TaskRabbit kicks off Canadian expansion

TaskRabbit officially launched in Canada today.

The on-demand network that connects people with “taskers,” or others willing to do their household chores or errands for a fee, is kicking off its Canadian expansion in the greater Toronto area before rolling out in Vancouver in October and Montreal sometime in 2019.

This is the first major move abroad for the company in some time, as well as its first move under IKEA’s ownership. TaskRabbit first expanded beyond the U.S. in 2014, when it launched its app in the UK.

Otherwise, the service is only available in North America.

IKEA bought TaskRabbit 1 year ago as part of a deal that has allowed the company to operate independently from the Swedish furniture retailer under CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot. TaskRabbit, before its exit, had raised $38 million from investors including Founders Fund, First Round Capital and Floodgate.

TaskRabbit kicks off Canadian expansion

TaskRabbit officially launched in Canada today.

The on-demand network that connects people with “taskers,” or others willing to do their household chores or errands for a fee, is kicking off its Canadian expansion in the greater Toronto area before rolling out in Vancouver in October and Montreal sometime in 2019.

This is the first major move abroad for the company in some time, as well as its first move under IKEA’s ownership. TaskRabbit first expanded beyond the U.S. in 2014, when it launched its app in the UK.

Otherwise, the service is only available in North America.

IKEA bought TaskRabbit 1 year ago as part of a deal that has allowed the company to operate independently from the Swedish furniture retailer under CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot. TaskRabbit, before its exit, had raised $38 million from investors including Founders Fund, First Round Capital and Floodgate.

Apple’s iBooks revamp, Apple Books, is here

Apple’s new and improved iBooks app, now called Apple Books, has popped up on iPhones across the world today with the release of iOS 12, the software update available to download as of this morning.

The new app has five tabs: Reading Now, Library, Book Store, Search and, for the first time, a dedicated Audiobooks tab.

Apple first previewed it at WWDC in June. The company said its sleek new look was the “biggest books redesign ever.” Cleaner UI, coupled with larger images, gives the app a more modern feel and an overall better experience. More importantly, it sets up Apple to better compete with other audio/e-book apps, like the Amazon-owned Audible.

In the Book Store, users can explore recently released titles and best-selling books, as well as curated collections and special offers; it’s available in 51 countries and free books for download are available in 155 countries.

Apple Books is also a lot smarter than its predecessor. As you download titles and engage with the app, the app will send you personalized recommendations based on your activity.

Indeed, it was time for an update. Audiobooks are more popular today than when Apple first launched iBooks in 2010 and are very much deserving of their own tab. According to Pew Research Center, one in five Americans regularly listens to them — a 28 percent increase from 2016.

Mumford & Sons beware! An AI can now write indie music

A fascinating project called Amadeus Code promises to out-Tay-Tay Tay Tay and out-Bon Bon Iver. The AI-based system uses data from previous musical hits to create entirely new compositions on the fly and darn if these crazy robots-songs aren’t pretty good.

The app, which is available from the iTunes Store but doesn’t seem to be working properly, creates song sketches in minutes, freeing you up to create beautiful lyrics and a bit of accordion accompaniment.

The video above is a MIDI version of an AI-produced song and the video below shows the song full produced using non-AI human musicians. The results, while a little odd, are very impressive.

Jun Inoue, Gyo Kitagawa, and Taishi Fukuyama created Amadeus Code and all have experience in music and music production. Inoue is a renowned Japanese music producer and he has sold 10 million singles. Fukuyama worked at Echo Next and launched the first Music Hack Day in Tokyo. Fukujama is the director of the Hit Song Research Lab and went to Berklee College of Music.

“We have analyzed decades of contemporary songs and classical music, songs of economic and/or social impact, and have created a proprietary songwriting technology that is specialized to create top line melodies of songs. We have recently released Harmony Library, which gives users direct access to the songs that power the songwriting AI for Amadeus Code,” said Inoue. “We uniquely specialize in creating top line melodies for songs that can be a source of high quality inspiration for music professionals. We also do have plans that may overlap with other music AI companies in the market today in terms of offering hobbyists a service to quickly create completed audio tracks.”

When asked if AI will ever replace his favorite musicians, folks like Michael & Janet Jackson or George Gershwin, Inoue laughed.

“Absolutely not. This AI will not tell you about its struggles and illuminate your inner wolds through real human storytelling, which is ultimately what makes music so intimate and compelling. Similarly to how the sampler, drum machine, multitrack recorder and many other creative technologies have done in the past, we see AI to be a creative tool for artists to push the boundaries of popular music. When these AI tools eventually find their place in the right creative hands, it will have the potential to create a new entire economy of opportunities,” he said.

Daily Burn plans a new line of fitness apps, starting with HIIT Workouts

Daily Burn, the online fitness brand owned by IAC, launched a new iPhone app today devoted to the popular workout style known as HIIT (high-intensity interval training).

Daily Burn already offers a general training app, but the company says it’s planning a whole series of vertical workout apps, starting HIIT Workouts. The is “bringing personalized workout training to every member tailored to their interests.”

If you’re wondering exactly what HIIT is, the individual exercises may be familiar, but as a DailyBurn article puts it, it’s all combined into “quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short, sometimes active, recovery periods.”

There’s no shortage of HIIT workout apps, or HIIT workouts in broader fitness apps (for example, I’ve tried out several through my Fitbit Coach subscription). But Daily Burn points to the combination of guided video workouts (so you’re less likely to mess things up) with a specific focus on HIIT. Plus, the workouts are tailored to your goals and endurance levels.

“We spent months researching how people interact with their phones, and combined it with Daily Burn’s world-class fitness and streaming expertise to create a best in class HIIT app that is effective and fun,” said Daily Burn CEO Tricia Han in the announcement. “With personalized workouts led by expert trainers and optimized for mobile, members have access to top instructors, progress reports and a supportive community in the palm of their hand.”

HIIT Workouts by Daily Burn offers a free, seven-day trial, then costs $9.99 per month.

Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. 90 million people already tap its Shopping tags each month, it announced today. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can boost retail business’ sales for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel. With 25 million businesses on Instagram but only 2 million advertisers, the app has room to massively increase its revenue.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.

Blippar picks up $37 million hoping to become profitable in the next year

Blippar, the AR startup that launched in 2011, has today announced the close of a $37 million financing led by Candy Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures.

The company started out by offering AR experiences for brand marketers through publishers and other real-world products, letting users unlock AR content by scanning a tag called a “Blipp”.

Blippar then transitioned to a number of different AR products, but took a particular focus on computer vision, launching a consumer-facing visual search engine that would let users identify cars, plants, and other real-world objects.

Most recently, Blippar has introduced an indoor positioning system that lets commercial real estate owners implement AR mapping and other content from within their buildings.

The AR industry has been in a state of evolution for the past few years, and Blippar has constantly reshifted and re-positioned to try and take advantage of the blossoming market. Unfortunately, several pivots have put the company in a tough spot financially.

BI reports that Blippar posted revenue of £8.5 million ($11.2 million) in the 16-month period up to March 31 2016, with losses of £24 million ($31.5 million). These latest rounds have essentially let Blippar keep the lights on while trying to pick up the pace on revenues.

The company says that this latest round is meant to fuel the company’s race to reach profitability in the next 12 months. Blippar has raised more than $137 million to date.

Go-Jek plans to raise $2B more for Southeast Asia ride-hailing battle

Indonesia’s Go-Jek is planning to raise $2 billion from investors to fuel its ride-hailing battle with Grab in Southeast Asia.

Go-Jek raised $1.5 billion earlier this year from investors that include Chinese trio Tencent, Meituan and JD.com, as well as Google, Allianz and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek. Now it is planning to raise a further $2 billion, two sources with knowledge of details told TechCrunch, as it seeks to expand on numerous fronts.

Those plans include both extending the scope of its services in Indonesia — where beyond rides it offers services on demand and financial products — and moving into new markets. The company recently went live in Vietnam, its first expansion, and it has plans to enter Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore this year.

Bloomberg first reported the fundraising plans, although a source told TechCrunch that the deal is far from being done. Existing investors — which also include KKR and Warburg Pincus — are likely to provide the new capital.

Word of Go-Jek’s financing plan comes after Grab raised $2 billion this summer, including a $1 billion contribution from Toyota. The Singapore-based company — which bought out Uber’s business earlier this yearrecently said it plans to raise a further $1 billion before 2018 is out.

That money is likely to be spent on Grab’s ongoing strategy to broaden into services. That’s seen Grab follow Go-Jek’s lead and move into groceries, on-demand services and fintech as part of a desire to be Southeast Asia ‘super app’ for a broad range of local services.

Grab is also doubling down on Indonesia, where it recently announced plans to invest $250 million in local startups. While Go-Jek is largely seen as the dominant player in Indonesia, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country, Grab claims to handle 65 percent of all rides and transactions in the country.

Go-Jek’s most recent valuation was $5 billion. Investors valued Grab at $11 billion when its recent round closed in August.