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The man behind Tesla’s Powerwall is now pitching an all-in-one power management system for homes

TechCrunch

Arch Rao, the former head of product at Tesla who was behind the company’s Powerwall home energy storage is system, is back with a new company pitching energy management and efficiency for homes.

SpanIO is looking to upgrade the electrical fusebox for homes with a digital system that integrates into the existing circuit breaker technology that has been the basis for home energy management for at least a century. 

Rao and his team are looking to make integrating renewable power, energy storage, and electric vehicles easier for homeowners by redesigning the electrical panel for modern energy needs.

“We packaged the metering controls and compute between the bus bar and the breaker,” says Rao. “Energy flows through the panel through a breaker bar and the breaker bar has tabs that you slot your breakers into… that tab is usually a conductor. We have designed a digital sub-assembly that packages current metering, voltage measurement and ability to turn each circuit on or off.”

The technology is meant to be sold through channels like solar energy installers or battery installers. The company already has plans to integrate its power management devices with energy storage systems like the ones available from LG .

Initially, Span expects to be selling its products in states like California and Hawaii where demand for solar installations is strong and homeowners have significant benefits available to them for installing renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.

For homeowners, the new power management system means that they have control over which parts of the home would be powered in the event of an outage. The company’s technology connects the entire home to a renewable system. Using existing technologies, installers have to set up a separate breaker and rewire certain areas of the home to receive the power generated by a renewable energy system, Rao says.

That control is handled through a consumer app available to download on mobile devices.

SpanIO is backed by a slew of early investors including Wireframe Ventures, Wells Fargo Strategic Capital, Ulu Ventures, Hardware Club, Energy Foundry, Congruent Ventures and 1/0 Capital, and intends to raise fresh cash for before the end of the year. Rao said the round would be “in the low double digits” of millions.

September 19th 2019, 4:11 am

Google chases businesses to maintain its payments lead in India

TechCrunch

Google said today it is bringing its mobile payments app — Google Pay — to businesses in India and introducing a jobs discovery feature as the Android-maker rushes to maintain its lead in one of its key overseas markets before its global rival Facebook expands its payment offerings in the country.

At its annual event in India, the company said even as more than 400 million people in India are online today, most businesses in the nation remain unconnected. The company unveiled Google Pay for Business, a standalone app that will enable businesses to build their digital presence and accept payments online.

Additionally, Google announced Spot Platform that will allow businesses to create their own store fronts on Google Pay app. For instance, they can use QR-like codes to offer some offerings to customers without having to build their own apps, company executives said.

The company is also bringing a feature that will enable users to discover jobs through Google Pay apps itself.

Google launched its payments app Google Pay (called Tez then) in 2017. Its payments service, built on top of Indian government-backed UPI payments infrastructure, is already among the top payment apps in the category.

The payments market in India — which is projected to be worth $1 trillion by 2023, according to a Credit Suisse — is aggressively crowded and competitive. Google today competes with Flipkart’s PhonePe, Amazon Pay, and Paytm, the country’s most popular mobile wallet app whose parent company has raised over $2.3 billion from investors.

The addition of new features is crucial for Google Pay, which prior to today’s announcements did not have many differentiating offerings. It is also racing against time as Facebook’s WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users in India, is set to expand its UPI-based payments service to all its users by the end of the year.

Paytm is currently focusing on expanding its reach in the nation and not profits. The company, which posted more than half a billion of loss last year, said earlier this month it intends to invest another $3 billion into its business in the next two years.

More to follow…

September 19th 2019, 3:09 am

Cannabis logistics startup Wayv launches dynamic distribution platform

TechCrunch

Supply chain logistics is a headache and a half across any industry, but the difficulty level goes way up within the world of cannabis. Because of federal laws, FedEx, UPS and USPS are not an option. Distributors need a variety of licenses and must operate within specific regulation. For example, cannabis brands must either become their own first-party distributor, with W2 employees and company-owned cars, distribution centers, etc., or use a licensed third-party distributor.

Wayv, the B2B cannabis logistics platform founded by serial entrepreneur Keith McCarty, is looking to solve this problem with the launch of its Dynamic Distribution platform. Of course, Wayv has been operational for upwards of a year, having received $5 million in seed led by Craft Ventures’ David Sacks (former coworker to McCarty from the Yammer days) back in October 2018.

Today, however, marks the public launch of Dynamic Distribution, which not only connects brands, retailers and distributors to streamline cannabis supply chain logistics, but allows brands to list themselves as third-party distributors for other brands. Plus, the platform automatically checks for compliance with all parties on the platform across federal, state and local laws.

While companies like Anvyl and Flexport are looking to support other, less regulated industries in their supply chain logistics evolution, the cannabis industry has been mostly left in the paper age. Wayv aims to streamline that by providing a single interface for brands, retailers and distributors to move cannabis products within the state of California.

For the past year, Wayv’s platform has helped power logistics among several cannabis brands — Caliva, Kurvana, High Style Brewing Company, and GoldDrop to name a few — as well as distributor Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group.

With Dynamic Distribution, brands who handle their own distribution can hop on the Wayv platform and get listed as a third-party distributor for other brands, opening up new revenue streams. Plus, this will allow brands across the state to access a much bigger pool of distribution options, allowing for small upstart brands to get selling without scaling up their own distribution operation.

Wayv generates revenue on a per transaction basis, charging a 15 percent fee to brands. Thus far, the startup has more than 80 brands on the platform.

McCarty says that one of the obstacles of an on-demand logistics business is supply constraint. He likened it to consumer on-demand services, like Uber and Lyft, whose growth is dependent on the number of drivers they can get on the platform.

“In the cannabis environment, there are so many compliance and licensing requirements, along with packaging and product testing requirements — which are all amazing and necessary — that we live in this environment that is very fragmented,” said McCarty. “It’s the fastest growing industry in the world, and there’s no Coca-Cola or Starbucks. There are no big chains. Just small companies individually. This means a lot more friction and a lot more need for something like Wayv to help solve the problem.”

McCarty has plenty of experience in the cannabis sector. Prior to Wayv, McCarty founded Eaze, the on-demand cannabis delivery platform for consumers. Before Eaze, McCarty was an early employee at Yammer, which was sold to Microsoft in June 2012 for $1.2 billion.

September 19th 2019, 3:09 am

Google is bringing Assistant to people without internet access

TechCrunch

Over the years, Google has expanded the reach of its digital assistant service to include people who own internet-enabled feature phones. Now the search giant is bringing the service to users who don’t have access to internet at all.

At an event in New Delhi on Thursday, the company announced phone line that will anyone on Vodafone-Idea telecom network could dial to have their questions answered.

Users will be able to dial 000-800-9191-000 and they won’t be charged for the call or the service.

More to folliow…

September 19th 2019, 2:39 am

Private search engine Qwant’s new CEO is Mozilla Europe veteran Tristan Nitot

TechCrunch

French startup Qwant, whose non-tracking search engine has been gaining traction in its home market as a privacy-respecting alternative to Google, has made a change to its senior leadership team as it gears up for the next phase of growth.

Former Mozilla Europe president, Tristan Nitot, who joined Qwant last year as VP of advocacy, has been promoted to chief executive, taking over from François Messager — who also joined in 2018 but is now leaving the business. Qwant co-founder, Eric Leandri, meanwhile, continues in the same role as president.

Nitot, an Internet veteran who worked at Netscape and helped to found Mozilla Europe in 1998, where he later served as president and stayed until 2015 before leaving to write a book on surveillance, brings a wealth of experience in product and comms roles, as well as open source.

Most recently he spent several years working for personal cloud startup, Cozy Cloud.

“I’m basically here to help [Leandri] grow the company and structure the company,” Nitot tells TechCrunch, describing Qwant’s founder as an “amazing entrepreneur, audacious and visionary”.

Market headwinds have been improving for the privacy-focused Google rival in recent years as concern about foreign data-mining tech giants has stepped up in Europe.

Last year the French government announced it would be switching its search default from Google to Qwant. Buying homegrown digital tech now apparently seen as a savvy product choice as well as good politics.

Meanwhile antitrust attention on dominant search giant Google, both at home and abroad, has led to policy shifts that directly benefit search rivals — such as an update of the default lists baked into its chromium engine which was quietly put out earlier this year.

That behind the scenes change saw Qwant added as an option for users in the French market for the first time. (On hearing the news a sardonic Leandri thanked Google — but suggested Qwant users choose Firefox or the Brave browser for a less creepy web browsing experience.)

“A lot of companies and institutions have decided and have realized basically that they’ve been using a search engine which is not European. Which collects data. Massively. And that makes them uncomfortable,” says Nitot. “They haven’t made a conscious decision about that. Because they bring in a computer which has a browser which has a search engine in it set by default — and in the end you just don’t get to choose which search engine your people use, right.

“And so they’re making a conscious decision to switch to Qwant. And we’ve been spending a lot of time and energy on that — and it’s paying off big time.”

As well as the French administration’s circa 3M desktops being switched by default to Qwant (which it expects will be done this quarter), the pro-privacy search engine has been getting traction from other government departments and regional government, as well as large banks and schools, according to Nitot.

He credits a focus on search products for schoolkids with generating momentum, such as Qwant Junior, which is designed for kids aged 6-12, and excludes sex and violence from search results as well as being ad free. (It’s set to get an update in the next few weeks.) It has also just been supplemented by Qwant School: A school search product aimed at 13-17 year olds.

“All of that creates more users — the kids talk to their parents about Qwant Junior, and the parents install Qwant.com for them. So there’s a lot of momentum creating that growth,” Nitot suggests.

Qwant says it handled more than 18 billion search requests in 2018.

A growing business needs money to fuel it of course. So fundraising efforts involving convertible bonds is one area Nitot says he’ll be focused on in the new role. “We are raising money,” he confirms.

Increasing efficiency — especially on the engineering front — is another key focus for the new CEO.

“The rest will be a focus on the organization, per se, how we structure the organization. How we evolve the company culture. To enable or to improve delivery of the engineering team, for example,” he says. “It’s not that it’s bad it’s just that we need to make sure every dollar or every euro we invest gives as much as possible in return.”

Product wise, Nitot’s attention in the near term will be directed towards shipping a new version of Qwant’s search engine that will involve reengineering core tech to improve the quality of results.

“What we want to do [with v2] is to improve the quality of the results,” he says of the core search product. “You won’t be able to notice any difference, in terms of quality, with the other really good search engines that you may use — except that you know that your privacy is respected by Qwant.

“[As we raise more funding] we will be able to have a lot more infrastructure to run better and more powerful algorithms. And so we plan to improve that internationally… Every language will benefit from the new search engine. It’s also a matter of money and infrastructure to make this work on a web scale. Because the web is huge and it’s growing.

“The new version includes NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology… for understanding language, for understanding intentions — for example do you want to buy something or are you looking for a reference… or a place or a thing. That’s the kind of thing we’re putting in place but it’s going to improve a lot for every language involved.”

Western Europe will be the focus for v2 of the search engine, starting with French, German, Italian, Spanish and English — with a plan to “go beyond that later on”.

Nitot also says there will also be staggered rollouts (starting with France), with Qwant planning to run old and new versions in parallel to quality check the new version before finally switching users over.

“Shipping is hard as we used to say at Mozilla,” he remarks, refusing to be fixed to a launch date for v2 (beyond saying it’ll arrive in “less than a year”). “It’s a universal rule; shipping a new product is hard, and that’s what we want to do with version 2… I’ve been writing software since 1980 and so I know how predictions are when it comes to software release dates. So I’m very careful not to make promises.”

Developing more of its own advertising technologies is another focus for Qwant. On this front the aim is to improve margins by leaning less on partners like Microsoft .

“We’ve been working with partners until now, especially on the search engine result pages,” says Nitot. “We put Microsoft advertising on it. And our goal is to ramp up advertising technologies so that we rely on our own technologies — something that we control. And that hopefully will bring a better return.”

Like Google, Qwant monetizes searches by serving ads alongside results. But unlike Google these are contextual ads, meaning they are based on general location plus the substance of the search itself; rather than targeted ads which entail persistent tracking and profiling of Internet users in order to inform the choice of ad (hence feeling like ads are stalking you around the Internet).

Serving contextual ads is a choice that lets Qwant offer a credible privacy pledge that Mountain View simply can’t match.

Yet up until 2006 Google also served contextual ads, as Nitot points out, before its slide into privacy-hostile microtargeting. “It’s a good old idea,” he argues of contextual ads. “We’re using it. We think it really is a valuable idea.” 

Qwant is also working on privacy-sensitive ad tech. One area of current work there is personalization. It’s developing a client-side, browser-based encrypted data store, called Masq, that’s intended to store and retrieve application data through a WebSocket connection. (Here’s the project Masq Github page.)

“Because we do not know the person that’s using the product it’s hard to make personalization of course. So we plan to do personalization of the product on the client side,” he explains. “Which means the server side will have no more details than we currently do, but on the client side we are producing something which is open source, which stores data locally on your device — whether that’s a laptop or smartphone — in the browser, it is encrypted so that nobody can reuse it unless you decide that you want that to happen.

“And it’s open source so that it’s transparent and can be audited and so that people can trust the technology because it runs on their own device, it stores on their device.”

“Right now it’s at alpha stage,” Nitot adds of Masq, declining to specify when exactly it might be ready for a wider launch.

The new CEO’s ultimate goal for Qwant is to become the search engine for Europe — a hugely ambitious target that remains far out of reach for now, with Google still commanding in excess of 90% regional marketshare. (A dominance that has got its business embroiled in antitrust hot water in Europe.)

Yet the Internet of today is not the same as the Internet of yesterday when Netscape was a browsing staple — until Internet Explorer knocked it off its perch after Microsoft bundled its rival upstart as the default browser on Windows. And the rest, as they say, is Internet history.

Much has changed and much is changing. But abuses of market power are an old story. And as regulators act against today’s self-interested defaults there are savvy alternatives like Qwant primed and waiting to offer consumers a different kind of value.

“Qwant is created in Europe for the European citizens with European values,” says Nitot. “Privacy being one of these values that are central to our mission. It is not random that the CNIL — the French data protection authority — was created in France in 1978. It was the first time that something like that was created. And then GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] was created in Europe. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a matter of values and the way people see their life and things around them, politics and all that. We have a very deep concern about privacy in France. It’s written in the European declaration of human rights.

“We build a product that reflects those values — so it’s appealing to European users.”

September 19th 2019, 2:39 am

Shipper, a platform for e-commerce logistics in Indonesia, raises $5 million

TechCrunch

Indonesia has one of the fastest-growing e-commerce markets in the world, but the logistics industry there is still very fragmented, creating headaches for both vendors and customers. Shipper is a startup with the ambitious goal of giving online sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics.” The company has raised $5 million in seed funding from Lightspeed Ventures, Floodgate Ventures, Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator (Shipper is part of the accelerator’s winter 2019 batch), which will be used for hiring and customer acquisition.

Shipper was launched in 2017 by co-founders Phil Opamuratawongse and Budi Handoko, and is now used by more than 25,000 online sellers. Indonesia’s e-commerce market is growing rapidly, but online sellers still face many logistical hurdles.

The country is large (Indonesia has more than 17,500 islands, of which 600 are inhabited) and unlike the United States, where Amazon dominates, e-commerce sellers often use multiple platforms, like Tokopedia, Shopee, Bukalapak and Lazada. Smaller vendors also sell through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media. Once an order has been placed, the challenge of making sure it gets to customers starts. There are more than 2,500 logistics providers in Indonesia, many of whom only cover a small area.

“It is really hard for any one provider to do nationwide themselves, so the big ones usually use local partners to fulfill locations where they don’t have infrastructure,” says Opamuratawongse.

The startup’s mission is to create a platform that makes the process of fulfilling and tracking orders much more efficient. In addition to a package pick-up service and fulfillment centers, Shipper also has a technology stack to help logistics providers manage shipments. It is used to predict the best shipping routes and consolidate packages headed in the same direction and also provides a multi-carrier API that allows sellers to manage orders, print shipping labels and get tracking information from multiple providers on their phones.

When it launched three years ago, Shipper began by focusing on the last-mile for smaller vendors, who Opamuratawongse says typically keep inventory in their homes and fulfill about five to 10 orders per day. Since many give customers a choice of several logistics providers, that meant they needed to visit multiple drop-off locations every morning.

Shipper offers pick-up service performed by couriers (who Opamuratawongse says are people like stay-at-home parents who want flexible, part-time work) who collect packages from several vendors in the same neighborhood and distribute them to different logistics providers, serving as micro-fulfillment hubs. Shipper signs up about 10 to 30 new couriers each week, keeping them at least 2.5 kilometers apart so they don’t compete against each other.

The company began setting up fulfillment centers to keep up with vendors whose businesses were growing and were turning to third-party warehouse services. Shipper has established 10 fulfillment centers so far across Indonesia, including Jakarta, with plans to open a new one about every two weeks until it covers all of Indonesia.

Opamuratawongse says he expects the logistics industry in Indonesia to remain fragmented for the next decade at least, and perhaps longer because of Indonesia’s size and geography. Shipper will focus on expanding in Indonesia first, with the goal of having 1,000 microhubs within the next year and 15 to 20 fulfillment centers. Then the company plans to tackle other Southeast Asian countries with rapidly-growing e-commerce markets, including Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

September 19th 2019, 1:39 am

As it readies a test for vaping additives, cannabis testing company Cannalysis raises $22 million

TechCrunch

Cannalysis, a testing company for cannabis, has raised $22 million in a new round of financing as it prepares to bring a new test for vaping additives to the market.

The test, which the company is preparing to unveil later this week, will test for the presence and amount of Vitamin E acetate, a chemical compound that may be linked to the aping related illness that has swept through the U.S. in the past month.

Cannalysis chief executive Brian Lannon said the new product was developed in response to the current crisis in the cannabis industry over illnesses related to vaping cannabis products.

“The big story that’s been going out over the last week isn’t the product that’s going out in cannabis, but an additive called Vitamin E acetate. We have  developed a test for that,” Lannon says. “As part of the different compliance testing that’s required, it’s not mandated to test for any of these additives… What I’m anticipating based on the phone calls we’ve been getting is that a lot of our customers want to get the test to show that they’re not using the stuff.”

The Santa Ana, Calif.-based company tracks cannabis products across its companies supply chain and provides data management and integration services for its customers so they can immediately update their own tracking systems with the results of Cannalysis’ tests. It also integrates directly with consumer services like Weedmaps, so consumers can get third party verification of the strength of the dosage.

Quality assurance for cannabis products isn’t just a matter of legal compliance. The percentage of THC that’s available in different strains can impact the price producers can charge for their product, Hannon says.

“The price of a cannabis product can vary greatly based on its potency,” he says. “Right now the number in the market is 20 percent. If your product tests at 18 percent instead of twenty percent, that can mean a huge difference in cost.”

While testing variance is a problem for the industry, Cannalysis says its highly automated lab, which relies on robotics and machine learning to increase the speed and accuracy of its testing, along with the integrated software services it offers to customers, exceeds the standards for ISO accreditation.

Certainly that’s what attracted CanLab, the nation’s largest testing service to commit $22 million to the company as a strategic investor.

Lannon says the new cash will be used to expand into new markets including Oregon, where the company has already made an initial hiring push, and other highly regulated cannabis markets.

A serial entrepreneur who previously founded an action sports apparel company called HK Army and MetaThreads, an esports clothing company, Lannon came to the cannabis industry initially as a user of the substance. As the market matured his interest was piqued in developing technologies that could ascertain the quality of various cannabis products.

His timing was exceptional. Investors have spent nearly $16 billion on North American cannabis companies in 2018, double the amount invested just three years ago,  according to data from the analytics company New Frontier Data cited by the Associated Press. And the Marijuana Business Factbook projects that the economic impact of the legal industry was somewhere between $20 billion and $23 billion in 2017. Its a number that coiuld grow to $77 billion by 2022.

September 18th 2019, 8:07 pm

Netflix cofounder Marc Randolph on the company’s earliest days, the streaming wars, and moving on

TechCrunch

Netflix is today a company whose valuation hovers around $130 billion, but it was, of course, once a little startup, and in his new book “That Will Never Work,” Netflix’s cofounder and its first CEO Marc Randolph takes readers on a fun and surprisingly vivid journey through the streaming giant’s earliest days.

It’s also instructive, though this is more memoir than business book, and Randolph, who is the great nephew of Edward Bernays — a  public relations pioneer — turns out to be a very compelling writer, explaining in sometimes humbling detail how and why the company eventually outgrew him, and the reason he doesn’t regret stepping away when he did.

In fact, rather than lament past decisions, Randolph seems to relish his longtime work as a startup advisor, one who often has no financial ties to the companies he helps. As he explains it, there is a “role for someone in a founder’s life who isn’t a board member or an investor or an employee. The role of a founder-CEO is extremely lonely. You can’t always be fully forthcoming with your board or investors or employees. And if you go to your peers and you bring them an issue, they don’t really understand. So it’s very valuable for a founder who doesn’t have an ulterior motive but also understands a problem well enough that they can give really good advice.”

We had a chance to catch up with Randolph earlier today to discuss the book and his current relationship with his Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings, who he met when the company that Hastings began running in 1991, Pure Atria, acquired Randolph’s company, Integrity QA Software, (They both found themselves searching out the next big thing when Pure Atria was itself acquired.)

Randolph also shared why it took him 16 years to tell his story about what has become one of the most impactful companies in the history of television.

TC: We’re still zipping through the book but there is a lot of great storytelling here, from scenes with you and Reed carpooling to the office together, to some of earlier startup ideas you ran past him and he didn’t think much of, including customized baseball bats. Did you write this alone?

MR: Of course, I had help, you can’t write about something as important as Netflix by yourself. Over the course of one-and-a-half years, I spent tons of time on the phone and [engaged in] email correspondence and in meetings with everyone I could track down, because I wanted to hear all those stories again. But this isn’t a ghostwritten book and it’s not a as-told-to book. I did write it with the help of a great editor. In fact, the book was originally conceived as more of a self-help book, but my editor came back and said, “You shouldn’t do this as a ‘you’ book. Make it a ‘me’ book. Make the lessons you’ve learn over your career implicit instead of explicit.”

But I’ve been writing all my life. I was a direct marketing guy [before founding Netflix]. I had to restrain myself from writing things like, “Frankly, I’m puzzled,” and “But wait! There’s more!”

TC: You left Netflix in 2003. Why not write a book sooner?

MR: I needed to wait all that time. Even though I needed to tell the story, I didn’t really understand the lessons. It has taken me working with other early-stage companies and mentoring them and investing in them to make these connections. Why did Netflix work? What were my failings? What could I have done better?

TC: You’re pretty candid in the book about not being punctual and not having great attention to detail, but these are minor offenses. 

September 18th 2019, 8:07 pm

Get your Startup Alley Exhibitor package plus bonus hotel stay

TechCrunch

It’s getting down to the wire for your opportunity to show off your early-stage startup in Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this October 2-4. There’s simply no better way to place your ideas and technology in front of influential change agents that can help you propel your business forward and set the stage for future success. Here are just four of the many reasons you should exhibit in Startup Alley.

1. Awesome exposure to the media 

Along with 10,000+ attendees, Disrupt SF will have more than 400 members of the media. We’re talking the big guns — CNBC, Bloomberg, Forbes, Financial Times — alongside TechCrunch writers, scouring the floor looking for stories about fascinating founders, emerging tech trends or maybe even a future unicorn. Scoring media coverage can work wonders for your bottom line — as Luke Heron, CEO of TestCard, learned when he exhibited in Startup Alley:

We got a fantastic writeup in Engadget, which was really valuable. Cash at the beginning of the start-up journey is difficult to come by, and an article from a credible organization can help push things in the right direction.

Last year, TestCard closed a $1.7 million funding round.

2. Beaucoup investor attention

Journalists aren’t the only influencers perusing the tech and talent on display in Startup Alley. Investors are just as eager to find up-and-coming prospects to add to their portfolios. It’s the perfect place to start conversations and develop relationships that lead to big changes. And we’ve got a plethora of investors (both traditional VCs and corporate folk) in the Valley: Sequoia, Verizon Ventures, GV, SoftBank, Naspers, AT&T, Honda Innovations and more. Here’s what David Hall, co-founder of Park & Diamond, had to say about his experience:

Exhibiting in Startup Alley was a game-changer. The chance to have discussions and potentially form relationships with investors was invaluable. It completely changed our trajectory and made it easier to raise funds and jump to the next stage.

Last year, Park & Diamond closed its first round of funding, allowing the company to relocate to New York and make its first key hires.

3. Wild Card shot at the Startup Battlefield competition

Missed out on the Startup Battlefield applications? All exhibitors in Startup Alley get a chance to win one of TWO Wild Card entries to the Startup Battlefield pitch competition. TechCrunch editors will select two standout startups as Wild Card teams that will go on the Main Stage to compete head-to-head in Startup Battlefield for $100,000 equity-free cash, the Disrupt Cup and even more glorious investor and media attention. 

4. Free hotel stay for Startup Alley companies who book now

With all of those reasons, it’s hard to top all the value you’ll get from a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, but we’ll even sweeten the deal and throw in a complimentary 3-night stay at a SF hotel if you book by Wednesday, September 25. All of this opportunity for $1,995 sounds like it’s too good to be true, but if you act now, this can become your reality.

There you have it. What are you waiting for? Buy your Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and strut your stuff at Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

September 18th 2019, 7:07 pm

How to profit from valuable peer referrals hiding in Slack

TechCrunch

Brands are often left to act like the person who searches for their keys under the streetlight simply because that is where the light is better. However, when brand marketers focus only on engaging with the customers they can more easily see — where online activity is visible — they risk overlooking the valuable opportunities hiding in darker spaces.

One of the most valuable of those dark web spaces is in the realm of what we call “microbrowsers” — the messaging apps like Slack, WhatsApp and WeChat. We call them microbrowsers because they display miniature previews of web pages inside private message discussions. These previews, also known as ‘unfurled links’, create your brand’s first impression and play a big role in whether or not the person on the receiving end will click through to buy, or read or engage.

Google Analytics lumps all microbrowser-generated web traffic into the ‘Direct’ bucket, which we often just ignore. This means we look for customers where we know how to create campaigns easily — on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and buying Google Ad Words.

And as more people rely more heavily on messaging apps for primary communication, these link previews from microbrowsers are becoming the leading segment of your direct traffic visitors. In Cloudinary’s 2019 State of Visual Media Report, which drew on data from more than 700 customers and 200 billion transactions, we found that 77% of link sharing in Slack occurs during working hours and that the vast majority of the click-throughs are reported as ‘direct’ traffic. The rise of microbrowsers gives us an opportunity to engage and attract customers through word of mouth discussions.

The good news is that the ‘leads’ that microbrowsers send to your brand site are usually highly qualified and close to the bottom of the traditional sales pipeline funnel. When consumers arrive on your site they are often ready and eager to buy (or read, view and listen to your content).

Whether it be for sneakers, tickets to a concert, a birthday gift idea, or an article to read — a trusted peer recommendation typically happens in that fleeting moment when the appetite to buy is right now. That isn’t just valuable, it’s the holy freaking grail!

Top tips for creating links that engage

Image via Getty Images / drogatnev

The way to get the most value from microbrowser traffic is by helping along this peer influencing that happens in the dark. By creating compelling, informative links with images, video and text information specifically for microbrowsers, you increase the likelihood that peer-to-peer recommendations in groups convert into sales and reads.

What follows are some top tips to ensure that the links unfurling within microbrowsers have the greatest impact.

First, remember the golden rule: your audience is human. When creating content for microbrowsers, design it for humans, not machines.

September 18th 2019, 4:16 pm

LunchClub raises $4M from a16z for its AI warm intro service

TechCrunch

There are apps out there that help you find friends, find dates and find your distant family histories, but when it comes to “growing your professional network,” the options are shockingly bad, we’re talking LinkedIn here.

LunchClub is a startup that’s looking to help users navigate finding new connections inside specific industries. The company has recently closed a $4 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz with other investments coming in from Quora’s co-founder, the Robinhood cofounders, and Flexport’s cofounders.

The app follows in the footsteps of others that aimed to be dating app-like marketplaces for growing out your professional network via 1:1 lunch and coffee meetings. LunchClub is more focused on setting up a handful of meetings for users that have a specific goal in mind rather than just putting its users inside a web of wannabe workfluencers. LunchClub is aiming to be your warm intro and connect you with other users via email that can assist you in your professional goals.

When you’re on-boarded to the service, you are asked to highlight some “objectives” that you might have and this is where the app really makes its goals clear. Options include, “raise funding,” “find a co-founder or parter,” “explore other companies,” and “brainstorm with peers.” These objectives are pretty explicit and complementary, i.e. for every “raise funding” objective, there’s an “invest” option.

There isn’t a ton being asked for on the part of the user when it comes to building up the data on their profile, LunchClub is hoping to get most of the data that they need from the rest of the web.

“Our view is that there’s tons of data already out there,” LunchClub CEO Vlad Novakovski told TechCrunch in an interview. “Anything that comes from the existing social networks, be in things like Twitter, be it things that are more specific to what people might be working on, like Github or Dribble or AngelList — all of those data sources are in the public domain and are fair game.”

LunchClub’s sell is that they can learn from what matches are successful via user feedback and use that to hone further matches. Novakovski most previously was the CTO of Euclid Analytics which WeWork acquired in 2017. Previous to that, he led the machine learning team at Quora.

The web app, which currently has a lengthy-waitlist, is available for users in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London.

September 18th 2019, 4:01 pm

California Governor Gavin Newsom signs gig worker bill AB5 into law

TechCrunch

California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed into law gig worker protections bill AB5. This comes shortly after AB5 passed in the California State Assembly and Senate.

“Today, we are disrupting the status quo and taking a bold step forward to rebuild our middle class and reshape the future of workers as we know it,” bill author and Assemblyperson Lorena Gonzalez said in a statement. “As one of the strongest economies in the world, California is now setting the global standard for worker protections for other states and countries to follow.”

AB5 will help to ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits by requiring employers to apply the ABC test. The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codify the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in an “independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.”

Last week, Uber made it clear it plans to do whatever it takes to keep its drivers independent contractors.

“We will continue to advocate for a compromise agreement,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said on a press call last week.

As Uber outlined last month, the company is pushing for a framework that would establish a guaranteed earnings minimum while on a trip, offer portable benefits and enable drivers to “have a collective voice.”

He went on to say that Uber is continuing to explore several legal and political options to lay the groundwork for a statewide ballot initiative in 2020. Uber and Lyft announced a $60 million joint initiative last month, and now, West is saying Uber is open to investing even more money in that committee account.

“This is not our first choice,” West said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we are exploring all options and all alternatives to put forward a framework that works for the 21st-century economy and we believe we have a framework that does that.”

Despite opposition from Uber and other gig economy companies, the law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

September 18th 2019, 4:01 pm

Out of the box influencer strategies to accelerate awareness for your startup

TechCrunch

For new brands, growing awareness and gaining the trust and credibility of consumers are two of the most important yet challenging marketing objectives. As an added constraint, most startups don’t have the budgetary flexibility to activate mega-influencers and celebrities that have national attention at their fingertips. However, new research from ACTIVATE found that smaller-tier, more accessible influencers are a top choice for marketers – they enable brands to tap into niche communities and offer superior engagement rates.

Surveying over 110 brand marketers, PR professionals, social media managers and agency executives, we found that 64 percent of marketers are choosing to utilize micro-influencers very often, as opposed to larger creators, mega influencers and celebrities. We also found that more than 44 percent of marketers are repurposing influencer-created content following a sponsorship, a practice that extends the ROI of an influencer campaign and can help startups attain valuable visual assets for future marketing use.

While mega-influencer content rights are often negotiated to steep rates, those of smaller tier influencers are more affordable, as the influencers themselves also benefit from the added exposure.

With this in mind, when developing an influencer campaign, it’s critical not to feel constrained to the most popular creators, and instead think out of the box and consider what factors will be most important to the audience you’re specifically trying to reach. When being thoughtful about how you’re implementing influencers, smaller creators can be just as impactful as their larger counterparts.

Let’s go through some of the most impactful emerging influencer strategies, to grow awareness, without growing debt.

Key influencer casting strategies to drive targeted impact

September 18th 2019, 3:32 pm

Daily Crunch: Facebook announces Portal TV

TechCrunch

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

The Portal TV lets you hang out with friends using your home’s biggest screen. It’s part of a new line of Portal devices that bring the platform’s auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Messenger video chat and end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.

Facebook says it also will provide a lot more clarity around privacy — although human review of voice recordings is still turned on by default.

2. Apple Watch Series 5 review

The Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t include any hardware additions quite as flashy as the LTE functionality and ECG monitor it introduced with previous updates. But taken as a whole, the new features maintain the device’s spot at the top of the smartwatch heap.

3. Google Fi gets an unlimited plan

For the longest time, Google Fi didn’t play the unlimited calls, text and data game. That’s changing this week.

4. Roboticist and YouTube star Simone Giertz is coming to Disrupt SF

With 1.92 million YouTube subscribers, Giertz is best known for her “shitty” robotic creations, including arms that serve soup and breakfast, draw holiday cards and apply lipstick — to hilariously uneven results.

5. Documents reveal how Russia taps phone companies for surveillance

Documents reviewed by TechCrunch offer new insight into the scope and scale of the Russian surveillance system known as SORM, and how Russian authorities gain access to the calls, messages and data of customers of the country’s largest phone provider.

6. Podcast app Pocket Casts is now available for free, with an optional $0.99 subscription

Previously, you had to pay a one-time fee of $3.99 to access the Android or iOS apps, but CEO Owen Grover said this approach seemed increasingly at odds with Pocket Casts’ goals, and with the vision of the public radio organizations that acquired it last year.

7. In a social media world, here’s what you need to know about UGC and privacy

For a brand, is it worth the effort to incorporate UGC into their marketing strategy? And if so, how can they do it within the rules — and more importantly, in adherence with the expectations of consumers? (Extra Crunch membership required.)

September 18th 2019, 2:44 pm

Startup growth hacks, high-frequency trading, startup security, privacy, and Adobe

TechCrunch

Full Disrupt SF agenda posted

We have an amazing slate of speakers stopping by TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, including two full days scheduled for the debut of our Extra Crunch stage, which will focus on how founders can overcome the challenges they face through discussions of tactics with some of the most successful founders and leaders in our industry.

Want to learn how to raise your first dollars with Russ Heddleston at DocSend? How to get into Y Combinator with YC CEO Michael Siebel? How to iterate your product with the chief product officers of Uber, Tinder, Okta, and Instagram? How to evaluate talent with Ray Dalio? These and almost two dozen more panels are waiting for attendees on the EC stage.

Be sure to grab your tickets soon. And if you are an annual EC subscriber, be sure to use your 20% membership discount by emailing extracrunch@techcrunch.com.

How to get your ads working, and whether PR is worth it

Growth expert Julian Shapiro of BellCurve.com launched a new series of articles for Extra Crunch members on how to grow your startup using battle-tested growth hacks and techniques from heads of growth across Silicon Valley. His first piece came out on Friday on how to work with influencers, and now in this second edition, he investigates advertising and how to evaluate the value of PR firms.

How to make Snapchat ads profitable

Based on insights from Tim Chard.

  • Snap has niche audiences you’ll want to take advantage of. Examples include “people with digestive issues.” Facebook doesn’t have that. Plus, ad clicks on Snap can be cheap ($0.30 USD isn’t uncommon).
  • However, Snap traffic typically converts poorly once it arrives on your site or app.
  • Here’s a technique to mitigate that: cross-target your Snap traffic. Meaning, use unique UTM tags on your Snap ad links. Then, in Facebook/Instagram, detect that unique UTM to create a custom audience of Snap visitors. Finally, retarget those visitors with FB/IG ads, which tend to convert much better than Snap.

How to get people to open your emails

In Julian’s third edition of the Growth Report, he offers even more tips on how to increase open rates, whether you should use Bing Ads(!), and whether and how to handle multi-touch attribution.

September 18th 2019, 1:44 pm

GitHub acquires code analysis tool Semmle

TechCrunch

Microsoft’s GitHub today announced that it has acquired Semmle, a code analysis tool that helps developers and security researchers discover potential vulnerabilities in their code. Semmle takes a lot of the manual work out of security testing and instead offers a query language that allows researchers to test their code, using the service’s analysis engine. Over time, the GitHub team plans to integrate Semmle closely into the GitHub workflow.

GitHub did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but Semmle, which was originally spun out of research done at Oxford University, officially launched last year, with a $21 million Series B  round led by Accel. In total, the company raised $31 million before this acquisition.

“Just as relational databases make it simple to ask very sophisticated questions about data, Semmle makes it much easier for researchers to identify security vulnerabilities in large code bases quickly,” writes Shanku Niyogi, GitHub’s SVP of Product, in today’s announcement.” Many vulnerabilities have the same type of coding mistake as their root cause. With Semmle, you can find all variations of a mistake, eradicating a whole class of vulnerabilities. Furthermore, this approach makes Semmle far more effective, finding dramatically more issues and with far fewer false positives.”

Current Semmle users include the likes of Uber, Nasa, Microsoft and Google and the company’s core analysis platform, with automated code reviews, project tracking and, of course, security alerts, is available for free for open-source projects.

“GitHub is the one place where the community meets, where security experts and open source maintainers collaborate, and where the consumers of open source find their building blocks,” says Semmle CEO and co-founder Oege De Moor. “GitHub’s recent moves to secure the ecosystem (with maintainer security advisories, automated security fixes, token scanning, and many other advances in secure development) are all pieces of the same puzzle. The Semmle vision and technology belong at GitHub.”

GitHub CEO Nat Friedman echoes this in a blog post today and notes that he believes that GitHub has a “unique opportunity and responsibility to provide the tools, best practices, and infrastructure to make software development secure.”

As part of this overall mission, GitHub also today announced that it is now a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) Numbering Authority. With this, maintainers will now be able to report vulnerabilities from their repositories and GitHub will handle assigning IDs and adding the issues to the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). Ideally, this should mean that developers will disclose more vulnerabilities (since it’s now significantly easier) and that others who use this code will get alerts sooner.

 

September 18th 2019, 1:44 pm

Stephen Curry Brings SC30 Inc. to Disrupt SF

TechCrunch

Startup founders are hard-pressed to find the right investors — not only to fund their businesses but to help their businesses grow. These days, investors represent a variety of backgrounds and industries — traditional venture capital, Hollywood even the NBA.

When Golden State Warriors point guard and two-time MVP Stephen Curry isn’t playing basketball, he’s working with his business partner and former college basketball teammate Bryant Barr. Together, Barr and Curry run SC30 Inc, which manages Curry’s investment, media, philanthropy and brand partnership interests.

SC30 Inc.’s third investment came in December 2018, when the fund participated in hotel-booking platform SnapTravel’s $21.2 million Series A round.

Curry’s foray into the tech ecosystem started when he co-founded marketing automation platform Slyce. Since then, Stephen has taken a more structured approach to investing through SC30 Inc., where the portfolio has grown to eight investments in companies such as TSM and Palm.

It’s worth noting Curry is not the only baller in the tech investment game. There are his former teammates Andre Igoudala, an investor in Lime and board member of Jumia, and Kevin Durant, an investor in a number of startups through his fund Thirty Five Ventures.

At Disrupt SF 2019, listen as the three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry and SC30 Inc. President Bryant Barr discuss SC30 Inc. Investments, featuring SnapTravel CEO Hussein Fazal as he shares how he determined SC30 Inc. would make a good strategic investor. We’ll also talk to Curry about his general investment strategy and overall ambitions in tech.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 – 4 at the Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco. Passes are available here.

September 18th 2019, 1:32 pm

Video ad company Eyeview names Rob Deichert as its new CEO

TechCrunch

After 13 years at the helm of video advertising company Eyeview, founder Oren Harnevo is stepping down as CEO.

The company’s new chief executive is Rob Deichert, who was most recently COO at digital advertising company 33Across. The company is also announcing two other new hires — Sean Simon as senior vice president of sales and Risa Crandell as vice president of sales.

Harnevo, meanwhile, will remain on Eyeview’s board of directors.

“It’s been a long and incredible ride for the last 13 years since I co-founded Eyeview, and I feel it’s time to let a new leader help propel Eyeview to its next chapter,” he said in a statement. “2019 has been a great year for Eyeview. With strong revenue growth, and seasoned additions to our leadership team, it’s the perfect time to bring on [ad] industry veterans like Rob, Sean and Risa to accelerate our business as I depart to work on my next venture while supporting Eyeview on the board of director.”

Deichert acknowledged that it can be challenging to step into the shoes of a company’s founder, but he said he consulted with Harnevo before taking the job.

“I was just emailing with him today,” he added. “He’s going to be a great partner going forward.”

Rob Deichert

Deichert also said he has a standard on-boarding process when he joins a new company, which involves holding 30-minute, one-on-one meetings with every single person. (In this case, that means holding nearly 100 meetings.)

And while Eyeview has been around for more than a decade, Deichert suggested that there’s still plenty of room for its “outcome-based video marketing” (its specialty is video ads that are personalized based on viewer data) to grow.

In particular, he predicted that as direct-to-consumer brands are “maxing out on Facebook,” they’ll start turning back to traditional ad channels like television. With Eyeview, they can do that without losing the measurement and customization of online video.

September 18th 2019, 1:32 pm

Google’s parental control software Family Link gains much-needed features

TechCrunch

Google’s parental control software, Family Link, is getting a noteworthy update today with the addition of new features that will allow parents to limit screen time per app, instead of the device as a whole, as well as let them more easily extend screen time as needed. The features were first announced at Google’s I/O developer conference this spring, and help to make Family Link a more complete parental control and screen time solution.

While the simplest way to manage screen time is to just not give kids a device in the first place, it’s not the most realistic. As parents, we need to teach our kids to navigate the world — and that means we have to show them how to establish a healthy, non-addictive relationship with technology, too. Certain apps make that more difficult as they’ve been intentionally designed to steal our focus for long periods of time. And even as adults, many of us struggle with this same problem.

For years, platform makers like Apple and Google were complicit with regard to users’ app addictions. They were thrilled about the success of the third-party developers and the money they brought in. Only more recently, have these companies realized that their popular devices are starting to be seen as the digital equivalent of junk food — sure, it fuels you. But it’s bad for your health and should be limited. And that, of course, is bad for business. Hence, the arrival screen time and digital well-being features.

Family Link is not a perfect system, but it now comes built-in to Android devices with Android 10 and up, and can be downloaded as a standalone app from Google Play if you don’t have it available. It’s to Google’s credit that it has integrated it now into the core mobile OS, where it’s easier to find and use.

Already, it’s able to do things like setting device “bedtimes,” track activity per app, set daily limits, view the device’s location on the map and ring it (you’ll need Family Link for this feature alone), and more.

But what was sorely lacking was the ability to more narrowly define how a child’s screen time should be used.

Today, there are plenty of educational apps — from flashcards to study guides to Kindle books — that kids don’t deserve to be locked out from, just because they’ve used their phone over a certain number of hours per day. And as a parent myself, I was hesitant to enforce daily limits in Family Link because it locked my child out of her phone entirely, except for the ability to make calls. She just as often uses texting to reach me, so I didn’t want to cut her off from that ability.

With the new per-app limits, you’ll be able to limit how long each, individual app on the device can be used.

That means I can drastically trim the number of hours per week she spends on TikTok and YouTube (sorry, not sorry, Google!), or in mobile games. It also now means that chores around the house aren’t tied to “screen time” as a whole, but time in a favorite app, like Roblox. (Oh, the motivation!)

However, per-app limits will require a lot of manual labor on parents’ part. I don’t mind the extra work, because I appreciate the granular control, but a lot of parents would be better-served by category-based limits. (e.g. “mobile gaming.”) This could be something Google addresses in a future update.

The other update rolling out today is Bonus Time, which lets you up the amount of screen time in sort of a one-off situation.

For example, if the child is in the middle of something and just needs a few more minutes, you can now grant this extra time without having to disable the screen time setting. You’ll know screen time is running out because the child gets warnings at 15 minutes, 5 minutes and 1 minute. And they’ll be sure to tell you about this.

These updates are rolling out today to the cross-platform Family Link service. Parents can control Family Link settings from their Android or iOS device, and the child can use an Android or Chrome device.

 

 

September 18th 2019, 1:02 pm

On-demand plant food startup Simple Feast raises $33M B round to push its climate credentials

TechCrunch

At Greta Thunberg heads back to Europe from the US after radicalizing a generation, entrepreneurs are quickly realizing that there is a zeitgeist to be gotten hold of here. With food production a major contributor to climate change, tt’s no surprise then that on-demand food startups are appearing to cater to this new audience.

Simple Feast launched its plant-based food product in early 2017 and since then has developed a fast-food range which is catching the climate and taste fashion wave.

The company has now raised a total of $33 million in a Series B round led by US-based venture capital firm 14W, with a number of other existing investors, including Europe’s Balderton Capital, which is increasing their investment in the business.

The company was partly self-funded in the beginning, then added Sweet Capital (London/Stockholm) and ByFounders (CPH/SF) as the first VCs. Later, Balderton Capital (London) and 14W (NYC) joined in the Series A and B. The total funding to date is now north of $50M.

The founders are Jakob Jønck and Thomas Ambus and Jønck was co-founder of Endomondo, acquired by MyFitnessPal.

Jønck says: “The future of food does not just belong to plants, but will be both plant-based and unprocessed. This movement is pivotal to save not only our planet, but also human health. With this investment, we can continue our journey and bring our products to more people, in existing as well as new markets, while also strengthening our R&D efforts in new food innovation.”

Simple Feast is ticking the climate agenda boxes, with packaging made solely by FSC-approved cardboard boxes, to the cooling element they use to keep the food fresh (frozen tap water in drinkable cartons) and their use of all-organic produce.

Alex Zubillaga from 14W commented: “Over the past year since first investing in Simple Feast, we have continued to be impressed by the caliber and deep operational experience of the management team that Jakob Jønck has built around him.. We believe Simple Feast has the opportunity to become a global, category-defining brand as they expand to the US early next year.”

Typical customers are meat-eating families in their 30s and 40s who are trying to cut down on their meat consumption. They are well educated, have a middle or high income and demand high quality and transparency in the food they consume. Their main competitors are restaurants, meal-kits and take-away. The idea is not to compromise on taste or quality, nor convenience or packaging.

September 18th 2019, 12:32 pm

Plex partners with Lionsgate to expand its ad-supported video library

TechCrunch

Plex has added a new content partner for its soon-to-launch ad-supported video service. The company announced this morning its service will now also include movies from Lionsgate, which will join Plex’s existing partner Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, in helping to fill out the forthcoming video-on-demand library.

However, unlike with Warner Bros., whose videos will be limited to U.S. viewers, the deal with Lionsgate is for worldwide streaming. (There may be a few titles with geo-restrictions, Plex noted.)

“Lionsgate is one of the biggest names in the business and we know our millions of users will enjoy free access to their library of movies,” said Keith Valory, CEO of Plex, in a statement. “Plex caters to the most passionate and discerning media lovers all over the world, so it is important for us to be able to bring great content like this together in one beautiful app for all of our users across the globe.”

TechCrunch first reported on Plex’s plans to enter the ad-supported movies market back in January. The company described a strategy that is similar to Roku’s — that is, instead of just facilitating streaming through its platform, it will actually broker deals that bring a selection of free content directly to its users. It can then tap into the ad revenue that’s generated to boost its bottom line as Roku does with The Roku Channel.

Though Plex began as a media organizer, it has, in recent years, expanded to focus on becoming a one-stop-shop for all your media needs. This includes streaming and recording from live TV, streaming music by way of a TIDAL partnership, plus access to podcastsnews and web series.

Plex now has 20 million users, and while it doesn’t detail its subscriber numbers, it has achieved profitability.

That said, the one media organization challenge it hasn’t yet solved is helping users search for, discover, and track the shows and movies they want to watch outside of live TV or its ad-supported streams. Plex did once say it’s looking into paid subscriptions further down the road, as it’s a natural next step beyond the ad-supported streaming deals.

Plex says its video-on-demand library will launch later this year.

September 18th 2019, 12:14 pm

Hear how to hire at breakneck speed at TechCrunch Disrupt SF

TechCrunch

Nothing can get built without talented people with the right skillsets, which is why startups hitting their growth phases have to go from hiring a smattering of employees to building systems that can hire dozens to hundreds of people per year. How can startups double and triple headcount year after year in a sustainable way, all while not losing the culture that made them what they are in the first place?

We’ve got an incredible discussion lined up on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year that answers that prompt from some of the most knowledgeable people in the business.

First, we have Harj Taggar of Triplebyte, a platform designed to accelerate the hiring of quality and vetted engineers for tech startups. Taggar was the first partner to join Y Combinator, where he spent five years helping some of the most successful startups in the world grow from humble origins to debuting at the New York Stock Exchange. Taggar brings a wealth of experience of observing high-growth companies hire, and also brings significant expertise from Triplebyte on what works and what doesn’t at scale for startup hiring.

Next, we have Liz Wessel, CEO and co-founder of WayUp, a platform for student professionals to connect with new jobs and opportunities that has raised more than $27 million in venture capital from Trinity and General Catalyst. Wessel brings a deep operational background to the discussion, not just hiring dozens of people for her own startup, but also seeing how hiring operates horizontally across industries and sectors through her employment platform.

Finally, we have Scott Cutler, CEO and co-founder of StockX, an ecommerce platform for buying and selling sneakers as well as streetwear, handbags and more. StockX has raised $160 million across several rounds of venture capital, and has hundreds of employees. Before he founded StockX, Cutler was head of the Americas for eBay and president of StubHub. He brings both a large tech and a rapidly-growing startup perspective to the discussion.

We’re amped for this conversation, and we can’t wait to see you there! Buy tickets to Disrupt SF here at an early-bird rate!

Did you know Extra Crunch annual members get 20% off all TechCrunch event tickets? Head over here to get your annual pass, and then email extracrunch@techcrunch.com to get your 20% discount. Please note that it can take up to 24 hours to issue the discount code.

September 18th 2019, 12:10 pm

Walmart launches two new credit cards offering 5% back on digital purchases

TechCrunch

Walmart is partnering with Capital One to launch a new credit card program, which rolls on September 24, and includes both co-branded and private-label cards. The former, the Capital One Walmart Mastercard, includes 5% back on purchases made on Walmart.com or paid for in-store using Walmart Pay (the latter for the first 12 months.) The private label card, the Walmart Rewards Card, will offer those same perks, but is limited to being used only in Walmart stores and on Walmart.com.

After the 12-month introductory period, the co-branded Mastercard will drop to 2% on Walmart purchases in stores, instead of 5%. However, it will continue to offer 5% on Walmart.com purchases, including Walmart Grocery.

It also offers 2% back on restaurants and travel and 1% back everywhere else. The card doesn’t include any annual fee or foreign transaction feeds, and its rewards can be used any time, Walmart says.

Customers can apply for the new card via Walmart’s website or app, or through CapitalOne.com. The application itself can be filled out using a mobile device and, once approved, customers gain access to the card immediately. They can also load the card into Walmart Pay or into the Walmart app before the physical card arrives in the mail — similar to how Apple’s new Apple Card works.

Through Capital One, customers will receive purchase notifications, security alerts, 0% fraud liability, and the ability to lock/unlock a lost or stolen card from the Capital One app.

The new Walmart store card, meanwhile, also offers 5% back on purchases on Walmart.com, in Walmart app, and on Walmart Pay in-store purchases during the introductory period. It then offers 2% back on Walmart purchases afterward. It also earns 2% back at Walmart Fuel Stations.

Current Walmart cardholders will be converted to the Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard or the Walmart Rewards Card, starting October 11, with physical cards arriving in November. They’ll also earn 5% back through Walmart Pay through October 14, 2020.

Walmart’s prior card, from Synchrony Bank, offered smaller rewards, noted Sara Rathner, credit cards expert at NerdWallet, in a statement published this morning.

“The Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard is definitely helping to cement 5% back as the gold standard among retail cards. We already see this rewards rate with the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa card and the Target REDcard. The previous Walmart card issued by Synchrony Bank only offered 3% back on Walmart.com and a paltry 1% back in-store, so the new card is a huge step up,” she said.

Credit card partnerships are an area of importance to major retailers, including Walmart’s chief rival, Amazon. Its credit card program includes a variety of options, including store cards, travel cards, prepaid cards, no annual fee cards, reward points cards and more. And of course both retailers today are, to some extent, challenged by Apple, which just entered the credit card space, too.

Branded store cards not only help to increase customer loyalty, they also drive more purchases, reduce credit card processing fees, create additional profit in the form of interest, and generate records of customer purchases that can be used for targeted advertising.

“As our company has evolved to serve customers shopping in stores, online, and on the Walmart apps, we also recognized the need to fully digitally enable the cardholder experience,” said Daniel Eckert, senior vice president, Walmart services and digital acceleration, in a statement. “That’s why we’ve worked with Capital One to make it possible for cardholders to manage essentially every interaction with the program right from the palm of their hands,” he said.

 

September 18th 2019, 11:24 am

Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

TechCrunch

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. - Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

September 18th 2019, 11:11 am

The founders of Robin Healthcare think doctors need smart assistants too

TechCrunch

Robin Healthcare,  a new startup founded by serial entrepreneurs Noah Auerhahn and Emilio Galan, is hoping to harness the power of personal assistants to make the business of healthcare easier for the physicians who practice it

The company’s technology, which works much the same way as a Google Home or Amazon Alexa or Echo, is placed in hospital rooms and transcribes and formats doctor interactions with patients to reduce paperwork and streamline the behind-the-scenes part of the process that can drive doctors to the point of distraction, the company’s co-founder said.

“I had a background doing claims data work in healthcare was at UCSF and finishing my clinical training,” says Galan. “And I was hearing lots of doctors telling me not to practice.”

The problem, says Galan, was the overabundance of paperwork. After school Galan doubled down on his work in claims and billing launching a company called HonestHealth where he worked with institutions and companies . like The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Consumer Reports, and the New York State Department of Health to analyze health care claims data and develop consumer applications.

Galan met Auerhahn at the HLTH conference a few years ago just as Auerhahn was looking for his next challenge after the sale of his previous company, ExtraBux.

The two men saw the wave of smart devices coming and figured there must be a way to use the technology to build a fully billable clinical report from monitoring the conversations with patients.

The company currently has dozens of its smart devices installed in hospitals around the country including a large surgical practice in Tennessee, the Campbell Clinic; Duke University Medical Center’s Private Diagnostic Clinic; the University of California San Francisco Medical Center; and Webster Orthopedics in Northern California.

Robin integrates with the major electronic health records companies, Epic and Cerner, through third party integrations that are designed to make it easier to input data automatically as doctors are assessing a patient’s condition and delivering treatments.

Part of why Robin exists is to avoid technology interrupting care,” says Auerhahn. “Having fewer interactions with EMR is a good way to do that.”

Robin’s service is human-assisted natural language processing to make sure that the data is input correctly.

The company’s early vision has been enough to attract investors like Norwest Venture Partners, which led the company’s $11.5 million Series A round.

In all, Robin Healthcare has raised $15 million in financing. The company’s other investors include Social Leverage, the early stage investment firm founded by Howard Lindzon.

 

September 18th 2019, 10:41 am

Indonesia’s Julo raises $10M to expand its P2P lending platform

TechCrunch

Julo, a peer-to-peer lending platform in Indonesia, said on Wednesday it has extended its $5 million Series A raise to $15 million as it looks to scale its business in the key Southeast Asian market.

The $10 million Series A2 round for the Jakarta-headquartered startup was led by Quona Capital, with Skystar, East Ventures, Provident, Gobi Partners, and Convergence participating in it. The two-year-old startup, which has raised about $16 million to date, is now closing the round, Adrianus Hitijahubessy, co-founder and CEO of Julo, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Through its eponymous Android app, Julo provides loans of about $300 to users at aggressively competitive rate of 3-5% per month — one of its key differentiating factors. Julo has managed to keep its interest rate low because its credit scoring system is more efficient than those of its rivals, claimed Hitijahubessy, who has amassed more than a decade of experience in credit scoring system using alternative data from his previous stints.

“There are lots of players in this market. Not just Indonesia, but globally. But it comes down to who actually knows what they are doing. The bar is becoming higher and it is increasingly becoming difficult for digital lending companies to just launch an app and charge high interest rate,” he said.

Julo works with banks and individuals to finance loans to customers. It says it has disbursed about $50 million to date.

Hitijahubessy said Julo will use the fresh capital to expand the team and enhance its credit score system. The startup intends to focus on growing its business in Indonesia itself.

In a statement, Ganesh Rengaswamy, co-founder and partner of Quona Capital, said, “a significant majority of JULO’s loans are used for productive purposes that can enhance the economic well-being of families and small businesses — driving financial inclusion in Indonesia, which is a cornerstone of Quona’s focus.”

Digital lending is becoming an increasingly crowded space in South Asian markets. In India, for instance, a growing number of digital mobile wallets including Paytm and MobiKwik have recently started to offer credits to customers.

September 18th 2019, 10:41 am

Tableau update uses AI to increase speed to insight

TechCrunch

Tableau was acquired by Salesforce earlier this year for $15.7 billion, but long before that, the company had been working on its Fall update, and today it announced several new tools including a new feature called ‘Explain Data’ that uses AI to get to insight quickly.

“What Explain Data does is it moves users from understanding what happened to why it might have happened by automatically uncovering and explaining what’s going on in your data. So what we’ve done is we’ve embedded a sophisticated statistical engine in Tableau, that when launched automatically analyzes all the data on behalf of the user, and brings up possible explanations of the most relevant factors that are driving a particular data point,” Tableau chief product officer, Francois Ajenstat explained.

He added that what this really means is that it saves users time by automatically doing the analysis for them, and It should help them do better analysis by removing biases and helping them dive deep into the data in an automated fashion.

Image: Tableau

Ajenstat says this is a major improvement in that previously users would have do all of this work manually. “So a human would have to go through every possible combination, and people would find incredible insights, but it was manually driven. Now with this engine, they are able to essentially drive automation to find those insights automatically for the users,” he said.

He says this has two major advantages. First of all, because it’s AI-driven it can deliver meaningful insight much faster, but it also it gives a more of a rigorous perspective of the data.

In addition, the company announced a new Catalog feature, which provides data bread crumbs with the source of the data, so users can know where the data came from, and whether it’s relevant or trustworthy.

Finally, the company announced a new server management tool that helps companies with broad Tableau deployment across a large organization to manage those deployments in a more centralized way.

All of these features are available starting today for Tableau customers.

September 18th 2019, 10:41 am

North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

TechCrunch

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, and then return once they’re ready for a pick-up and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later – essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

September 18th 2019, 10:41 am

PlayVS picks up $50 million Series C to build out high school esports

TechCrunch

PlayVS, the platform that allows high school students to compete on varsity esports teams through their school, has today announced the close of a $50 million Series C led by existing investor NEA. Battery Ventures, Dick Costolo and Adam Bain of 01 Advisors, Sapphire Sport, Michael Zeisser, Dennis Phelps of IVP and cofounder of CAA Michael Ovitz.

This brings the startup’s total funding to $96 million, the vast majority of which was raised in the last 13 months.

PlayVS launched in April of 2018 under founder and CEO Delane Parnell, who believes that the opportunity of esports is fundamentally broken without high school leagues. Through an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (the NCAA of high schools), PlayVS allows schools across the country to create esports teams and participate in leagues with their neighboring schools, just like any other varsity sport.

PlayVS also partners with the game publishers, which allows the platform to pull in stats and track players performance across every game directly from the PlayVS website.

The startup charges either the player, parent/guardian or school $64 per player to participate in ‘Seasons’, PlayVS’s first product. It was launched in October of 2018 in five states and expanded to eight states this spring.

Since launch, 13,000 schools have joined the waitlist to get a varsity esports team through PlayVS, which represents 68 percent of the country. PlayVS says that just over 14,000 high schools in the United States have a football program, marking the idea of varsity esports as a relatively popular one.

With the upcoming fall Season for 2019, all 50 states will have access to the PlayVS platform, with 15 states competing for an actual State Championship in partnership with their state association. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington D.C.

States that have not gotten an endorsement from their state association will still compete regionally for a PlayVS championship. PlayVS supports League of Legends, Rocket League and SMITE with plans to support other games in the future.

Not only does PlayVS offer high school students the chance to play organized esports, but it also gives colleges and esports orgs a recruitment tool to scope and scoop young talent.

But what about that funding? Well, Parnell says that the new round gives the company a war chest to not only hire aggressively — the company has gone from 18 to 41 employees in the last year — but also to consider mergers and acquisitions as a means of growth.

Perhaps most importantly, the company will use the funding to explore products outside of high school, with eyes squarely focused on the collegiate market. With esports still in its infancy, there is a huge opportunity to provide the infrastructure of these leagues early on, and PlayVS is looking to capture that.

September 18th 2019, 10:41 am

Salesforce brings AI power to its search tool

TechCrunch

Enterprise search tools have always suffered from the success of Google. Users wanted to find the content they needed internally in the same way they found it on the web. Enterprise search has never been able to meet those lofty expectations, but today Salesforce announced Einstein Search, an AI-powered search tool for Salesforce users that is designed to point them to the exact information they are looking for.

Will Breetz, VP of product management at Salesforce says that enterprise search has suffered over the years for a variety of reasons. “Enterprise search has gotten a bad rap, but deservedly so. Part of that is because in many ways it is more difficult than consumer search, and there’s a lot of headwinds,” Breetz explained.

To solve these issues, the company decided to put the power of its Einstein artificial intelligence engine to bear on the problem. For starters, it might not know the popularity of a given topic like Google, but it can learn the behaviors of an individual and deliver the right answer based on a person’s profile including geography and past activity to deliver a more meaningful answer.

Image: Salesforce

Next, it allows you to enter natural language search phrasing to find the exact information you need, and the search tool understands and delivers the results. For instance, you could enter, “my open opportunities in Boston” and using natural language understanding, the tool can translate that into the exact set of results you are looking for –your open opportunities in Boston. You could use conventional search to click a series of check boxes to narrow the list of results to only Boston, but this is faster and more efficient.

Finally, based on what the intelligence engine knows about you, and on your search parameters, it can predict the most likely actions you want to take and provide quick action buttons in the results to help you do that, reducing the time to action. It may not seem like much, but each reduced workflow adds up throughout a day, and the idea is to anticipate your requirements and help you get your work done more quickly.

Salesforce appears to have flipped the enterprise search problem. Instead of having a limited set of data being a handicap for enterprise search, it is taking advantage of that, and applying AI to help deliver more meaningful results. It’s for a limited set of findings for now such as accounts, contacts and opportunities, but the company plans to additional options over time.

September 18th 2019, 9:38 am

Aliro comes out of stealth with $2.7M to ‘democratize’ quantum computing with developer tools

TechCrunch

It’s still early days for quantum computing, but we’re nonetheless seeing an interesting group of startups emerging that are helping the world take advantage of the new technology now. Aliro Technologies, a Harvard startup that has built a platform for developers to code more easily for quantum environments — “write once, run anywhere” is one of the startup’s mottos — is today coming out of stealth and announcing its first funding of $2.7 million to get it off the ground.

The seed round is being led Flybridge Capital Partners, with participation also from Crosslink Ventures and Samsung NEXT’s Q Fund, a fund the corporate investor launched last year dedicated specifically to emerging areas like quantum computing and AI.

Aliro is wading into the market at a key moment in the development of quantum computing.

While vendors continue to build new quantum hardware to be able to tackle the kinds of complex calculations that cannot be handled by current binary-based machines, for example around medicine discovery, or multi-variabled forecasting — just today IBM announced plans for a 53-qubit device — even so, it’s widely acknowledged that the computers that have been built so far face a number of critical problems that will hamper wide adoption.

The interesting development of recent times is the emergence of startups that are tackling these specific critical problems, dovetailing that progress with that of building the hardware itself. Take the fact that quantum machines so far have been too prone to error when used for extended amounts of time: last week, I wrote about a startup called Q-CTRL that has built firmware that sits on top of the machines to identify when errors are creeping in and provide fixes to stave off crashes.

The specific area that Aliro is addressing is the fact that quantum hardware is still very fragmented: each machine has its own proprietary language and operating techniques and sometimes even purpose for which it’s been optimised. It’s a landscape that is challenging for specialists to engage in, let alone the wider world of developers.

“We’re at the early stage of the hardware, where quantum computers have no standardisation, even those based on same technology have different qubits (the basic building block of quantum activity) and connectivity. It’s like digital computing in 1940s,” said CEO and chairman Jim Ricotta. (The company is co-founded by Harvard computational materials science professor Prineha Narang along with Michael Cubeddu and Will Finegan, who are actually still undergraduate students at the university.)

“Because it’s a different style of computing, software developers are not used to quantum circuits,” and engaging with them is “not the same as using procedural languages. There is a steep on-ramp from high-performance classical computing to quantum computing.”

While Aliro is coming out of stealth, it appears that the company is not being specific with details about how its platform actually works. But the basic idea is that Aliro’s platform will essentially be an engine that will let developers work in the languages that they know, and identify problems that they would like to solve; it will then assess the code and provide a channel for how to optimise that code and put it into quantum-ready language, and suggest the best machine to process the task.

The development points to an interesting way that we may well see quantum computing develop, at least in its early stages. Today, we have a handful of companies building and working on quantum computers, but there is still a question mark over whether these kinds of machines will ever be widely deployed, or if — like cloud computing — they will exist among a smaller amount of providers who will provide access to them on-demand, SaaS-style. Such a model would seem to fit with how much computing is sold today in the form of instances, and would open the door to large cloud names like Amazon, Google and Microsoft playing a big role in how this would be disseminated.

Such questions are still theoretical, of course, given some of the underlying problems that have yet to be fixed, but the march of progress seems inevitable, with forecasts predicting that quantum computing is likely to be a $2.2 billion industry by 2025, and if this is a route that is taken, the middlemen like Aliro could play an important role.

“I have been working with the Aliro team for the past year and could not be more excited about the opportunity to help them build a foundational company in Quantum Computing software, “ said David Aronoff, General Partner at Flybridge, in a statement. “Their innovative approach and unique combination of leading Quantum researchers and a world-class proven executive team, make Aliro a formidable player in this exciting new sector.

“At Samsung NEXT we are focused on what the world will look like in the future, helping to make that a reality,” said Ajay Singh, Samsung NEXT’s Q Fund, in a statement. “We were drawn to Prineha and her team by their impressive backgrounds and extent of research into quantum computing. We believe that Aliro’s unique software products will revolutionize the entire category, by speeding up the inflection point where quantum becomes as accessible as classical computing. This could have implications on anything from drug discovery, materials development or chemistry. Aliro’s ability to map quantum circuits to heterogeneous hardware in an efficient way will be truly transformative and we’re thrilled to be on this journey with them.”

September 18th 2019, 9:38 am

Amazon is bringing a cash-based checkout option, Amazon PayCode, to the U.S.

TechCrunch

Amazon is making it easier for customers to pay with cash for their online purchases. The retailer today announced the U.S. arrival of Amazon PayCode, a new checkout option that will allow online shoppers to pay for Amazon.com purchases at one of 15,000 Western Union locations. Separately from this, Amazon said that its Amazon Cash service, which lets you load cash into an Amazon account, is now offered at over 100,000 cash-loading locations across the U.S.

Prior to today, PayCode was available in 19 countries around the world, including emerging markets where paying with cash is more common and bank account penetration is lower than in the U.S. or Europe.

The service itself launched earlier this year in partnership with Western Union, and was initially available in 10 markets: Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand. It has since expanded to Barbados, Costa Rica, Federated States of Micronesia, Kazakhstan, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Palau, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uruguay.

Instead of using a bank card to pay for online purchases, shoppers can instead choose the PayCode option at checkout on Amazon.com. They then receive a QR code they could take to a Western Union to pay for the items they wanted to buy.

At launch, Amazon said PayCode customers had 48 hours to make that payment. With its U.S. launch, that time frame narrows to 24 hours. This change is due to shorter delivery windows for U.S. customers versus cross-border customers, Amazon says, and the impact to the company’s delivery promises.

While the U.S. is a more developed market and less in need of supporting cash-based payments, cash still has a big foothold here. Amazon, citing data from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, noted that 39% of in-person payments continue to be made using cash, for example.

In the past, Amazon has addressed the un-banked (or under-banked) U.S. consumer through the Amazon Cash service. This lets shoppers load up funds on their Amazon account at places like CVS, Rite Aid, GameStop, and 7-Eleven, as well as, now, Western Union.

PayCode may be a more convenient option, as it allows you to shop first, then pay — not vice versa. Plus, Amazon notes that 80% of Americans live within 5 miles of a participating Western Union.

“We’re constantly innovating to improve the shopping experience on behalf of our customers, and are proud to expand Amazon Paycode to customers in the U.S.,” said Ben Volk, Director, Payments at Amazon, in a statement. “Customers have told us they love the convenience of paying in cash. Together with Western Union, we’re able to offer customers more shopping choices, enabling them to pay for their online purchases in a way that is convenient for them,” he added.

Cash payments are only one way Amazon is reaching a different class of online shopper.

It also in 2017 launched a low-cost version of its membership program Prime for customers on government assistance, and this year joined a USDA pilot program that lets SNAP (food stamp) recipients shop for groceries online.

The general thinking is that online shopping is no longer a luxury — it’s a system that can even benefit budget shoppers. People who have access to shop online may be able to find better deals than available at brick-and-mortar stores. In the case of Amazon Cash or now, Amazon PayCode, they may be able to eliminate multiple trips to different retailers to instead place a single Amazon.com order — saving themselves both time and gas money.

“As one of the world’s largest digital and physical money movers, we’re innovating our service to give customers more access and choice,” said Khalid Fellahi, President, Consumer Money Transfer for Western Union, in a statement. “We’re embracing the complexity of a world where cash and digital payments are likely to coexist far into the future. We are providing easy solutions for customers who want access to the convenience of online shopping but prefer to pay in-person.”

Amazon PayCode will roll out to U.S. shoppers over the next few weeks.

September 18th 2019, 9:27 am

India bans e-cigarettes citing youth health concerns

TechCrunch

India’s government has announced an immediate ban on e-cigarettes — citing youth-focused public health concerns.

In a news statement following a cabinet meeting today finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the ban covers production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertising of e-cigarettes.

Sitharaman suggested India’s youth are viewing e-cigarettes as a “style statement”, implying it’s encouraging them to get hooked on nicotine — whereas she noted that companies behind the vaping trend have pitched their products as a way to ween existing smokers off cigarettes.

“This decision is taken keeping in mind the impact that [e-cigarettes are] having on the youth of today,” she said of the ban order. “The data that we have largely is derived from the US’ experience and it the US the latest stats that I have before me states that there has been a 77.8% growth among school students who are at the 10th and 12th level.”

She also pointed to “surprising” growth in e-cigarette use among US middle school students — up 48.5%, per stats she cited. 

India has some 106M adult smokers, making it a major market for cigarette companies of all stripes. But with the e-cigarette ban, vaping startups like Juul are set to be shut out entirely — even as traditional tobacco giants are allowed to continue to operate.

According to the World Health Organization the use of tobacco in Indian, which includes both smoked and smokeless products, kills close to 1M people per year.

The ban on e-cigarettes will need formal approval when India’s parliament returns this fall, though this step is typically considered a formality.

Penalties for breaching the ban order include up to one year in jail and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,405) for first-time offenders, per Reuters. Repeat violation risks up to three years and a penalty of up to 500,000 rupees. It’s not clear whether users of e-cigarettes will risk any penalties for the act of vaping itself.

India’s ban comes at a time when the US is also preparing to tighten regulation in response to concerns around youth vaping. This month the Trump administration said it’s working on a compliance policy for flavored e-cigarettes that are especially appealing to children.

The US’ CDC public health agency also recently warned against using e-cigarettes — as it investigates a lung condition associated with vaping, following hundreds of cases and a suspected death in August.

September 18th 2019, 9:27 am

The portable $399 Sonos Move is like having two great speakers in one

TechCrunch

Sonos has released their first ever portable speaker with a built-in battery: The $399 Sonos Move, which starts shipping to customers on September 24. After spending a few days with the Move, I can confidently say that it offers everything that’s great about the Sonos wireless audio system, but with all the added advantages of a speaker you can freely move around the house – or take with you on the road.

Size and sound

The Sonos Move is not a small speaker – it’s about 6.61 lbs, and nearly 10-inches tall by 6.3 inches wide and just under 5-inches deep. If you were maybe expecting it to be around the size of the Sonos One, you’re in for a shock because it’s quite a bit bigger, as you can see from the photo below.

Nor is the Sonos Move just a Sonos One stacked on a big battery and wrapped in a new exterior shell – the company tells me it’s a brand new design in terms of the internals, too. The company set about designing a different speaker because the Move will suit different uses vs. the One, since it’s designed to be used in all environments, including outside in open air.

The result is a speaker that can get a bit boomier than the Sonos One, with deeper lows that seem to anticipate it having to compete with a lot more ambient noise. The sound profile is also helped by a downward-firing tweeter which is used to create a wide sound stage for the Move, which in practice means it does a very good job of evenly blasting music at a spread out group at, say, a picnic or a camp fire.

Indoors and out, the Sonos Move provides the kind of quality audio you can expect from any Sonos device, and it seems nearly equally impressive on both Wifi and Bluetooth modes in my testing, though Wifi does seem to have the edge in terms of quality. You can also pair two of the Move together for true stereo sound, thought since I only had one review device on hand I wasn’t able to personally test this out.

Wireless and weather-resistance

The Move’s highlight feature is its ability to move around and operate on battery power, and that’s why it offers two different connection modes. You can use it as a standard Sonos Wifi speaker, connecting it to your Sonos account and having it show up in your Sonos app the same as any other speakers made by the company, which you can group and control as usual.

In Bluetooth mode, you pair it just like you would any Bluetooth speaker, directly to the device from which you want to play music. A button on the back switches modes, and the first time you switch to Bluetooth the Move will automatically enter pairing mode, making it super easy to connect your phone. I was set up on Bluetooth within just a couple of minutes.

A convenient built-in handle is located on the back of the Move just above the pair, power and Sonos system connect buttons. It’s one of the highlights of the design, and since it’s part of the exterior shell, it should be rock solid in terms of durability. Overall, the device feels like it’s incredibly sturdily built, also, and Sonos advertises it as weather and shock-resistant speaker that isn’t afraid to take a tumble or handle a little light rain.

In Bluetooth mode, you won’t have access to either Alexa or Google Assistant, even if you’ve set those up on the Move to work with your home system. Nor will it work in a stereo pair with another Sonos if you’d done that, or show up in the Sonos app for multi-room control. But at home, you can just use the Wifi mode as you move it around the house or to the backyard and still take advantage of all those. While you’re out and about, you’re much more likely to just want a basic wireless speaker anyway, so not having access to these features on Bluetooth really doesn’t have any impact on usability.

During my testing, wireless connectivity was solid on both Wifi and Bluetooth modes, with no dropouts or stutters. Even leaving aside the Sonos aspects of the speaker, it’s also likely the best-sounding Bluetooth weather-resistant speakers I’ve ever tried, at this or any other price range.

Voice assistants and auto Trueplay

The Sonos Move also features built-in support for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, both the virtual assistants that are also available on the Sonos Beam and the Sonos One. Built-in farfield mics do a great job of picking up voice commands, and if you’ve used either of these assistants before on other Sonos hardware, you’ll get the same great experience here – provided you’re on Wifi and not Bluetooth, as mentioned above.

Sonos has added a new trick to the Sonos Move using the mics it includes for use with these voice assistants, too: Auto Trueplay. This is a version of its Trueplay sound tuning feature, which it includes in other Sonos speakers. Normally, however, you have to do the process manually using your smartphone’s mic to evaluate the sound. The Sonos Move uses its own mics to adjust automatically – and it does it constantly, changing the sound profile to match your space as you move it room to room, or even outside.

In actual use, the effect is subtle, which it should be since the sound is adapting over time. But I found that it undeniably made a difference, and that listening to the same song initially upon switching the Move’s location, and then after a period of time (I tried an hour or so) produced obvious benefits in terms of the sound of the second listening.

Charging and battery

Sonos has done a great job with all things related to their first battery-powered speaker. The built-in power source is rated for up to 10 hours of continuous playback according to the company, and in my testing, I actually got north of that, but of course your mileage will vary depending on what kind of connection you’re using and at what volume you’re playing music.

Charging is handled two ways, which is a very welcome bit of adaptability that suits the Move’s dual nature as both a Sonos network speaker and a portable audio device. There’s the charging base that comes in the box, which you can see above. This has metal contacts that provide power via connection points on the back of the Move, while providing an attractive and stable base for use in your Move’s more permanent ‘home’ location.

Then there’s a standard USB-C port located on the base above the charging contacts, which is perfect for use when you’re taking the Move on the road, or if you’re just using it outside but near an external outlet and don’t particularly feel like moving the charging base. It’s another example of how the Move can do double duty with smart design elements that don’t require any compromises on the user’s part.

Where it fits in the Sonos line

The Sonos Move is unlike any other speaker in the Sonos lineup. It plays nice with the rest, but only to a point: The Move can’t act as rear satellite speakers or pair with the Sonos Sub, for instance, something which the rest of the lineup can all manage. Sonos says this is because the speaker was designed to move around the house, so it doesn’t make sense for it to be tied to a more permanent installation, as in a home theater or sub-supplemented arrangement.

That said, it’s a solid choice as both an addition to an existing Sonos network, or as your first Sonos device. In the first case, it’s the best way to add a patio-friendly Sonos-compatible speaker to your setup without having to drill into your walls or call home installers; in the second, it’s a great all around wireless speaker if all you really need is one, since it can follow you around the house, adapt its sound, and even pack in the car for road trips or a day at the beach.

Bottom line

At $399, the Sonos Move is definitely expensive for either a Bluetooth speaker or a wireless home smart speaker. But when you consider that it’s both, and that it delivers all-day battery life on a single charge; intelligent adaptive sound to ensure it sounds best wherever you’re using it; and the ability to stereo pair and work with other Sonos devices if you want to expand your setup later, it starts to seem a lot more economical – especially when sized up against equally priced speakers that lack half those features, like Apple’s HomePod.

September 18th 2019, 9:27 am

Documents reveal how Russia taps phone companies for surveillance

TechCrunch

In cities across Russia, large boxes in locked rooms are directly connected to the networks of some of the country’s largest phone and internet companies.

These unsuspecting boxes, some the size of a washing machine, house equipment that gives the Russian security services access to the calls and messages of millions of citizens. This government surveillance system remains largely shrouded in secrecy, even though phone and web companies operating in Russia are forced by law to install these large devices on their networks.

But documents seen by TechCrunch offer new insight into the scope and scale of the Russian surveillance system — known as SORM (Russian: COPM) — and how Russian authorities gain access to the calls, messages and data of customers of the country’s largest phone provider, Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) .

The documents were found on an unprotected backup drive owned by an employee of Nokia Networks (formerly Nokia Siemens Networks), which through a decade-long relationship maintains and upgrades MTS’s network — and ensures its compliance with SORM.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, found the exposed files and reported the security lapse to Nokia. In a report out Wednesday, UpGuard said Nokia secured the exposed drive four days later.

“A current employee connected a USB drive that contained old work documents to his home computer,” said Nokia spokesperson Katja Antila in a statement. “Due to a configuration mistake, his PC and the USB drive connected to it was accessible from the internet without authentication.”

“After this came to our attention, we contacted the employee and the machine was disconnected and brought to Nokia,” the spokesperson said.

Nokia said its investigation is ongoing.

‘Lawful intercept’

The exposed data — close to 2 terabytes in size — contain mostly internal Nokia files.

But a portion of the documents seen by TechCrunch reveals Nokia’s involvement in providing “lawful intercept” capabilities to phone and internet providers, which Russia mandates by law.

SORM, an acronym for “system for operative investigative activities,” was first developed in 1995 as a lawful intercept system to allow the Federal Security Services (FSB, formerly the KGB) to access telecoms data, including call logs and content of Russians. Changes to the law over the last decade saw the government’s surveillance powers expand to internet providers and web companies, which were compelled to install SORM equipment to allow the interception of web traffic and emails. Tech companies, including messaging apps like Telegram, also have to comply with the law. The state internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, has fined several companies for not installing SORM equipment.

Since the system’s expansion in recent years, several government agencies and police departments can now access citizens’ private data with SORM.

Most countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., have laws to force telecom operators to install lawful intercept equipment so security services can access phone records in compliance with local laws. That’s enabled an entirely new industry of tech companies, primarily network equipment providers like Nokia, to build and install technologies on telecom networks that facilitate lawful intercepts.

Alexander Isavnin, an expert at Roskomsvoboda and the Internet Protection Society, told TechCrunch that work related to SORM, however, is “classified” and requires engineers to obtain special certifications for work. He added that it’s not uncommon for the FSB to demand telecom and internet companies buy and use SORM equipment from a pre-approved company of its choosing.

The documents show that between 2016 and 2017, Nokia planned and proposed changes to MTS’s network as part of the telecom giant’s “modernization” effort.

Nokia planned to improve a number of local MTS-owned phone exchanges in several Russian cities — including Belgorod, Kursk and Voronezh — to comply with the latest changes to the country’s surveillance laws.

TechCrunch reviewed the documents, which included several floor plans and network diagrams for the local exchanges. The documents also show that the installed SORM device on each phone network has direct access to the data that passes through each phone exchange, including calls, messages and data.

MTS’ exchange in Belgorod containing SORM equipment. Authorities can remotely access the system.

The plans contain the physical address — including floor number — of each phone exchange, as well as the location of each locked room with SORM equipment in large bold red font, labeled “COPM.” One document was titled “COPM equipment installation [at] MTS’ mobile switching center,” a core function for handling calls on a cell network.

An unedited floor plan detailing where the SORM equipment is located.

One photo showed the inside of one of the SORM rooms, containing the sealed box containing intercept equipment with the letters “COPM” in large font on the metal cabinet next to an air-conditioning unit to keep the equipment cool.

A photo of a SORM (COPM) device in a locked room at one of MTS’ local phone exchanges.

Nokia says it provides — and its engineers install — the “port” in the network to allow lawful intercept equipment to plug in and intercept data pursuant to a court order, but denied storing, analyzing or processing intercepted data.

That’s where other companies come into play. Russian lawful intercept equipment maker Malvin Systems provides SORM-compatible technology that sits on top of the “port” created by Nokia. That compatible technology allows the collection and storage of citizens’ data.

“As it is a standard requirement for lawful interception in Russia and SORM providers must be approved by the appropriate authorities, we work with other companies to enable SORM capabilities in the networks that we provide,” said Nokia’s spokesperson, who confirmed Malvin as one of those companies.

Nokia’s logo was on Malvin’s website at the time of writing. A representative for Malvin did not return a request for comment.

Another set of documents shows that the “modernized” SORM capabilities on MTS’s network also allows the government access to the telecom’s home location register (HLR) database, which contains records on each subscriber allowed to use the cell network, including their international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) and SIM card details.

The documents also make reference to Signalling System 7 (SS7), a protocol critical to allowing cell networks to establish and route calls and text messages. The protocol has widely been shown not to be secure and has led to hacking.

MTS spokesperson Elena Kokhanovskaya did not respond to several emails requesting comment.

‘Bulk wiretapping’

Lawful intercept, as its name suggests, allows a government to lawfully acquire data for investigations and countering terrorism.

But as much as it’s recognized that it’s necessary and obligatory in most Western countries — including the U.S. — some have expressed concern at how Russia rolled out and interprets its lawful intercept powers.

Russia has long faced allegations of human rights abuses. In recent years, the Kremlin has cracked down on companies that don’t store citizens’ data within its borders — in some cases actively blocking Western companies like LinkedIn for failing to comply. The country also has limited freedom of speech, expression and dissidents, and activists are often arrested for speaking out.

“The companies will always say that with lawful interception, they’re complying with the rule of law,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, a civil liberties and rights watchdog. “But it’s clear when you look at how Russian authorities are using this type of apparatus that it goes far beyond what is normal in a democratic society.”

For Nokia’s part, it says its lawful intercept technology allows telecom companies — like MTS — to “respond to interception requests on targeted individuals received from the legal authority through functionality in our solutions.”

But critics say Russia’s surveillance program is flawed and puts citizens at risk.

“In Russia, the operator installs it and have no control over what is being wiretapped Only the FSB knows what they collect.”
Alexander Isavnin, expert

Isavnin, who reviewed and translated some of the files TechCrunch has seen, said Russia’s view of lawful intercept goes far beyond other Western nations with similar laws. He described SORM as “bulk wiretapping.”

He said in the U.S., the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires a company to verify the validity of a wiretap order. “In Russia, the operator installs it and have no control over what is being wiretapped,” he said. The law states that the telecom operation is “not able to determine what data is being wiretapped,” he said.

“Only the FSB knows what they collect,” he said. “There is no third-party scrutiny.

Nokia denied wrongdoing, and said it is “committed” to supporting human rights.

Nokia chief marketing officer David French told TechCrunch in a call that Nokia uses a list of countries that are considered “high-risk” on human rights before it sells equipment that could be used for surveillance.

“When we see a match between a technology that we think has potential risk and a country that has potential risk, we have a process where we review it internally and decide to go forward with the sale,” said French.

When pressed, French declined to say whether Russia was on that list. He added that any equipment that Nokia provides to MTS is covered under non-disclosure agreements.

A spokesperson for the Russian consulate in New York could not be reached by phone prior to publication.

This latest security lapse is the second involving SORM in recent months. In August, a developer found thousands of names, numbers, addresses and geolocations said to have leaked from SORM devices. Using open-source tools, Russian developer Leonid Evdokimov found dozens of “suspicious packet sniffers” in the networks of several Russian internet providers.

It took more than a year for the internet providers to patch those systems.

Ingrid Lunden contributed translations and reporting.


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September 18th 2019, 9:27 am

Podcast app Pocket Casts is now available for free, with an optional $0.99 subscription

TechCrunch

Anyone who wants to download the podcast app Pocket Casts can now do so for free.

Previously, you had to pay a one-time fee of $3.99 to access the Android or iOS apps, but CEO Owen Grover said this approach seemed increasingly at odds with Pocket Casts’ goals, and with the vision of the public radio organizations (NPR, WNYC Studios and WBEZ Chicago) that acquired it last year.

“We understood pretty clearly that we were limiting our reach and limiting the number of users that could enjoy the quality and power of the app and the platform,” Grover said. “It felt penny wise and pound foolish to continue to collect a few dollars at the top … We have the benefit of these owners who are supporting us in a way that allows us to grow our audience, habituate new listeners and deliver a pretty terrific user experience.”

So moving forward, he said the core features of the Pocket Casts app — including audio effects and cross-platform sync — will be available for free.

At the same time, Pocket Casts is launching a monthly subscription called Pocket Casts Plus, where he said “power users and super users” can pay 99 cents a month or $10 a year for access the desktop apps, cloud storage of their own audio and video files and exclusive app icons and themes.

Shifting from a one-time fee to a subscription model might seem like a move to make more money, but Grover said the company is really just charging a fee to cover the costs of the Plus features, particularly cloud storage.

“In the short term, we will make less money. It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s not about maximizing app revenue for us, it’s about maximizing the unique quality of the partnership [with] our wonderful public media partners.”

That doesn’t mean Pocket Casts isn’t interested in making money. In fact, Grover said the team will have “more to share about how we think about sensible, sane, scalable business models moving forward.” (He also assured me that the model won’t focus on advertising.)

He painted this change as part of a broader strategy after last year’s acquisition, which was followed by upgrades to Pocket Casts’ backend and frontend.

“This is really the third pillar — now we’re off to the races,” Grover said.

September 18th 2019, 9:27 am

DxOMark’s night and wide-angle camera tests push today’s smartphones to their limits

TechCrunch

Sure, you could take Apple’s word for it that the new iPhone’s cameras are amazing — or you could let some obsessive pixel-peepers perform some (mostly) objective tests and really get into the nitty-gritty. Pixel peepers in extraordinary DxOMark are here to help, with new tests focused on evaluating the latest gadgets’ night modes and ultra-wide-angle lenses.

The site’s already extensive image quality tests cover the usual aspects of a smartphone camera — color representation, exposure, noise, all that. But the latest devices are making advances in new directions that aren’t adequately covered by those tests; Namely the emergence of “night mode” shooting and multi-lens setups like the iPhone 11 Pro and its hulking rear camera assembly.

Therefore the tests must change! And DxOMark has begun including extremely nitpicky breakdowns of camera performance in the particularly difficult circumstances of extreme low light and extreme wide angle photography.

Night shots are graded on detail, noise, color reproduction — the kinds of things that tend to be lost in low light. Wide angle shots are graded on distortion, detail throughout the frame, and chromatic aberration — all difficult to correct for.

Some devices may be great in one area but poor in another, for example trading too much detail for lower noise in a night shot but getting great color. A higher score may indicate a better overall camera, but if you care about your phone photography you should look into what goes into that score as well. I for one never plan to use these ultra-wide cameras, so I can ignore that category altogether!

Now, this is an interesting area to grade such cameras in, and difficult one, because so much of the work is being done in software. As I’ve noted, the future (and of course the present) of photography is code, and without code there would be no night mode or ultra-wide angle shots.

The image stacking and denoising that allow low-light photography, and the speed of things like perspective correction and other tricks that allow a nearly fisheye lens to look relatively normal, are consequences of massive improvements in image processing efficiency and huge jumps in processing power. And they’ll only get better, even for a given camera-sensor-processor combo.

So DxOMark may find itself revising these scores — which are themselves being mapped retroactively onto reviews already posted: Low light performance is replacing the flash performance category, and wide angle is a new score.

The first phones to get the new treatment are the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Note 10+, the Huawei P30 Pro, a handful of others, and of course the new iPhones. No doubt the upcoming Pixel 4 will be a contender as well, especially in the night mode category.

It’s good to know someone is systematically testing these aspects of phones with a critical eye. Watch for the updated tests and listings on DxOMark starting today.

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

IBM will soon launch a 53-qubit quantum computer

TechCrunch

IBM continues to push its quantum computing efforts forward and today announced that it will soon make a 53-qubit quantum computer available to clients of its IBM Q Network. The new system, which is scheduled to go online in the middle of next month, will be the largest universal quantum computer available for external use yet.

The new machine will be part of IBM’s new Quantum Computation Center in New York State, which the company also announced today. The new center, which is essentially a data center for IBM’s quantum machines, will also feature five 20-qubit machines, but that number will grow to 14 within the next month. IBM promises a 95 percent service availability for its quantum machines.

IBM notes that the new 53-qubit system introduces a number of new techniques that enable the company to launch larger, more reliable systems for cloud deployments. It features more compact custom electronics for improves scaling and lower error rates, as well as a new processor design.

“Our global momentum has been extraordinary since we put the very first quantum computer on the cloud in 2016, with the goal of moving quantum computing beyond isolated lab experiments that only a handful organizations could do, into the hands of tens of thousands of users,” said Dario Gil, the director of IBM Research. “The single goal of this passionate community is to achieve what we call Quantum Advantage, producing powerful quantum systems that can ultimately solve real problems facing our clients that are not viable using today’s classical methods alone, and by making even more IBM Quantum systems available we believe that goal is achievable.”

The fact that IBM is now opening this Quantum Computation itself, of course, is a pretty good indication about how serious the company is about its quantum efforts. The company’s quantum program also now supports 80 partnerships with commercial clients, academic institutions and research laboratories. Some of these have started to use the available machines to work on real-world problems, though the current state of the art in quantum computing is still now quite ready for solving anything but toy problems and testing basic algorithms.

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

TechCrunch

Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming, and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV let you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room where unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added  Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat, and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat smart screen. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop for $199 to $179. Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device” says  Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals all go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in the US and Canada plus new markets like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, and France (though the Hey Portal assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to compete where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling The Creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive”, we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removeable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off, and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

But if Portal if battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the call from the perspective of accessibility. “We say ‘oh they’re good enough” but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impedentment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel – ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why’.”

Hands-On With The New Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room. The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel, they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram, or Camera roll photos.

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation. It has an integrated stand for placing on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8 mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room. TechCrunch

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users piece of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control felt a tad sluggish but passable.

Portal’s software is largely the same as before with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp, and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame as zoomed in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

Now in addition to Messenger video calling, the app platform with Spotify and more, and AR Storytime where you don related AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other Portal content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the true potential of the device: passive hang out time.

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling, I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some  reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pre-text, to have an excuse to go be together.”

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

Salesforce is developing an app to help build a sustainable company

TechCrunch

Salesforce has always tried to be a socially responsible company, encouraging employees to work in the community, giving 1% of its profits to different causes and building and productizing the 1-1-1 philanthropic model. The company now wants to help other organizations be more sustainable to reduce their carbon footprint, and today it announced it is working on a product to help.

Patrick Flynn, VP of sustainability at Salesforce, says that it sees sustainability as a key issue, and one that requires action right now. The question was how Salesforce could help. As a highly successful software company, it decided to put that particular set of skills to work on the problem.

“We’ve been thinking about how can Salesforce really take action in the face of climate change. Climate change is the biggest, most important and most complex challenge humans have ever faced, and we know right now, every individual, every company needs to step forward and do everything it can,” Flynn told TechCrunch.

And to that end, the company is developing the Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, to help track a company’s sustainability efforts. The tool should look familiar to Salesforce customers, but instead of tracking customers or sales, this tool tracks carbon emissions, renewable energy usage and how well a company is meeting its sustainability goals.

Image: Salesforce

The tool works with internal data and third-party data as needed, and is subject to both an internal audit by the Sustainability team and third-party organizations to be sure that Salesforce (and Sustainability Cloud customers) are meeting their goals.

Salesforce has been using this product internally to measure its own sustainability efforts, which Flynn leads. “We use the product to measure our footprint across all sorts of different aspects of our operations from data centers, public cloud, real estate — and we work with third-party providers everywhere we can to have them make their operations cleaner, and more powered by renewable energy and less carbon intensive,” he said. When there is carbon generated, the company uses carbon offsets to finance sustainability projects such as clean cookstoves or helping preserve the Amazon rainforest.

Flynn says increasingly the investor community is looking for proof that companies are building a real, verifiable sustainability program, and the Sustainability Cloud, is an effort to provide that information both for Salesforce and for other companies who are in a similar position.

The product is in Beta now and is expected to be ready next year. Flynn could not say how much they plan to charge for this service yet, but he said the goal of the product is positive social impact.

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

With its third fund, Revolution Ventures stays true to its mission

TechCrunch

Most of the venture capital firms covered in TechCrunch and other tech publications compete for a spot on the cap table of the hottest Bay Area, New York or Los Angeles companies of the moment. Few seek out companies in Indianapolis, Milwaukee or Tampa.

AOL co-founder and former chief executive officer Steve Case’s venture capital fund, Revolution, deploys capital to companies “outside of the hotbeds.” Revolution, the parent company of Revolution Ventures, the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and Revolution Growth, has evangelized its approach to backing companies in emerging markets, helping promote entrepreneurialism in geographies often overlooked by Silicon Valley’s Patagonia vest-wearing venture capitalists.

Revolution Ventures managing partner Tige Savage.

“When we started doing this, it was heretical,” Revolution co-founder Tige Savage tells TechCrunch. “People who were investors thought, ‘Why would you do this? It’s not where the talent is. It’s a flawed strategy.’ Well, nobody says that anymore. Lots of firms are now talking about this pretty actively.”

Today, Washington, DC-based Revolution is announcing its latest fund. Revolution Ventures, its Series A and Series B-focused outfit, has raised a $215 million third fund, almost precisely the size of Revolution Ventures I and II, which each closed on $200 million. The firm’s portfolio includes Detroit’s direct-to-consumer plant startup Bloomscape, Chicago-based Paro, which provides a network of on-demand finance professionals, DC’s custom framing business Framebridge, Milwaukee-based monthly wine club Bright Cellars and New York insurtech company Policygenius.

Since Revolution launched in 2005, venture capital activity in underrepresented markets has grown significantly. Utah’s Salt Lake City and Provo have garnered a reputation for churning out great tech businesses, earning it the nickname Silicon Slopes . Austin and Denver have emerged as VC hubs, rapidly becoming formidable opponents to Silicon Valley’s upstarts.

Historically there’s been a reluctance to get on an airplane for that $3 million to $5 million check. - Revolution Ventures managing partner David Golden

VC firms like NEA, which invests in companies across industries and stages, has made a concerted effort to tap into the Atlanta startup ecosystem, another market that has seen considerable growth thanks to the corporations headquartered there and the network of universities producing top-notch engineers.

“We look at areas that have one legacy industry in the region, where some Fortune 500 companies have established career opportunities to retain talent, where there is a supportive angel and seed network to get folks going and where the costs to scale a company are more reasonable,” Clara Sieg, who was promoted to partner for Revolution Ventures’ third fund, tells TechCrunch. Sieg recently joined us on Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital podcast, to explain the firm’s “rise of the rest” philosophy.

Competition for access to deals in the Bay Area, however, has priced many investors out of the most sought-after rounds. This has encouraged many VCs, who perhaps don’t have access to a seemingly endless pool of capital, to search elsewhere for potential “unicorns.”

“Historically there’s been a reluctance to get on an airplane for that $3 million to $5 million check, but once the company is seasoned and they are getting ready for that Series B or Series C, that’s worth getting on an airplane for,” Revolution Ventures managing partner David Golden tells TechCrunch. “We see more activity there from the traditional East Coast and West Coast firms.”

We looked back and realized we drove the greatest returns in these off the beaten path geographies. - Revolution co-founder Tige Savage

As for Revolution’s competition, Golden says that tends to come from within the local ecosystem in a given city: “I think that’s likely to change in the years ahead thanks to the work that Revolution and Steve Case have done to shine a light on areas outside the hotbeds,” he adds.

Revolution began nearly 15 years ago as Steve Case’s balance sheet fund, in essence. Quickly realizing the untapped opportunity to reap big returns by investing in second and third-tier markets, co-founders Savage, Case and Donn Davis formalized the strategy. Ultimately, the team built three firms under the Revolution umbrella, allowing them to invest across all stages.

“We were not seated in Sand Hill Road so we knew we would have to get on airplanes,” Savage said. “Then we looked back and realized we drove the greatest returns in these off the beaten path geographies.”

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

Facebook will let users disable storage of Portal voice snippets

TechCrunch

As consumer tech companies come under fire for how they handle voice data from consumers, Facebook is announcing changes to how users can manage recordings and transcriptions that are stored on Facebook’s services.

At a press event announcing Facebook’s new line of Portal hardware, exec Andrew Bosworth told reporters that the company would be adding the ability for users to halt sending voice recordings to Facebooks servers. He reiterated that data from calls isn’t recorded or stored, but when users say “Hey Portal” and request something, sometimes that data may be analyzed by Facebook employees or contractors to hone the accuracy of the company’s tech.

“Even with the first generation of Portal you were able to review and delete those voice interactions at any time,” Facebook exec Andrew Bosworth told reporters. “We’re now adding the ability to disable storage of voice interactions altogether.”

In the past, Portal users were able to sort through and delete those voice interactions if they didn’t want them living on Facebook servers, but now users will have the option to disable the storage completely. It’s important to note that storage will still be enabled by default, and the onus is on users to disable this functionality if they care.

Facebook, Google and Apple have all come under fire for how they handle these snippets of voice recordings.

Last month, following press reports about how Siri recordings were being listened to by contractors, Apple announced that they had turned off Siri audio clip review by default and would ask users if they wanted to enable the setting. The company also noted that only Apple employees would handle user data. Facebook is following neither of Apple’s big moves here as contractors will still have access to this data and voice snippet collections will still be enabled by default.

September 18th 2019, 8:11 am

Andrew Mason’s Descript snags $15M, acquires Lyrebird to let users type text to create audio in thei

TechCrunch

The boom in popularity for podcasting has given a new voice to the world of spoken word content that had been largely left for dead with the decline of broadcast radio. Now riding the wave of that growth, a startup called Descript that’s building tools to make the art of creating podcasts — or any other content that involves working with audio — a little easier with audio transcription and editing tools, has a trio of news announcements: funding, an acquisition, and the launch of a new tool that brings some of the magic of natural language processing and AI to the medium by letting people create audio of their own voices based on text that they type.

Descript, the latest startup from Groupon founder Andrew Mason, created as a spinoff of his audio-guide business Detour (which got acquired by Bose last year), is today announcing $15 million in funding, a Series A for expanding the business (including hiring more  people) that’s coming from Andreessen Horowitz (it also funded the startup’s seed round in 2017) and Redpoint.

Along with that, the company has acquired a Canadian startup, Lyrebird — which had, like Descript, also built audio editing tools. Together, the two are rolling out a new feature for Descript called Overdub: people will now be able to create “templates” of their voices that they can in turn use to create audio based on words that they type, part of a bigger production suite that will also let users edit multiple voices on multiple tracks. The audio can be standalone, or the audio track for a video. (The video transcription works a little differently: when you add in words, or take them out, the video makes jumps to account for the changes in timing.)

Overdub is the latest addition to a product that lets users create instant transcriptions of audio text, which is then has already established a following among podcasters and others that use transcription software as part of their audio production suites. The product is priced in a freemium format: no charge for up to four hours of voice content, and $10 per month after that.

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In the age of fake news aided and abetted by technology, you’d be forgiven for wondering if Overdub might not be a highway to deep fake city, where you could use the technology to create any manner of “statements” by famous voices.

Mason tells me that the company has built a way to keep that from being able to happen. To activate the editing feature, users have to first record a number of repeated-back, created on the fly and in real time, which are then used to shape your digital voice profile. This means that you can’t, for example, feed an audio of Donald Trump into the system to create a version of the President saying that he is awfully sorry for suggesting that building walls between the US and Mexico was a good idea, and that this would not, in fact, make America Great Again. (Too bad.)

But if you subscribe to the idea that tech advances in NLP and AI overall are something of a Pandora’s Box, the cat’s already out of the bag, and even if Descript doesn’t allow for it, someone else will likely hack this kind of technology for more nefarious ends. The answer, Mason says, is to keep talking about this and making sure people understand the potentials and pitfalls.

“People have already have created the ability to make deep fakes,” Mason said. “We should expect that not everybody is going to follow the same constrants that we have followed. But part of our role is to create awareness of the possibilities. Your voice is your identity, and you need to own that voice. It’s an issue of privacy, basically.”

The developments underscore the new opportunity that has opened up in tapping some of the developments in artificial intelligence to address what is a growing market. On one hand, it’s a big market: based just on ad revenues alone, podcasting is expected to bring in some $679 million this year, and $1 billion by 2021, according to the IAB — one reason why companies like Spotify and Apple are betting big on it as a complement to their music streaming businesses.

On the other, the area of production tools for podcasters is a very crowded market, with a number of startups and others putting out a lot of tools that all work quite well in identifying what people are saying and transcribing it accurately.

On the front of transcription and the area where Descript is working, rivals include the likes of Trint, Wreally and Otter, among many others. Decript itself doesn’t even create its basic NLP software; it uses Google’s, since basic NLP is now an area that has essentially become “commoditized,” said Mason in an interview.

That makes creating new features, tapping into AI and other advances, all the more essential, as we look to see if one tool emerges as a clear leader in this particular area of SaaS.

“In live multiuser collaboration, there is still no other tool out there that has done what we have done with large uncompressed audio files. That is no small feat, and it has taken time to get it right,” said Mason. “I have seen this transition manifest from documents to spreadsheets to product design. No one would have thought of something like product design to be huge space but just by taking these tools for collaboration and successfully porting them to the cloud, companies like Figma have emerged. And that’s how we got involved here.”

September 18th 2019, 6:25 am

Apple Watch Series 5 review

TechCrunch

Apple’s iPhones numbers may have suffered in recent years, but when it comes to smartwatches, the company remains utterly dominant. Recent figures from Counterpoint put Apple Watch growth at 48% year over year for the first quarter, commanding more than a third of the total global smartwatch market. Samsung’s myriad different models, meanwhile, put the company in a distant second with 11%.

All of that is to say that Apple’s clearly doing something right here, and competitors like Fitbit and Fossil (the latter of which has been working closely with Google) have plenty of catching up to do on the smartwatch front. Given the company’s sizable head start, it probably comes as no surprise that the latest version of the watch is more interested in refining the device, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Announced alongside a repositioned line of iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t include any hardware additions quite as flashy as the LTE functionality and ECG (electrocardiogram) monitor it introduced with previous updates. There’s an always-on display and a built-in compass — as far as smartwatch features go, neither is the sort of thing that’s likely to win over longtime holdouts. But taken as a whole, the new features go a ways toward maintaining the device’s spot at the top of the smartwatch heap.

Visually, Watch remains largely unchanged from previous generations, aside from the increased display size that arrived on the Series 4. The addition of the always-on display, however, addresses a longstanding issue with the device. When not in use, the Watch has traditionally been a blank screen. It seems like a massive oversight, but it’s also an understandable one. Battery life has always been a big concern with products this size, and keeping a screen on at all times is a surefire way to make sure you’ll run out of juice before the end of the day.

While improved battery life would almost certainly be a welcomed feature in future updates, Apple’s made a bit of a compromise, offering an always-on watch that lasts the same stated 18 hours as its predecessors. I found I was, indeed, able to get through a day no problem with standard use. My own usage had the product lasting closer to 20 hours without the need to recharge, but even so, the device needs to get charged once a day, regardless — otherwise you’ll almost certainly be out of juice the following day.

The long-awaited addition of sleep tracking failed to materialize for this model — one of the few places where Apple continues to lag the competition. Of course, adding such a feature would require a much more robust battery than one capable of getting 18 hours on a charge.

Apple’s employed some clever fixes to ensure that the new feature won’t totally sap battery life. Each of the faces gets a low-power, always-on version. In the case of the Meridian face that I’ve been using (new for WatchOS 6), it’s white text on a black background. Hold the watch up to your face, however, and the colors invert. The active version is easier to see, and the always-on version uses less power.

The low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide display (LTPO), meanwhile, adjusts the refresh rate based on usage. It’s a broad spectrum: 60Hz at the high end and as little as 1Hz on the low. The ambient light sensor also automatically adjusts the brightness to help conserve power. Covering the watch with your hand will jumpstart the low-power mode.

While complications and other features are still on display, they’re simplified, removing any power-hungry features. That means the second hand disappears on the standard watch face, and when the watch is in workout mode, the milliseconds will disappear until you bring the watch back up to your face.

The ambient light sensor also works to dim the display in those situations when a bright always-on screen are a genuine nuisance, like watching a movie in a theater. Though while it’s fairly dark, you’re probably better off switching the watching into Theater mode, which turns the screen off altogether until you press the crown.

The other big update on the hardware side is the addition of a built-in compass. Like LTE and the speaker before it, the feature represents another case of bringing more smartphone features over to the watch. At present, there are only a handful of Watch applications that utilize the new feature, the most prominent being Apple’s own Maps. The addition of the compass makes it much easier to navigate directly from the wearable itself.

It’s a handy offering on that front. If you don’t mind the smaller screen size, it’s great being able to find your way around a new area without pulling out your phone.There’s also Apple’s own Compass app, which could prove handy when going for a hike, and also includes a new elevation reading taken from a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, map data and barometric pressure to determine your positioning relative to sea level.

Given that the product isn’t actually available yet, the number of third-party apps that take advantage of the feature is still pretty limited. That said, the much-loved star map app Night Sky offers a pretty compelling use for the compass, as you swing your arm around to get a better notion of your own place of the massive, ever-expanding cosmos.

The last big addition is Emergency SOS. Of course, it’s not always possible to test out every new feature on a device for obvious reasons. We’re going to have to take Apple’s word for it on this one. The feature, which is only supported on the cellular version of the Series 5, brings the ability to call local emergency services when traveling abroad — even when there’s not a phone nearby. The feature also works with the fall-detection feature announced the last time around, sending an emergency SOS if the wearer takes a spill.

The new watch will also feature a number of software additions new for WatchOS 6, including Cycle Tracking, which makes it possible to log menstrual health, symptoms, period and fertility windows. There’s also the Noise app, which utilizes the Watch’s built-in microphone to track when noise levels get beyond 90 decibels — at which point they can begin to cause hearing loss.

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the standard version and $499 for cellular. Prices go up from there, including the lovely new titanium version, which will ruin you $799. The ceramic is arguably the best looking of the bunch, but $1,299 disqualifies that model for the vast majority of us. No one ever said good looks came cheap. There are countless other combinations beyond that, which will be available for mix and match at Apple’s retail locations. Everyone you know may be wearing an Apple Watch, but it’s still possible to make yours stand out a bit.

In keeping with the addition of a low-cost iPhone 11, the company’s keeping the Series 3 around at $199, offering a much more accessible price point for first-time buyers. For those who already own the device, there’s probably not enough here to warrant an upgrade from last year’s model, but some welcome new features like the always-on help keep the line fresh.

September 18th 2019, 6:09 am

Acronis raises $147M from Goldman Sachs to expand its cyber security services

TechCrunch

When you hear the name Acronis, chances are you’re thinking about products like its disk cloning tool True Image or maybe its backup services. The company, though, wants you to think about cyber protection and all of its products (and their marketing) are now focused on this direction. To expand on this vision, the company has now raised $147 million from Goldman Sachs at a valuation over $1 billion.

The company says it will use the funding to expand its engineering teams in Singapore, Bulgaria and Arizona, as well as to build new data centers and acquire other companies to fast-track its product development. The company also plans to invest in its business growth, specifically in North America, through its recently launched partner (and former Acronis business) Arconis SCS, which focuses on selling to the U.S. public sector.

“We are excited about Goldman Sachs‘ investment,” said Serguei Beloussov, founder and CEO of Acronis . “In 2018, Acronis achieved 20% business growth, and in 2019 it is on track for over 30% growth with the Acronis Cyber Cloud business growing by over 100%. Recently we announced the Acronis Cyber Platform, enabling third-parties to customize, extend, and integrate our cyber protection solutions to the needs of their customers and partners. The investment round led by Goldman Sachs will help us to fast-track the product development through acquisitions of companies and additional resources, and accelerate the growth.”

While you may not necessarily think of Acronis as a cybersecurity company, it has made quite a few strides in this direction and the Switzerland- and Singapore-based company’s products are currently in use by 80 percent of the Fortune 1000. With this new war chest of $147 million, chances are we’ll see Acronis pick up quite a few smaller companies in the near future as it looks to expand its product portfolio and strengthen its brand.

September 18th 2019, 6:09 am

Cybersecurity company Acronis hits unicorn status after raising $147 million led by Goldman Sachs

TechCrunch

Cyber security solutions provider Acronis announced today that it has raised $147 million in funding led by Goldman Sachs, bringing it to unicorn status. The company did not disclose its valuation, but founder and CEO Serguei Beloussov told TechCrunch that it is between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Founded in Singapore as a data backup and recovery company in 2003 and now headquartered in Switzerland, Acronis currently has more than 1,400 employees in 18 countries. Its cyber protection technology is used by 5 million consumers and 500,000 businesses.

Beloussov says this is the first time the company has raised capital. In 2004, Acronis sold part of its business to an outside firm in a secondary transaction for $11 million. Since then it has been profitable, but it is now aiming for very rapid growth, targeting $1 billion in revenue by 2022. The company wants to take advantage of increasing demand for cybersecurity solutions by expanding its research and development teams and making several acquisitions in the cybersecurity space.

In a statement, Holger Staude, the vice president of Goldman Sachs Growth, said “We are excited to invest in Acronis at this stage of rapid growth. The traditional backup and data protection market is being disrupted by Acronis Cyber Protection, an innovative solution delivered efficiently through a vast channel of service providers.”

Acronis’ products include Cyber Protection to safeguard data, a platform that allows third-party developers to integrate Acronis’ technology into their own applications and Cyber Cloud, which enables enterprise IT to deliver Acronis’ cyber protection services to end customers. It plans to grow its product roster by acquiring companies that protect applications it doesn’t already support. Beloussov says that the company will also add long-term protection for applications and data and integrate more data destinations.

“We are growing because we have completely changed the company strategy from being a data protection company to a cyber protection company, from data protection applications to being a cyber protection platform, and being a data protection provider to building a cyber protection infrastructure,” says Beloussov, adding that demand is being driven by three trends.

The first is the increasing adoption of edge computing and end point computing, which means more devices outside of data centers need to be protected. The second is the increasing sophistication of cyber crime. Companies need to protect themselves against attacks, but also be prepared to perform recovery and forensics when they happen. The third is the cost of protecting large amounts of data, meaning providers who are able to offer the lowest pricing gain an advantage.

Beloussov says Acronis differentiates from other data backup and security companies, like Veeam or Carbonite, by providing a comprehensive solution that addresses what Acronis refers to as the “Five Sectors of Cyber Protection”: safety, accessibility, privacy, authenticity and security of data. By being able to rely on one provider for more of their cybersecurity needs, companies can save money. Acronis also has a flexible business model, allowing customers to combine its products in a way that saves on costs, Beloussov adds.

“We have very aggressive plans and hope to provide cyber protection for as many workloads, customers and people as possible,” Beloussov says.

September 18th 2019, 6:09 am

Normative closes a $2.1M seed to help companies automate carbon reporting

TechCrunch

Normative, a startup that lets companies automate their carbon reporting — and in turn help them decrease their environmental footprint — has picked up $2.1 million in seed funding.

Backing the Stockholm-based company is ByFounders, with participation from Soundcloud co-founder Eric Wahlforss, Luminar Ventures, and Wave Ventures.

The modest injection of capital will be used by Normative to “accelerate growth” and expand to key markets in the EU and the U.S.

Billed as wanting to become the “Quickbook of carbon reporting,” Normative is a SaaS that plugs into various data — both a company’s internal systems and external databases on the environmental impact of good and services. It then automatically calculates carbon usage and emissions for reporting purposes, which is traditionally a time consuming and costly process. Existing clients include Summa Equity, Bonava and Ikano.

“It is widely recognized that corporate activities are by far the largest contributor to climate change,” Normative co-founder and CEO Kristian Rönn tells TechCrunch. “To use my own country as a case study, H&M, Ericsson and Electrolux reportedly have larger CO2 emissions than the entire population of Sweden put together. This highlights the reality that in order to mitigate climate change, large companies need to mitigate their emissions”.

However, Rönn says that the first step to mitigating climate change is for companies to measure their climate impact, but only around 5,000 companies of an estimated 200 million companies are thought to measure sustainability at all. To make matters worse, even when carbon emissions are measured, companies typically only include emissions that are easy to track, such as electricity and car fuel consumption, which is estimated to be less than 10% of total company emissions. Missing in much of the data is supply chain emissions, transport, travel, and the production of goods and services.

Which, of course, is where Normative steps in.

“Normative helps large companies to go from mapping 10% of their CO2 to mapping 100% of their emissions for every product, service and activity, by reading data directly from their existing business systems e.g. SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Visma etc.,” explains Rönn. “Moreover, sustainability reporting has been completely inaccessible for the small enterprise segment (who would afford to pay $50k-200k per year?), but Normative makes the whole process 10x times cheaper”.

The timing looks good, too. With movements like Extinction Rebellion and a regulatory, shareholder and consumer push for companies to improve their environmental footprint, carbon reporting is becoming more mandatory. In Europe this includes an EU directive stipulating that all large public companies with more than 500 employees must “disclose certain information on the way they operate and manage social and environmental challenges”. Rönn says similar laws are underway also in the U.S.

Adds the Normative co-founder: “Sustainability reporting is a pain and a huge cost in time and money. However, more and more stakeholders — everything from investors to consumers as well as the legislative sector — demands transparency about companies’ unpaid externalities. Recently many large investors have signed the UN PRI, saying that they will look at sustainability data and comprehensive reporting when they invest”.

September 18th 2019, 4:09 am

Amazon’s Alexa now understands Hindi

TechCrunch

Only about 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people know English. Yet, that is the only language Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa understands in the nation. That changes today.

At a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, the e-commerce giant said Alexa now supports Hindi, a language spoken by roughly half a billion people in India. Bringing support for Hindi to Alexa has been more than a year in making, company executives said, noting the unique contextual, cultural, and content-related challenges that Hindi implementation posed.

Users can now ask Alexa their commands in Hindi, and the digital assistant would be able to respond in the same language. The feature is now live in the country from the app settings. In the months to come, Amazon plans to add multilingual households support, allowing members in the family to interact with Alexa in the language they prefer.

Support for local languages has proven immensely beneficial to customers in the past, Manish Tiwari, head of devices category business for Amazon India, said at the event. Amazon last year introduced support for Hindi language on its apps and website. It has seen Hindi usage grow on the site by six times since then, he said.

“The adoption of Alexa in India has been phenomenal,” said Rohit Prasad, VP and Head Scientist, Alexa AI Amazon. Alexa has supported some Hinglish words, combination of English and Hindi, but the company wanted to bring full-fledged support. “A lot of how people in India engage with their smartphones and internet services is different from those of the people in the United States. For instance, in India, people often use the name of an actor instead of singer or band when looking for particular songs,” he added.

The announcement comes months after Amazon added a Hindi voice model to its Alexa Skills Kit, enabling developers to update their skills in India to support the more popular local language. Google smart speakers gained support for Hindi language late last year.

Amazon says it offers it offers over its Alexa customers in India over 30,000 skills across various categories including cricket, education, and Bollywood. The company’s voice assistant is available to users through its smart speakers — Echo Dot, Echo Plus and more — and over three-dozen devices from other manufacturers including Sony, iBall, and LG, the company said.

Hindi should also help Amazon’s smart speakers maintain their lead over Google’s in India. Amazon commanded the local smart speakers market with a 59% market share in 2018, according to research firm IDC. (Google launched its smart speakers in India months after Amazon did its. IDC has not updated its findings since March this year.)

More to follow…

September 18th 2019, 3:51 am

Festicket enables group festival bookings with ‘Pay with Friends’

TechCrunch

Festicket, the U.K.-headquartered festival booking platform, is launching a new feature that allows users to pay for festival tickets as a group.

Described as removing the the pain of being the lead booker, “Pay with Friends” lets a single user reserve tickets for a whole group while only having to pay for part of the payment up-front. The other members of the group then have 48 hours to pay their individual part, whereby the booking is confirmed.

Notably, however, if this doesn’t happen there is a small non-refundable deposit charged to the lead booker to reserve the booking.

The idea is to avoid a situation that doubtless many of us have found ourselves in when trying to organise a group event or vacation, including attending a festival. This typically sees one person drawing the short straw and having to organise, book and pay for the trip. The new Festicket feature goes someway to mitigating this.

“Pay with Friends aims to reduce pressure on the lead booker by sharing the payment immediately with the rest of the group through a simple, fast and easy-to-use solution,” says Festicket.

The new feature was born out of the popularity of group bookings on Festicket, with around 60% of festival-goers attending as a group of more than three, and 20% more than six, according to a survey carried out by the company.

The macro trend is that festivals have become a popular alternative to group holidays with international festival travel increasing by 400% over the past 5 years, says Festicket.

Adds Jonathan Younes, CPO and co-founder of Festicket, in a statement: “It’s great to be able to offer our fans the option to Pay with Friends finally. We’ve created a fair solution that guarantees fans won’t be left out of pocket just because they’re the organised one out of their friends! We’ll continue to add features like this to the Festicket product to make sure all our customers have the best possible booking experience”.

September 18th 2019, 3:51 am

This young litigation finance startup just secured $100 million to go after cases it thinks are winn

TechCrunch

If you haven’t heard much about litigation finance, that may change soon. The practice dates back decades, though it’s been picking up momentum since 2006, when Credit Suisse Securities founded a litigation risk strategies unit that it later spun off.

What is litigation finance? In a nutshell, the idea is to fund plaintiffs and law firms in cases where it looks like there will be a winning ruling. When everything goes the right way, the capital that helps fund the lawsuits is returned — and then some — in return for the risk taken. Litigation finance firms — and there’s a growing number of them — basically want to estimate as accurately as possible the risk involved so they can bet on the right horses.

Interestingly, one of the newest entrants onto the scene wasn’t founded by career attorneys or spun out of a hedge fund or private equity group. Instead it’s a young, 11-person company called Legalist that’s run by a 23-year-old Harvard dropout named Eva Shang, who cofounded the company with her college classmate Christian Haigh (who graduated).

As interestingly, the pair, who say they honed the idea as part of a Y Combinator batch in 2016, just secured $100 million to put to work. That’s roughly ten times the $10.2 million they raised for a first fund that tested out their ability to find and finance civil lawsuits that pay.

We talked with Shang late last week to learn more about new fund, which was raised from non-profit endowments, family offices, and institutional investors (including an insurance company) and that’s styled like a private-equity fund with a traditional management fee and carry structure.

TC: First, how do you find these plaintiffs that you’re backing? Do you reach out to them?

ES: We don’t reach out to them. Attorneys bring us cases. They’re the repeat players in litigation funding industry; they’re seeing a lot of cases.

TC: And who are they telling you about? Who fits your criteria?

ES: The plaintiffs who we work with are involved in smaller cases, meaning they require less than a million dollars in funding. It’s a lot of money to pay a lawyer, but in the world of litigation, it’s akin to seed-stage investing. Once [we’ve found candidates], then the algorithms [do the] diligence.

TC: What kind of information or patterns are they seeking out?

ES: We scrape state and federal court records and look for indicators, like whether a court is favorable to plaintiffs, if particular case types tend to win, who the judge is. We also check for points at which the case could be dismissed. We’re focused exclusively on commercial cases, so often breach-of-contract [disputes] where it’s a David and Goliath situation and the smaller company is typically underfunded. When there’s litigation, we help pay for attorneys’ fees and if it’s successful, we recover and if not, we don’t.

TC: How many cases have you backed so far, and how many have you won?

ES: We’ve funded 38 cases, half of them have been resolved, and of those, we’ve had above an 80 percent success rate.

TC: And that has translated into what kind of return for your investors?

ES: We can’t talk about fund returns, but we scaled up our funds 10x [based on that performance].

TC: That’s a lot of cases to churn through. When do you step into the process in the lifespan of a lawsuit?

ES: The cases we’re [involved with] are more advanced and are showing success indicators, so we have a shorter time frame. We also fund smaller cases than most other litigation funders. Because of our approach, where we’re using tech to speed due diligence, we can do that.

TC: You can’t discuss returns but can you tell me what your investors expect to see back? We aren’t talking venture-like returns, presumably.

ES: Not venture-type returns but high-yield returns.

TC: There is movement in a small but growing number of states that want more transparency into third-party litigation funding agreements. It aims mostly to protect consumers, but it sounds like some outfits that fund commercial litigation aren’t so thrilled about it, either. What are you thoughts?

ES: We actually don’t mind disclosure regulation so much. As long as litigation funding is becoming more widely accepted, that’s a good thing and the rules shouldn’t impact us so much. I also think in the long run that it’s inevitable and won’t be a huge problem.

TC: Do you syndicate deals? Do you go it alone?

ES: It’s not like in VC. When we invest in a case, we’re [aren’t teaming up with other sources of funding].

TC: Who owns equity in Legalist? You went through Y Combinator. You raised a little venture funding. But you also now have this fund. 

ES: Y Combinator owns 7 percent of the company [because Legalist went through its accelerator program, intending to become a legal analytics company]. [Other stakeholders] include VY Capital and Refactor Capital .

TC: How will they eventually liquidate their stakes? Does a company like Legalist go public?

ES: There are two publicly traded litigation private finance companies. We’re a tech company; there are exit opportunities.

TC: How long will it take you to invest this $100 million?

ES: Our time horizon is five years and we expect to fund between 100 and 200 cases.

TC: What have you learned in those cases where your investment has gone to zero?

ES: That there’s idiosyncratic risk in the court system that can’t be anticipated. If a jury likes you, they’ll find a way to drape the law over you so you win, and if they don’t, you won’t. We see that. There’s also luck involved, as well as having a meritorious case. That’s why we want to diversify across a larger number of cases.

TC: You dropped out of Harvard because you were accepted into Y Combinator. Around the same time, you also received a Thiel Fellowship, wherein recipients are provided with a $100,000 grant to work on something for a couple of years. What do your parents think of all this?

ES: They really don’t understand it, but they can see that I like what I’m doing. My mom does keep asking me when I’m going back to school. She’s like, “I thought the Thiel fellowship was over after two years!” 

September 18th 2019, 1:20 am

The portrait of an avatar as a young artist

TechCrunch

In this episode of Flux I talk with LaTurbo Avedon, an online avatar who has been active as an artist and curator since 2008.  Recently we’ve seen a wave of next-gen virtual stars rise up, from Lil Miquela in the west to pop-stars like Kizuna AI in the east. As face and body tracking make real-time avatar representation accessible, what emergent behaviors will we see? What will our virtual relationships evolve? How will these behaviors translate into the physical world when augmented reality is widespread?
LaTurbo was early to exploring these questions of identity and experimenting with telepresence. She has shape-shifted across media types, spending time in everything from AOL and chat rooms, to MMOs, virtual worlds and social media platforms. In this conversation she shares her thoughts on how social networks have breached our trust, why a breakup is likely, and how users should take control of their data. We get into the rise of battle royale gaming, why multiplicity of self is important, and how we can better express agency and identity online.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full podcast on iTunes and transcript on Medium.

***

ALG: Welcome to the latest episode of Flux. I am excited to introduce LaTurbo Avedon. LaTurbo is an avatar and artist originating in virtual space, per her website and online statement. Her works can be described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and explosion of forms exploring topics of virtual authorship and the physicality of the Internet. LaTurbo has exhibited all over the world from Peru to Korea to the Whitney in New York. I’m thrilled to have her on the show. Metaphorically of course. It’s just me here in the studio. LaTurbo is remote. 

When we got the demo file earlier I was excited to hear the slight Irish lilt in your robotic voice. As a Brit I feel like we have a bond there.

LaTurbo: Thank you for the patience. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, our voices together.

ALG: Of course it’s all about being patient as we try out new things on the frontier. And you represent that frontier. This show is about people that are pushing the boundaries in their fields. A lot of them are building companies, some are scientists. Recently we’ve had a few more artists on and that’s something I believe is important in all of these fields. Because you’re taking the time to do the hard work and think about technology and its impact and how we can stretch it and use it in different ways and broaden our thinking. You play an important role.

LaTurboWe will get things smoothed out eventually as my vocalization gets easier and more natural with better tools. Alice I appreciate you trekking out here with me and trying this format out.

ALG: I love a good trek. Maybe you can give a brief intro on who is LaTurbo. I believe you started in Second Life. I’d love to hear about those origins. Phil Rosedale was one of the first people I interviewed on this podcast, the founder of Second Life. Shout out to Phil. I’d love to hear what’s been your journey since then. Oh and also happy 10th birthday.

“I’ve spent decades inside of virtual environments, in many ways I came of age alongside the Internet. My early years in my adolescence in role-playing games. From the early years I was enamored by cyber space”

LaTurboI know that it is circuitous at times but this process has made me work hard to explore what it takes to be here like this. Well I started out early on in the shapes of America Online, intranets, and private message boards. Second Life opened this up incredibly, taking things away from the closed worlds of video games. We had to work even harder to be individuals in early virtual worlds using character editors, roleplaying games, and other platforms in shared network spaces. This often took the shape of default characters — letting Final Fantasy, Goldeneye, or other early game titles be the space where we performed alternative identities.

ALG: If you’re referring to Goldeneye on N64 I spent considerable time on it growing up. So I might have seen you running around there.

LaTurbo: It was a pleasure to listen to your conversation with Philip Rosedale as he continues to explore what comes next, afterwards, in new sandboxes. What was your first avatar?

ALG: I did play a lot of video games growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and was exposed mostly to the Nintendo and Sega side of things, so maybe one of those Mario Kart characters — Princess Peach or really I went for Yoshi if those count as avatars. I’d love to get into your experience in gaming. You said you started off exploring more closed world games and then you discovered Second Life. You’ve spent a lot of time in MMORPGs and obviously that’s one of the main ways that people have engaged with avatars. I’d love to hear how your experiences have been in different games and any commentary on the worlds you’re spending time in now.

LaTurbo: I think that even if they weren’t signature unique identities or your own avatar, those forms of early video games were a first key to understand more about facets of yourself through them. For me gaming is like water being added to the creative sandbox. There is fusion inside of game worlds — narrative, music, performance, design, problem solving, communication, so many different factors of life and creativity that converge within a pliable file. Some of the most Final Fantasies of games are now realities. Users move place to place using many maps and system menus on their devices. The physical world so closely bonded by users like me that brought bits of the game out with us. Recently I spent several months wandering around inside of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoyed the narrative of the main storyline though I was far more interested in having quiet moments away from all of the violence. I named my horse Sontag and went out exploring, taking photographs and using slow motion game exploits to make videos. Several months as the weary cowboy named Arthur, and then I carried on my way. I take bits and pieces with me on the way.

LaTurbo’s Overwatch avatar

ALG: As you’ve gone across different games and platforms like Red Dead Redemption 2 are there specific people you’ve made friends with? How have your friendships formed in these different communities and do they travel between games? 

LaTurbo: I have had many gaming friends. Virtual friends overlap between all of these worlds. My Facebook friends are not very different than those I fight with in Overwatch or the ones I challenge scores with in Tetris Effect.

ALG: One thing you’ve said about gaming and I’ll read the quote straight out:

“I love the MMO or massively multiplayer online experience for a lot of reasons but primarily because I want to create works collaboratively with my network, because we are in this moment together. For a long time virtual worlds were partitioned from the public because you either had to be invested in gaming or a chat room/ BBS user to get into them.”

I want to explore that. Gaming has come a long way in the 10 years since you were created. It’s more widespread now. Things like Fortnite. I saw that Red Dead Redemption is introducing a Fortnite like feature where they’re going to have battle royale mode and toss people into a battle zone and force them to search for weapons to survive. I think a lot of people are looking at the success of Fortnite and replicating elements of it. Can you comment on how gaming has become more widespread or more in the public mind and what you think of the rise of Fortnite?

LaTurboOur histories are fluid, intersecting and changing depending on the world we choose to inhabit. Sometimes we are discussing art on Instagram. Other times we are discussing game lore or customization of ourselves. This variety is so important to me. There is a lot exchanged between worlds like Fortnite and the general physical day to day. Expectations are real and high. The battle royale model has pushed people to a sort of edge at all times. A constant pressure of chance and risk, it crosses between games but also into general attention. Video apps like TikTok have a similar model — always needing to have the drop on the creators around you.

ALG: It’s interesting that tension. These games are driven to create competition. They are businesses so they’re supposed to build in loops and mechanics that keep people engaging. But as you describe of your experience in Red Redemption you’ve also found quiet moments of exploration being alone and not necessarily fiercely competing. 

LaTurbo: Red Dead could be a hundred games in one. Yet for some reason we come back to the royale again. It is a maximal experience in a lot of ways. One that uses failure and frustration to keep users trying again perpetually. This is a telling sign as you’ve said about the business of games. The loop. I worry that this is a risky model because it doesn’t encourage a level of introspection very often.

ALG: I love video games but have never been a fan of first person shooters. I don’t enjoy the violence. But I’ve always loved strategy and exploration games. To your point about exploring, I would spend hours wandering on Epona [the horse] in Zelda, running across the fields. But I didn’t feel that a lot of those games were designed for women or people who weren’t interested in the violence or the GTA type approach. I’m excited to see more of that happening now and gaming CEOs realizing there’s a huge untapped market of people that want to play in different modes and experience gaming in different ways. It feels like we are moving towards that future. I do want to get in to how you have expanded beyond gaming. I’ll read some of your quotes from when you started out:

“I’ve been making work in digital environments since 2008 to 2009, though I’ve only been using social media for about a year now since I can’t go out and mingle with people it’s been quite nice to use social platforms to share my work. This way I can be in real life IRL as much as people allow me to be.”

I want to get to the question of how you’ve expanded from gaming to social media, building your Twitter and Instagram presence and how you think about your engagement on those platforms.

LaTurbo: I celebrate the multiplicity of self. Walt Whitman spoke of their contradictions years ago accepting themselves in the sense that they contain multitudes. As I wandered the fields of fictitious Admiral Grant in Red Dead Redemption 2, it occurred to me that I was wondering inside of Leaves of Grass. It made sense that I too was wandering around out in the fields and trees. Virtual life in poetry, song, or simulation gives us a different sort of armor where our forms can forget about borders, rules and expectations that have yet to change outside.

It has been quite a decade. Events of the past 10 years could easily be the plot of a William Gibson novel. A cyber drama and all its actors. With and without consent users have watched their personal data slip away from their control, quick to release in the terms of service. Quick to be public, to have more followers and visibility. Is it real without the Instagram proof? I chose to socialize away from game worlds for a few different purposes. To imbue my virtual identity with the moment of social media. But also to create a symbol of a general virtual self. A question mark or a mirror, to encourage reflection before people fully drown themselves in the stream.

ALG: One of the reasons it’s fascinating to talk to you now is that you’ve come of age as the Internet has come of age. You’ve navigated and shape-shifted across these platforms. And so much has happened since 2008. You’ve been on everything from Tumblr to Pinterest to Vine to Snapchat to Instagram. I’m curious where you think we are in the life cycle of these social media platforms?

LaTurbo: It has been quite a journey, seeing these services pop up, new fields, new places. But it is clear that not many of these things will remain very long. A new Wild West of sorts. They are more like ingredients in a greater solution as we try to make virtual relationships that are comfortable for both mind and body.

ALG: Speaking of these services popping up I want to get to something you tweeted out, your commentary on Facebook:

“If it wasn’t bad already just imagine how toxic Facebook will be when we collectively decide to break up with them. Anticipate a paid web and an underweb. We just start spinning them out on our own, smaller and away from all these analytics moneymakers. The changeover from MySpace era networks to Facebook felt minimal because it hadn’t become such a market-oriented utility. But this impending social network breakup is going to be felt in all sorts of online sectors.”

That’s an interesting opinion. The delete Facebook movement is strong right now. But I wonder how far it will go and how many people really follow it?

LaTurbo: Business complicates this as companies extend too far and make use of this data for personal gain or manipulation. In the same way that Google Glass failed because of a camera, these services destroy themselves as they breach the trust of those who use them. These companies know that these are toxic relationships whether it is on a game economy or a social network. They know that the leverage over your personal data is valuable. Losing this, our friends, and our histories is frightening. We need to find some way to siphon ourselves and our data back so we can learn to express agency with who we are online. Your data is more valuable than the services that you give it to. The idea that people feel that it is fair to let their accounts be inherently bound to a single service is disturbing. Our virtual lives exceed us and will continue to do so onward into time. Long after us this data may still linger somewhere.

ALG: I’m going to throw in a Twitter poll you did a few months ago. “If you had the choice to join some sort of afterlife simulation that would keep you around forever at the expense of having your data used for miscellaneous third party purposes would you?” 35% said yes and 65% said no in this poll. I bet if you ask that every two years, over time the answers will continue to change as we get more comfortable with our digital identities and what that really means. You’re pushing us to ask these questions.

LaTurboWe see in museums now torn parchments, scrolls, ancient wrappings of lives and histories. As we become more virtual these documents will inherently change too. A markup and data takes this place. However we consent to let it be represented. If we leave this to the Facebooks and Twitters of this period, our histories are in many ways contingent on the survival of these platforms. If not we have lost a dark ages, it is a moment that we will lose forever.

ALG: I’m curious what you think of the different movements to export your personal data, own it, have it travel with you across platforms and build a new pact with the companies. Are you following any of the movements to take back personal data and rewrite the social technological contract?

LaTurboIt would be sad to have less record of this period of innovation and self-discovery because we didn’t back things up or control our data appropriately. Where do you keep it? Who protects it? Who is a steward of your records? All of this needs to begin with the user and end with the user. An album, a solid state tablet of your life, something you can take charge of without concern that it is marketing fodder or some large shared database. As online as we are as a society, I recommend people have an island. Not a cloud but a private place, plugged in when you request it. A drive of your own where you have a private order. Oddly enough in an older world sense you can find solitude in solid states, when you have the retreat to files that are not connected to the Internet.

ALG: And have it backed up and air-gapped from the internet for safety and possibly in a Faraday cage in case you get EMP’ed. One thing that leads on from that — Facebook has capitalized on using our real data, our personal data. I have the statement on authentic identity from their original S-1 here:

“We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends and sharing your genuine interests online creates more engaging and meaningful experiences. Representing yourself with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience and we believe that it is central to the future of the Web. Our terms of service require you to use your real name. And we encourage you to be your true self online enabling us and platform developers to provide you with more personalized experiences.”

LaTurbo: The use of a real name, authenticity, and Facebook’s message of truth. It is peculiar that Facebook used this angle because it was such a gloved gesture for them to access our accurate records. The verification is primarily to make businesses comfortable with their investment in marketing. I wish it came to celebrate personal expression not to tune business instruments.

ALG: Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a movement towards Facebook and being our real selves. Now there’s kind of a backlash both to the usage of Facebook but perhaps also to the idea that your real identity, your true self that you have offline, that that’s what you should be representing online. You are an anonymous artist and there’s precedent for that. There have been many writers with nom de plumes over centuries and in the present day we’ve got Daft Punk, Banksy, Elena Ferrante, fascinating creators. I’m curious your thoughts as we move away from real selves being represented online to expressing our other selves online. We’ve been living in an age of shameless self-promotion. Do you think that the rise of people representing themselves with digital avatars is a backlash to that? Society usually goes through a back and forth, a struggle for balance. Do you think people are getting disenchanted with the unrelenting narcissism of social media, the celebrity worship culture? Do you think this is a bigger movement that’s going to stick?

LaTurbo: I see this as an opportunity and I am wary of this chance being usurped by business. If I had the chance to see all of my friends in the avatar forms of their wishes and dreams I believe I’d be seeing them for the first time. A different sort of wholeness against the sky, where they had the chance to say and be exactly what they wished others to find. If you haven’t created an avatar before please do. Explore yourself in many facets before these virtual spaces get twisted into stratified arenas of business.

A full talk from LaTurbo Avedon is available here

I don’t seek to be anonymous but to represent myself in this strand of experiences, fully. That’s who I have become. As an artist I will continue to change with what surrounds me. Each step forward. Each new means of making and learning. I celebrate this and who I will become, even if I continue to find definition over a period of time that I right now cannot fully comprehend.

I am often in the company of crude avatars of the past. As I read journals, view sketches and works from artists past, if they understood their avatar identities and how they would be here now in 2019. I wonder what they would have done differently. What would they think of their graphic design and exhibitions? How their work is shown in other mediums? How their work is sold?

ALG: Taking that with your earlier point, you said if you had the chance you would love to see all your friends in their avatar forms “express all their wishes and dreams.” It fascinates me, the idea that we persistently remain one to one with our offline/online identities. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like everyone has multiple selves and multiple things to express. Do you feel that most people should have a digital identity or abstraction? Do you think it’s healthy to have an extension of something that’s inside of you, especially since as you say some of these avatars are pretty crude. How do you feel about most people creating a digital avatar? People have been doing this for a while without realizing through things like a Tinder bio or Instagram stories. They’re already putting out ideas of themselves. But creating true anonymous digital avatars, is that something people should pursue?

LaTurbo: Avatars remain in places that we often don’t even intend them to. Symbols of self. For those that pass or those we never had the chance to meet, there seems to be importance here. To need to take this seriously so that it isn’t misunderstood. The most beautiful experiences I’ve had online are when I feel I am interacting with a user how they wish to be seen. Whether this is in the present or for people later, finding this inward representation feels essential especially for those exposed to oppressive societies. Whether it’s toxic masculinity, cultural restrictions, or other hindrances that prevent people from showing deeper parts of their identity.

I have four essential asks of users creating avatars. Though these apply well outside of just this topic. 1/ Be sweet. 2/ Encourage others to explore themselves and all of their differences. 3/ Learn about the history of virtual identities, now, then, and long before. This means going back. Read about identities before the internet, pen names, mythologies. 4/ Celebrate your ownership of self. You, not your services, subscriptions, or products, are the one to decide your way. Don’t become billboards. I’ve been asked by many companies over the years to promote their products, to drop the branded text on my clothing or to push a new service. These are exciting times but brands know this too. Be wary of exploitation. Protect yourself and your heart.

ALG: That’s really beautiful and important. We’re rushing into this future fast and I don’t think people are stopping to pause and think about some of the ideas you’ve spent a long time thinking about. It’s probably a good place to end. I have a million more things I want to ask, hopefully we can continue this chat over Discord, Twitter, Instagram, Second Life or wherever it is. I’m in VR a lot so I’d love to meet you in there. If there’s anything you want to end on, any final comments or projects you’re working on?

LaTurbo: Yes I agree with you very much. Technology moves quickly but we need to take the time to consider ourselves as we move inside this space. We have so much potential to be inside and out simultaneously. I am excited for this new year. I hope it brings positivity to everyone. I am showing a new piece called “Afterlife Beta” in London at the Arebyte Gallery. After this I will be working on my first monograph. I am excited to make something printed that might stick around in the physical world for a while.

ALG: That’s awesome. Love a good physical piece. And congratulations on “Afterlife Beta.” I appreciate your patience with my jumping in at all times in this conversation. I’ve been following your work and hope everyone else will too. You’re a fascinating, critical thinker and artist at this current point in history. Thanks LaTurbo.

LaTurbo: Thank you for your patience with my format. As time goes on I hope it is easier for us to be here together.

September 18th 2019, 12:50 am

FarmWise and its weed-pulling agribot harvest $14.5M in funding

TechCrunch

Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.

Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.

“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”

Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.

Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.

The company previously took in about $5.7 million in a seed round, following its debut on Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day back in 2017. Robots are expensive!

Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.

Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.

“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.

With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?

September 17th 2019, 7:47 pm

GoCardless launches U.S. debit payments solution and opens San Francisco office

TechCrunch

GoCardless, the London fintech that aims to become the one-stop shop globally for businesses that want to let customers pay via recurring bank payments, has launched a U.S. debit solution.

The company has also opened an office across the pond in San Francisco’s financial district, headed up by Andrew Gilboy, General Manager, North America, who was previously the company’s Chief Revenue Officer.

Specifically, GoCardless’ new U.S. product supports debit payments on the ACH (Automated Clearing House) network. This means that businesses can use the GoCardless platform to offer U.S. consumers the option to pay by recurring bank payments, as an alternative to a credit card, for example. Likewise, companies can use GoCardless for debit payments for B2B transactions, such as relating to SaaS subscriptions, invoices or instalments.

It is the B2B use case where GoCardless thinks there is the biggest opportunity for recurring payments, since, unlike in the U.K., for example, the biggest competitor would be writing cheques. That’s costly and slow by 2019 standards and doesn’t provide anything like the visibility that direct debits and ACH affords.

“By using the ACH debit network on the GoCardless platform, merchants can pull payments directly from their customers’ bank accounts, at a lower cost than credit cards and without the overhead and burden of cash and cheques,” says the U.K.-headquartered company.

GoCardless adds that businesses using the GoCardless ACH debit solution gain increased visibility over payment flow via a “fully automated” collection system. This includes things like due dates, and whether or not a payment was successful or failed and why.

The addition of ACH debit means that GoCardless’ global debit network now covers over 30 countries accessible through a single API and platform.

Meanwhile, the 2011-founded company is no stranger to the West coast of America. In its formative years, the U.K. startup went through Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator where it initially struggled to find product-market fit before successfully pivoting to recurring payments.

If you happen to bump into GoCardless CEO Hiroki Takeuchi, ask him about the time he and his co-founders stayed up all night working the phones in a bid to win the startup’s first U.K. customers, lest they have nothing to show at YC Demo Day.

Now backed by the likes of Google Ventures, Salesforce, and Accel, amongst others, the company has come a long way since then.

September 17th 2019, 7:17 pm

Biology as technology will reinvent trillion-dollar industries

TechCrunch

We face two major threats today: one to the health of our planet and the other to our own. The U.N. says the global population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050, meaning more people consuming more natural resources than at any point in human history. Consumption is already doubling every 10-12 years. Add to that the challenges of a warming planet. On the human health front, some 30% of young people under age 20 are obese, 31% of deaths are from cardiovascular disease, and cancer cases are growing at a rate twice as fast as the population.

Fortunately, biology and technology are creating fixes for the planet as well as for the human body. As they do so, they are poised to reinvent countless industries, giving rise to what I believe is a golden age for biology as technology. As Arvind Gupta, the founder of health-science accelerator IndieBio, argued in one recent Medium post, “the twin catastrophes of planetary and human health” will create a $100 trillion opportunity.

Before I tell you how, here is an extremely brief history of the field. Biology, of course, is the original technology. Our tinkering with life’s building blocks, and our ancestor’s manipulation of plants and herbs as medicines and their use of neem branches as toothpaste or the cultivation of plants like corn has been going on for millennia. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that we saw the first flowering of today’s modern biotech industry.

In 1972, Robert A. Swanson helped launch the birth of biotech when he co-founded Genentech, which became a pioneer in the field of recombinant DNA technology. By creating novel DNA sequences in the lab, Genentech was able to synthesize human insulin for diabetics (1982), and create growth hormones for kids who suffered from a hormone deficiency (1985).

Among the other early leaders in the field was Applied Molecular Genetics (today known as Amgen). In 1989, it won approval for the first recombinant human erythropoietin drugs to treat anemia in people with chronic kidney failure, and later to treat anemia in HIV patients. Last year, the $23.75 billion company’s best-selling drugs were Neulasta, used to prevent infections in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and Enbrel, to treat some autoimmune diseases.

Startups working in these fields are creating entirely new industries, disrupting others and bringing us into what I believe is a golden era of biology as technology.

Today, innovative researchers are building on those early technologies. Among the most promising is the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique. Using what they refer to as molecular scissors, scientists can use CRISPR to edit a living person’s DNA, deleting or repairing damaged sections. Because the changes are made at the genome, the DNA fix is hereditary, unlike previous fixes that affect only the individual patient. The technique promises to slow if not eradicate cancer. It could also prevent sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and heart disease.

Notwithstanding the concern over creating designer babies (and the recent controversial creation of the first gene-edited babies in China), it promises to fortify our bodies for us, those of our kids and all succeeding generations. Co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, a leader in the CRISPR field, Mammoth Biosciences is on a mission to leverage the power of CRISPR to democratize disease detection by bringing accurate and affordable testing out of the laboratory and into the point-of-care.

Other technologies, like DNA sequencing, cell engineering and bioprinting, have led to the creation of animal-free protein products, bio fuels for jet engines, lightweight materials stronger than steel and even memory for computer storage. As a result, startups working in these fields are creating entirely new industries, disrupting others and bringing us into what I believe is a golden era of biology as technology.

One successful company is Beyond Meat, which bills itself as the future of protein. With its plant-based meat product, it is trying to address our global population’s need for protein while also tackling the cow problem (they consume land and water and destroy the ozone with their flatulence, not to mention some people think eating them is wrong). The company’s work promises to disrupt the $270 billion global meat industry.

The entrepreneurs at New Culture are also tackling the cow issue. They are using an engineered version of baker’s yeast to make cheese without milk. Unlike other vegan cheeses, made from soy or nuts, this one has been praised as tasting like the real thing.

Another area ripe for disruption is our home. The startup Lingrove is trying to lessen our reliance on trees, and the deforestation that comes with it, by creating wood products with flax fiber and bio-epoxy resin. With its Ekoa TP product, Lingrove is targeting the $80 billion interior market, with an eye toward using its products in the construction industry. Another player in this field is bioMASON. The making of concrete contributes massive amounts of carbon to the air. But this company has shown it can “grow” bricks and masonry from sand without using a traditional heating-blasting-process, by infusing the sand with microorganisms that initiates a process like the one that creates coral.

There’s no telling where this golden age of biology as technology will lead.

And then there’s transportation, the No. 1 global contributor of greenhouse gasses. Companies like Amyris are trying to do away with fossil fuels by turning genetically engineered yeast (i.e. sugar) into environmentally friendly gas and jet fuel.

And that’s not all. There are many more biology as technology stories, with innovative companies doing things like turning mushrooms into leather (MycoWorks), molecules into whiskey (Endless West) and bacteria into silk (Bolt Threads). Biology might even reinvent information technology. Scientists have shown how a few grams of DNA can store as much information as an entire data center (Microsoft is working on this). Another company is building computers from neurons (Airbus is a partner).

There’s no telling where this golden age of biology as technology will lead, how many products it will come up with and how many industries it will end up disrupting, or creating. But it seems destined to reinvent trillion-dollar industries and create a healthier planet where we can live longer, healthier lives.

Disclosure: Genentech and Amgen are Mayfield investments from the 1970s and 1980s. Mammoth Biosciences is a current investment.

September 17th 2019, 6:30 pm

Tutoring business-in-a-box service Clark has been acquired by edtech startup Noodle

TechCrunch

Clark, the tutor management business-in-a-box service, has been acquired by the New York-based education startup Noodle for an undisclosed amount, TechCrunch has learned.

Founded by John Katzman, the serial entrepreneur behind education technology giants including The Princeton Review and 2U, Noodle offers education search services to help people apply to the right programs that meet their needs.

Megan O’Connor, the co-founder and chief executive of Clark, actually met Katzman two weeks after she launched the company, which is backed by investors including Lightspeed Venture Partners, Winklevoss Capital, Rethink Education, Flat World Partners and Human Ventures (where O’Connor worked as the chief growth officer).

It’s not a stretch to call Katzman the godfather of tutoring, and, from the beginning, the seasoned executive took an interest in what Clark was doing, according to O’Connor.

With the acquisition, Clark’s shareholders will receive an equity stake in Noodle and O’Connor and her co-founder, Sam Gimbel, will take roles within Noodle to build out a tutoring service within the company, O’Connor says.

Going forward, Gimbel and O’Connor will build up the tutoring component of Noodle’s business as a complement to the company’s higher education and elementary and secondary school divisions.

One of the core components of the new tutoring platform within Noodle will be a focus on the individualization and personalization of tutoring sessions, buoyed by a community of tutors who share information on the most effective teaching strategies for different kinds of students.

What the tutoring practice won’t do, O’Connor says, is teach to a standardized curriculum. “If we can give them the software of shared services, then they can be more hands-on with the student,” O’Connor says.

September 17th 2019, 5:44 pm

Lyft faces lawsuit that alleges kidnapping at gunpoint and rape

TechCrunch

Lyft is facing another lawsuit pertaining to its handling of alleged sexual assaults at the hands of drivers on its platform. In a suit filed today in the San Franciso Superior Court, Alison Turkos accuses Lyft of eleven counts, including general negligence, vicarious liability for assault with a deadly weapon, sexual assault, and sexual battery, and breach of contract.

The lawsuit describes how the plaintiff’s Lyft driver allegedly kidnapped her at gunpoint and took her across state lines, where the driver and other men took turns raping her, the lawsuits states.

“Alison remembers the men cheering and high fiving each other as they continued to rape her,” the lawsuit alleges. “Their attack was so brutal that the next day Alison experienced severe vaginal pain and bleeding. Her body was so exhausted from the attack and resulting trauma that Alison could not even leave her bed or raise her arms.”

When the plaintiff reported it to Lyft, the lawsuit alleges Lyft simply apologized for “inconvenience” and gave her a partial refund for the ride. The plaintiff says she reported the crime to the police, who performed a rape kit that found evidence of semen from at least two men on the clothing she wore that night.

The New York Police Department then transferred the case to the FBI, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states the FBI is now investigating the incident as a human trafficking case. However, Lyft “has been wholly uncooperative” throughout the NYPD and FBI’s investigation, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit seeks special damages, including economic restitution to cover past and future hospital expenses, as well as expenses relating to her profession and loss of earning capacity.

“By failing to take reasonable steps to confront the problem of multiple rapes and sexual assaults of LYFT passengers by LYFT drivers, LYFT has acted in conscious disregard of the safety of its passengers,” the lawsuit alleges.

This suit comes just weeks after fourteen women filed suit against Lyft alleging the company has not addressed complaints pertaining to sexual assault. Both suits recommended Lyft adopt new policies, such as the addition of a surveillance camera to the app that can record audio and video of all rides.

Meanwhile, Lyft recently announced new safety features, including trip check-ins if a ride seems to be taking longer than it should and in-app 911 calling.

“We’re committed to playing a significant role in connecting our communities with transportation, and we understand the responsibilities that come along with that,” Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer wrote in a blog post. “We’ve known since the beginning that as part of our mission, we must heavily invest in safety. We continue to welcome accountability and partnership to best protect our rider and driver community.”

It’s no coincidence that Lyft announced these safety features in light of the lawsuit on behalf of those fourteen women. The company had previously taken some steps to address safety, but at a much slower pace than competitor Uber, which has also faced a number of sexual assault and abuse lawsuits. Between 2014-2018, CNN found 103 Uber drivers who had been accused of sexual assault or abuse of passengers.

Over the years, both companies have taken steps to ramp up their respective safety procedures. In April, Uber launched a campus safety initiative while Lyft implemented continuous background checks and enhanced its identity verification process for drivers. Uber, however, implemented continuous background checks about a full year before Lyft, and added an in-app 911 calling feature more than a year before Lyft.

“We don’t take lightly any instances where someone’s safety is compromised, especially in the rideshare industry, including the allegations of assault in the news last week,” Zimmer said earlier this month in that same blog post. “The reality is that certain populations carry a disproportionate burden simply trying to get to work or back home after a night out — in the U.S., one in six women will face some form of sexual violence in their lives. The onus is on all of us to learn from any incident, whether it occurs on our platform or not, and then work to help prevent them.”

TechCrunch is awaiting comment from Lyft regarding this lawsuit. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

September 17th 2019, 5:15 pm

Facebook’s new policy Supreme Court could override Zuckerberg

TechCrunch

A real check to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s control is finally coming in the form of a 11- to 40-member Oversight Board that will review appeals to its policy decisions like content takedowns and make recommendations for changes. Today Facebook released the charter establishing the theoretically independent Oversight Board, with Zuckerberg explaining that when it takes a stance, “The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it.”

Slated to be staffed up with members this year who will be paid by a Facebook established trust (the biggest update to its January draft charter), the Oversight Board will begin judging cases in the first half of 2020. Given Zuckerberg’s overwhelming voting control of the company, and the fact that its board of directors contains many loyalists like COO Sheryl Sandberg and investor Peter Thiel who he’s made very rich, the Oversight Board could ensure the CEO doesn’t always have the final say in how Facebook works.

But in some ways, the committee could serve to shield Zuckerberg and Facebook from scrutiny and regulation much to their advantage. The Oversight Board could remove total culpability for policy blunders around censorship or political bias from Facebook’s executives. It also might serve as a talking point towards the FTC and other regulators investigating it for potential anti-trust violations and other malpractice, as the company could claim the Oversight Board means it’s not completely free to pursue profit over what’s fair for society.

One of the most important projects I've worked on over the past couple of years is establishing an independent Oversight…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Finally, there remain serious concerns about how the Oversight Board is selected and the wiggle room the charter provides Facebook. Most glaringly, Facebook itself will choose the initial members and then work with them to select the rest of the board, and thereby could avoid adding overly incendiary figures. And it maintains that “Facebook will support the board to the extent that requests are technically and operationally feasible and consistent with a reasonable allocation of Facebook’s resources”, giving it the the right to decide if it should apply the precedent of Oversight Board verdicts to similar cases or broadly implement its policy guidance.

How The Oversight Board Works

When a user disagrees with how Facebook enforces its policies, and with the result of an appeal to Facebook’s internal moderation team, they can request an appeal to the oversight board. Examples of potential cases include someone disagreeing with Facebook’s refusal to deem a piece of content as unacceptable hate speech or bullying, its choice to designate a Page as promoting terrorism and remove it, or the company’s decision to leave problematic content such as nudity up because its newsworthy. Facebook can also directly ask the Oversight Board to review policy decisions or specific cases, especially urgent ones with real-world consequences.

The board will include a minimum of 11 members but Facebook is aiming for 40. They’ll serve three year terms and a maximum of three terms each as a part-time job, with appointments staggered so there isn’t a full change-over at any time. Facebook is looking for members with a broad range of knowledge, competencies, and expertise who lack conflicts of interest. They’re meant to be “experienced at deliberating thoughtfully and collegially”, “skilled at making and explaining decisions based on a set of policies”, “well-versed on matters relating to digital content and governance”, and “independent and impartial”. 

 

Facebook will appoint a set of trustees that will work with it to select initial co-chairs for the board, who will then assist with sourcing, vetting, interviewing, and orienting new members. The goal is “broad diversity of geographic, gender, political, social and religious representation”. The trust, funded by Facebook, will set members’ compensation rate in the near future and oversee term renewals.

What Cases Get Reviewed

The board will choose which cases to review based on their significance and difficulty. They’re loking for issues that are severe, large-scale and important for public discourse, while raising difficult questions about Facebook’s policy or enforcement that is disputed, uncertain, or represents tension or trade-offs between Facebook’s recently codified values of authenticity, safety, privacy, and dignity. The board will then create a sub-panel of members to review a specific case.

The board will be able to question that request that Facebook provide information necessary to rule on the case with a mind to not violating user privacy. They’ll interpret Facebook’s Community Standards and policies and then decide whether Facebook should remove or restore a piece of content and whether it should change how that content was designated.

Once a panel makes a draft decision, it’s circulated to the full board who can recommend a new panel review it if a majority take issue with the verdict. Once they’ve gone through a privacy review to protect the identities of those involved with the case, the decisions will be made public. Those decisions will be archived in a database, and are meant to act as precedent for future decisions.

 

September 17th 2019, 4:13 pm

GoDaddy upgrades its website builder with customized marketing action plans

TechCrunch

GoDaddy’s website-building product GoCentral is getting an upgrade today — and along with new features, there’s a new name, Websites+Marketing.

As you can probably guess, Websites+Marketing isn’t just a website builder. After all, as Senior Director of Product Management Heidi Gibson put it, a small business website is now part of a “a whole ecosystem that comprises your online presence.”

These are issues that Gibson said she’s experienced directly, as the chef/owner/”Commander in Cheese” at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco.

“Our typical customer, our target customer is not just a small business — they’ve got one to five employees … they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they don’t know what’s effective,” she added. Complicating matters is the fact that “where you need to be will not be the same answer for every kind of business.”

So GoDaddy Websites+Marketing — which Gibson described as “an evolution of GoCentral” — includes tools to manage email marketing and search engine optimization, and it syncs up with Facebook, Yelp, Instagram and Google My Business, so that it’s easy to read the latest reviews and comments, respond and post other updates directly from your Websites+Marketing dashboard.

It also includes a new feature called GoDaddy Insight, which relies on anonymized data — aggregated from all the businesses using GoDaddy and GoCentral — to provide entrepreneurs with a score on how their online presence and marketing compares to similar businesses, as well as an action plan recommending the next steps for improvement.

The website-builder looks pretty slick, too. Gibson acknowledged that some of the features will look pretty similar to anyone who’s used a competing product, but she said even here, GoDaddy has taken steps to make things easier.

For example, the Site Makeover feature businesses them to get a quick view at how their content might look laid out on each of the 20-plus website templates, rather than making them click through each one. And thanks to GoDaddy’s recent acquisition of Sellbrite, businesses can also manage their product listings across online marketplaces like Amazon, Walmart and eBay.

GoDaddy Websites+Marketing is available in four pricing tiers, ranging from $10 to $25 per month.

September 17th 2019, 4:13 pm

Twitch acquires gaming database site IGDB to improve its search and discovery features

TechCrunch

Amazon-owned Twitch has made a small but strategic acquisition designed to improve its search capabilities and better direct viewers to exactly the right content. The company is acquiring IGDB, the Internet Games Database (no relation to Amazon’s IMDb), a website dedicated to combining all the relevant information about games into a comprehensive resource for gamers everywhere. As a result of the acquisition, IGDB’s database will now feed into Twitch’s search and discovery feature set. However, the IGDB website itself will not be shut down.

Founded in 2015 by Christian Frithiof and a small team based in Gothenburg, Sweden, IGDB sources its gaming content both through community contributions and automation.

The site includes useful information for every game, like the genre, platforms supported, description, member and critic ratings and reviews, storyline, game modes, publisher, release dates, characters, and more. You could also find less common details like how long it would take to play the game in question, or the player perspectives the game offered, among other things.

And similar to IMDb’s mission of organizing everything associated with the entertainment industry, IGDB allowed voice talent to claim their profile on its site, in addition to listing the full credits associated with a given title.

To generate revenue, IGDB provided a developer API that’s been free to use for smaller shops or $99 per month for up to 50K requests. Interested partners, (e.g. ASUS), could reach out to request special pricing. To date, IGDB was working with several thousand API users, we understand. 

Twitch confirmed the acquisition to TechCrunch in a statement.

Millions of people come to Twitch every day to find and connect with their favorite streamers and communities, and we want to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for,” a spokesperson said. “IGDB has developed a comprehensive gaming database, and we’re excited to bring them on to help us more quickly improve and scale search and discovery on Twitch.”

Deal terms were not disclosed, but it was likely a small deal, from a financial standpoint. IGDB is only a 10-person team and had raised just $1.5 million to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

From a strategic standpoint, however, the acquisition is much more impactful.

Twitch CEO Emmett Shear has spoken publicly about the issues surrounding Twitch’s search functionality and how it needs to improve on that front.

“We want every place on Twitch to help you get discovered. Today, nearly one in three people who come to Twitch use Search to find what they’re looking for. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that our search function hasn’t always been the best experience,” Shear had said earlier this year, speaking at TwitchCon Berlin.”One wrong letter and your search results may come back empty, or direct you to a very different streamer than the one you were looking for. So we’re going to fix search so it actually works,” he promised.

In recent weeks, there were hints that something was going on at IGDB.

In a blog post dated August 19, 2019, IGDB announced it was starting a “large scale migration of our backend, database, and hosting” and said that the service was “about to undergo some changes, some temporary and others more permanent.” As a part of its changes, it shut off the ability for users to sign-up or update their profiles, and it shut down its pulse news, feed, and recommendations features.

Now a part of Twitch, IGDB will merge its free and premium APIs into one free tier, will clean up other features, and migrate infrastructure. Its IGDB website will continue to remain online.

“Our mission has always been to build the most comprehensive gaming database in the world. Such a monumental undertaking can be quite challenging when you are a small startup team,” reads an IGDB blog post. “By joining Twitch, we will be able to tap into their experience, resources, and skills, which will enable us to accelerate our progress and deliver the version of IGDB we all always dreamed about. Not only that, our companies share the same culture, core values, and passion for gaming– making this the perfect fit,” the post said.

It was common industry knowledge Twitch previously used competing data provider Giantbomb. As is often the case, the company may have been in discussions with IGDB about making switch which led to the acquisition. (The company declined to say how it can about.) What had made IGDB different from other API providers, like Mobygames, is that it allowed its API to be used commercially, including by competing projects, and it allowed caching and storing data on local databases.

The entire 10-person team from IGDB will remain based in Sweden, but will report into Twitch through its Viewer Experience organization.

 

 

 

September 17th 2019, 3:31 pm

Macron announces €5 billion late-stage investment pledge from institutional investors

TechCrunch

French president Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech ahead of France Digitale Day that the French government has convinced institutional investors to invest more heavily in late-stage VC funds and asset managers in one way or another. Institutional investors have committed to investing $5.5 billion (€5 billion).

“We’ll have €2 billion that will go in so-called late-stage funds and €3 billion for funds managed by asset managers specialized in tech,” Macron said.

In addition to that financial pledge, the French government wants to break down any hurdle that prevents French startups from raising $100 million+ funding round in France, becoming a unicorn and eventually going public.

A couple of years ago, Macron gave a speech at Viva Technology in Paris. It was the first time he addressed the startup community after his election. At the time, I wrote: “Macron wanted to send a message to the startup community — he still cares about technology very much, thank you for asking.”

Since then, the French tech ecosystem has thrived, but without any radical policy change to shake things up. But today marks a departure as it’s all about startups, startups and startups.

“I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow” Emmanuel Macron

It’s clear that Macron believes that startups represent a huge opportunity when it comes to job creation, competitiveness and reshaping the economic landscape in France. In other words, according to him, if you help startups thrive, it’s going to trickle down all the way and have positive impacts on your neighbor who has never used a computer in her life.

Some will applaud such a move, others will say that it divides society.

“When I talk about startup funding, I talk about the ability to help those startups succeed,” Macron said. “I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow. And I’m saying that for many French citizens who think that those are only financial numbers.”

(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Financing hypergrowth

So here’s Macron’s plan. First, French VC funds have been good when it comes to funding startups at the seed, Series A and sometimes Series B level. But many startups then look for international investors for late-stage rounds. For instance, just last week, Akeneo raised $46 million in a round led by Summit Partners, a Boston-based VC firm.

“Numbers show that we’re getting there, and I want to start from there,” Macron said. “The goal when it comes to technology is that we should be one of the countries that matter. Fundraising from French startups keep setting new records — we had $3.1 billion in fundraising in 2017, $4 billion in 2018 and $5.5 billion in 2019 probably.”

Following a report from Philippe Tibi, the French government has been working on a way to foster late-stage funds and investments in public tech companies in France. “We managed to rally big insurance companies, asset managers and long-term public investment funds,” a source close to Macron told me.

Private companies, such as Axa, Generali and Allianz, as well as public investors, such as EDF, Caisse des Dépôts, the pension reserve fund, are all going to invest in late-stage VC. Overall, two-thirds of them are private companies, one-third of them are public institutions, according to the source.

They’ll have three ways to invest and take part in the initiative:

Eventually, the French government hopes that there will be at least 10 French VC firms with a late-stage fund above €1 billion. By pushing them to redirect some of their investments in VC, the French government thinks that they’ll invest more regularly in venture capital in the future.

When it comes to going public, the French government wants to make European stock exchanges more attractive. They're hoping the new influx of late-stage cash will convince banks and other financial institutions that manage huge positions in tech companies to create local teams in Paris.

Attracting foreign VCs too

French startups still want to become global players and the French government is well aware of that. And foreign VCs shouldn’t be at odds with French VC firms.

That’s why the French government also invited around 40 partners of venture capital firms and limited partners for a couple of days in Paris this week. They’ll meet key people in the ecosystem as well as promising startups.

I covered the first edition of this tour last year. The message was clear: Foreign VC firms should think about investing in French startups. Some are already doing it while others never thought about it. And the thing is nobody wants to be the first one to invest in something new, but nobody wants to be the last one, either.

This year, the French government is inviting a new batch of foreign investors from Khosla Ventures, Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, etc. There are more Asian investors in the mix this time round.

But Macron said that France should control its own destiny when it comes to startup funding. “When I talk about sovereignty, I deeply believe in that concept. It’s a politically-charged word, but I think it’s at the heart of your approach. I believe in technological and economical sovereignty,” Macron said.

(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Transforming La French Tech

The French Tech Mission, also known as La French Tech, is a government-backed initiative that promotes French startups around the world and provides a few services to help startups.

And the government is going to overhaul the French Tech Mission drastically. This is as significant as the late-stage funding news. In addition to the small core team, every French ministry and administration will have a French Tech correspondent — Urssaf, INPI, AFNOR, Banque de France, customs, etc. Eventually, there will be 150 people spread out across the entire government working in some way or another for French startups.

“We’re not alone, we get to coordinate with everyone,” French Tech Mission director Kat Borlongan told me. “The overarching announcement is that France is going all in.”

La French Tech is going to become a one-stop shop for tech startups to overcome any administrative hurdle. La French Tech is going to pick 40 (and later 120) top-performing startups and give them the label Next40 and French Tech 120 — a play on words with the CAC40 and SBF 120 stock indexes. Those companies will automatically be able to access this fast-track administrative system — every startup will get a representative for their particular needs. This special treatment proves that startups have become a center piece of France’s economic policies.

“The coolest thing is that they can ask us for anything: ‘I’m about to do bizdev in China’, ‘I’m launching a rocket and I need to test it on a space facility’ or ‘I’m hiring 50 people and I need them and all their families here’,” Borlongan told me.

All companies that are unicorns or have raised more than €100 million are automatically in the Next40. Then, the government is looking at growth rate and annual turnover to find the most promising 40 and 120 startups.

“I’ll leave you with a goal: there should be 25 [French] unicorns by 2025,” Macron said at the end of his speech.

September 17th 2019, 2:58 pm

Colorcon, which makes develops colorants, coatings, and films for pharmaceutical giants, has a new $

TechCrunch

Colorcon, a 58-year-old company that develops, supplies, and supports specialty products for the pharmaceutical industry — think food colorants, nutritional coatings, the film on time-release medications — is getting into the business of funding startups.

It isn’t bringing aboard any traditional venture investors or taping off a corner of its Harleysville, Pa., offices so a team of staffers can meet with startups. Colorcon knows what it doesn’t know, suggests its CEO, Martti Hedman. “We’re a team of 750 people, so we didn’t want to invest in our own VC team. We’re sort of too small for that, too inexperienced.”

Instead, Colorcon, which wants to plug $50 million into startups, has elected to outsource its venture operations to a low-flying but growing outfit in San Francisco called Touchdown Ventures that helps manage the corporate venture activities of a dozen companies already, including the multinational food company Kellogg’s, the media giant 21st Century Fox, and the adhesive manufacturing company Avery Dennison.

The idea is for Touchdown, which has 30 employees, to use its relationships with these other companies and with VCs — along with its own outbound efforts and sector analyses — to  bring to Colorcon deals it might want to fund. After that, Hedman, Colorcon CFO Dave Graeber, and Colorcon’s head of corporate development, Pankaj Rege, will decide which startups merit checks.

The initial amount it intends to commit: between $1.5 million and $3 million per startup, says Touchdown Ventures CEO David Horowitz, who will be heading up the effort for Colorcon.

It’s worth noting that unlike many companies that work with pharmaceutical giants, Colorcon isn’t looking to fund startups that are developing active ingredients or molecules. Instead, the fund will target investments across the manufacturing, supply chain, and delivery of pharmaceutical products and services.

As you might imagine, it’s also looking to invest in startups where it can add value, be it subject matter expertise or introductions to the many companies and labs with which it works around the world. Indeed, more than 70 percent of Colorcon’s sales comes outside of North America, including in China, India, South America, and, to a small but growing extent, Europe.

Is it a match made in heaven? We’ll see. But it’s certainly interesting to see companies like Colorcon with their industry expertise hitching their wagons to platforms like Touchdown, which has institutional know-how about VC.

Says Horowitz, “We have other heath care relationships. We know how to drum up deal flow. We have relationships with thousands of VCs and we speak at conferences and we do things that are specific to this industry.” That work now produces 5,000 “opportunities” per year, in terms of startup pitches, Horowitz adds. If Colorcon is lucky, some of those startups — whether Colorcon acquires them or adopts their technology or merely learns from them —  will keep the company in business for another 50 years.

September 17th 2019, 2:58 pm

Daily Crunch: The iPhone 11 goes to Disneyland

TechCrunch

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Review: The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 do Disneyland after dark

Matthew Panzarino continues his tradition of testing out the latest iPhones at Disneyland. This time, he was particularly interested in how well the iPhone 11’s Night Mode works. His verdict: It compares extremely well to other low-light cameras, with exposure and color rendition that’s best-in-class.

But if you’re planning to upgrade, should you get the Pro, or the regular ol’ iPhone 11? Apparently the Pro is really there to address edge cases — the best video and photo options, a better dark mode experience, a brighter screen.

2. Under pressure, The We Company now only says it expects to go public ‘by the end of the year’

A new note from WeWork’s parent company all but confirms that it is indeed delaying its IPO roadshow, which had been expected to commence this week.

3. Amazon launches Amazon Music HD with lossless audio streaming

Amazon has a new, high-quality streaming tier of its music service called Amazon Music HD. It’s priced at $12.99 per month for Prime members, and you can add it to your existing Amazon Music subscription for an additional $5 each month.

4. Will Smith and Ang Lee are coming to Disrupt SF

They’ll be joining us to discuss their upcoming film “Gemini Man,” which features “jaw-dropping effects” from Weta Digital. The effects allow Smith to play both an assassin named Henry Brogan and a younger clone who’s been sent to kill his older counterpart.

5. Computer scientist Richard Stallman, who defended Jeffrey Epstein, resigns from MIT CSAIL and the Free Software Foundation

Stallman said he has resigned from his position as a visiting scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab after describing a victim of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein as “entirely willing” in emails sent to a department list.

6. I hope Apple Arcade makes room for weird, cool shit

Apple Arcade seems purpose-built to make room in the market for beautiful, sad, weird, moving, slow, clever and heartfelt.

7. What startup CSOs can learn from three enterprise security experts

How do you keep your startup secure? That’s one of the big questions we explored at TC Sessions: Enterprise earlier this month — and if you weren’t there, we’ve got a write-up of the main takeaways. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

September 17th 2019, 2:15 pm

Google starts highlighting key moments from videos in Search

TechCrunch

Google today announced an update to how it handles videos in search results. Instead of just listing relevant videos on the search results page, Google will now also highlight the most relevant parts of longer videos, based on timestamps provided by the video creators. That’s especially useful for how-to videos or documentaries.

“Videos aren’t skimmable like text, meaning it can be easy to overlook video content altogether,” Google Search product manager Prashant Baheti writes in today’s announcement. “Now, just like we’ve worked to make other types of information more easily accessible, we’re developing new ways to understand and organize video content in Search to make it more useful for you.”

In the search results, you will then be able to see direct links to the different parts of a video and a click on those will take you right into that part of the video.

To make this work, content creators first have to mark up their videos with bookmarks for the specific segments they want to highlight, no matter what platform they are on. Indeed, it’s worth stressing that this isn’t just a feature for YouTube creators. Google says it’s already working with video publishers like CBS Sports and NDTV, who will soon start marking up their videos.

I’m somewhat surprised that Google isn’t using its machine learning wizardry to mark up videos automatically. For now, the burden is on the video creator and given how much work simply creating a good video is, it remains to be seen how many of them will do so. On the other hand, though, it’ll give them a chance to highlight their work more prominently on Google Search, though Google doesn’t say whether the markup will have any influence on a video’s ranking on its search results pages.

September 17th 2019, 1:45 pm

Clever hide-and-seek AIs learn to use tools and break the rules

TechCrunch

The latest research from OpenAI put its machine learning agents in a simple game of hide-and-seek, where they pursued an arms race of ingenuity, using objects in unexpected ways to achieve their goal of seeing or being seen. This type of self-taught AI could prove useful in the real world as well.

The study intended to, and successfully did look into the possibility of machine learning agents learning sophisticated, real-world-relevant techniques without any interference of suggestions from the researchers.

Tasks like identifying objects in photos or inventing plausible human faces are difficult and useful, but they don’t really reflect actions one might take in a real world. They’re highly intellectual, you might say, and as a consequence can be brought to a high level of effectiveness without ever leaving the computer.

Whereas attempting to train an AI to use a robotic arm to grip a cup and put it in a saucer is far more difficult than one might imagine (and has only been accomplished under very specific circumstances); the complexity of the real, physical world make purely intellectual, computer-bound learning of the tasks pretty much impossible.

At the same time, there are in-between tasks that do not necessarily reflect the real world completely, but still can be relevant to it. A simple one might be how to change a robot’s facing when presented with multiple relevant objects or people. You don’t need a thousand physical trials to know it should rotate itself or the camera so it can see both, or switch between them, or whatever.

OpenAI’s hide-and-seek challenge to its baby ML agents was along these lines: A game environment with simple rules (called Polyworld) that nevertheless uses real-world-adjacent physics and inputs. If the AIs can teach themselves to navigate this simplified reality, perhaps they can transfer those skills, with some modification, to full-blown reality.

Such is the thinking behind the experiment, anyway, but it’s entertaining enough on its own. The game pits two teams against one another in a small 3D arena populated with a few randomly generated walls and objects. Several agents are spawned in it and the “hiders” are given a few seconds to familiarize themselves with the environment and hide. They can also interact with the objects, pushing them around and locking them in place. Once the “seeker” looks up they have a certain amount of time to spot the hiders.

All the machine learning program was informed of were the basic senses — each agent has a view of the world and a sort of “lidar” to tell them the positions of nearby objects — and the knowledge that they can move objects around. But beyond that they were simply given a point when they succeeded at their job, either seeking or hiding — that’s their motivation.

From these basic beginnings came wonderfully interesting results. At first the teams essentially moved randomly. But over millions of games the hiders found that by moving in a certain way — “crudely” running away — they could increase their points more often. And thus the arms race began.

Since the hiders were running away, the seekers began to develop more structured pursuit behaviors. But then came the tools.

Hiders found that they could push and pull objects on the field, and began constructing forts out of them.

The seekers responded by using ramps found on the field to ascend over the objects and crash the forts.

Hiders began looking for ramps while the seekers were still counting and either stealing them or locking them in place (the lock can’t be undone by an agent of the opposite team). Interestingly this involved a certain amount of division of labor, because there often wasn’t enough time for both hiders to go out in search of ramps; one had to prepare the fort while the other went on ramp patrol.

The OpenAI team thought maybe that was the end of it, but the seekers learned to exploit an unintended feature of the game world. They discovered that they could “push” a box while riding on top of it, meaning they could put it near a ramp, climb onto it, then “surf” it all over the field and find those naughty hiders.

Of course the hiders responded by locking every object they weren’t using to construct their fort — and that seems to be the end of the line as far as strategy in this game.

So what’s the point? As the authors of the paper explain, this is kind of the way we came bout.

The vast amount of complexity and diversity on Earth evolved due to co-evolution and competition between organisms, directed by natural selection. When a new successful strategy or mutation emerges, it changes the implicit task distribution neighboring agents need to solve and creates a new pressure for adaptation. These evolutionary arms races create implicit autocurricula whereby competing agents continually create new tasks for each other.

Inducing autocurricula in physically grounded and open-ended environments could eventually enable agents to acquire an unbounded number of human-relevant skills.

In other words, having AI models compete in an unsupervised manner may be a far better way to develop useful and robust skills than letting them toddle around on their own, racking up an abstract number like percentage of environment explored or the like.

Increasingly it is difficult or even impossible for humans to direct every aspect of an AI’s abilities by parameterizing it and controlling the interactions it has with the environment. For complex tasks like a robot navigating a crowded environment, there are so many factors that having humans design behaviors may never produce the kind of sophistication that’s necessary for these agents to take their place in everyday life.

But they can teach each other, as we’ve seen here and in GANs, where a pair of dueling AIs work to defeat the other in the creation or detection of realistic media. The OpenAI researchers posit that “multi-agent autocurricula,” or self-teaching agents, are the way forward in many circumstances where other methods are too slow or structured. They conclude:

“These results inspire confidence that in a more open-ended and diverse environment, multi-agent dynamics could lead to extremely complex and human-relevant behavior.”

Some parts of the research have been released as open source. You can read the full paper describing the experiment here.

September 17th 2019, 1:45 pm

Pax Labs’ Bharat Vasan is out as CEO

TechCrunch

Bharat Vasan is no longer the Chief Executive Officer at Pax Labs, the consumer tech company that makes cannabis vaporizers. A source familiar with the situation said that the board of directors made the decision to remove Vasan from the CEO role. His last day was Friday.

We’ve reached out to Vasan for comment. Pax is declining to elaborate on what drove its decision.

Certainly, it’s a surprising move, given that Vasan was appointed the CEO of Pax not so long ago —  in February of 2018. Before that, he served as President and COO of August Home, which was acquired by Swedish lock maker Assa Abloy in 2017. Previous to that, Vasan was the cofounder of Basis, a fitness-based wearable company that was acquired by Intel in 2014 for $100 million.

Vasan also led the company in its most recent round this past April, in which it secured $420 million from Tiger Global Management, Tao Capital, and Prescott General Partners, among others. The post-money valuation for the company at the time was $1.7 billion.

Vasan is a veteran of consumer electronics, but Pax may be looking for a CEO that has more operational experience in cannabis.

After all, Pax is at an interesting intersection in its path, navigating an oft-changing regulatory landscape around cannabis. Moreover, the entire cannabis industry — and vaporizer industry —  is under a microscope in the wake of hundreds of reports of vape-related lung illness. The CDC says that there have been 380 cases of lung illness reported across 36 states, with six deaths. Most patients reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC.

Pax is currently on the hunt for a new chief executive. In the meantime, its general counsel, Lisa Sergi, who joined the company at the end of July, will be its interim CEO and president.

Sergi had this to say in a prepared statement:

PAX is uniquely positioned as a leader in the burgeoning cannabis industry, with a talented team, an iconic brand, quality products and the balance sheet to achieve our ambitious goals and continued growth trajectory. I am extremely excited and honored to have been entrusted to lead this extraordinary company.

September 17th 2019, 1:45 pm

Natural lighting is the key to Apple’s remodeled Fifth Ave. store

TechCrunch

When it opened in 2006, Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship quickly became a top destination for New York City residents and tourists, alike. The big, glass cube was a radical departure from prior electronics stores, serving as the entrance to a 24-hour subterranean retail location. Location didn’t hurt either, with the company planting its flag across from the Plaza Hotel and Central Park and sharing a block with the iconic high-end toy store, FAO Schwarz.

Since early 2017, however, the store has been closed for renovations. Earlier this month, the company took the wraps off the outside of the cube (albeit with some multi-color reflective wrap still occupying the outside of the familiar retail landmark). Last week, the company offered more insight into the plan as retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien took to the stage during the iPhone 11 event to discuss the company’s plans for the reinvented space.

During a discussion with TechCrunch, Apple shed even more light on the underground store, which will occupy the full area of the Fifth Avenue plaza. As is the case with all of Apple’s flagships, light is the thing here — though that’s easier said than done when dealing with an underground space. Illuminating the store is done through a combination of natural lights and LEDs.

When the store reopens, a series of skylights flush on the ground of the plaza will be doing much of the heavy lifting for the lighting during the day. Each of those round portholes will be frosted to let the light in, while protecting the privacy of people walking above, with supplemental lighting from silver LED rings. That, in turn, is augmented by 18 (nine on each side of the cube) “sky lenses.” Oriented in two 3×3 configurations, the “sculptural furniture” will also provide seating in the outdoor plaza.

Of course, the natural lighting isn’t able to do all of the work for a 24-hour store. That’s complemented by a ceiling system that uses a similar stretched fabric-based lighting system as other Apple Stores. Here, however, the fabric will take on a more cloud-like structure with a more complicated geometrical shape than other Apple stores. The fabric houses tunable LED lights that react to the external environment. If it’s sunny outside, it will be brighter downstairs. When it’s cloudy, the lights will dim.

In all, there are five modes tuned to a 24-hour cycle, including:

Sunrise and sunset are apparently the best time to check it out, as the lights glow warmly for about an hour or so. There are 80 ring lights in all, and around 500,000 LEDs, with about 2,500 LED spotlights used to illuminate tables and products inside the store. The natural lighting also will be used to keep alive eight trees and a green wall in the underground space. 

The newly remodeled store opens at 8AM on September 20, just in time to line up for the new iPhone.

September 17th 2019, 1:27 pm

In a social media world, here’s what you need to know about UGC and privacy

TechCrunch

In today’s brand landscape, consumers are rejecting traditional advertising in favor of transparent, personalized and most importantly, authentic communications. In fact, 86% of consumers say that authenticity is important when deciding which brands they support. Driven by this growing emphasis on brand sincerity, marketers are increasingly leveraging user-generated content (UGC) in their marketing and e-commerce strategies.

Correlated with the rise in the use of UGC is an increase in privacy-focused regulation such as the European Union’s industry-defining General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the along with others that will go into effect in the coming years, like the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), and several other state-specific laws. Quite naturally, brands are asking themselves two questions:

Consumers seek to be active participants in their favorite companies’ brand identity journey, rather than passive recipients of brand-created messages. Consumers trust images by other consumers on social media seven times more than advertising.

Additionally, 56% are more likely to buy a product after seeing it featured in a positive or relatable user-generated image. The research and results clearly show that the average consumer perceives content from a peer to be more trustworthy than brand-driven content.

With that in mind, we must help brands leverage UGC with approaches that comply with privacy regulations while also engaging customers in an authentic way.

Influencer vs user: Navigating privacy considerations in an online world

September 17th 2019, 1:15 pm

Roboticist and YouTube star Simone Giertz is coming to Disrupt SF (Oct. 2-4)

TechCrunch

Here’s a fun thing to look forward to next month. Simone Giertz, she of the shitty robots fame will be appearing on stage at Disrupt SF (Oct. 2-4)  at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

The U.S.-based, Swedish inventor has built a massive online following (currently at 1.92 million YouTube subscribers) with DIY videos that examine technology and art through a whimsical lens.

Giertz is probably best known for her “shitty” robotic creations, including arms that serve soup and breakfast, draw holiday cards and apply lipstick — to hilariously uneven results. More recently, she had a verified viral hit when she busted out some power tools to turn her Tesla into a pickup truck.

She’ll be joining us on stage to walk us through some of her most interesting creations, including the Every Day calendar. The project, which made nearly $600,000 on Kickstarter late last year, is designed to help motivate users into developing good habits like meditating, flossing or writing. Or, you know, eating churros. 

Disrupt SF runs October 2 to October 4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Giertz joins an outstanding lineup of speakers including Kitty Hawk’s Sebastian Thrun, Admiral Mike Rodgers, Rachel Haurwitz of Caribou Biosciences, and Marc Benioff, Box’s Aaron Levie and dozens more.

Buy tickets here!

September 17th 2019, 12:27 pm

AT&T faked DirecTV Now numbers, lawsuit alleges

TechCrunch

AT&T faked the numbers for its DirecTV Now streaming service ahead of the company’s Time Warner merger, according to a lawsuit filed by investors, Bloomberg reported. The suit alleges the media giant pressured employees to boost DirecTV Now’s numbers by secretly adding the product to existing customers’ accounts. It also claims the company touted DirecTV Now’s user growth, when in reality, subscribers were leaving as their promotional periods ended and the service’s price hikes were limiting new sign-ups.

The suit says a variety of tactics were used to promote the idea that DirecTV Now was growing organically. For example, it claims that employees were taught how and encouraged to convert activation fees that customers typically had to pay to upgrade their phones into DirecTV Now subscriptions. This involved the customer being told the fee was being “waived,” when instead the customer was charged anyway and the payment was applied to up to 3 DirecTV Now accounts using fake emails.

One former employee even said that around 40%-50% of customers he dealt with in early 2017 were complaining about being charged for DirecTV Now, which they had never signed up for. This was supported by other employees, the suit cites, and was a directive that came top from upper management to the sales channel.

In addition, the suit speaks to overly aggressive sales quotas, high churn from deeply discounted promotions, technical issues, and unsustainable pricing. It noted how AT&T finally disclosed that by the end of 2018, none of the 500,000 heavily discounted DirecTV Now subscribers remained on the service, and subscriptions had dropped by 267,000 as a result. In April 2019, it reported another 83,000 subscribers had left the service, and in July, 168,000 had abandoned it.

But ahead of the Time Warner merger, AT&T touted the service’s success, the suit said. It didn’t disclose any of the risks associated with DirecTV Now, despite SEC obligations. The plaintiffs believe AT&T should have noted what made its stock risky, including the fact that DirecTV Now was not profitable, its growth had been dependent on aggressive promotions, and it faced severe technical challenges.

“By buying AT&T’s securities at these artificially inflated and artificially maintained prices, the Class members suffered economic losses, which losses were a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ fraudulent conduct,” the suit states.

“We plan to fight these baseless claims in court,” AT&T said in a statement to Bloomberg.

DirecTV Now had a rough start to begin with, having suffered heavily from glitches, including freezing, buffering, and more. While that can happen at first with new streaming services, AT&T’s glitches were bad enough that many wanted to cancel.

TechCrunch reported in 2017 how customers complained they weren’t able to get refunds from AT&T, even though they weren’t able to use the service as promised. Some had even filed complaints with the FCC, we found. In January, we also noted how the service’s price hikes and promotional packages ending led to a sizable loss of subscribers and that AT&T was “losing the cord cutters.”

The filing of the lawsuit comes at a time where AT&T has seen much upheaval. This month, activist investor  Elliott Management Corp. disclosed its $3.2 billion stake in AT&T and criticized the company’s acquisition strategy. It also suggested that AT&T should sell some assets that don’t fit its future direction, like the DirecTV satellite service and Mexican wireless business.  AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson defended the company’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner today, in response to this criticism.

In addition, AT&T CEO of Communications, John Donovan, recently announced his retirement, with WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey being promoted to president and chief operating officer at AT&T.

The full complaint is below.

 

View this document on Scribd

September 17th 2019, 12:15 pm

The team behind Codementor launches Arc to help companies hire talented developers around the world

TechCrunch

Arc, a platform that wants to simplify the process of hiring developers who work remotely, is launching officially today. The new company grew out of Techstars-backed Codementor, an online education platform for software developers. Codementor will continue to operate as a standalone product under Arc.

While there are already many freelancing platforms, Weiting Liu, the founder and CEO of Arc and Codementor, said Arc is more focused on long-term contractor and full-time employee positions instead of short-term gigs. To make the recruitment process easier for tech companies, all developers on its platform are vetted by Arc in a process modeled on the hiring assessments used by tech companies in Silicon Valley. Arc’s clients have already included Spotify, Chegg, Hims, Fivestars and AppLovin.

Codementor launched in 2014 to connect developers with instructors around the world for coding education. Arc has the same mission of helping boost the careers of engineers who live outside of major tech hubs.

“I think Arc is a natural evolution. Codementor had hundreds of thousands of developers in the community already and that created a very strong and inclusive community to help developers worldwide continuously improve their skills,” says Liu. “We definitely see Codementor and its network creating a strong funnel of talented developers who want to work remotely.”

Remote hiring has benefits like increasing the talent pool for tech companies while helping employees maintain work-life balance or avoid moving to high cost-of-living areas. But despite the increase in remote hiring (for example, Stripe recently described its remote engineers as the company’s “fifth engineering hub”), there are still many hurdles to overcome.

The team of Liu’s first startup, Y Combinator alum SocialPicks, were based in different cities. In 2006, that meant everyone had to find a way to work together even though collaboration tools like Slack and Trello didn’t exist yet. But while it has become much more easier to work remotely over the past decade, hiring people who live far away still presents a lot of friction for companies. “From an employers’ perspective, there are a lot of fears and unknowns for hiring strangers online for a permanent, full-time role, but I think things are changing,” says Liu.

He adds that Arc is different from other hiring platforms like AngelList or We Work Remotely because of its vetting process, designed to identify developers who can stay with a company for a long time.

“People can still hire remote developers for short-term contracts, but we want to enable more companies to hire long-term, full-time regular employees who are not based in their ZIP code, but should be treated no differently than their Bay Area counterparts because they are as good, if not better, than Silicon Valley developers,” Liu says.

Arc pre-screens engineers and teams using what it describes as “Silicon Valley-caliber technical and behavioral assessments.” Candidates go through behavioral and technical interviews conducted by senior developers and technical recruiters who have worked for Google, Facebook and other big tech companies. In order to judge how well they will work with a team in another location, Arc also asks developers to prepare programming during the interview process to simulate the process of collaborating remotely.

As Arc grows larger, Liu says it will build tools that will help them gauge developers at scale, as well as features to companies manage remote workers.

California recently passed a significant new bill that, if signed into law, would dramatically change the gig economy by requiring companies to give independent contractors who do the work of employees minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits. Liu hopes this signifies a shift in how remote workers are viewed.

“There are a lot of first-generation online platforms for ‘remote work,’ but most are freelancing work. Platforms like Fiverr and Upwork are pioneers of this space, so they are the first generation of online freelancing platforms,” Liu says. “They came into a world where people felt comfortable working together in very short-term freelancing gigs. I think the second phase means there is increasingly higher trust and better infrastructure to enable long-term, permanent full-time work to be made possible remotely, and we want to be the main facilitator of that.”

September 17th 2019, 12:15 pm

Google Fi gets an unlimited plan

TechCrunch

For the longest time, Google Fi didn’t play the unlimited calls, text and data game and instead focused on offering pretty affordable and flexible plans with a price cap of $80 (before taxes and government fees). Today, however, Google is introducing Fi Unlimited, which, as you’ve probably figured out from the name, is more akin to a traditional ‘unlimited’ plan from other carriers.

Fi Unlimited plans start at $70 for the first line. For families, you can also opt to pay $60 per line for 2 lines, $50 per line for 3 lines or $45 per line for 4 to 6 lines (excluding taxes and fees). That’s pretty much in line with the unlimited plans from other carriers, though they all come with their own limitations, special services and may feature different (and often more substantial) family discounts.

“Since Fi’s launch in 2015, we’ve had one plan, the Fi Flexible plan, that gives you the flexibility to pay for just the data you use,” writes Fi product manager Dhwani Shah. “As we’ve grown, we’ve heard that many of you want the simplicity and predictability that comes with paying the same price each month. So today, for the first time ever, Fi is adding a second plan: our Google Fi Unlimited plan.”

If you’re also a happy Fi user and like the old plan, don’t panic. A Google spokesperson has told us that Google will continue to offer the existing flexible plan, too.

Unlimited, of course, is never quite unlimited, so Google will cap your speed after you use 22GB of data in a given month (only 1% of Fi users currently do so, the company says) and it ‘may’ cap video quality at 480p. Like with the company’s other Fi plans, there are no contracts or activation fees.

There are some positives, too, though. You’ll get free international calls from the U.S. to 50 countries and territories and you’ll still get Fi’s unlimited data and text in 200 countries. Every unlimited plan also includes a Google One membership with 100 GB of cloud storage and live support for all Google products, as well as Google’s new phone backup service. There are also no limits on hotspot usage.

As always, you’ll need a compatible phone to make Fi work for you.

The maximum you’ll pay for Fi’s flexible price is $80 per month after you’ve used more than 6 GB of data. So there’s a tradeoff here. You’ll pay a fixed price for every unlimited line, even if you only use 1 GB of data, but you’ll pay a predictable price and you’ll get a discount for activating multiple lines, as well as a few other goodies.

September 17th 2019, 12:15 pm

Boston-based DataRobot raises $206M Series E to bring AI to enterprise

TechCrunch

Artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly large role in enterprise software, and Boston’s DataRobot has been helping companies build, manage and deploy machine learning models for some time now. Today, the company announced a $206 million Series E investment led by Sapphire Ventures.

Other participants in this round included new investors Tiger Global Management, World Innovation Lab, Alliance Bernstein PCI, and EDBI along with existing investors DFJ Growth, Geodesic Capital, Intel Capital, Sands Capital, NEA and Meritech.

Today’s investment brings the total raised to $431 million, according to the company. It has a pre-money valuation of $1 billion, according to PitchBook. DataRobot would not confirm this number.

The company has been catching the attention of these investors by offering a machine learning platform aimed at analysts, developers and data scientists to help build predictive models much more quickly than it typically takes using traditional methodologies. Once built, the company provides a way to deliver the model in the form of an API, simplifying deployment.

The late-stage startup plans to use the money to continue building out its product line, while looking for acquisition opportunities where it makes sense. The company also announced the availability of a new product today, DataRobot MLOps, a tool to manage, monitor and deploy machine learning models across a large organization.

The company, which was founded in 2012, claims it has had triple-digit recurring revenue growth dating back to 2015, as well as one billion models built on the platform to-date. Customers contributing to that number include a broad range of companies such as Humana, United Airlines, Harvard Business School and Deloitte.

September 17th 2019, 11:41 am

IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

TechCrunch

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Katsuyama. Image via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?

September 17th 2019, 11:25 am

‘The Big Bang Theory’ goes to AT&T’s HBO Max streaming service for over a billion

TechCrunch

‘Friends’ is getting some new neighbors at HBO Max. The streaming service from AT&T’s WarnerMedia has signed a big deal, reportedly worth over $1 billion, for the exclusive streaming and syndication rights for ‘The Big Bang Theory’ over the next five years.

The deal comes as streaming media services look to shore up their original programming offerings with known quantities that have proven to be enduring hits in syndication. It’s the model that originally brought Netflix’s streaming service to near-ubiquity and shows the enduring power of the sitcom format.

In the past year over $2.4 billion has been committed to locking down fan favorite comedies like “Friends”, “The Office”, “Seinfeld” and now the record-setting deal for “The Big Bang Theory”.

Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times broke the news that Netflix had acquired the rights to Seinfeld in a deal worth over $500 million. That deal was struck after Netflix lost two of its tentpole streaming properties — “Friends” to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and “The Office” to NBCUniversal’s new (terribly, terribly, named) streaming serviceThe Peacock.

All 12 seasons of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ —  starring Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, and Kaley Cuoco, will be available to stream in 2020 when HBO Max launches.

“Few shows define a generation and capture mainstream zeitgeist like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” Robert Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and direct-to-consumer, told The Hollywood Reporter, which broke the news. “We’re thrilled that HBO Max will be the exclusive streaming home for this comedy juggernaut when we launch in the spring of 2020. This show has been a hit virtually around the globe, it’s one of the biggest shows on broadcast television of the last decade, and the fact that we get to bring it to a streaming platform for the first time in the U.S. is a coup for our new offering.”

The competition for talent for new productions and time-tested fan favorites has reached a fever pitch in the entertainment industry as studios, networks, and technology companies including Apple, Amazon, and Netflix shell out big dollars to capture audience in the new media landscape.

“I am forever grateful to have been part of something as extraordinary as ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” Lorre told The Hollywood Reporter. “All of us — Bill Prady, Steven Molaro, Steve Holland, and the amazing writing staff, cast and crew — recognize that 12 seasons of laughter is a gift to be cherished.”

Each of the stars and show creators Lorre and Prady along with executive producers Molaro and Holland stand to become very rich off of the deal. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lorre alone will pocket somewhere between 30% and 40% of the new syndication deal.

 

September 17th 2019, 10:54 am

NBCU’s streaming service ‘Peacock’ announces originals slate, including a Battlestar Galactica reboo

TechCrunch

NBCUniversal is sharing a few more details about its new streaming service, due to launch in April 2020, including the service’s name and content lineup. In a nod to the NBC logo, the service will be called “Peacock,” (yes, really), and will offer subscribers over 15,000 of content, including both film and TV, plus original content.

Notably, Peacock will be home to “The Office,” which Netflix will lose as a result of NBCU paying $500 million to pull the hit from Netflix when its deal ends in 2021. Peacock will also host other classic shows, like “Parks and Recreation,” plus news, sports, late-night TV, and Spanish-language programming, along with films from Universal Pictures, Focus Features, DreamWorks Animation, Illumination, and others.

In terms of its popular and classic TV lineup, Peacock will include: “30 Rock,” “Bates Motel,” “Battlestar Gallactica,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Cheers,” “Chrisley Knows Best,” “Covert Affairs,” “Downton Abbey,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Frasier,” “Friday Night Lights,” “House,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “King Of Queens,” “Married…With Children,” “Monk,” “Parenthood,” “Psych,” “Royal Pains,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Superstore,” “The Real Housewives,” “Top Chef,” and “Will & Grace.”

On the film side, the service promises  “American Pie,” “Bridesmaids,” “Knocked Up,” “Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers,” “A Beautiful Mind,”“Back to the Future,” “Brokeback Mountain,”“Casino,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Erin Brockovich,” “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “Field of Dreams,” “Jaws,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Shrek,” and “The Breakfast Club.” It will also feature films from the franchises: “Bourne,” “Despicable Me,” and “Fast & Furious.”

What’s more interesting (or concerning, if you’re a “Battlestar Galactica” fan) are Peacock’s plans for original content. This includes a reboot of the sci-fi classic (nooo, don’t do it!), as well as reboots of “Saved by the Bell,” and “Punky Brewster.”

The company this morning announced the following originals:

Much was already known about NBCU’s streaming service, ahead of today. The company had already discussed its vision and the launch time frame during Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call. At the time, NBCU noted the serivce’s April 2020 arrival, as well as its monetization strategy.

The company said then that the service would be ad-supported with a paid, ad-free option. It has not yet announced its pricing or distribution plans, however.

The service is launching at a time when competition among streamers is heating up, as more companies enter the fray to battle with Netflix. In addition to the big three — Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu — Disney+ is poised to launch Nov. 12, and Apple just announced Apple TV+ would arrive Nov 1. HBO Max is also right around the corner, in spring 2020.

Surprisingly, it’s the classic shows that the media giants are fighting over, in massive, multi-billion dollar deals.

NBCU snagged “The Office,” Netflix’s most-watched series, for $500 million. WarnerMedia (HBO Max) grabbed “Friends” from Netflix for $425 million. Netflix got back in the game yesterday, with a $500 million-plus deal for “Seinfeld” that includes global streaming rights. And just this morning, WarnerMedia broke records with a multi-billion dollar streaming deal for “Big Bang Theory,” for HBO Max.

Peacock, its terrible name notwithstanding, has a shot at grabbing at least some of the market, given its decent back catalog, which includes hits like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec,” and its access to a larger film library. It also snagged some high-caliber Hollywood names for its originals.

The service will be heavily promoted during the Summer Olympics, airing on NBC.

“The name Peacock pays homage to the quality content that audiences have come to expect from NBCUniversal – whether it’s culture-defining dramas from innovative creators like Sam Esmail, laugh-out-loud comedies from legends like Lorne Michaels and Mike Schur, blockbusters from Universal Pictures, or buzzy unscripted programming from the people who do it best at Bravo and E!,” said Bonnie Hammer, Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer and Digital Enterprises, in a statement about today’s news. “Peacock will be the go-to place for both the timely and timeless – from can’t-miss Olympic moments and the 2020 election, to classic fan favorites like ‘The Office’.”

 

September 17th 2019, 10:24 am

Remagine secures $35M fund backed by media giants to focus on entertainment and media tech

TechCrunch

Remagine Ventures is a relatively new European VC fund which focuses on investments in entertainment tech, including AI, gaming, sports & eSports, AR/VR, consumer and commerce. It’s now completed $35 million in funding from a number of entertainment and media corporations, including Axel Springer and ProsiebenSat1, Japanese Adways and American Liontree LLC. Last year global media group Sky put $4 million into the fund as part of the launch of its new innovation office in Berlin.

To date, the fund has invested in six entertainment start-ups, including: Minute Media, a user-generated content platform for sports, Syte.ai a visual search startup, Novos, a gamer training platform, HourOne, which operates in the world of synthetic media, Vault-ai.com, predictive analytics for film and television and Madskil, an eSports company in stealth.

Started by investor/entrepreneurs Kevin Baxpehler and Eze Vidra, Remagine focuses on early-stage (seed and pre-seed) investments in Israel and UK, with synergies between the two territories.
Traditionally, Israel has been better know for it’s ‘deep tech’capabilities but there’s a growing ecosystem of entertainment tech and consumer startups looking to disrupt traditional traditional industries.

Vidra established Campus London, Google’s first physical hubs for startups and later expanded the Campus model internationally. He was also a general partner Google Ventures (GV), the company’s investment arm in Europe.

Baxpehler, is a former entrepreneur and investment banker from in Germany. He most recently led the investment activity of German entertainment giant ProSiebenSat.1 in Israel, investing in Dynamic Yield (which recently sold for $300 million to McDonalds) and Magisto, which was acquired by Vimeo for $200 million.

Vidra said: “We operate in a relatively new market in the Israeli ecosystem. The Entertainment-tech sector has tremendous momentum, and Israeli founders are expanding at a rapid pace in this world and we recognize huge potential in it.” Baxpehler added: “Eze and I have experience in the investment world, the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world. We want to meet startups very early, to accompany and guide them even before investing.”

September 17th 2019, 9:54 am

SpaceX’s orbital Starship prototype construction progress detailed in new photos

TechCrunch

SpaceX is making progress assembling its Starship orbital spacecraft prototype, as seen in new photos shared by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk . This full-scale testing version of the Starship will take over for the StarHopper, which was a scaled down version used to test the Raptor engine initially with low-altitude ‘hop’ flights.

The Starship Mk I Prototype and Mk II prototypes, which are under construction simultaneously at SpaceX facilities in South Texas and Florida, will be used to test flight at higher altitudes and higher speeds, and will use as many as three to six Raptor engines simultaneously, vs. the single engine used with the StarHopper.

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The round sections of the prototype you see in the photos being lowered on top of one another measure 9 meters (about 30 feet) in diameter, and unlike the StarHopper, these will feature a smooth curved top section, which you can see in the second photo. Once complete, SpaceX will run a first test of the orbital prototype with the goal of reaching a height of 12 miles, or 63,000 feet, before moving on to higher velocity testing at similar heights, and finally a first orbital flight.

Ultimately, SpaceX’s goal with Starship is have it become the workhorse of all of its commercial operations, replacing entirely the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon Capsule spacecraft and servicing both Earth orbital needs, as well as trips to ferry supplies and astronauts to Mars, and potentially beyond.

September 17th 2019, 9:54 am

Amazon launches Amazon Music HD with lossless audio streaming

TechCrunch

Amazon has a new, high-quality streaming tier of its music service called Amazon Music HD. It’s priced at $12.99 per moth for Prime members ($14.99 per month for everyone else) and you can add it to your existing Amazon Music subscription for an additional $5 per month, whether you’re an individual or family plan subscriber. What you get for the additional cost is access to over 50 million songs in what Amazon is calling HD (16-bit, 44.1kHz or around what you’d expect from a CD), and then “millions” in Ultra HD (24-bit, up to 192kHz), which the company says is the highest available quality for any music streaming.

The most popular music streaming offering for quality-seeking audiophiles to date has probably been Tidal, which launched to serve that specific need. Tidal hasn’t exactly been able to compete with industry-leading music streaming services like Apple and Spotify in terms of subscriber numbers, but its continued existence suggests there’s a demand out there for better quality music. Amazon might be well-positioned to capitalize, since they can offer this easily alongside their existing offering as a niche upsell without likely too much in the way of additional cost.

You can try out Amazon Music HD for free for 90 days at launch (ps there are both streaming and download options for the high quality music), which is a generous initial free sample period as far as these things go. That should be plenty of time to figure out if your ears care overmuch about the added fidelity you’ll get – but be warned, it might be so good you’ll never be able to go back to pedestrian, standard definition streaming quality.

September 17th 2019, 9:24 am

The Sony RX100 VII is the best compact camera you can buy

TechCrunch

Sony’s latest advanced compact camera is the highly pocketable RX100 VII, the seventh iteration of the RX100. Since its debut, this line of cameras has proven a very popular option among enthusiasts looking for a great travel camera, vloggers, and even pros who want a compact backup option just in case. The RX100 VII should suit all those needs very well, provided you’re okay with coughing up the $1,200 asking price.

Not that $1,200 is too expensive for what you’re getting, since Sony has packed tremendous value in the Mark VII, including an extremely versatile 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) zoom range, 20fps continuous burst mode shooting, a flip-up touch screen, built-in images stabilization and the same powerful autofocus technologies you’ll find on its flagship full-frame interchangeable lens pro cameras.

Pocket power

The Sony RX100 VII satisfies a specific need, but it’s one that a lot of people probably have: Striking a balance between image quality, range and portability. One the convenience end of the spectrum, the ultimate device is probably your smartphone, since you have that with you always. On the IQ and range side, you’re looking at a top-end DSLR with a high-quality, low aperture zoom lens that can weigh more than a large dog. The RX100 VII manages to be so impressive because it can delivery near the portability of a smartphone, with some of the photography chops of a setup that typically requires its own suitcase.

Inside the RX100 VII you’ll find a 1-inch sensor, which is very big relative to smartphone imaging sensors. This is important because it means there’s no contest between which will capture a better image, with lower noise, greater depth-of-field and better color rendering. For all the software magic that companies like Apple and Google can bring to the photography table, nothing yet can totally compensate for simply having a larger sensor.

The RX100 VII’s compactness isn’t just impressive because of the large sensor it packs inside, however; you also get an EVF, an integrated flash, an external microphone jack and an articulating LCD display. To get all of this into a package this small is astounding – the EVF in particular is a great feature for anyone who wants to be a bit more direct and particular with their shot composition, while the flip-up LCD means you can also have a great selfie screen and monitor for use when vlogging.

Last but not least in terms of its portability benefits, you can charge the RX100 VII via USB directly so that you can leave any additional charging hardware at home. The camera has a micro USB port for both data and power, and while it would’ve been nice to see this upgraded to USB-C on this camera to keep up with the latest in terms of computer and smartphone charging, it’s still better than requiring an external charger.

Zoom zoom

Sony decided on a very long zoom range for the RX100 VII, which sports a 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-4.5 powered retracting zoom lens. That’s the same range and aperture as the RX100 VI, which opts for more range over the brighter 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens found on the V and earlier.

While you’ll lose some ability to separate your subject from the background vs. a brighter lens, you get a lot more reach for shooting action or wildlife. The added range definitely makes it a better all-around travel camera, too, and makes it possible to get some shots you otherwise just wouldn’t be able to get at all with a shorter lens.

The long end of the zoom range also offers stunningly sharp images, especially in bright, daylight conditions. In the examples below, you can see some of the 200mm samples shot on the RX100 VII next to the 24mm wide versions of the same scenes to get a sense of just how close you can get with this lens, and the quality of the images possible even at those extreme zoom lengths.

[gallery ids="1881962,1881963,1881944,1881943,1881946,1881947,1881889,1881888"]

At the wide end, you have plenty of real estate to capture great sweeping architectural or landscape shots, and the sharpness is also fantastic in great light. There’s some distortion, but it’s mostly corrected by Sony’s software on JPG output. That 24mm wide angle is also the right width for arm-length selfies, though you’re probably going to want at least a short selfie stick for vlogging applications to give yourself a little more in the way of framing options.

Sticky AF

Leaving aside the fact that this is one of the better sensors available on the market for a camera this size, there’s another very compelling reason to pick up this camera, and one that likely gives it the edge over competitors from other companies. I’m talking about Sony’s autofocus system, and the RX100 VII gets the latest and greatest that Sony has developed, which is found only in much more expensive cameras from the company like the A9 and the new A7R IV.

You get face and eye tracking, for both human and animal subjects, and these are both best-in-class when compared with other camera makers’ systems. The animal one in particular is a Sony speciality, and worked amazingly well on my real dog – and on Sony’s Aibo robot dog, captured at the Sony Ginza experience center in Tokyo.

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The face and eye detection settings are available in both still shooting and movies, and you can set eye preference (left or right), too. The newest AF feature, however, is object tracking, which allows you to point your AF point at a specific object and have the camera automatically track that object as you zoom or move, or as the object moves within frame. You can choose from a range of options regarding how large of a focal area to track, and this works in tandem with human face detection so that the camera will automatically focus on the subject’s face when it’s visible, and on them more generally when it’s not, which is amazing for sports or action photography.

In practice, this works extremely well. Sony’s claims about how well this sticks, and how good it is at picking a subject back up after it moves behind an object, for instance, are spot on. This is really the best AF system available on a camera in the pocketable category, at any price point, and it’s truly amazing to experience. In the shots below, you can see how it allowed me to capture a very clear picture of a soaring hawk at the 200mm tele zoom, how it tracked a bike in motion and got a clear image of the rider’s face, and how it froze a motor bike in motion during a burst series (all the shots were in focus, by the way).

[gallery ids="1881884,1881883,1881881,1881887,1881936"]

Low light

Another area where Sony’s RX100 VII and its 1-inch sensor are going to have a leg up on your smartphone is in sub-optimal lighting conditions. Bigger sensors mean bigger pixels and less noise, with better blacks and shadows. Sony is also using a backside illuminated stacked sensor, and there’s built-in optical image stabilization which means you can take sharper photos at lower shutter speeds, letting in more light for clearer images.

In practice, what you get are pretty good low light photos, especially outdoors with ambient light present, or in decently well-lit indoor settings. In poorer lighting conditions or when you’re trying to freeze action in low light, you’re going to get fairly noisy results, especially when compared to an APS-C or full-frame camera. Sony’s tech can do a lot to make the most of less than ideal photographic conditions, but at some point, it runs up against the limits of what’s possible.

Sony also doesn’t get quite as aggressive with computational photographic techniques for digitally compensating for lower available light, as do the Pixel phones and the latest iPhone 11. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though – the images from the RX100 VII present more accurate night and indoor photos, by comparison, and you can still get much better indoor images with the RX100 VII than you can with any smartphone.

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As you can see in the gallery above, the camera does extremely well as long as there’s one well-lit subject or element in frame. It’s less effective when the image overall is uniformly dim, but if you’re looking for great photos in those conditions, you should probably consider upgrading to a larger camera with a larger sensor anyways.

Movie maker

The RX100 VII’s greatest strength might just be how good it is at shooting video for a device this size. Video out of the camera with very minimal adjustment from the default shooting settings produces highly usable results, for both home video enthusiasts and for YouTubers or vloggers looking to produce great looking content without lugging an entire film production studio along with them on their travels.

Once again, the versatile zoom range really shines here, and the you can even shoot at the tele end of the zoom handheld and get totally usable footage provided you’re a bit careful about movement, as you can see in the third clip in the sequence below, which was shot at the 200mm range. Low-light footage looks great, as is evident from the second clip in sequence, and at the wide end you can capture sweeping landscape vistas or flip up the screen and turn the camera around for selfie-style video.

The added microphone port makes it an even more powerful filmmaking tool, and if you pick up their optional VCT-SGR1 shooting grip, combined with a small shotgun mic or something like the Rode Wireless Go, you’ve got everything you need to create very compelling travel diaries in an incredibly lightweight package that will be able to produce quality and get zoom and wide shots that are impossible on a smartphone.

Bottom line

The RX100 VII is a delight of a camera and an easy recommendation to make. There’s nothing that compares in this size category in terms of the range of features, autofocus capabilities, video prowess and performance as a general all-rounder. This is the do-everything travel camera that you could really only dream of five years ago, and it’s become more ideal for this use with every generation that Sony introduces.

Whether you’re looking to step up your photographic possibilities from your smartphone, or you want to supplement your professional or advanced enthusiast equipment with a pocket camera that’s available as a b-camera for video or to grab a few choice stills, the RX100 VII is hard to top. It’s only downside is that $1,200 asking price, which is definitely above average for a compact camera – but on a value basis, $1,200 isn’t at all expensive for everything this camera has to offer.

Full sample gallery

[gallery ids="1881963,1881962,1881961,1881960,1881959,1881958,1881957,1881956,1881955,1881954,1881953,1881952,1881951,1881950,1881949,1881948,1881947,1881946,1881944,1881943,1881942,1881941,1881940,1881939,1881938,1881937,1881936,1881935,1881933,1881932,1881931,1881930,1881929,1881928,1881927,1881926,1881925,1881924,1881923,1881922,1881921,1881920,1881919,1881918,1881917,1881916,1881915,1881914,1881913,1881912,1881911,1881910,1881909,1881908,1881907,1881906,1881905,1881904,1881903,1881902,1881901,1881900,1881899,1881898,1881897,1881896,1881895,1881894,1881893,1881892,1881891,1881890,1881889,1881888,1881887,1881886,1881885,1881884,1881883,1881882,1881881,1881880,1881879,1881878,1881877,1881876,1881875,1881874"]

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

LinkedIn launches skills assessments, tests that let you beef up your credentials for job hunting

TechCrunch

LinkedIn, the social networking service for the working world, is today taking the wraps off its latest effort to provide its users with better tools for presenting their professional selves, and to make the process of recruitment on the platform more effective. It will now offer a new feature called Skills Assessments: short, multiple-choice tests that users can take to verify their knowledge in areas like computer languages, software packages and other work-related skills.

The feature is being rolled out globally today but in a small test mode, LinkedIn says that 2 million tests have already been taken and applied across the platform, a sign of how it might well be a very popular, and needed, feature. First up are English-language tests covering some 75 different skills, all free to take, but the plan, according to Emrecan Dogan, the group product manager in its talent solutions division, is to “ramp that up agressively” in the near future, both adding in different languages and more test areas.

(Important sidenote: Dogan joined LinkedIn when his company ScoreBeyond was quietly acquired by LinkedIn last year. ScoreBeyond was an online testing service to help students prep for college entrance exams. Given LinkedIn’s efforts to get closer to younger users — again, in part because of competitive pressure — I suspect that is one area where LinkedIn will likely want to expand this assessment tool longer term, if it takes off.)

The skills assessment tool is coming at an important moment for LinkedIn.

The Microsoft-owned company now has nearly 650 million people around the world using its social networking tools to connect with each other for professional purposes, most often to network, talk about work, or find work.

That makes for a fascinating and lucrative economy of scale when it comes to rolling out its products. But it comes with a major drawback, too: the bigger the platform gets, the harder it is to track and verify details about each and every individual on it. The skills assessment becomes one way of at least being able to verify certain people’s skills in specific areas, and for that information to start feeding into other channels and products on the platform.

It’s also a critical competitive move: the company is by far the biggest platform of its kind on the internet today, but smaller rivals are building interesting products to chip away at that lead in specific areas. Triplebyte, for example, has created a platform for those looking to hire engineers, and engineers looking for new roles, to connect by way of the engineers — yes — taking online tests to measure their skills and match them up with compatible job opportunities. Triplebyte is focused on just one field — software engineering — but the template is a disruptive one that, if replicated in other verticals, could slowly start to chip away at LinkedIn’s hegemony.

And testing on actual skills is just one area where verification has fallen short on LinkedIn: another big trend in recruitment is the push for more diverse workforces. The thinking is that traditionally too many of the parameters that have been used up to now to assess people — what college was attended, or where people have worked already — have been essentially cutting many already-disenfranchised groups out of the process. Given that LinkedIn currently has no way of ascertaining when people on its platform are from minority backgrounds, a skills assessment — and especially a good result on one — might potentially help tip the balance in favor of meritrocracy (if not proactive diversity focused hiring as such).

For regular users, the option to take skills assessments and add them to your profile will appear for users as a button in the skills and endorsements area of their profiles. Users take short tests — currently only multiple choice — which Dogan says are created by professionals who are subject area experts that already work with LinkedIn, for example to write content for LinkedIn learning.

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These tests measure your knowledge in specific areas, and if you pass, you are given a badge that you can apply to your profile page, and potentially broadcast out to those who are looking for people with the skills you’ve just verified you have. (This is presuming that you are not cheating and having someone else take the test for you, or taking it while looking up answers elsewhere.) You can opt out of sharing the information anywhere else, if you choose.

If you fail, you have three months to wait before taking it again, and in the meantime LinkedIn will use the moment to upsell you on its other content: you get offered LinkedIn Learning tests to improve your skills.

For those who pass, they will need to retake tests every year to keep their badges and credentials.

On the side of recruiters, they are able to use the data that gets amassed through the tests as a way of better filtering out users when sourcing candidate pools for job openings. This is a huge issue on a platform like LinkedIn: while having a large group of people on there is a boost for finding matches, in fact there can be too many, and too much of a challenge and time suck to figure out who is genuinely suitable for a particular role.

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There is another angle where the skills are being used to help LinkedIn monetise: those who are putting in ads for jobs can now buy ads that are targeted specifically to people with certain skills that have been verified through assessments.

There are still some shortfalls in the skills assessment tool as it exists now. For example, coding tests are all multiple choice, but that’s not how many coding environments work these days. (Triplebyte for example offers collaborative assessments.) And of course, skills is just one aspect of how people might fit into a particular working environment. (Currently there are no plans to bring in psychometric or similar assessments, Dogan said.) This is an interesting start, however, and worth testing the waters as more interesting variations in recruitment and connecting professionals online continue to proliferate.

 

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

Casper has created CBD gummies in partnership with Plus

TechCrunch

That’s right: Mattress startup Casper is launching its own version of CBD-infused gummies, created in partnership with edibles company Plus.

This is just the latest in Casper’s efforts to expand beyond mattresses with the addition of sheets, pillows, dog beds, portable lamps and more. In a recent New York Times profile, the company said its goal is to become the “Nike of sleep,” with an ever-widening lineup of sleep-related products.

Casper may be feeling extra pressure to grow the business model since a recent funding round valued the company at $1.1 billion. And mattresses alone don’t make for frequent recurring purchases.

Even with all that in mind, I wasn’t expecting the company’s next launch to involve CBD. But in a statement, Casper co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Neil Parikh connected this launch to the company’s bigger vision:

The options for sleep improvement have been historically limited to a late night Google search or a prescription from your doctor. It’s our mission to change that as the world’s first Sleep Company. Introducing CBD sleep gummies with PLUS allows us to bring a new way to relax and rest to those who need it.

It looks like Plus is handling the actual sales of the CBD Sleep Gummies, which will cost $35 for a package of 14. Each blackberry tea-flavored gummy is supposed to include 25 milligrams of CBD, along with chamomile extract and 1 milligram of melatonin.

Plus says it ships to all U.S. states except Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Hawaii, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

GitLab hauls in $268M Series E on 2.768B valuation

TechCrunch

GitLab is a company that doesn’t pull any punches or try to be coy. It actually has had a page on its website for sometime stating it intends to go public on November 18, 2020. You don’t see that level of transparency from late-stage startups all that often. Today, the company announced a huge $268 million Series E on a tidy $2.768 billion valuation.

Investors included Adage Capital Management, L.P, Alkeon Capital, Altimeter Capital, Blackrock, Inc., Capital Group, Coatue Management, D1 Capital Partners, Franklin Templeton, Light Street Capital, Tiger Management Corp and Two Sigma Investments LP.

The company seems to be primed and ready for that eventual IPO. Last year, GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij says that his CFO Paul Machle told him he wanted to begin planning to go public, and he would need two years in advance to prepare the company. As Sijbrandij tells it, he told him to pick a date.

“He said, I’ll pick the 16th of November because that’s the birthday of my twins. It’s also the last week before Thanksgiving, and after Thanksgiving, the stock market is less active, so that’s a good time to go out,” Sijbrandij told TechCrunch.

He said that he considered it a done deal and put the date on the GitLab Strategy page, a page that outlines the company’s plans for everything it intends to do. It turned out that he was a bit too quick on the draw. Machle had checked the date in the interim and realized that it was a Monday, which is not traditionally a great day to go out, so they decided to do it two days later. Now the target date is officially November 18, 2020.

GitLab has the date it’s planning to go public listed on its Strategy page.

As for that $268 million, it gives the company considerable runway ahead of that planned event, but Sijbrandij says it also gives him flexibility in how to take the company public. “One other consideration is that there are two options to go public. You can do an IPO or direct listing. We wanted to preserve the optionality of doing a direct listing next year. So if we do a direct listing, we’re not going to raise any additional money, and we wanted to make sure that this is this is enough in that case,” he explained.

Sijbrandij says that the company made a deliberate decision to be transparent early on. Being based on an open source project, it’s sometimes tricky to make that transition to commercial company, and sometimes that has a negative impact on the community and the number of contributions. Transparency was a way to combat that, and it seems to be working.

He reports that the community contributes 200 improvements to the GitLab open source product every month, and that’s double the amount of just a year ago, so the community is still highly active in spite of the parent company’s commercial success.

It did not escape his notice that Microsoft acquired GitHub last year for $7.5 billion. It’s worth noting that GitLab is a similar kind of kind of company that helps developers manage and distribute code in a DevOps environment. He claims in spite of that eye-popping number, his goal is to remain an independent company and take this through to the next phase.

“Our ambition is to stay an independent company. And that’s why we put out the ambition early to become a listed company. That’s not totally in our control as the majority of the company is owned by investors, but as long as we’re more positive about the future than the people around us, I think we can we have a shot at not getting acquired,” he said.

The company was founded in 2014 and was a member of Y Combinator in 2015. It has been on a steady growth trajectory ever since. hauling in over $436 million. The last round before today’s announcement was a $100 million Series D last September.

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

Ironclad raises $50M Series C round for its digital contracting platform

TechCrunch

Ironclad, a startup that makes it easier for legal teams to manage their contracts workflow, today announced that it has raised a $50 million Series C round led by Y Combinator Continuity, with participation from Emergence Captial, as well as existing investors including Access and Sequoia Capital. This round brings Ironclad’s total funding to $83 million, according to Crunchbase.

In addition to the new funding, Ironclad, which was part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2015 class, also today announced the launch of its Workflow Designer. This tool allows teams to easily create their own custom workflows based their individual business processes and timelines. Setting up those workflows looks be a pretty straightforward process. After tagging the existing contract, teams can then set up their processes based on what’s in a specific document. If a contract is over a specific value, for example, they can add a payment clause, or set up an approval process based on that value.

Workflow Designer complements the service’s existing tools for managing the contract lifecycle and collaborating on legal documents.

The company says it will use the new funding to expand into new geographies and expand its product.

“This round and our continued momentum highlights how big the opportunity is to streamline contracting for every type of company in the world,” said Jason Boehmig, co-founder and CEO of Ironclad. “Our newest investors bring a depth of later stage company experience and a vision for what Cloud companies will look like in the future. Our new funding will fuel continued product innovations, like our new Workflow Designer, which is accelerating contracting time by 85% for our customers.”

 

 

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

Meet Venn, the company hoping to build MTV for the gaming generation

TechCrunch

Maybe a network will be the thing that replaces the single streaming media star.

VENN, a new company launching with $17 million in funding from some of the biggest names in gaming is hoping to harness the power of streaming media’s online celebrities and funnel them into a channel that can command the kind of advertising revenues of the networks of old.

The vision harkens back to the golden days of MTV, when shows like TRL ruled the media landscape and a New York-based network set the cultural agenda through the prism of pop music.

For the creators of VENN, who include Ariel Horn, a four-time Emmy winning producer who brought the commercial storytelling from his network days working on Olympics broadcasts for NBC (a division of Comcast) to the esports phenomenons of Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment; and Ben Kusin, a former global director of new media at Vivendi Games, MTV is the template for creating a cultural commodity from what’s becoming the lingua franca of a new generation of consumers.

Where music (and particularly music videos) was once the genre-spanning language for a generation, the two entrepreneurs see gaming culture as the touchstone for a new audience. And where fragmentation has created a confusing market for advertisers to reach that audience, the content funnel and single source that a network can provide offers an attractive alternative to reaching out to a single celebrity gamer, streamer, or platform.

Tthat’s the pitch behind VENN, which not only stands for Video Game Entertainment News Network, but also represents the venn diagram whose center resides at the intersection of gaming, music, fashion, and entertainment broadly, according to the two co-founders.

VENN co-founders Ben Kusin and Ariel Horn

“You’re looking at a $150 billion per-year industry,” says Kusin. “We think streamers, casters, content creators, these are the new celebrities… what MTV TRL used to be back in the day if that were to launch today what would it look like? This culture would be seen through the lens of gaming.”

His co-founder, Horn, agrees. “We see gaming as the lens through which we want to create and contextualize Gen Z,” says Horn.

Horn knows the potential audience better than nearly anyone. In his last job, he presided over eSports events that commanded viewership in the hundreds of millions. Both Kusin and Horn think that the same sized audience could exist for their network — if not larger, because the two producers and their channel aren’t beholden to a single title, franchise or publisher.

Nor are they subject or beholden to a single distribution platform.

“We’re a universal network,” says Kusin. “We will be distributed on Twitch, on YouTube, and on Pluto, Hulu, and Roku… Anywhere and everywhere that our customers are consuming content.”

The company is currently looking to recruit top-tier talent and bring their sponsor-based streams and formats into a traditional network environment, with higher production values and something approximating the types of talent contracts and deals that would be afforded to a network figure. These streamers, gamers, and others would be able to supplement their existing sponsor-based income with their work on VENN, the two-co-founders said.

The executives would not comment on what, specifically, the programming would include, but indicated that VENN was in discussions with a number of the top streamers in the gaming corners of services like YouTube and Twitch from which they’d pull programming. One genre that will likely make its way onto the network is an American Ninja Warrior-style competitive show for speedruns through different levels of games.

“There are already shows on Twitch,” says Horn. “It’s reported out there for you in real-time. You’re getting all kinds of feedback.” What’s necessary, he says, is to elevate the production value and add other kinds of more traditional programming around it.

“There are two hundred million people consuming YouTube gaming content… There are esports teams [like] Liquid [and] G2 whose talent consider themselves entertainers,” says Kusin. “We’re giving the entire industry a home and a heartbeat.”

The appeal for brands is obvious. If there’s a single place to go to capture the audience that follows streaming celebrities like Ninja, Tfue, or VanossGaming, that real estate is far more desirable than pursuing independent sponsorship deals with each individual streamer.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 12: Gamers ‘Ninja’ (L) and ‘Marshmello’ compete in the Epic Games Fortnite E3 Tournament at the Banc of California Stadium on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brands trying to put their money into gaming is not that straightforward,” says Horn.”There isn’t really a network  like this that exists right now… that exists for the industry at large.”

Other companies that have emerged to capture advertising dollars or create networks of entertainers in something akin to an agency model may beg to differ. These are companies like 3blackdot or Popdog, which represent a significant chunk of online gaming talent. Or more traditional sites that have significant followings like IGN, which bills itself as the #1 games media company.

Beyond the competition, VENN is still rolling the dice on whether the new generation of consumers wants to have a more produced, mediated entertainment network rather than continue to gravitate to the unmediated experience of watching live streams of their peers do the things that they’re doing themselves. YouTube is more than just a vehicle to mainstream stardom, these streamers are their own mainstream stars for millions of viewers who seem fine with the no-fi production values that YouTube almost demands.

Investors are betting that they are, because VENN has raised a $17 million treasure chest to spend on bringing its vision to the market. The money comes from some of the biggest names in gaming, led by the European investment firm BITKRAFT. Additional investors include: Marc Merrill, the co-founder of Riot Games; Mike and Amy Morhaime, the co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment and its former head of global esports; Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch; and aXiomatic Gaming, an esports investment group with stakes in Epic Games, Team Liquid and Niantic. 

“It’s about time we significantly raise the bar for video content in gaming and esports. We need to elevate the stars and stories in our community and provide a better and larger opportunity for brands to reach gamers,” said Jens Hilgers, Founding Partner of BITKRAFT in a statement.   

September 17th 2019, 9:11 am

Apple awards another $250 million to precision glass maker Corning

TechCrunch

As part of Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund, Apple is investing $250 million in Corning, a supplier that has been working on glass for the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad. Apple had previously invested $200 million in May 2017.

The company says that the new investment will support research and development for precision glass processes. While Corning has supplied glass to Apple for every generation of iPhone and iPad, Apple says that glass in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro is even tougher than before. Apple also uses glass for the back of the device in order to enable wireless charging.

As Apple mentioned before, the company has spent $60 billion with 9,000 American suppliers in 2018. It represents 450,000 jobs.

Today’s investment is part of a commitment to spend billions of dollars in U.S.-based companies with its Advanced Manufacturing Fund in order to build new facilities and help manufacturers. Apple originally planned to invest $1 billion, but it has deployed the entire initial fund.

Apple has now spent $1 billion out of its $5 billion subsequent fund. For instance, Apple has invested $390 million in Finsar, the maker of the TrueDepth camera and $10 million in Elysis, an aluminum maker.

September 17th 2019, 8:41 am

Data storage company Cloudian launches a new edge analytics subsidiary called Edgematrix

TechCrunch

Cloudian, a company that enables businesses to store and manage massive amounts of data, announced today the launch of Edgematrix, a new unit focused on edge analytics for large data sets. Edgematrix, a majority-owned subsidiary of Cloudian, will first be available in Japan, where both companies are based. It has raised a $9 million Series A from strategic investors NTT Docomo, Shimizu Corporation and Japan Post Capital, as well as Cloudian co-founder and CEO Michael Tso and board director Jonathan Epstein. The funding will be used on product development, deployment and sales and marketing.

Cloudian itself has raised a total of $174 million, including a $94 million Series E round announced last year. Its products include the Hyperstore platform, which allows businesses to store hundreds of petrabytes of data on premise, and software for data analytics and machine learning. Edgematrix uses Hyperstore for storing large-scale data sets and its own AI software and hardware for data processing at the “edge” of networks, closer to where data is collected from IoT devices like sensors.

The company’s solutions were created for situations where real-time analytics is necessary. For example, it can be used to detect the make, model and year of cars on highways so targeted billboard ads can be displayed to their drivers.

Tso told TechCrunch in an email that Edgematrix was launched after Cloudian co-founder and president Hiroshi Ohta and a team spent two years working on technology to help Cloudian customers process and analyze their data more efficiently.

“With more and more data being created at the edge, including IoT data, there’s a growing need for being able to apply real-time data analysis and decision-making at or near the edge, minimizing the transmission costs and latencies involved in moving the data elsewhere,” said Tso. “Based on the initial success of a small Cloudian team developing AI software solutions and attracting a number of top-tier customers, we decided that the best way to build on this success was establishing a subsidiary with strategic investors.”

Edgematrix is launching in Japan first because spending on AI systems there is expected to grow faster than in any other market, at a compound annual growth rate of 45.3% from 2018 to 2023, according to IDC.

“Japan has been ahead of the curve as an early adopter of AI technology, with both the governmetn and private sector viewing it as essential to boosting productivity,” said Tso. “Edgematrix will focus on the Japanese market for at least the next year, and assuming that all goes well, it would then expand to North America and Europe.”

September 17th 2019, 8:11 am

Snapchat is adding in a 3D Camera Mode, the latest salvo in its feature race with Instagram

TechCrunch

The newest version of Snap’s Spectacles already has a 3D feature that lets you see the world with immersive filter effects, and now the company’s flagship app Snapchat is levelling up. Today the company announced a new 3D Camera Mode that will let users make and share images with diorama-like depth effects that move when you tilt your phone.

The 3D Camera Mode is available as of today for those using the iPhone X and above with an update of the Snapchat app, where the feature can be accessed via the camera mode, using the drop-down menu on the right. The pictures can also be viewed (but not created) on older and other phone models (including Android) as well.

Alongside the 3D Camera Mode, those creating pictures will also, naturally, be supplied with a new library of 3D effects, lenses and filters; and after you are finished making the images, you can also save them to your camera roll to use elsewhere as well.

The move into 3D is the latest salvo for Snapchat in what has been a long-term feature battle with Facebook, and specifically Instagram . We have long documented the history of how Snapchat has led the charge with new concepts in photo art on its app — from the very basic aspect of ephemeral images, through to the emergence of lenses and filters, and stories to build narratives of Snaps and videos — only to see Instagram (and to a lesser extent, Facebook itself) follow suit with the similar features.

The feature-copy situation is particularly a tough one for Snapchat, which still trails Instagram in overall users and once saw its growth slow massively after its rival implemented Stories. Snapchat most recently reported 203 million daily active users, while Instagram currently says its DAUs are over 500 million.

Lenses and photo effects overall still have a long way to go, though — not least because currently some 70% the company’s daily users turn to lenses to spice up their pictures, pointing to a very sticky feature that helps keep them on Snapchat overall. So Snapchat’s push to keep innovating (even if it gets copied) is commendable.

And in the moving target that is consumer taste, that model is likely to also get changed up with more recent competitive developments: specifically it will be worth watching how and if the rise of the popular music-based TikTok app will impact what features we see on these two older rivals.

Despite all that, ironically, with 3D, Facebook was actually ahead of the game, launching AI-based 3D images back in October 2018. Up to now, it’s never extended that feature to Instagram. However, with Snapchat getting in on the action, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 3D show up on Insta, too.

To be clear, the 3D feature’s reliance on models of the iPhone X and newer cuts more legacy models of the iPhone out as a matter of necessity, since they are made using image and depth data that can be collected on the iPhone X’s front-facing lens.

On the other hand, you mind find it a strange oversight that the same feature is not showing up on its Android app — not least given that there are a fair number of high-end Android devices that can capture the same types of depth and other image data as the higher models of the iPhone.

Snapchat has had a history with Android. While it is a popular platform for mobile apps overall, at one point Snap had to redesign its Snapchat Android app because it was so slow and buggy, leading to plummeting users. Eventually it clawed some of that back, but it seems that for now, enough of its biggest users are on iOS that Snap continues to prioritise it when it comes to new features. It will be worth watching to see how long it takes Snap to extend this feature to Android. (We are asking.)

September 17th 2019, 8:11 am

FairMoney raises $11 million for its challenger bank for emerging markets

TechCrunch

Fintech startup FairMoney is building a challenger bank in Nigeria. The company first started offering microcredit and now plans to expand to current accounts and savings. FairMoney just raised an $11 million Series A round (€10 million) led by Flourish, DST Global partners and existing partners Newfund, Speedinvest and Le Studio VC.

FairMoney lets you get a loan from its mobile app. After answering a few questions and sharing financial information, the startup analyzes this data set as well as your geolocation, other apps installed on your phone and other factors to give you an answer in a few minutes.

On average, people borrow the equivalent of $33. Eventually, if you always repay on time, you are able to borrow as much as $415. Interests vary depending on repayment periods and other factors, but the maximum annual percentage rate is 13%.

When you apply for a loan, FairMoney then uses traditional bank transfers to credit the money — bank transfers occur within a few minutes in Nigeria. You can then repay using cash with partner bank tellers, bank transfers or SMS.

FairMoney has a lending license in Nigeria to operate. The company will partner with microfinance institution to launch current accounts, savings and facilitate payments. Eventually, FairMoney hopes that it’ll get its own microfinance license from the central bank.

Like many challenger banks, FairMoney wants to become your financial hub for all your banking needs — one app to rule them all. That’s why the ability to hold money in your FairMoney wallet will be key. For users without smartphones, the startup is also working on an SMS interface to transfer money.

September 17th 2019, 7:38 am

TuSimple adds another $120 million to its self-driving trucks war chest

TechCrunch

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple has added another $120 million to a Series D funding round led by Sina, operator of China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, bringing the total haul to $215 million as it seeks to expand.

The company, which launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Arizona, hit unicorn status in February when it raised $95 million in the Series D round with a post-money valuation of $1.095 billion. This additional funding includes investment from UPS, which announced in August that it had taken a minority stake in TuSimple just months after the two companies began testing the use of autonomous trucks in Arizona.

TuSimple’s total funding is $298 million. New participants in the round include CDH Investments, Lavender Capital, and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation.

The company plans to use the funds to continue developing its autonomous vehicle technology and expand its long-haul routes in Arizona and Texas.

TuSimple is working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

In late 2017, TuSimple raised $55 million with plans to use those funds to scale up testing to two full truck fleets in China and the U.S. By 2018, TuSimple started testing on public roads, beginning with a 120-mile highway stretch between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona and another segment in Shanghai.

The company has more than 50 trucks and 18 contracted customers, according to TuSimple CFO Cheng Lu.

One of those customers is UPS, which initially tapped TuSimple to help it better understand how Level 4 autonomous trucking might function within its network. That relationship expanded in May when the companies began using self-driving tractor trailers to carry freight on a freight route between Tucson and Phoenix to test if service and efficiency in the UPS network can be improved. UPS and TuSimple conduct daily testing between Phoenix and Tucson.

September 17th 2019, 6:05 am

Review: The iPhone 11 Pro does Disneyland after dark

TechCrunch

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: iPhone 11’s Night Mode is great. It works, it compares extremely well to other low-light cameras and the exposure and color rendition is best in class, period.

If that does it for you, you can stop right here. If you want to know more about the iPhone 11, augmented photography and how they performed on a trip to the edge of a galaxy far, far away, read on.

As you’re probably now gathering, yes, I took the new iPhones to Disneyland again. If you’ve read my other reviews from the parks,  you’ll know that I do this because they’re they ideal real-world test bed for a variety of capabilities. Lots of people vacation with iPhones.

The parks are hot and the network is crushed. Your phone has to act as your ticket, your food ordering tool, your camera and your map. Not to mention your communication device with friends and family. It’s a demanding environment, plain and simple. And, I feel, a better organic test of how these devices fare than sitting them on a desk in an office and running benchmark tools until they go dead.

I typically test iPhones by using one or two main devices and comparing them with the ones they’re replacing. I’m not all that interested in having the Android vs. iPhone debate because I feel that it’s a bit of a straw man given that platform lock-in means that fewer and fewer people over time are m​aking a truly agnostic platform choice. They’re deciding based on heredity or services (or price). I know this riles the zealots in both camps, but most people just don’t have the luxury of being religious about these kinds of things.

Given the similarities in models, (more on that later) I mainly used the iPhone 11 Pro for my testing, with tests of the iPhone 11 where appropriate. I used the iPhone XS as a reference device. Despite my lack of a desire to do a platform comparison, for this year’s test, given that much discussion has been had about how Google pulled off a coup with the Pixel 3’s Night Sight mode, I brought along one of those as well.

I tried to use the iPhone XS only to compare when comparisons were helpful and to otherwise push the iPhone 11 Pro to handle the full load each day. But, before I could hit the parks, I had to set up my new devices.

Setup

Much of the iPhone 11 Pro’s setup process has remained the same over the years, but Apple has added one new feature worth mentioning: Direct Transfer. This option during setup sits, philosophically, between restoring from a backup made on a local Mac and restoring from an iCloud backup.

Direct Transfer is designed to help users transfer their information directly from one device to another using a direct peer-to-peer connection between the two devices. Specifically, it uses Apple Wireless Direct Link (AWDL), which also powers AirDrop and AirPlay. The transfer is initiated using a particle cloud link similar to the one you see setting up Apple Watch. Once it’s initiated, your old iPhone and new iPhone will be out of commission for up to 2-3 hours depending on how much information you’re transferring.

The data is encrypted in transit. Information directly transferred includes Messages history, full resolution photos that are already stored on your phone and any app data attached to installed apps. The apps themselves are not transferred because Apple’s app signing procedure locks apps to a device, so they must be (automatically) re-dowloaded from the App Store, a process that begins once the Direct Transfer is complete. This also ensures that you’re getting the appropriate version of the app.

Once you’ve done the transfer, the data on your phone is then “rationalized” with iCloud. This helps in cases where you have multiple devices and one of those other devices could have been making changes in the cloud that now need to be updated on the device.

Apple noted that Direct Transfer is good for a few kinds of people:

Basically what you’ve got here is a choice between having your iPhone ‘ready’ immediately for basic functionality (iCloud backup restore) and waiting a bit longer to have far more of your personal data accessible from the start, without waiting for iCloud downloads of original photos, Messages history etc.

Direct Transfer also does not transfer Face ID or Touch ID settings, Apple Pay information or Mail Data aside from usernames and passwords.

After iPhone Migration is complete the Messages content from the device will be reconciled the Messages content in iCloud to ensure they are in sync. The same is true for Photos stored in iCloud.

Anecdotally, I experienced a couple of interesting things during my use of Direct Transfer. My first phone took around 2.5 hours to complete, but I still found that the messages archive alerted me that it needed to continue downloading archived messages in the background. Apple suggested that this may be due to this rationalizing process.

I also noticed that when simultaneous Direct Transfer operations were active, side-by-side devices took much longer to complete. This is very likely due to local radio interference. Apple has a solution to that. There is a wired version of the Direct Transfer option using the Camera Connection Kit with a source device and connecting them via USB. Ideally, Apple says, the transfer speeds are identical, but of course the wired option side-steps the wireless interference problem entirely — which is why Apple will be using it for in-store device restores for new iPhones using the Direct Transfer option.

My experience with Direct Transfer wasn’t glitch free, but it was nice having what felt like a ‘more complete’ device from the get go. Of note, Direct Transfer does not appear to transfer all keychain data intact, so you will have to re-enter some passwords.

Design and Display

I’ve been naked for years. That is, team no case. Cases are annoying to me because of the added bulk. They’re also usually too slippery or too sticky. I often wear technical clothing too and the phones go into slots designed for quick in out or fun party trick things like dropping into your hand with the pull of a clasp. This becomes impossible with most cases.

Apple provided the clear cases for all three iPhones, and I used them to keep them looking decent while I reviewed them, but I guarantee you my personal will never see a case.

I’m happy to report that the iPhone 11 Pro’s matte finish back increases the grippyness of the phone on its own. The smooth back of the iPhone 11 and the iPhone XS always required a bit of finger oil to get into a condition where you could reliably pivot them with one hand going in and out of a pocket.

Traveling through the parks you get sweaty (in the summer), greasy with that Plaza fried chicken and turkey legs and all kinds of kid-related spills. Having the confidence of a case while you’re in these fraught conditions is something I can totally understand. But day-to-day it’s not my favorite.

I do like the unified design identity across the line of making the bump surface blasted glass on the iPhone 11 with a glossy back and then flipping those on the iPhone 11 Pro. It provides a design language link even though the color schemes are different.

At this point either you’ve bought into the camera bump being functional cool or you hate its guts. Adding another camera is not going to do much to change the opinion of either camp. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have a distinctly Splinter Cell vibe about them now. I’m sure you’ve seen the jokes about iPhones getting more and more cameras, well, yeah, that’s not a joke.

I think that Apple’s implementation feels about the best it could be here. The iPhone 11 Pro is already thicker than the previous generation, but there’s no way it’s going to get thick enough to swallow a bump this high. I know you might think you want that too, but you don’t.

Apple gave most reviewers the Deep Green iPhone 11 Pro/Max and the minty Green iPhone 11. If I’m being honest, I prefer the mint. Lighter and brighter is just my style. In a perfect world, I’d be able to rock a lavender iPhone 11 Pro. Alas, this is not the way Apple went.

The story behind the Deep Green, as it was explained to me, begins with Apple’s colorists calling this as a color set to break out over the next year. The fashion industry concurs, to a degree. Mint, seafoam and ‘neon’ greens which were hot early in the year have given way to sage, crocodile and moss. Apple’s Deep Green is also a dark, muted color that Apple says is ideal to give off that Pro vibe.

The green looks nearly nothing like any of the photographs I’ve seen of it on Apple’s site.

In  person, the Deep Green is reads as dark grey in anything but the most direct indoor light. Outdoors, the treated stainless band has an “80’s Mall Green” hue that I actually really like. The back also opens up quite a bit, presenting as far more forest green than it does inside. Overall, though, this is a very muted color that is pretty buttoned up. It sits comfortably alongside neutral-to-staid colors like the Space Gray, Silver and Gold.

The Silver option is likely to be my personal pick this time around just because the frosted white back looks so hot. The first time I won’t have gone gray or black in a while.

Apple’s new super retina display has a 2M:1 contrast ratio and displays up to 1200 nits in HDR content and 800 in non-HDR. What does this mean out in the sun at the park? Not a whole lot, but the screen is slightly easier to read and see detail on while in sunny conditions. The “extended” portion of Apple’s new XDR screen terminology on the iPhone 11 Pro is due to lux, a luminance metric, not a color metric, so the color gamut remains the same. However, I have noticed that HDR images look slightly flatter on the iPhone XS than they do on the iPhone 11 Pro. The iPhone 11’s screen, while decent, does not compare to the rich blacks and great contrast range of the iPhone 11 Pro. It’s one of two major reasons to upgrade.

Apple’s proprietary 3D touch system has gone the way of the dodo with the iPhone 11. The reasoning behind this was that they realized that they would never be able to ship the system economically or viably on the iPad models. So they canned it in favor of haptic touch, bringing more consistency across the lineup.

By and large it works fine. It’s a little odd for 3D touch users at first. You retain peek and quick actions but lose pop, for instance, because there’s no additional level of pressure threshold. Most of the actions that you probably commonly use 3D touch for, like the camera or flashlight or home screen app shortcuts work just fine.

I was bullish on 3D touch because I felt there was an opportunity to add an additional layer of context for power users — a hover layer for touch. Unfortunately I believe that there were people at Apple (and outside of it) that were never convinced that the feature was going to be discoverable or useful enough so it never got the investment that it needed to succeed. Or, and I will concede this is a strong possibility, they were right and I was wrong and this just was never going to work.

Performance and Battery

Apple’s A13 Bionic features efficiency cores that are 20% faster and use 40% less power than the A12 bionic — part of where some impressive battery life improvements come from. Its overall clock speed and benchmarks are up around 20% overall. The performance cores also use 30% less power and the GPU uses 40% less power. The Neural Engine doesn’t escape either and uses 15% lower power. All compared to the iPhone XS.

My focus there on the cores power usage is not to say this feels any less juicy, but all new iPhones feel great out of the box because Apple (usually) works to neatly match power requirements with its hardware. And any previous generation software is going to have plenty of overhead out of the box. No change here.

The biggest direct effect that this silicon work will have on most people’s lives will likely be battery life.

The iPhone 11 Pro has a larger battery than the iPhone XS, with a different higher voltage chemistry. That, coupled with power savings improvements mentioned above, along with more in the screen and other components means better battery life.

My battery tests over several days at the parks point to Apple’s claims about improvements over the iPhone XS being nearly dead on. Apple claims that the iPhone 11 Pro lasts 4 hours longer then the iPhone XS. The iPhone XS came in at roughly 9.5 hours in tests last year and the iPhone 11 Pro came in nearly bang on at 12 hours — in extremely challenging conditions.

It was hot, the networks were congested and I was testing every feature of the camera and phone I could get my hands on. Disneyland has some WiFi in areas of the park, but the coverage is not total, so I relied on LTE for the majority of my usage. This included on-device processing of photos and video (of which I shot around 40 minutes or so each day). It also included using Disney’s frustrating park app, about which I could write a lot of complaints.

I ordered food, browsed twitter while in lines, let the kids watch videos while the wife and I had a necessary glass of wine or six and messaged continuously with family and team members. The battery lasted significantly longer on the iPhone 11 Pro with intense usage than the iPhone XS, which juuuust edged out my iPhone X in last year’s tests.

One of the reasons that I clone my current device and run it that way instead of creating some sort of artificially empty test device is that I believe that is the way that most people will be experiencing the phone. Only weirdos like device testers and Marie Kondo acolytes are likely to completely wipe their devices and start fresh on purchase of a new iPhone.

I’m pretty confident you’ll see an improvement in the battery as well. I’ve done this a lot and these kinds of real world tests at theme parks tend to put more of the kind of strains you’ll see in daily life on the phone than a bench test running an artificial web browsing routine is. On the other hand, maybe you’re a worker at a bot farm and I’ve just touched a nerve. If so, I am sorry.

Also, an 18W power adapter, the same one that ships with iPad Pro, comes in the box. Finally, etc. It is very nice having the majority of my cables have at least one end that is USB-C now because I can use multi-port GaN chargers from Anker and power bricks that have USB-C. Apple’s USB-C lightning cables are slightly thicker gauge now, and support data transfer as well as the 18W brick. The bigger charger means faster charging, Apple claims up to 50% charge in 30 minutes with the new charger, which feels about like what I experienced.

It’s quicker, much nicer to top off while nursing a drink and a meatball at the relatively secret upstairs bar at the Wine Country Trattoria in DCA. There’s an outlet behind the counter just ask to use it.

Oh, about that improved FaceID angle — I saw, maybe, a sliiiiiiight improvement, if any. But not that much. A few degrees? Sometimes? Hard to say. I will be interested to see what other reviewers found. Maybe my face sucks.

Camera and Photography

Once upon a time you could relatively easily chart the path of a photograph’s creation. Light passed through the lens of your camera onto a medium like film or chemically treated paper. A development process was applied, a print was made and you had a photograph.

When the iPhone 8 was released I made a lot of noise about how it was the first of a new wave of augmented photography. That journey continues with the iPhone 11. The ISP that normally takes on the computational tasks associated with color correction and making images look presentable from the raw material the sensor produces. Apple has added the Neural Engines’s machine learning expertise to the pipeline and it’s doing a bunch of things in various modes.

This is what makes the camera augmented on the iPhone 11, and what delivers the most impressive gains of this generation, not new glass, not the new sensors — a processor specially made to perform machine learning tasks.

The iPhone 11 Pro does have three physical cameras with 3 lenses and  3 sensors. But as far as the software that runs iPhone is concerned, It has one camera. In fact, it’s not really a camera at all, it’s a collection of devices and bits of software that work together towards a singular goal: producing an image.

This way of thinking about imaging affects a bunch of features from night mode to HDR and beyond, and the result is the best camera I’ve ever used on a phone.

But first, let’s talk new lenses.

Ultra Wide

Both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro get a new “ultra wide angle” lens that Apple is calling a 13mm. In practice it delivers about what you’d expect from a roughly 13mm lens on a full-frame SLR — very wide. Even with edge correction it has the natural and expected effect of elongating subjects up close and producing some dynamic images. At a distance, it provides options for vistas and panoramic images that weren’t available before. Up close, it does wonders for group shots and family photos, especially in tight quarters where you’re backed up against a wall.

In my testing of the wide angle, it showed off extremely well especially in bright conditions. It allowed for great close up family shots, wide angle portraits that emphasized dynamism and vistas that really opened up possibilities for shooting that haven’t been on iPhone before.

One clever detail here is that when you shoot at 1x or 2x, Apple blends the live view of the wider angle lenses directly into the viewfinder. They don’t just show you the wide with crop marks over it, they are piping in actual feeds from the sensor so that you get a precise idea of how the image might look, while still letting you see that you have other options outside of the frame. It’s the camera viewfinder engineer version of stunting.

I loved shooting people with it up close, but that won’t be for everyone. I’d guess most people will like it for groups and for landscapes. But I found it great to grab fun tight shots of people or really intimate moments that feel so much more personal when you’re in close.

Of note, the ultra wide lens does not have optical image stabilization on either the iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro. This makes it a much trickier proposition to use in low light or at night.

The ultra wide camera cannot be used with night mode because its sensor does not have 100% focus pixels and, of course, no OIS. The result is that wide angle night shots must be held very steady or soft images will result.

The ultra wide coming to both phones is great. It’s a wonderful addition and I think people will get a ton of use out of it on the iPhone 11. If they had to add one, I think adding the UW was the better option because of group shots of people are likely far more common than landscape photographers.

The ultra wide is also fantastic for video. Because of the natural inward crop of video (it uses less of the sensor, so it feels more cramped), the standard wide lens has always felt a little claustrophobic. Taking videos on the carousel riding along with Mary Poppins, for instance, I was unable to get her and Burt in frame at once with the iPhone XS, but was able to with the iPhone 11 Pro. Riding Matterhorn you get much more of the experience and less ‘person’s head in front of you’. Same goes with Cars where the ride is so dominated by the wind screen. I know these are very specific examples, but you can imagine how similar scenarios could play out at family gatherings in small yards, indoors or in other cramped locations.

One additional tidbit about the ultra wide: you may very well have to find a new grip for your phone. The lens is so wide that your finger may show up in some of your shots because your knuckle is in frame. It happened to me a bunch over the course of a few days until I found a grip lower on the phone. iPhone 11 Pro Max users will probably not have to worry.

HDR and Portrait Improvements

Because of those changes to the image pathway I talked about earlier, the already solid HDR images get a solid improvement in portrait mode. The Neural Engine works on all HDR images coming out of the cameras in iPhone to tone map and fuse image data from various physical sensors together to make a photo. It could use pixels from one camera for highlight detail and pixels from another for the edges of a frame. I went over this system extensively back in 2016 and its only gotten more sophisticated since with the addition of the Neural Engine.

It seems to be getting another big leap forward when Deep Fusion launches, but I was unable to test that yet.

For now, we can see additional work that the Neural Engine puts in with Semantic Rendering. This process involves your iPhone doing facial detection on the subject of a portrait, isolating the face and skin from the rest of the scene and applying a different path of HDR processing on it than on the rest of the image. The rest of the image gets its own HDR treatment and then the two images are fused back together.

This is not unheard of in image processing. Most photographers worth their salt will give faces a different pass of adjustments from the rest of an image, masking off the face so that it doesn’t turn out too flat or too contrasty or come out with the wrong skin tones.

The difference here, of course, is that it happens automatically, on every portrait, in fractions of a second.

The results are portraits that look even better on iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Faces don’t have the artificially flat look they could sometimes get with the iPhone XS — a result of the HDR process that is used to open up shadows and normalize the contrast of an image.

Look at these two portraits, shot at the same time in the same conditions. The iPhone 11 Pro is far more successful at identifying backlight and correcting for it across the face and head. The result is better contrast ant color, hands down. And this was not an isolated experience, I shot many portrait shots side by side and the iPhone 11 Pro was the pick every time. With especially wide margins if the subject was back lit, which is very common with portraiture.

Here’s another pair, the differences are more subtle here but look at the color balance between the two. The skin tones are warmer, more olive and (you’ll have to trust me on this one) truer to life on the iPhone 11 Pro.

And yes, the High Key Mono works, but is still not perfect.

Night Mode

Now for the big one. The iPhone 11 finally has a Night Mode. Though I wouldn’t really call it a mode because it doesn’t actually require that you enable it, it just kicks in automatically when it thinks it can help.

On a technical level, Night Mode is a function of the camera system that strongly resembles HDR. It does several things when it senses that the light levels have fallen below a certain threshold.

  1. It decides on a variable number of frames to capture based on the light level, the steadiness of the camera according to the accelerometer and other signals.
  2. The ISP then grabs these bracketed shots, some longer, some shorter exposure.
  3. The Neural Engine is relatively orthogonal to Night Mode working, but it’s still involved because it is used for semantic rendering across all HDR imaging in iPhone 11.
  4. The ISP then works to fuse those shots based on foreground and background exposure and whatever masking the Neural Engine delivers.

The result is a shot that brightens dark-to-very-dark scenes well enough to change them from throw away images to something well worth keeping. In my experience, it was actually difficult to find scenes dark enough to make the effect intense enough. The new 33% improvement in ISO in the wide camera and 42% improvement on telephoto on iPhone XS already help a lot.

But once you do find the right scene, you see detail and shadow pop and it becomes immediately evident even before you press the shutter that it is making it dramatically brighter. Night Mode works only in 1x and 2x shooting modes because only those cameras have the 100% focus pixels needed to do the detection and mapping that the iPhone 11 needs to make the effect viable.

I have this weird litmus test I put every new phone camera through where I take it on a dark ride, like Winnie the Pooh, to see if I can get any truly sharp usable image. It’s a great test because the black light is usually on, the car is moving and the subject is moving. Up until this point I have succeeded exactly zero times. But the iPhone 11 Pro pulled it off. Not perfect, but pretty incredible all things considered.

A few observations about Night Mode:

The result is naturally bright images that retain a fantastic level of detail while still feeling like they have natural color that is connected to the original subject matter.

Back when the Pixel 3 shipped Night Sight I noted that choosing a gain-based night mode had consequences, and that Apple likely could ship something based on pure amperage but that it had consistently made choices to do otherwise and would likely do so for whatever it shipped. People really hated this idea, but it holds up exactly.

Though the Galaxy 10+ has a great night mode as well, the Pixel 3 was the pioneer here and still jumps to mind when judging night shots. The choices Google has made here are much more in the realm of ‘everything brighter’. If you love it, you love it, and that’s fine. But it is absolutely not approaching this from a place of restraint.

Here are some examples of the iPhone 11 Pro up against images from the Pixel 3. As you can see, both do solid work brightening the image, but the Pixel 3 is colder, flatter and more evenly brightened. The colors are not representative at all.

In addition, whatever juice Google is using to get these images out of a single camera and sensor, it suffers enormously on a detail level. You can see the differences here in the rock work and towers. It’s definitely better than having a dark image, but it’s clear that the iPhone 11 Pro is a jump forward.

The Pixel 4 is around the corner, of course, and I can’t wait to see what improvements Google comes up with. We are truly in a golden age for taking pictures of dark shit with phone cameras.

Of note, the flash is now 36% brighter than the iPhone XS, which is a nice fallback for moving subjects.

Tidbits

Auto crop

The iPhone 11 will, by default, auto crop subjects back into your videos shot at 1x or 2x. If you’re chasing your kid and his head goes out of frame, you could see an auto button on the 1 up review screen after a bit of processing. Tapping this will re-frame your video automatically. Currently this only works with the QuickTake function directly from the iPhone’s lock screen. It can be toggled off.

You can toggle on auto cropping for photos in the Camera settings menu if you wish, it is off by default. This has a very similar effect. It’s using image analysis to see if it has image data that it can use to re-center your subject.

Slofies

Yeah, they’re fun, yeah, they work. They’re going to be popular for folks with long hair.

U1

Apple has included a U1 chip in the iPhone 11 – can’t test it but it’s interesting as hell. Probably best to reserve talking about this extensively for a bit as Apple will ship the U1’s first iPhone functionality with a directional…AirDrop feature? This is definitely one of those things where future purposes, tile-like locator perhaps, were delayed for some reason and a side project of the AirDrop team got elevated to first ship. Interestingly, Apple mentioned, purely as an example, that this feature could be used to start car ignitions given the appropriate manufacturer support.

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably read anything I’ve written over the last several years. It’s inevitable that iPhones and Apple Watches begin to take on functionality like this, it’s just a matter of how to do it precisely and safely. The U1 has a lot to do with location on a micro-level. It’s not broad, network based or GPS based location, it’s precise location and orientation. That opens up a bunch of interesting possibilities.

No Night Mode

Night Mode

About that Pro

And then there was the name. iPhone 11 Pro. When I worked at a camera shop, you learned the power of the word “pro”. For some people it was an aphrodisiac, for others, a turn off. And for others, it was simply a necessity.

Is this the pro model? Oh I’m not a pro. Oooh, this is the pro!

We used it as a sales tool, for sure. But every so often it was also necessary to use it to help prevent people from over-buying or under-buying for their needs.

In the film days one of the worst things you could ever shoot as a pro-am photographer was gym sports. It was fast action, inside where it’s comparatively dim, and at a distance from court-side. There was no cheap way to do it. No cranking the ISO to 64,000 and letting your camera’s computer clean it up. You had to get expensive glass, an expensive camera body to operate that glass and an expensive support like a monopod. You also had to not be a dumbass (this was the most expensive part).

Amateurs always balked at the barrier of entry to shooting in these kinds of scenarios. But the real pros knew that for every extra dollar they spent on the good stuff, they’d make it up ten fold in profits because they could deliver product no parent with a point and shoot could hope to replicate.

However, the vast majority of people that walked into the shop weren’t shooting hockey or wrestling. They were taking family photos, outdoor pics and a few sunsets.

Which brings us to what the term Pro means now: Pro is about edge cases.

It’s not about the 80% case, it’s about the 20% of people that need or want something more out of their equipment.

For this reason, the iPhone 11 is going to sell really well. And it should because it’s great. It has the best new lens, an ultra wide that takes great family photos and landscape shots. It has nearly every software feature of iPhone 11 Pro. But it doesn’t have the best screen and it doesn’t have telephoto. For people that want to address edge cases – the best video and photo options, a better dark mode experience, a brighter screen — the iPhone 11 Pro is there — for everyone else, there’s still fiscal 2020’s best selling iPhone.

Yep, Night Mode

September 17th 2019, 6:05 am

Holidu raises €40M Series C for its holiday rentals search engine

TechCrunch

Holidu, the Munich-headquartered holiday rentals search engine that is now active in 21 country markets, has raised €40 million in Series C funding.

The round was led by Prime Ventures, with participation from coparion and MairDuMont Ventures. Existing investors, including EQT Ventures, Venture Stars, Senovo and business angel Chris Hitchen, also followed on.

Founded in 2014 by siblings Johannes and Michael Siebers after they say they had a frustrating experience trying to book a vacation rental for a surfing trip in Portugal, Holidu’s search engine lets you easily search for and book holiday accommodation.

Claiming to use proprietary image recognition technology, Holidu compares the prices of more than 15 million rental properties across 600 different websites including Airbnb, Booking.com and Homeaway. This enables users to save “up to 55%” on their booking by automatically spotting price differences for the same property across various listings.

“Many of the sites offer the same rentals but at different prices,” Holidu co-founder and CEO Johannes Siebers told TechCrunch back in 2016. “Also, there is a large rate of rejected bookings as the different sites don’t synchronize calendars with each other and properties get double-booked. For consumers it is impossible to gain a transparent overview”.

To help solve this, Holidu has also developed a service for holiday property owners. Dubbed “Bookiply,” it offers a single interface to list properties on the largest travel websites, including synchronizing calendars, creating multilingual descriptions and sourcing professional photography. In addition, Bookiply’s team handles traveler communication.

Holidu says that Bookiply already manages 5,000 properties and claims it is the market leader in several European leisure destinations. “The focus is on property owners who are not yet online or whose digital presence can be optimised,” says the company.

Meanwhile, to boost growth, last year Holidu acquired its Spanish competitor Hundredrooms. The startup now claims 10 million visitors per month and says it will use the Series C funding for product development (both the Holidu website and the Bookiply software). It will also grow its Holidu partners and sign up more property owners to Bookiply. To achieve this, the company says it plans to open multiple regional offices.

September 17th 2019, 5:52 am

Africa focused Andela cuts 400 staff as it confirms $50M in revenue

TechCrunch

Africa focused tech talent accelerator Andela will cut 400 junior engineers across Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, CEO Jeremy Johnson told TechCrunch.

The layoffs come as the startup released first time income figures indicating it will surpass $50 million in annual revenues for 2019.

Yes, the news seems a bit disjointed. Not everything moves in the same direction in the business of startups.

On the staff cuts, “they are due to market demand for more senior engineering talent,” Andela said in a company release.

“We’ve seen shifts in the market and what our customers are looking for…toward more experienced engineers,” Johnson said on a call.

For those who may not know Andela’s business, the startup’s client-base is over 200 companies around the world that pay for the African developers Andela selects and trains to work on projects.

Founded in 2014, Andela has offices in New York and five African countries: Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt. The Series D tech-venture is one of Africa’s most visible (by press volume) and best funded ― backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg initiative.

Andela selects a roster of developers each year who come on staff for a salary (similar to a management consulting firm) and are encouraged to continue working and living in their home markets in Africa.

By pre-layoff numbers, Andela had 1575 engineers on board. Big job cuts usually point to financial distress and decreasing demand for a company’s goods or services. That’s not the case with Andela’s personnel move, according to Johnson, who describes the layoffs more as a result of misreading the market. 

“We’re actually actively and intensely growing, the mid and senior developer populations and next year we’re going to bring in 500 more developers,” he said.

“We’ve hired more junior developers than we are able to place in remote roles.” 

The departing Andela software-engineers will gain severance packages and placement assistance, according to Johnson. The company is working with partners such as CcHub and iHub to connect the developers to new opportunities.

“Many of these people will rapidly get jobs in the local ecosystem and some day may come back and work at Andela again,” he said.

On Andela’s $50 million in 2019 projected income, “It’s the first time we’ve ever confirmed anything on revenue,” said Johnson ― who acknowledged the venture is still not profitable.

He wouldn’t say why the company released those figures now, but one can speculate it is to soften concerns about  Andela’s financial performance in light of major staff cuts.

Johnson flagged the revenue significance in a global startup context. “What it means is the world needs what we do. Very few companies have gotten to a $50 million run rate in under five years.”

If that’s rare in developed markets, its even more scarce in Africa’s tech scene — where startups releasing any financial stats is scarce overall. Only one VC backed digital company has revealed revenues between $50 and $100 million. That’s e-commerce startup Jumia, that listed in an NYSE IPO earlier this year.

The release of 400 developers may be welcome in Africa’s most active tech hubs, such as Nigeria and Kenya, where rapid startup formation and funding is starting to outpace software engineering talent  — according to a number of founders.

Job-placement will partially depend on whether local tech companies can offer competitive packages to incentivize the Andela alums.

If they do, the net effect of Andela’s layoffs could be more software-engineering capacity for Africa’s tech ecosystem ― so long as most of the developers remain in Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 17th 2019, 5:52 am

Google is bringing data saver feature to Android TVs

TechCrunch

Google said on Tuesday it is bringing a set of new features to Android TVs to improve the experience of users who rely on mobile hotspots to connect their giant devices to the internet. The features, developed by Google’s Next Billion Users team, will be first rolled out to users in India and then in other countries, the company said.

Ahead of its yearly event in New Delhi on Thursday, where the company is expected to make a number of announcements, Google said it has identified and addressed a problem faced by millions of users: Their TVs are not connected to the internet through Wi-Fi or wired/ethernet line.

Instead these users rely on hotspots (local network) created through their smartphones or tablets. “But that presents problems,” wrote Joris van Mens, Product Manager at Google’s Next Billion Users team, in a blog post. “Watching HD TV on a mobile data connection can quickly drain your daily data plan.”

To address this, Google says it is introducing a feature called ‘data saver’ to Android TVs that would reduce the data usage on mobile connections by up to three times, thereby allowing users to consume more content on their TVs. It is also introducing a ‘data alerts’ feature to help users better monitor how much data they have consumed watching TV.

The data saver feature will be optional to users

Another feature dubbed ‘hotspot guide’ will allow users to set up their TV with their mobile hotspot. And last, Google is introducing the ability to allow users to cast video files locally stored on their phones to the TV without using internet data.

These four features will roll-out to Android TV devices starting with those manufactured by Xiaomi, TCL, and Marq by Flipkart, Google said. The company expects to rollout the features globally soon.

At an event in Bangalore on Tuesday, Xiaomi unveiled a new lineup of TVs that will support Netflix and Prime Video. The Chinese electronics giant, which is the top smartphone vendor in India, confirmed that its new TV models will support Google’s ‘data saver’ feature.

Later this week, Google is expected to make a number of announcements around its payments app and other services in its yearly Google for India event. Indian newspaper Economic Times reported this week that one of those announcements could be the launch of Kormo, a job discovery app that is currently available in select developing markets, in India.

September 17th 2019, 4:53 am

Startup Battlefield Berlin applications extended by one week

TechCrunch

Missed the deadline to apply for Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019? We get it. Founder life is tough. Well guess what, we’re extending applications by one week. The extension ends September 27th at 11:59pm (PT). It’s time to buckle down and apply to the Startup Battlefield right now!

It’s easy and free to apply. Add your startup name to the mix to see if you are one of the chosen few to launch on the prestigious TechCrunch Disrupt Stage – equity free price money, global exposure and the best place to launch your startup this December. Selected teams will receive intensive pitch coaching from TechCrunch editors and the Startup Battlefield team. They’ll train you, grill you and get you ready for the big competition. All selected teams will gain access to private VIP events, participation in CrunchMatch: TechCrunch’s investor startup matching program, and complimentary exhibition space with event passes. Companies will pitch on stage for six minutes followed by a six minute Q&A in front of a panel of elite judges.

The judges then select the top few companies to compete in a final round where companies will pitch to a new set of judges, followed by an even more intense Q&A. One team will win the coveted Disrupt Cup trophy, the attention of international press and investors and, of course, a $50,000 in equity-free cash prize money..

The Startup Battlefield is one of the best platforms for launching your early-stage startup to the world’s “technorati.” We live-stream the entire event on TechCrunch.com, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Plus, it’s available later on-demand.

Need more convincing? Consider these stats and you’ll see it’s not hyperbole, people. In 12 years of Battlefields, 857 companies have competed and form the Startup Battlefield alumni community. Those startups, including the likes of JukeDeck, N26, Vurb, Dropbox, Mint, Yammer and more, have collectively raised more than $8.9 billion in funding and generated 112 exits.

Don’t miss out on this reprieve! Apply to the Startup Battlefield before the new deadline expires on September 27th at 11:59pm.

While you’re in application mode, why not apply for our TC Top Picks program, too? TC Top Pick designees receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, VIP treatment and plenty of media and investor exposure.

September 17th 2019, 2:22 am

Fieldwire just raised $33.5 million more to give PlanGrid and its new owner Autodesk a run for their

TechCrunch

Fieldwire, which makes task management software for construction teams that helps organize everyone involved in a project so things don’t fall through the figurative (or literal) cracks, has raised $33.5 million in Series C funding led by Menlo Ventures, with participation from Brick & Mortar Ventures, Hilti Group, and Formation 8.

It isn’t a huge amount of money. Still, the traction Fieldwire is enjoying might give the folks at Autodesk some pause, given the growing threat it presents to PlanGrid — a rival that Autodesk acquired last year for $875 million.

Already, six-year-old Fieldwire has 65 employees, with 45 of them in San Francisco and the rest in Phoenix, plus a smaller outpost in France. And founder and CEO Yves Frinault says the company expects to have closer to 150 employees by next summer.

Fieldwire is also “cash profitable,” he says, “meaning our bank account goes up every month, even though we started going fast.” To underscore his point, he notes that when we last talked with him in 2015, the company’s platform was hosting 35,000 projects; it has since hosted half a million altogether, with more than 2,000 unique paying customers on the platform. Many of them pack a punch, too, like Clark Construction Group, a 113-year-old, Maryland-based construction firm that reported more than $5 billion in revenue last year and that began using Fieldwire across all of its projects this past summer. (Clark employs 4,200 people.)

Because Fieldwire grows from the bottom up, meaning it targets teams who then use it for projects that are then run by numerous enterprises that work on various projects with other teams that can then also adopt the software, it has spread particularly quickly throughout North America, which counts for 70 percent of its volume. Fieldwire is also making inroads in Europe, where 15 percent of its revenue is coming and, to a lesser but growing extent, Australia.

Altogether, its software is localized in 13 languages.

It employs a freemium model. Small teams with five members or less can use a significant portion of the product for free. But more users requires more storage typically, and that’s where Fieldwire starts charging — typically between $30 and $50 per user per month, though bigger companies tend to pay the company by the year or based on the scope of a particular project versus on a per-license basis.

Fieldwire’s two main types of customers are general contractors and subcontractors. GCs will usually use the company’s software as a way to track quality and progress. Subcontractors tend to use the software internally to run their own crews.

As for what’s on its roadmap, Fieldwire — which already enables users to look at floor plans in real time, message with one another, track punch lists, schedule jobs and file reports —  suggests it’s zeroing in on 3D architectural drawings, which puts it in more direct competition with PlanGrid.

PlanGrid also makes construction productivity software, and fueled by parent company Autodesk, it also now offers users the ability to access building information modeling data, in either 2D or 3D. Fieldwire doesn’t seem terribly daunted by this. Instead, Frinault calls it a “product challenge to make a 3D product model consumable, so we’re working on it right now.”

With its newest round of funding, Fieldwire has now raised $40.4 million altogether.

September 17th 2019, 1:02 am

Computer scientist Richard Stallman, who defended Jeffrey Epstein, resigns from MIT CSAIL and the Fr

TechCrunch

Computer scientist and open software advocate Richard Stallman said he has resigned from his position as a visiting scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) after describing a victim of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein as “entirely willing” in emails sent to a department list. Stallman has also stepped down from his roles as president and board director at the Free Software Foundation, the nonprofit he founded in 1985.

Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Stallman had also called for the legalization of child pornography and abolishment of age of consent laws on his personal blog in multiple posts published over the course of 15 years.

In his MIT CSAIL resignation, also posted to his personal blog, Stallman wrote: “To the MIT Community, I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings.”

MIT has been under scrutiny for its ties to Epstein, who a New Yorker investigation found had secured $7.5 million in donations for the MIT Media Lab, far more than what was previously disclosed. As a result, its director, Joi Ito, resigned last week and MIT ordered an investigation into the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein, who was found dead in his jail cell last month while awaiting federal trial on sex trafficking charges.

As part of its preliminary findings, MIT president Rafael Reif admitted that the law firm conducting the investigation had uncovered a letter he wrote to thank Epstein for a donation in 2012, four years after Epstein had already pled guilty to procuring for prostitution a girl under 18. “I apparently signed this letter on August 16, 2012, about six weeks into my presidency,” Reif wrote. “Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature.”

Stallman’s emails were first made public last week by mechanical engineer and MIT alum Selam Jie Gano (the entire thread was later published by Vice). In an email sent to a MIT CSAIL mailing list earlier this month, Stallman wrote that Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s sex trafficking victims, who testified that she had been ordered to have sex with late MIT professor Marvin Minsky during a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands when she was 17, had likely “presented herself to him as entirely willing.” He also wrote that “I’ve concluded from various examples of accusation inflation that it is absolutely wrong to use the term ‘sexual assault’ in an accusation.”

Gano also published an email that Stallman sent to another CSAIL list that included undergraduate students. In it, he said “I think it is morally absurd to define ‘rape’ in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”

 

September 17th 2019, 12:32 am

Aspect Ventures, founded by Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad, is splitting up

TechCrunch

Aspect Ventures, an early-stage, San Francisco-based venture firm founded five years ago very notably by two veteran VCs who happen to be women, is splitting up. Cofounders Jennifer Fonstad, formerly of DFJ, and Theresia Gouw, formerly of Accel, are launching separate firms, a source confirms.

The WSJ reported the news earlier today.

Fonstad tells the outlet that the split owes to “different leadership styles and different ways of operating at the portfolio level.”

Going forward, she plans to operate under the brand Owl Capital and to invest in growth deals, including in enterprise software, which has been a major focus area for Aspect, though it has occasionally backed consumer startups, including newly public TheRealReal and a direct-to-consumer jewelry brand called Baublebar.

Gouw, who is appearing in several weeks at our TechCrunch Disrupt event to talk about industry trends, declined to comment. But some members of Aspect’s team are joining her at new firm, aCrew, including Lauen Kolodny, who joined Aspect five years ago and was promoted from principal to partner in 2017; Vishal Lugani, who joined Aspect as a principal in 2016 after spending 3.5 years as a senior associate with Greycroft and whose LinkedIn bio now identifies him as a founding partner with aCrew.

Team members who are meanwhile joining Fonstad include Chad Herrin, a former SuccessFactors VP who has been a venture partner with Aspect since lsat year, and Rebecca Hu, who spent a year with Earlybird Venture Capital before joining Aspect roughly one year ago as an investor.

Aspect had raised $150 million for its debut fund and a second $181 million fund at the start of last year. Gouw, Fonstad and the rest of their Aspect colleagues will continue managing out these investments, though will be making investments out of new vehicles that they raise. According to the WSJ, aCrew is targeting $175 million for its debut fund, while Owl is shooting for $125 million in capital commitments.

The firm is far from the first to split over clashing management styles. Most recently, Social Capital drastically changed shape, with cofounder Mamoon Hamid heading over to help recharge Kleiner Perkins, and numerous other early members of the firm leaving to found Tribe Capital.

September 16th 2019, 9:33 pm

The We Company reportedly will put its public offering on hold

TechCrunch

The We Company, parent company of the short-term real estate property management and development company WeWork and other We-related subsidiaries, is reportedly shelving its plans for an initial public offering.

The company’s plans for a public offering have been hampered by questions about its corporate governance and the ultimate value of a company that private investors once thought was worth nearly $50 billion.

Public investors were balking at that sky-high valuation and the company’s questionable governance practices under chief executive officer and co-founder, Adam Neumann, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news that The We Company would put its offering on hold. 

Over the past few weeks, The We Company has made several moves to allay investors’ concerns. The company unwound some particularly egregious transactions with Neumann and added new directors. It also moved to limit Neumann’s power at the company.

Last week, the company amended its prospectus to include the appointment of an independent lead director. It also slashed the strength of Class B and Class C shares so Neumann would not have 20 times the voting power of other shareholders, and removed Neumann’s wife from succession planning at the company.

Even these steps were not enough to comfort Wall Street investors, apparently. Not even the attempts to slash the company’s valuation to below $10 billion could attract enough investor interest to the public offering. And the opacity of The We Company’s reporting and metrics likely did nothing to help matters in the eyes of the investing public.

Now that The We Company is likely to pull its public offering… and with Uber and Lyft underperforming in their first year as public companies, perhaps venture capital firms will rethink the sky-high valuations they’d placed on their portfolio companies. Perhaps it’s time to relearn the lesson that greed may not actually be good.

We have reached out to The We Company for comment and will update with their response.

This story is developing. 

 

 

September 16th 2019, 7:29 pm

Waymo’s robotaxi pilot surpassed 6,200 riders in its first month in California

TechCrunch

Waymo transported 6,266 passengers in self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in its first month participating in a robotaxi pilot program in California, according to a quarterly report the company filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.

In all, the company completed 4,678 passenger trips in July — plus another 12 trips for educational purposes. It’s a noteworthy figure for an inaugural effort that pencils out to an average of 156 trips every day that month.  And it demonstrates that Waymo has the resources, staff and vehicles to operate a self-driving vehicle pilot while continuing to test its technology in multiple cities and ramp up its Waymo One ride-hailing service in Arizona.

But Waymo’s data — along with quarterly reports from three other companies that hold permits with the CPUC — provides just a hint at what demand could be for commercial autonomous vehicles and how these services might reshape cities.

Waymo’s pilot program, for instance, isn’t open to the public. Waymo or Alphabet employees and their guests can take rides within its geofenced South Bay territory, which currently includes Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. This is only a few of the cities where Waymo is currently testing in California.

And because companies in this pilot program cannot charge for rides, it’s difficult to determine what the demand will be for self-driving passenger services, Dr. Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, noted in a recent interview.

Self-driving vehicles and the CPUC

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles.  The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. The DMV has issued 63 autonomous vehicle testing permits since 2014. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with DMV.

And for those companies that might want to someday get a permit from the CPUC for the driverless pilot, they must first obtain a driverless permit from the DMV. In 2018, the DMV issued rules to allow for autonomous vehicle driverless testing on roads.

Only Waymo holds a driverless testing permit from the DMV, although it does not have driverless vehicles on public roads in California yet.

AutoX, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program. Zoox scored the first permit from the CPUC in December. Pony.ai and AutoX, which started as an autonomous delivery company, followed.

Last quarter’s numbers

But Waymo, which received its permit on July 2  — two months into the second quarter — is already the leader, in terms of rides.

Pony.ai didn’t provide any rides in the last quarter, according to its CPUC report. Zoox’s report indicates that its 10 vehicles transported 134 passengers on more than 70 trips last quarter. The Zoox fleet traveled 352 miles during those trips.

Meanwhile, Waymo’s fleet completed 4,678 trips and logged 59,886 miles during the final month of the quarter.

As impressive as the numbers are, Shaheen and others in the industry wonder if the data being collected will help state regulators and companies determine the value and challenges of commercial autonomous vehicle services.

“Is this data they’re collecting actually helpful and how are they going to use it?” Shaheen asked.

Under the program, permit holders must submit anonymized data about each autonomous vehicle in operation. Waymo and other companies participating in the pilot have to provide total vehicle miles traveled during passenger service, as well as total miles in electric vehicles (if applicable) every quarter. Other data requirements for each quarter include miles traveled to the pickup point, idling time, vehicle occupancy and data about accessible rides.

The data is meant to help the CPUC develop a framework for full, permanent deployment of paid autonomous vehicles passenger service in California. And yet, the data might not fully capture what a commercial service might look like. For instance, Waymo’s total miles traveled from the vehicle’s starting location to a pickup point — a term known as deadhead miles — were 48,137 miles out of the total 59,916. Waymo notes in its report to the CPUC that it is continuously testing in between rides, implying that this could drive up the deadhead miles.

Autonomous vehicle companies have largely supported the CPUC’s two pilot programs. However, many companies, including Waymo as well as others such as Lyft and Cruise, which aren’t participating in the pilot, submitted written comments in 2018 arguing against some of the reporting requirements and in support of charging for rides.

Waymo has previously stated in public comments to the CPUC that tracking deadhead miles “would not appear to provide any valuable data” because the vehicles used for testing purposes will be vastly different and may not accurately reflect the efficiencies that can be gained through a more expansive fleet during full deployment.

Without the ability to charge for rides, companies are treating the pilot as another means to dial in their eventual commercial service.

AutoX is treating the pilot as one way to gain a better understanding of the consumer’s experience, including ordering and waiting for the ride, said Hugo Fozzati, AutoX’s director of business operations.

“Before we scale out and really deploy this, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything right,” Fozzati said.

Now, two questions remain: What will happen next and which agency will have the greatest influence in shaping future regulations? The CPUC and DMV are the most likely candidates, but the California Highway Patrol, which has historically been involved in some DMV rule-making, as well as the California Air Resources Board, could also play a role.

September 16th 2019, 6:45 pm

What startup CSOs can learn from three enterprise security experts

TechCrunch

How do you keep your startup secure?

That’s the big question we explored at TC Sessions: Enterprise earlier this month. No matter the size, every startup is an enterprise. Every startup will grow in size as it builds out. But as a company expands, that rapid growth can lead to a distraction from the foundational principle of any modern company — keeping it secure.

Security isn’t just a buzzword. As some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley have shown, security can be difficult. From storing passwords in plaintext to data breaches galore, how can startups learn from some of the biggest security lapses in the tech industry’s history?

Our panel consisted of three of the brightest minds in enterprise security: Wendy Nather, head of advisory CISOs at Duo Security, is an enterprise security expert; Martin Casado, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, is a security and enterprise startup investor; and Emily Heath, United’s chief information security officer, oversees the security operations of the largest U.S. airlines.

This is what advice they had.

Security from the very start

September 16th 2019, 3:30 pm
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