload surplus and bundle in high margin items while scoring new customers from enhanced placement, customers get cheaper food options, and Uber Eats becomes people’s go-to app for easy-to-order discounted meals.