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Political strategist turned tech investor Bradley Tusk on SPACs as a tool for VCs

TechCrunch

Bradley Tusk has become known in recent years for being involved in what’s about to get hot, from his early days advising Uber, to writing one of the first checks to the insurance startup Lemonade, to pushing forward the idea that we should be using the smart devices in our pockets to vote.

Indeed, because he’s often at the vanguard, it wasn’t hugely surprising when Tusk, like a growing number of other investors, formed a $300 million SPAC or special acquisition company, one that he and a partner plan to use to target businesses in the leisure, gaming, and hospitality industries.

Because Tusk — a former political operative who ran the successful third mayoral campaign for Michael Bloomberg —  seems adept at seeing around corners, we called him up late last week to ask whether SPACs are here to stay, how a Biden administration might impact the startup investing landscape, and how worried (or not) big tech should be about this election. You can hear the full conversation here. Owing to length, we are featuring solely the part of our conversation that centered on SPACs.

TC: Lemonade went public this summer and its shares, priced at $29, now trade at $70. 

BT: They are down today last I checked. When you only check once in a blue moon, you’re like, ‘Hey, look at how great this is,’ whereas if, like me, you check me every day, you’re like, ‘It lost 4%. Where’s my money?’

We got really lucky; Lemonade was our second deal that we did out of our first fund, and the fact that it IPO’d within four years of the company’s founding is pretty amazing.

TC: Is it amazing? I wonder what it says about the common complaint that the traditional IPO process is bad — is it just an excuse that founders and investors use to keep a company private longer?

BT: [CEO] Daniel Schrieber was very clear that he and [cofounder] Shai Wininger had a strategy from day one to go public as quickly as they possibly could, because in his view, an IPO is supposed to represent kind of the the beginning. It’s the ‘Okay, we’ve proven that there’s product market fit, we’ve proven that there’s customer demand; now let’s see what we can really do with this thing.’ And it’s supposed to be about hope and promise and future and excitement. And if you’ve been a private company for 10 years, and you’re worth tens of billions of dollars and your growth is already starting to flatten out a little bit, it’s just much less exciting for public investors.

The question now for everyone in our business is what happens with Airbnb in a few weeks or whenever they are [staging an IPO]. Will that pixie dust be there, or will they have been around so long that the market is kind of indifferent?

TC: Is that why we’re seeing so many SPACs? Some of that pixie dust is gone. No one knows when the IPO window might shut. Let’s get some of these companies out into the public market while we still can?

BT: No, I don’t I don’t think so. I think SPACs have become a way to raise a lot of money very quickly. It took me two years to raise $37 million for my first venture fund, and three months was the entire process for me to raise $300 million for my SPAC. So it’s a mechanism that is highly efficient and right now is so popular with public market investors that there is just a lot of opportunity, and people are grabbing it. In fact, now you’re hearing about people who are planning SPACs having to pull [them] back because there’s a ton of competition right now.

At the end of the day, the fundamentals still rule. If you take a really bad company public through a SPAC, maybe the excitement of the SPAC get you an early pop. But if the company has neither good unit economics nor high growth, there’s no real reason to believe it will be successful. And especially for the people in the SPAC, where they have to hold on to it for a little while, by the time the lockup ends, the world has probably figured out that this is not the greatest IPO of all time. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

TC: You say you raised the SPAC very quickly. How is the investor profile different than that of a typical venture fund investor?

BT:  The investors for this SPAC — at least when I did the roadshow, and I think I did 28 meetings over a couple of days — is mainly hedge funds and people who don’t really invest in venture at all, so there was no overlap between my [venture fund] LP base and the people who invested in our SPAC that I’m aware of. These are public market investors who are used to moving very quickly. There’s a lot more liquidity in a SPAC. We have two years to acquire something, but ultimately, it’s a public property, so investors can come in and out as they see fit.

TC: So it’s mostly hedge funds that are getting paid management fees to deploy their capital in this comparatively safe way and that are getting interest on the money invested, too, while it’s sitting around in a trust while [the SPAC managers] look for a target company.

BT: Why it kind of does make sense for [them to back] VCs is they are basically making the bet to say: does this person running the SPAC have enough deal flow, enough of a public profile, enough going on that they are going to come across the right target? And venture investors in many ways fit that profile because we just look at so many companies before deploying capital.

TC: Do you have to demonstrate some kind of public markets expertise in order to convince some of these investors that you know what it takes to take a company public and grow it in the public markets?

BT: I guess. We raised the money, so I guess I passed the test. But I did spend a little under two years on Wall Street; I created the lottery privatization group of Lehman Brothers. And my partner [in the SPAC], Christian Goode, has a lot of experience with big gaming companies. But overall, I think that if you are a venture investor with a ton of deal flow and a good track record but very little or no public market experience, I don’t know that that would disqualify you from being able to rate a SPAC.

October 20th 2020, 9:31 pm

Watch GM unveil the $80,000 GMC Hummer EV right here

TechCrunch

GM just took the wraps off the Hummer EV and it looks great. The vehicle is coming to dealers in 2022, with pre-orders starting in 2021. You can watch the unveiling here.

The vehicle is detailed here. With 1,000 HP, 350 mile range, and autonomous drive modes, it’s an impressive vehicle though still significantly more than Tesla said the Cybertruck will cost.

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October 20th 2020, 9:15 pm

AOC aims to get out the vote by streaming Among Us with pokimane and HasanAbi

TechCrunch

We are about seven months into a pandemic and just two weeks from a presidential election. At this point, surprises are a dime a dozen. So it should feel very 2020 that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is about to stream Among Us, the hit game of 2020, on Twitch alongside mega-streamer pokimane and political analyst HasanAbi.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted yesterday that she was looking for people to play the popular game with in an effort to get out the vote, noting that she’s never played before but that it looks fun.

Streamer pokimane, who has 6 million followers on Twitch and whose YouTube videos regularly see more than 1 million views each, responded to the tweet with a figurative raised hand.

HasanAbi, a very popular political commentator on Twitch, who has more than 380,000 Twitter followers, also chimed in to the conversation saying that they’re already making a lobby. It wasn’t long before Rep. Ilhan Omar raised her hand, too.

A good game of Among Us (imagine that someone mixed a fairly basic multiplayer video game with a murder mystery party) usually requires 10 players, so the other six players are still TBD. But the Verge reports that a handful of other streamers (such as DrLupo, Felicia Day, Greg Miller, James Charles, and Neekolul) also lined up to play with AOC.

According to Ocasio-Cortez, the stream is all about getting out the vote. And this isn’t the first time that she’s used video games to connect with her followers. AOC opened up her DMs to all 6.8 million of her followers back in May to let them send her an invite to their island, and she visited them.

Millennial voters (and Gen Z) skew toward backing the Biden / Harris ticket, and AOC is coming to them by getting on Twitch and streaming one of the rocket ship games of this year.

The stream starts at 9pm ET/6pm PT and can be found here.

And you can check if you’re registered to vote here.

October 20th 2020, 9:01 pm

Feast your eyes on the all-new, all-electric GMC Hummer EV

TechCrunch

GMC has a new all-electric version of its classic Hummer oversized SUV. This thing is a beast, as you might expect, with an advertised 350-mile range and a 3-second zero to 60 mph time. It’s a bit ridiculous to be honest, which is kind of what the Hummer has always been about so that makes sense.

Alongside a teaser, GMC released a number of press photos of the 1,000 HP bruiser, so take a look below. It definitely looks like a Hummer – which may or may not be your cup of tea.

[gallery ids="2063761,2063744,2063753,2063752,2063750,2063748,2063749,2063751,2063747,2063746,2063745,2063743,2063754,2063755,2063756,2063757,2063758,2063759,2063760,2063762"]

 

October 20th 2020, 8:45 pm

GMC reveals the Hummer EV: 1,000 HP, 350 mile range, and 0-60 in “around 3 seconds”

TechCrunch

General Motors today revealed the GMC Hummer EV, its first electric pickup. The vehicle has a 350 range, 1,000 HP, and up to 11,500 pound feet of torque (through fuzzy math). Yes, it sort of looks like the Tesla Cybertruck.

Several key stats stick above the rest. The electric powertrain and vehicle platform are impressive, with a claimed range of 350. This is the longest battery life of any GM vehicle with an electric powertrain. GM says the Hummer EV can hit 60 mph in around three seconds. It also has all-wheel steering, which allows it drive diagonally in a mode called Crabwalk. There are removeable roof panels, 35-inch tires, and an air suspension system that can raise the vehicle 6-inches.

Some details are still missing including the capacity of the battery, towing capacity, and price. For truck buyers, numbers around power and torque are secondary to what they mean in the real world. How much can the vehicle tow? How far can it go? How far can it go when pulling a trailer?

[gallery ids="2063745,2063762,2063761,2063752,2063753,2063750,2063749,2063756,2063755"]

The Hummer EV

The Hummer brand long stood for exessively large vehicles and this new incarnation is no different. It’s massive. While GM hasn’t revealed the full dimensions, it comes stock with 35-inch tires and is capable of 37-inch tires. That’s big.

GM built impressive technology into the Hummer EV. Epic’s Unreal Engine powers the dash, which features class-leading animations. The Hummer EV also comes with GM’s self-driving technology, Super Cruise. The battery pack is capable of connecting to an 800 volt charging system that will give the vehicle 100 miles in 10 minutes of charging. Buyers can order the Hummer EV with up to 18 cameras, including cameras that sit under the vehicle to help with ground clearance.

It seems GMC is positioning the Hummer EV as a quasi off-roader that’s part pickup and part SUV.

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The General’s Electric Era

The Hummer EV is a big step for General Motors and signals a market shift. GM started its EV push in the ’90s with the EV1, which was revived in spirit with the Volt in 2010. GM released the small Chevy Bolt in 2017. None of these cars sold in large numbers, frankly, because they were uninspiring and, and well, cars. General Motors and others like Ford largely stopped developing cars as the market shifted to SUVs and pickups. GM is moving past the small commuter car with the Hummer EV in favor of a large pickup — a market segment GM knows well.

The Chevy Silverado joins the Ford F-150 and Ram Pickup as the top three selling vehicles in the United States. The three pickups outsold the next six vehicles combined. Trucks are a major market for American automakers, and the Hummer EV is clearly designed to test the water. With a unibody construction, it’s easy to imagine General Motors releasing an SUV version of the Hummer EV too. This would follow GM’s recent roadmap of moving away from cars and into SUVs and crossovers.

The Hummer EV’s unusual shape speaks to engineering limitations and partly explains why the GMC Hummer EV is not branded as a Chevy Silverado or GMC Serra. Much like the Tesla Cybertruck, the Hummer EV is likely based on a unibody construction similar to a passenger car. At this time, or rather when development began on the Hummer EV, it’s likely GM could not produce a unibody pickup with the same key specifications around towing, cargo capacity, and range of its Silverado pickups. An electric Silverado (or Ford F-150) must match its internal combustion counterpart on key areas — something the Hummer EV fails to do.

An electric Silverado is in the works. GM’s Mary Barra revealed the obvious during an interview in 2019. The automaker has only released one detail about the upcoming pickup: According to a financial document from July 2020, the electric pickup will have a 400 mile range.

General Motors has another electric pickup in the works through a significant investment with Nikola. On September 8, General Motors announced a $2 million investment in Michigan-based Nikola Motors. With the investment, General Motors gained access to Nikola’s EV development while also agreeing to manufacture Nikola’s Badger pickup. However, the deal is in question after fraud claims caused the company’s chairman to step down.

GM discontinued the Hummer brand during the auto crisis of 2008. It’s largely remembered for the monstrous H1 and H2 SUVs, the first being a civilian version of the military’s Humvee and the second being an over-the-top SUV. Towards the end of Hummer’s life, the company offered a pickup version of its smaller H3 model.

GMC Hummer EV vs. Tesla Cybertruck

Comparisons between the Hummer EV and Tesla Cybertrucks are inevitable. Much of the Cybertruck is still speculation and GM failed to reveal key details about the Hummer EV. Tesla unveiled the so-called super-truck eleven months ago and has been rather quiet since about the vehicle. In May, Elon Musk tweeted that the production version of the Cybertruck will likely be about the same size as the prototype.

At the time of the Cybertruck’s reveal, Tesla said it would be available starting at $39,000 for a single motor version capable of pulling 7,500 pounds and driving 250 miles on a charge. An AWD dual-motor and tri-motor version would also be available for $49,000 and $69,000, respectively. It’s unclear if those price points or specs will be true with Tesla releases the Cybertruck.

The Tesla Cybertruck and GMC Hummer EV share a lot in common, including a unibody construction that gives the vehicles their unusual look. Both the Hummer EV and Cybertruck feature unique C pillars that act as a flying buttress. These pillars add significant strength to the vehicle and compensate for the unibody design.

Generally, pickup trucks are built as two pieces: the body is placed on a frame. This is done for several reasons, but most notable here is because a frame can handle the significant twist caused by the drivetrain running from the front axle to the back. And in an EV, truck or car, there isn’t a drivetrain connecting the front and rear axels. This allows the automakers to employ a lighter unibody construction, which is often safer for the occupants. However, these bodies need to be as stiff as possible to help with towing and hauling. Honda leaned into this design with the unibody Ridgeline pickup.

Truck Buyers Have Different Expectations

The Hummer EV is a significant step for General Motors as it pushes into the electric future. Some buyers are not ready for electric vehicles, and truck buyers could be among the hardest demographic to convince.

Following the reveal of the Tesla Cybertruck in 2019, the company hooked a prototype up to the tow bar of a newer Ford F-150. The test was widely panned, as many pointed out the flaws that resulted in a Cybertruck win. Tesla was trying to demonstrate that its truck, though electric, can still do truck stuff. GMC will likely employ similar feats of strength, including commercials where gruff men proving a voiceover while the Hummer EV is towing a boat.

Truck buyers expect several things. One, the truck has to have a strong stance, which the Hummer EV has in bundles. Two, most truck buyers look at towing capacity even if they never tow anything. Towing capacity in trucks is much like horsepower in sports cars — more the better even if it’s not used. And towing capacity is only partially dictated by the powertrain’s power output. The rest comes from the design of the platform and how it can handle pulling weight. It’s unclear at this point if the Hummer EV, even with its crazy 1,000 HP, will be able to out tow a Silverado or F-150.

The Hummer falls short in several categories critical to pickup buyers: range and hauling capacity.

Pickups come with large gas tanks giving them amazing range. For instance, my 2016 Ford F-150 has a 32-gallon tank. If driven carefully, the truck can get 700 miles on one tank. When towing a trailer, the range is cut in half but exceeds 300 miles on a tank. GMC says the Hummer has a 350 range but has yet to say the range when towing a 7,000 travel trailer.

The electric pickup wars

With a release date of 2022, the Hummer EV is far from a sure bet. GM has plenty of time to rework the machine, adding or decreasing the range as technology improves before its release.

GM has competition too. The electric pickup race is just starting and Ford has the most to lose.

The Ford F-150 is the top selling vehicle in the American market, and has been for generations. The truck is the foundation of Ford’s success. In 2019 the company released a video demonstration of an early prototype electric powertrain that was able to pull (note: not tow) 1 million pounds. To help its efforts Ford invested hundreds of millions into Michigan-based Rivian, maker of an electric pickup platform. Recent reports place the viability of that partnership in question, but Ford is likely working at full tilt towards its electric pickups.

Automotive startups are also looking at building electric pickups. Rivian intends to build and sell its own pickup and SUV. Lordstown Motors, an outfit out of Lordstown, Ohio, revealed its pickup design in June and said it would retail for $52,000. And there’s more: Bollinger Motors, Workhorse, and Nikola.

Electric pickups are ripe for an electric takeover and GM just threw down a Hummer-sized hammer.

October 20th 2020, 8:31 pm

After historic OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample collection, Lockheed Martin VP Lisa Callahan will join us

TechCrunch

This December 16 and 17, we’re hosting our very first TC Sessions: Space event. It’ll be a virtual, live-streamed two-day show, including conversations with some of the best and brightest in the space industry. We’re thrilled to be hosting Lisa Callahan, Vice President and General Manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin, at the event, and she’ll join us to discuss her company’s history-making work in robotic space exploration – including the asteroid mining sample collection at asteroid Bennu that happened today – as well as the future of human space exploration.

Callahan’s work at Lockheed covers all the work they do to support NASA and other civil exploration efforts of space, including both robotic and human transportation and science investigations. That includes OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid study and sample return mission that earlier today made a historic descent to the surface of rocky solar system visitor Bennu, an asteroid that’s over 200 thousand miles from Earth.

OSIRIS-REx already made plenty of history, including becoming the closest orbit to an asteroid ever conducted by a spacecraft. But today it topped all of that with a ‘tap-and-go’ descent to the rocky surface, scooping samples that it will now attempt to return to Earth for direct study by scientists. That’s exactly the kind of ambitious extra-planetary robotic research that Callahan and her division at Lockheed have made possible with their work in advanced spacecraft and robotics design.

Callahan is also directly involved in NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the Moon – including sending a woman on a lunar landing mission for the first time ever. Lockheed Martin is the manufacturing partner for NASA’s Orion lander, which will transport the first American woman and the next American man to the Moon for their historic mission in 2024.

We’ll talk about what these achievements mean for the space industry, and the future of space exploration – and human spaceflight – in December with Callahan.

You can get Early-Bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.

Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

October 20th 2020, 8:31 pm

Daily Crunch: DOJ files antitrust suit against Google

TechCrunch

Google faces a big antitrust suit, Amazon offers to pay customers for shopping data and we review the iPhone 12. This is your Daily Crunch for October 20, 2020.

The big story: DOJ files antitrust suit against Google

The suit accuses Google of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States.” It’s co-signed by 11 states, all with Republican attorneys general — Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and South Carolina.

Google called the U.S. Department of Justice’s case “deeply flawed” and offered a platform-by-platform argument that it doesn’t actually have unfair market dominance. For example, it attributed its popularity in search to a superior product, rather than anti-competitive practices.

Meanwhile, Wall Street investors don’t seem to be particularly alarmed by the suit.

The tech giants

Amazon launches a program to pay consumers for their data on non-Amazon purchases — The Amazon Shopper Panel program asks users to send in 10 receipts per month for any purchases made at non-Amazon retailers.

Snap shares explode after blowing past earnings expectations — The company delivered $679 million in reported revenue, smashing past Wall Street expectations.

Review: iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, two gems, one jewel — Both of these phones offer solid value, but two challengers wait in the wings.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Perch raises $123.5M to grow its stable of D2C brands that sell on Amazon — Perch acquires D2C businesses and products that are already selling on Amazon, then continues to operate and grow them.

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app — The startup was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare.

Synthetaic raises $3.5M to train AI with synthetic data — It’s already working with Save the Elephants to track animal populations, as well as with the University of Michigan to classify brain tumors.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Seven investors discuss augmented reality and VR startup opportunities in 2020 — “It’s still early, but it’s no longer too early.”

As startups accelerate in record Q3, Europe and Asia rack up huge VC results — Investment outside North America just had its best quarter in years.

Now may be the best time to become a full-stack developer — Talos Digital’s Sergio Granada has thoughts about this buzzy job title.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

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 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

October 20th 2020, 6:30 pm

Netflix to test free weekend-long access in India

TechCrunch

Netflix plans to give users in India access to its service at no charge for a weekend as part of a test to expand its reach in the country, a company executive said Tuesday. More to follow…

October 20th 2020, 6:30 pm

Apple HomePod update brings Intercom and other new features

TechCrunch

Apple HomePod owners, starting today, will be able to use the newly announced “Intercom” feature to send messages between their HomePod smart speakers. The feature, which arrives via a software update, brings this and several other new features to Apple’s smart speakers, including those introduced at Apple’s event last week where the company debuted its $99 HomePod mini.

Of these, Intercom is the most notable update, as it helps the HomePod catch up to rival smart speakers, like those from Apple and Google, which have offered similar broadcast messaging systems for years.

But in Apple’s case, Intercom doesn’t just send a user’s voice message — like “dinner’s ready!” or “time to go!” — across the family’s HomePod speakers. It’s also meant to work across Apple’s device ecosystem, by adding support for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and even AirPods and CarPlay.

This could be a competitive advantage for HomePod, particularly because Amazon — which leads the U.S. market with its affordable Echo devices — no longer has its own smartphone business.

However, Apple says Intercom’s expanded support for other devices isn’t being rolled out today. Instead, it will arrive through further software updates later this year.

To use Intercom, HomePod owners with multiple devices can say things like:

“Hey Siri, Intercom, Has anyone seen my glasses?”

“Hey Siri, tell everyone, Dinner is ready.”

“Hey Siri, Intercom to the kitchen, Has the game started?”

And to reply, users can say something like “Hey Siri, reply, Yes.”

In addition to the new support for Intercom, the software update also introduces deeper integration with Apple Maps and iPhone, the ability to set and stop timers and alarms from any HomePod, the ability to continue listening to a podcast with multiuser support, and more.

The deeper integration means HomePod owners can now ask Siri for information about traffic conditions, as well as nearby restaurants and businesses. A Siri suggestion will then automatically appears in Maps on your iPhone so the route is available as soon as you get in the car.

HomePod owners can also now ask Siri to search the web, which then sends results to the iPhone.

Two other new features will arrive later this year, including the ability to connect one HomePod (or more) to Apple TV 4K for stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos for movies, TV, games and more.

The other upcoming feature, called Personal Update, will soon let you ask Siri “what’s my update” or “play my update,” to get all the info you need to start your day, including news, weather, calendar events, and any reminders.

October 20th 2020, 5:58 pm

Now may be the best time to become a full-stack developer

TechCrunch

In the world of software development, one term you’re sure to hear a lot of is full-stack development. Job recruiters are constantly posting open positions for full-stack developers and the industry is abuzz with this in-demand title.

But what does full-stack actually mean?

Simply put, it’s the development on the client-side (front end) and the server-side (back end) of software. Full-stack developers are jacks of all trades as they work with the design aspect of software the client interacts with as well as the coding and structuring of the server end.

In a time when technological requirements are rapidly evolving and companies may not be able to afford a full team of developers, software developers that know both the front end and back end are essential.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the ability to do full-stack development can make engineers extremely marketable as companies across all industries migrate their businesses to a virtual world. Those who can quickly develop and deliver software projects thanks to full-stack methods have the best shot to be at the top of a company’s or client’s wish list.

Becoming a full-stack developer

So how can you become a full-stack engineer and what are the expectations? In most working environments, you won’t be expected to have absolute expertise on every single platform or language. However, it will be presumed that you know enough to understand and can solve problems on both ends of software development.

Most commonly, full-stack developers are familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and back-end languages like Ruby, PHP, or Python. This matches up with the expectations of new hires as well, as you’ll notice a lot of openings for full-stack developer jobs require specialization in more than one back-end program.

Full-stack is becoming the default way to develop, so much so that some in the software engineering community argue whether or not the term is redundant. As the lines between the front end and back end blur with evolving tech, developers are now being expected to work more frequently on all aspects of the software. However, developers will likely have one specialty where they excel while being good in other areas and a novice at some things….and that’s OK.

Getting into full-stack though means you should concentrate on finding your niche within the particular front-end and back-end programs you want to work with. One practical and common approach is to learn JavaScript since it covers both front and back end capabilities. You’ll also want to get comfortable with databases, version control, and security. In addition, it’s smart to prioritize design since you’ll be working on the client-facing side of things.

Since full-stack developers can communicate with each side of a development team, they’re invaluable to saving time and avoiding confusion on a project.

One common argument against full stack is that, in theory, developers who can do everything may not do one thing at an expert level. But there’s no hard or fast rule saying you can’t be a master at coding and also learn front-end techniques or vice versa.

Choosing between full-stack and DevOps

One hold up you may have before diving into full-stack is you’re also mulling over the option to become a DevOps engineer. There are certainly similarities among both professions, including good salaries and the ultimate goal of producing software as quickly as possible without errors.  As with full-stack developers, DevOps engineers are also becoming more in demand because of the flexibility they offer a company.

October 20th 2020, 5:44 pm

Synthetaic raises $3.5M to train AI with synthetic data

TechCrunch

Synthetaic is a startup workign to create data — specifically images — that can be used to train artificial intelligence.

Founder and CEO Corey Jaskolski’s past experience includes work with both National Geographic (where he was recently named Explorer of the Year) and a 3D media startup. In fact, he told me that his time with National Geographic made him aware of the need for more data sets in conservation.

Sound like an odd match? Well, Jaskolski said that he was working on a project that could automatically identify poachers and endangered animals from camera footage, and one of the major obstacles was the fact that there simply aren’t enough existing images of either poachers (who don’t generally appreciate being photographed) or certain endangered animals in the wild to train AI to detect them.

He added that other companies are trying to create synthetic AI training data through 3D worldbuilding (in other words, “building a replica of the world that you want to have an AI learn in”), but in many cases, this approach is prohibitively expensive.

In contrast, the Synthetaic (pronounced “synthetic”) approach combines the work of 3D artists and modelers with technology based on generative adversarial networks, making it far more affordable and scalable, according to Jaskolski.

Image Credits: Synthetaic

To illustrate the “interplay” between the two halves of Synthetaic’s model, he returned to the example of identifying poachers — the startup’s 3D team could create photorealistic models of an AK 47 (and other weapons), then use adversarial networks to generate hundreds of thousands of images or more showing that model against different backgrounds.

The startup also validates its results after an AI has been trained on Synthetaic’s synthesized images, by testing that AI on real data.

For Synthetaic’s initial projects, Jaskolski said he wanted to partner with organizations doing work that makes the world a better place, including Save the Elephants (which is using the technology to track animal populations) and the University of Michigan (which is developing an AI that can identify different types of brain tumors).

Jaskolski added that Synthetaic customers don’t need any AI expertise of their own, because the company provides an “end-to-end” solution.

The startup announced today that it has raised $3.5 million in seed funding led by Lupa Systems, with participation from Betaworks Ventures and TitletownTech (a partnership between Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers). The startup, which has now raised a total of $4.5 million, is also part of Lupa and Betaworks’ Betalab program of startups doing work that could help “fix the internet.”

October 20th 2020, 4:58 pm

Cloud Foundry coalesces around Kubernetes

TechCrunch

In a normal year, the Cloud Foundry project would be hosting its annual European Summit in Dublin this week. But this is 2020, so it’s a virtual event. This year, however, has been a bit of a transformative year for the open-source Platform-as-a-Service project — in more ways than one. With Cloud Foundry executive director Abby Kearns leaving earlier this year, the organizations’ former CTO Chip Childers stepped into the role. Maybe just as importantly, though, the project’s move to Kubernetes as its container orchestration tool of choice — and a renewed focus on the Cloud Foundry developer experience — is now starting to bear fruit.

“In April, I took over the job. I said: ‘Listen, our community has a new North Star. It’s to go take the Cloud Foundry developer experience and get that thing re-platformed onto Kubernetes . No more delay, no more diversity of thought here. It’s time to make the move,’ ” Childers said (with a chuckle). “And here we are. It’s October, we have our ecosystem aligned, we have major project releases that are fulfilling that vision. And we’ve got a community that’s very energized around it continuing the work of progressing this integration with a bunch of cloud-native projects.”

Developers who use Cloud Foundry, Childers argued, love it, but the project now has an opportunity to show a wider range of potential use that it can offer a smoother developer experience on top of virtually any Kubernetes cluster.

One of the projects that is working on making this happen — and which hit its 1.0 release today, is cf-for-k8s. Traditionally, getting up and running with Cloud Foundry was a heavy lift — and something that most companies left to third-party vendors to handle. This new project, which launched in April, allows developers to spin up a relatively light-weight Cloud Foundry distribution on top of a Kubernetes cluster — using projects like Istio and Fluentd, in addition to Kubernetes — and to do so within minutes.

“It comes along with the whole process of reimagining our architecture to pull in other projects a lot more aggressively and allows us to get to feature parity [with the classic VM-focused Cloud Foundry experience] using a lot more complementary open-source projects,” Childers said about the larger role of this project in the overall ecosystem. “That lets our community focus less on building the underlying plumbing and [spend] more time thinking about how to speed up innovation and the developer experience.”

This wouldn’t be open source if there wasn’t another project that does something quite similar — at least at first glance. That’s KubeCF, which hit its 2.5 launch today. This is an open-source distribution of the Cloud Foundry Application Runtime that, as Childers explained, is meant for production use and that was originally meant to provide existing users a bridge onto the Kubernetes bandwagon. Over time, these two projects will likely merge. “Everyone’s collaborating on what this shared vision looks like. They’re just, they’re just two different distributions that handle the different use cases today,” Childers explained.

After six months in his new position, Childers noted that he’s seeing a lot of energy in the community right now. The job is hard, he said, when there’s unhealthy disagreement, but right now, what he’s seeing is “a beautiful harmony of agreement.”

October 20th 2020, 4:58 pm

Here’s why Netflix shares are off after reporting earnings

TechCrunch

Shares of consumer video service Netflix are down sharply after the bell today, following the company’s Q3 earnings report.

Why is Netflix suddenly worth about 5% less than before? A mixed earnings report, a disappointing new paying customer number, and slightly slack guidance appear to be the answer.

The numbers

Heading into the third quarter, Netflix told investors that they should expect it to generate revenues of $6.33 billion, operating income of $1.25 billion, and net income of around $954 million, worth about $2.09 in earnings per share.

Today, Netflix reported $6.44 billion in revenue, operating income of $1.32 billion, along with $1.74 in per-share profit off of net income of $790 million.

Netflix bested its revenue goals, but fell short on profitability.

The company also managed to best analyst revenue expectations of $6.38 billion, while missing out on analyst per-share profit expectations of $2.13.

Adding to the pain, Netflix also missed expectations on new customer adds. In its Q2 earnings, Netflix said that it “forecast[ed] 2.5m paid net adds for Q3’20 vs. 6.8m in the prior year quarter,” because its “strong first half performance likely pulled forward some demand from the second half of the year.”

Today Netflix reported just 2.2 million customer adds, missing its own targets and sharply missing analyst expectations of around 3.3 million for the period (some analyst counts had an even higher guess).

Looking ahead, Netflix says that in Q4 it expects revenues of $6.57 billion, operating income of $885 million, $615 million in net income, earnings per share of $1.35, and 6.0 million new paid customers in the period. The street had been looking for $6.58 billion in top line, and just $0.94 in per-share profit, so it’s hard to parse which part of the forecast is driving more investor sentiment.

Regardless, today’s earnings report will not move Netflix’s share price too far from its recent, all-time highs. The company may take a ding from its profit miss, but nothing material.

October 20th 2020, 4:44 pm

Snap shares explode after blowing past earnings expectations

TechCrunch

Snap shares were up nearly 20% in after-hours trading after the company showcased a massive earnings beat, besting analyst expectations on both revenue and earnings per share for Q3. The company was already hovering above an all-time-high, with Tuesday’s beat poised to send the share price from just above $28 to just short of $34 per share.

The company posted a $0.01 revenue bet, best expectations of a $0.04 loss, but the real headline was that they delivered $679 million in reported revenue, smashing past Wall Street expectations that pinned their performance for the quarter around $555 million. The revenue numbers represented 52% year-over-year growth, showcasing a huge comeback for the company which has faced some difficult quarters as a public company since making their debut.

User growth was up 4% to 249 million daily active users from the 238 million they reported at the end of last quarter, an 18% year-over-year increase. The company still posted a net loss of $200 million, but that’s a 12% improvement from last years numbers.

 

Updating

October 20th 2020, 4:44 pm

Netflix user growth slows as production ramps up again

TechCrunch

After the COVID-19 pandemic drove impressive subscriber growth earlier this year, Netflix’s numbers have come back down to Earth.

The streaming service added 15.77 million net new subscribers in the first quarter of the year, followed by 10.09 million in Q2. It only projected 2.5 million for Q3.

Today’s earnings report shows the company falling short of that already-underwhelming goal, with only 2.2 million net additions, bringing its total subscriber base to 195 million. And it’s forecasting 6.0 million net additions in Q4, compared to 8.8 million in the same period last year.

“As we have highlighted in our recent investor letters, we believe our record first half paid net additions would result in slower growth in the back half of this year,” the company said in its letter to shareholders. “If we achieve our forecast, it will put us at a record 34m paid net adds for 2020, well above our prior annual high of 28.6m in 2018.”

The company also said that “retention remains healthy and engagement per member household was up solidly year over year.”

While the pandemic may have accelerated Netflix’s user growth, it also halted film production for safety reasons. That’s meant a slowing release schedule — though the delay is less noticeable for Netflix, since it had so many shows and movies in the pipeline.

With production resuming, the company said it’s actually completed principal photography on more than 50 productions since mid-March, with plans to do the same for 150 additional productions by the end of the year.

The fourth season of “Stranger Things​,” the second season of “The Witcher” and action film ​”Red Notice”​ (starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds) have all resumed production as well.

The announcement includes viewership numbers for a handful of shows and movies released in the last quarter: 43 million subscribers chose to watch the new season of “The Umbrella Academy,” 48 million chose to watch “Ratched,” 38 million chose to watch “The Social Dilemma” and 78 million chose to watch the Charlize Theron action movie “The Old Guard.” (Reminder: Netflix’s “chose to watch” metric refers to the number of subscribers who watched at least two minutes of a program.)

October 20th 2020, 4:28 pm

Adobe brings its misinformation-fighting content attribution tool to the Photoshop beta

TechCrunch

Adobe’s work on a chain of custody that could link online images back to their origins is inching closer to becoming a reality. The prototype, part of the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI), will soon appear in the beta of Photoshop, Adobe’s ubiquitous image editing software.

Adobe says the preview of the new tool will be available to users in the beta release of Photoshop and Behance over the next few weeks. The company calls the CAI implementation “an early version” of the open standard that it will continue to hone.

The project has a few different applications. It aims to make a more robust means of keeping creators’ names attached to the content they create. But its most compelling use case for CAI would see the tool become a “tamper-proof” industry standard aimed at images used to spread misinformation.

Adobe describes the project’s mission as an effort to “increase trust and transparency online with an industry-wide attribution framework that empowers creatives and consumers alike.” The result is a technical solution that could (eventually) limit the spread of deepfakes and other kinds of misleading online content.

“… Eventually you might imagine a social feed or a news site that would allow you to filter out things that are likely to be inauthentic,” Adobe’s director of CAI, Andy Parson said earlier this year. “But the CAI steers well clear of making judgment calls — we’re just about providing that layer of transparency and verifiable data.”

The idea sounds like a spin on EXIF data, the embedded opt-in metadata that attaches information like lens type and location to an image. But Adobe says the new attribution standard will be less “brittle” and much more difficult to manipulate. The end result would have more in common with digital fingerprinting systems like the ones that identify child exploitation online than it would with EXIF.

“We believe attribution will create a virtuous cycle,” Allen said. “The more creators distribute content with proper attribution, the more consumers will expect and use that information to make judgement calls, thus minimizing the influence of bad actors and deceptive content.”

October 20th 2020, 4:14 pm

How to ‘watch’ NASA’s OSIRIS-REx snatch a sample from near-Earth asteroid Bennu

TechCrunch

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is about to touch down on an asteroid for a smash-and-grab mission, and you can follow its progress live — kind of. The craft is scheduled to perform its collection operation this afternoon, and we’ll know within minutes if all went according to plan.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer, was launched in September of 2016 and since arriving at its destination, the asteroid Bennu, has performed a delicate dance with it, entering an orbit so close it set records.

Today is the culmination of the team’s efforts, the actual “touch and go” or TAG maneuver that will see the probe briefly land on the asteroid’s surface and suck up some of its precious space dust. Just a few seconds later, once sampling is confirmed, the craft will jet upwards again to escape Bennu and begin its journey home.

Image Credits: NASA

Image Credits: NASA

While there won’t be live HD video of the whole attempt, NASA will be providing both a live animation of the process informed by OSIRIS-REx’s telemetry, and presumably any good images that are captured as it descends.

We know for certain this is both possible and very cool because Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission did something very similar last year, but with the added complexity (and coolness) of firing a projectile into the surface to stir things up and get a more diverse sample.

NASA’s coverage starts at 2 PM Pacific, and the touchdown event is planned to take place an hour or so later, at 3:12 if all goes according to plan. You can watch the whole thing take place in simulation at this Twitch feed, which will be updated live, but NASA TV will also have live coverage and commentary on its YouTube channel. Images may come back from the descent and collection, but they’ll be delayed (it’s hard sending lots of data over a million-mile gap) so if you want the latest, listen closely to the NASA feeds.

October 20th 2020, 3:44 pm

Equity Shot: The DoJ, Google, and the suit could mean for startups

TechCrunch

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

It’s a big day in tech because the US Federal Government is going after Google on anti-competitive grounds. Sure, the timing appears crassly political and the case is not picking up huge plaudits thus far for its air-tightness, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

So Danny and I got on the horn to chat it up for about 10 minutes to fill you in. For reference, you can read the full filing here, in case you want to get your nails in. It’s not a complicated read. Get in there.

As a pair we dug into what stood out from the suit, what we think about the historical context, and also noodled at the end about what the whole situation could mean for startups; it’s not all good news, but adding lots of competitive space to the market would be a net-good for upstart tech companies in the long-run.

And consumers. Competition is good.

You can read TechCrunch’s early coverage of the suit here, and our look at the market’s reaction here. Let’s go!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

October 20th 2020, 2:57 pm

7 investors discuss augmented reality and VR startup opportunities in 2020

TechCrunch

For all of the investors preaching that augmented reality technology will likely be the successor to the modern smartphone, today, most venture capitalists are still quite wary to back AR plays.

The reasons are plentiful, but all tend to circle around the idea that it’s too early for software and too expensive to try to take on Apple or Facebook on the hardware front.

Meanwhile, few spaces were frothier in 2016 than virtual reality, but most VCs who gambled on VR following Facebook’s Oculus acquisition failed to strike it rich. In 2020, VR did not get the shelter-in-place usage bump many had hoped for largely due to supply chain issues at Facebook, but VCs hope their new cheaper device will spell good things for the startup ecosystem.

To get a better sense of how VCs are looking at augmented reality and virtual reality in 2020, I reached out to a handful of investors who are keeping a close watch on the industry:

Some investors who are bullish on AR have opted to focus on virtual reality for now, believing that there’s a good amount of crossover between AR and VR software, and that they can make safer bets on VR startups today that will be able to take advantage of AR hardware when it’s introduced.

“Besides Pokémon Go I don’t think we have seen the engagement numbers needed for AR,” Boost VC investor Brayton Williams tells TechCrunch. “We believe VR is still the largest long-term opportunity of the two. AR complements the real world, VR creates endless new worlds.”

Most of the investors I got in contact with were still fairly active in the AR/VR world, but many still disagreed whether the time was right for VR startups. For Jacob Mullins of Shasta Ventures, “It’s still early, but it’s no longer too early.” While Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX says that the market is “sadly not happening yet,” Facebook’s Quest headsets have shown promise.

On the hardware side, the ghost of Magic Leap’s formerly hyped glory still looms large. Few investors are interested in making a hardware play in the AR/VR world, noting that startups don’t have the resources to compete with Facebook or Microsoft on a large-scale rollout. “Hardware is so capital intensive and this entire industry is dependent on the big players continuing to invest in hardware innovation,” General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos tells us.

Even those that are still bullish on startups making hardware plays for more niche audiences acknowledge that life had gotten harder for ambitious founders in these spaces, “the spectacular flare-outs do make it harder for companies to raise large amounts with long product release horizons,” investor Tipatat Chennavasin notes.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst

What are your general impressions on the health of the AR/VR market today?

We’re seeing some progress in VR and some of that is happening because of the Oculus ecosystem. They continue to improve the hardware and have a growing catalog of content. I think their onboarding and consumption experience is very consumer-friendly and that’s going to continue to help with adoption. On the consumer side, we’re seeing some companies across gaming, fitness and productivity that are earning and retaining their audiences at a respectable rate. That wasn’t happening even a year ago so it may be partially a COVID lift but habits are forming. 

The VR bets of several years ago have largely struggled to pan out, if you were to make a startup investment in this space today what would you need to see? 

Companies to watch are the ones that are creating cool experiences with mobile as the first entry point. Wave VR, Rec Room, VRChat are making it really easy for consumers to get a taste of VR with devices they already own. They’re not treating VR as just another gaming peripheral but as a way to create very cool, often celebrity-driven, content. These are the kinds of innovations that makes me optimistic about the VR category in general.

Most investors I chat with seem to be long-term bullish on AR, but are reticent to invest in an explicitly AR-focused startup today. What do you want to see before you make a play here?

In both AR/VR, a founder needs to be both super ambitious but patient. They’ll need to be flexible in thinking and open to pivoting a few times along the way. Product-market fit is always important but I want to see that they have a plan for customer retention. Fun to try is great, habit-forming is much better. Gaming continues to do pretty well as a category for VC dollars but it’d be interesting to see more founders look at making IRL sports experiences more immersive or figuring out how to enhance remote meeting experiences with VR to fix Zoom fatigue.

There have been a few spectacular flare-outs when it comes to AR/VR hardware investments, is there still a startup opportunity in AR/VR hardware?

Hardware is so capital intensive and this entire industry is dependent on the big players continuing to invest in hardware innovation. Facebook and Microsoft seem to be the main companies willing to spend here while others have backed away. If we expand our thinking for a minute, maybe the first real mainstream breakthrough AR/VR consumer experience isn’t visual. For VR, it might be the mobile experiences. For AR maybe AirPods or AirPod-like devices are the right entry point for consumers. They’re in millions of people’s ears already and who doesn’t want their own special-agent-like earpiece? That’s where founders might find some opportunity.

Tipatat Chennavasin, The Venture Reality Fund

October 20th 2020, 2:45 pm

Root targets $6B+ valuation in pending IPO, a boon for insurtech startups

TechCrunch

This morning Root Insurance, a neo-insurance provider that has attracted ample private capital for its auto-insurance business, is targeting a valuation of as much as $6.34 billion in its pending IPO.

The former startup follows insurtech leader Lemonade to the public markets during a year in which IPOs have been well-received by investors focused more on growth than profitability. In the wake of Lemonade’s strong public offering and rich revenue multiples, it was not impossible to see another, similar startup test the same waters.

Root’s $6.34 billion valuation upper limit at its current price range matches expectations for its bulk. The company is targeting $22 to $25 per share in its debut.

The startup will raise over $500 million from the shares it is selling in its regular offering. Concurrent placements worth $500 million from Dragoneer and Silver Lake raise that figure to north of $1 billion and could help boost general demand for shares in the company; Snowflake’s epic IPO came with similar private placements from well-known investors in what became the transaction of the year.

Will we see Root boost its target? And what does Root’s IPO price range mean for insurtech startups? Let’s dig into the numbers.

Root’s numbers

We’ve dug into Root’s business a few times now, both before and after it formally filed its IPO documents. This morning we will merge both sets of work, snag a fresh revenue multiple from Lemonade, apply it to Root’s own numbers, observe any valuation deficit and ask ourselves what’s next for the debuting company.

Will we see Root’s IPO price rise? Here’s how to think about the question:

October 20th 2020, 2:15 pm

Egnyte introduces new features to help deal with security/governance during pandemic

TechCrunch

The pandemic has put stress on companies dealing with a workforce that is mostly — and sometimes suddenly — working from home. That has led to rising needs for security and governance tooling, something that Egnyte is looking to meet with new features aimed at helping companies cope with file management during the pandemic.

Egnyte is an enterprise file storage and sharing (EFSS) company, though it has added security services and other tools over the years.

“It’s no surprise that there’s been a rapid shift to remote work, which has I believe led to mass adoption of multiple applications running on multiple clouds, and tied to that has been a nonlinear reaction of exponential growth in data security and governance concerns,” Vineet Jain, co-founder and CEO at Egnyte, explained.

There’s a lot of data at stake.

Egnyte’s announcements today are in part a reaction to the changes that COVID has brought, a mix of net-new features and capabilities that were on its road map, but accelerated to meet the needs of the changing technology landscape.

What’s new?

The company is introducing a new feature called Smart Cache to make sure that content (wherever it lives) that an individual user accesses most will be ready whenever they need it.

“Smart Cache uses machine learning to predict the content most likely to be accessed at any given site, so administrators don’t have to anticipate usage patterns. The elegance of the solution lies in that it is invisible to the end users,” Jain said. The end result of this capability could be lower storage and bandwidth costs, because the system can make this content available in an automated way only when it’s needed.

Another new feature is email scanning and governance. As Jain points out, email is often a company’s largest data store, but it’s also a conduit for phishing attacks and malware. So Egnyte is introducing an email governance tool that keeps an eye on this content, scanning it for known malware and ransomware and blocking files from being put into distribution when it identifies something that could be harmful.

As companies move more files around it’s important that security and governance policies travel with the document, so that policies can be enforced on the file wherever it goes. This was true before COVID-19, but has only become more true as more folks work from home.

Finally, Egnyte is using machine learning for auto-classification of documents to apply policies to documents without humans having to touch them. By identifying the document type automatically, whether it has personally identifying information or it’s a budget or planning document, Egnyte can help customers auto-classify and apply policies about viewing and sharing to protect sensitive materials.

Egnyte is reacting to the market needs as it makes changes to the platform. While the pandemic has pushed this along, these are features that companies with documents spread out across various locations can benefit from regardless of the times.

The company is over $100 million ARR today, and grew 22% in the first half of 2020. Whether the company can accelerate that growth rate in H2 2020 is not yet clear. Regardless, Egnyte is a budding IPO candidate for 2021 if market conditions hold.

October 20th 2020, 1:45 pm

French TV networks team up to launch streaming service Salto

TechCrunch

There’s a new streaming service in France called Salto. The companies behind the new service have been around for a while though. Salto is a joint initiative between TF1, France Télévisions and M6 — three major TV networks.

Those companies already had their own apps with live TV and ad-supported catch-up content. And of course, you can access content from these networks from your set-top box. But they’re trying something new with Salto.

For now, Salto is mostly an ad-free combination of all the individual apps from TF1, France Télévisions and M6. You can watch live TV from 19 different channels. You can play catch-up content from all three networks without any video ad.

It costs €6.99 per month. For €9.99, you can watch on two screens simultaneously. For €12.99 per month, you get four screens. Salto has released apps for Android, Android TV, iOS and tvOS. It also works in a web browser.

Such an offering probably won’t be enough to attract subscribers. That’s why Salto is slowly adding exclusive content to its platform as well. Salto is also going to be a good way to access content for kids in a dedicated section.

You can see some TV shows before they air on TV, such as an adaption from Agatha Christies’ ‘And Then There Were None’, the new season of Fargo. There are also some classic shows, such as Parks & Recreation and Seinfeld.

Who will be subscribing to Salto then? If you mostly watch live TV and you already know how to access catch-up content, Salto isn’t for you. If you already have access to premium content through a Canal+ subscription for instance, Salto isn’t for you.

But if you’re addicted to reality TV and daily soap operas, Salto could be a nice service to consume your favorite show. If you don’t pay for any streaming service, it could be a cheap service to get started and access some basic shows and movies.

Image Credits: Salto

October 20th 2020, 1:15 pm

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

TechCrunch

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.

October 20th 2020, 1:15 pm

Investors appear to shrug at antitrust lawsuit aimed at Google

TechCrunch

Investors do not seem concerned that the Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Google earlier today.

The suit, seen by some as a stunt near the election, is one of a multi-part push to change the face of the technology industry, which has seen its wealth and power expand in recent years. For example, technology companies now constitute nearly 40% of the value of the S&P 500, ahead of a 1999-era 37% share, according to The Wall Street Journal.

At the same time, the rising tide lifting many tech boats has provided huge gains to its largest players as well. Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are each worth north of $1 trillion apiece, making them historically valuable companies even amidst an economic downturn.

Those market caps do not appear to be in danger.

Today after lunch during regular trading hours the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite index is up 0.86%, while Alphabet is up 0.91%, directly in line with broader trading. Shares of Alphabet initially rose this morning before giving back their gains. However, since those morning lows, shares of the tech giant have recovered to edge ahead of the market.

Investor reaction could shift regarding Google’s antitrust liabilities in time. The Department of Justice suit is hardly the only legal issue that the search giant is currently grappling with. But not today.

October 20th 2020, 1:15 pm

Meadow launches a powerful mobile marketing tool for cannabis dispensaries

TechCrunch

Meadow was once called the Amazon of weed. Now it’s trying to be the Salesforce of weed, too.

Meadow, the maker of a popular point of sale system for cannabis dispensaries, is today launching new tools for its clients. Called the Meadow Platform, it includes two key tools for dispensaries: a customer relationship manager (CRM) and a text messaging platform for mobile marketing. As the company puts it in the news release, this system is designed to let users push a button and sell more weed.

This system is designed to help legal weed proprietors serve its client base with deep insights and targeted marketing — all while abiding by the strict regulations governing the budding industry (pun intended).

Meadow’s POS system is widely used throughout the legal cannabis industry, giving retailers inventory management, analytics, online ordering, and more. Because of regulations, retailers have a wealth of information on their clientele, which Meadow’s system can use for target marketing. Since these new features are built-into the Meadow platform, instead of through a 3rd party add-on, Meadow says it’s protected by the same security used throughout the rest of its platform.

Current regulations make it difficult for dispensaries to market their wares. These retailers cannot fully utilize modern marketing channels such as social media, leaving most retailers with limited options outside of billboards. Meadow’s new solution brings standard marketing tools to dispensaries.

“Marketing is not one-size-fits-all, especially in cannabis. Dispensaries need tools to select which customers they want to talk to in order to send relevant messages and promotions,” said David Hua, CEO and Co-Founder of Meadow, said in a released statement. “Let brand-loyal customers know when their favorite brands release new strains, products, blends, or flavors. Tell customers about new hours or delivery and pick-up options. Send re-engagement offers to customers who have dropped off. Let members of your loyalty program know when they have points to cash in and include their point balance. Tip-off VIPs when a limited-edition strain becomes available and give them first dibs. This is the level of delight and sophistication that has been missing from cannabis marketing, and we’re very excited to debut it to dispensaries across California.”

David Hua, Harrison Lee, Rick Harrison, and Scott Garman founded Meadow in 2014. Since then, the company raised $2.1M and participated in Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 class. The company currently has 14 employees.

Building this product has always been part of Meadow’s goal, Hua tells TechCrunch. COVID-19 helped accelerate the need.

“[Meadow] has always had three core priorities,” Hua said. “The first was compliance, which we had a big checkmark at the beginning of this year. The second was operational efficiency, and now marketing. These dispensary owners, especially in this COVID-19 world, can talk directly to their customers again, bring in more revenue and give them more information on what’s happening. Now they can leverage Meadow’s platform to do promo codes, automated discounts, loyalty rewards; we have all that. So you could have a customer that’s ordering an early bird special at 9:00 am, and that’s a member of your senior group that gets 10% off. You can now send them a message regarding new topicals. Marketing just becomes more engaging.”

October 20th 2020, 1:15 pm

Amazon launches a program to pay consumers for their data on non-Amazon purchases

TechCrunch

Amazon has launched a new program that directly pays consumers for information about what they’re purchasing outside of Amazon.com and for responding to short surveys. The program, Amazon Shopper Panel, asks users to send in 10 receipts per month for any purchases made at non-Amazon retailers, including grocery stores, department stores, drug stores and entertainment outlets (if open), like movie theaters, theme parks, and restaurants.

Amazon’s own stores, like Whole Foods, Amazon Go, Amazon Four Star and Amazon Books do not qualify.

Program participants will take advantage of the newly launched Amazon Shopper Panel mobile app on iOS and Android to take pictures of paper receipts that qualify or they can opt to forward emailed receipts to receipts@panel.amazon.com to earn a $10 reward that can then be applied to their Amazon Balance or used as a charitable donation.

Amazon says users can then earn additional rewards each month for every survey they complete. The optional surveys will ask about brands and products that may interest the participant and how likely they are to purchase a product. Other surveys may ask what the shopper thinks of an ad. These rewards may vary, depending on the survey.

The program is currently opt-in and invite-only, and is also only open to U.S. consumers at this time. Invited participants can now download the newly launched Shopper Panel app and join the panel. Other interested users can use the app to join a waitlist for an invite.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon claims it will delete any sensitive information from the receipts users upload, like prescription information. But it doesn’t delete users’ personal information, instead storing it in accordance with its existing Privacy Policy. It will allow users to delete their previously uploaded receipts, if they choose, but it’s not clear that will actually remove collected data from Amazon’s systems.

Consumer research panels are common operations, but in Amazon’s case, it plans to use the data in several different ways.

On the website, Amazon explains it “may use” customer data to improve product selection at Amazon.com and Whole Food Market, as well as to improve the content selection offered through Amazon services, like Prime Video.

Amazon also says the collected data will help advertisers better understand the relationship between their ads and product purchases at an aggregate level and will help Amazon build models about which groups of customers are likely to be interested in certain products.

And Amazon may choose to offer data to brands to help them gain feedback on existing products, the website notes.

Image Credits: Amazon

The program’s launch follows increased scrutiny over Amazon’s anti-competitive business practices in the U.S. and abroad when it comes to using consumers’ purchase data.

Amazon came under fire from U.S. regulators over how it had leveraged third-party merchants’ sales data to benefit its own private label business. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testified before Congress in July, he said the company had a policy against doing this, but couldn’t confirm that policy hadn’t been violated. The retailer may also be facing antitrust charges over the practice in the E.U..

At the same time, Amazon has been increasing its investment in its advertising business, which grew by 44% year-over-year in Q1 to reach $3.91 billion. That was a  faster growth rate than both Google (13%) and Facebook (17%), even if tiny by comparison — Google ads made $28 billion that quarter and Facebook made $17.4 billion, Digiday reported.

As the pandemic has accelerated the shift to e-commerce by 5 years or so, Amazon’s need to better optimize advertising space has also been sped up — and it may rapidly need to ingest more data that what it can collect directly from its own website.

In a message to advertisers about the program’s launch, Amazon positioned its e-commerce business as a small piece of the overall retail market — a point it often makes in hopes of avoiding regulation:

“In this incredibly competitive retail environment, Amazon works with brands of all sizes to help them grow their businesses not just in our store, but also across the myriad of places customers shop. We also work hard to provide our selling partners—and small businesses in particular—with tools, insights, and data to help them be successful in our store. But our store is just one piece of the puzzle. Customers routinely use Amazon to discover and learn about products before purchasing them elsewhere. In fact, Amazon only represents 4% of US retail sales. Brands therefore often look to third-party consumer panel and business intelligence firms like Nielsen and NPD, and many segment-specific data providers, for additional information. Such opt-in consumer panels are well-established and used by many companies to gather consumer feedback and shopping insights. These firms aggregate shopping behaviors across stores to report data like average sales price, total units sold, and revenue on tens of thousands of the most popular products.”

The retailer then explained that the Shopper Panel could help it to support sellers and brands by offering additional insights beyond its own store.

Amazon doesn’t say when the program waitlist will be removed, but says anyone can sign up starting today.

October 20th 2020, 1:15 pm

Microsoft Azure announces its first region in Austria

TechCrunch

Microsoft today announced its plans to launch a new data center region in Austria, its first in the country. With nearby Azure regions in Switzerland, Germany, France and a planned new region in northern Italy, this part of Europe now has its fair share of Azure coverage. Microsoft also noted that it plans to launch a new ‘Center of Digital Excellence’ to Austria to “to modernize Austria’s IT infrastructure, public governmental services and industry innovation.”

In total, Azure now features 65 cloud regions — though that number includes some that aren’t online yet. As its competitors like to point out, not all of them feature multiple availability zones yet, but the company plans to change that. Until then, the fact that there’s usually another nearby region can often make up for that.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Talking about availability zones, in addition to announcing this new data center region, Microsoft also today announced plans to expand its cloud in Brazil, with new availability zones to enable high-availability workloads launching in the existing Brazil South region in 2021. Currently, this region only supports Azure workloads but will add support for Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform over the course of the next few months.

This announcement is part of a large commitment to building out its presence in Brazil. Microsoft is also partnering with the Ministry of Economy “to help job matching for up to 25 million workers and is offering free digital skilling with the capacity to train up to 5.5 million people” and to use its AI to protect the rainforest. That last part may sound a bit naive, but the specific plan here is to use AI to predict likely deforestation zones based on data from satellite images.

October 20th 2020, 12:57 pm

Call analytics platform Invoca expands into sales, e-commerce and customer experience

TechCrunch

Invoca, which helps companies extract and use data from customer phone calls, is expanding today with the launch of products for e-commerce, customer experience and sales teams, as well as a new Invoca Exchange, where businesses can find all of the platform’s third-party integrations.

The company is making these announcements as part of its virtual Invoca Summit. Ahead of the event, CEO Gregg Johnson (previously an executive at Salesforce) told me that customers have been asking Invoca to expand beyond its previous focus on providing “conversation intelligence” to marketing teams.

“‘We need to get aligned on how we support the revenue journey,'” Johnson recalled businesses telling him. “We were already going down this path, but when COVID hit, we tripled down on it.”

He argued that the data that Invoca provides has become even more important during the pandemic and related lockdowns, when businesses only had “two sources of feedback” — digital interactions and customer conversations. And while there are plenty of analytics tools for tracking online behavior, Johnson said, “Customer conversations are really important because they get at why” people are behaving in a certain way.

And at the same time, Johnson said call center teams have had to shift to working at home, which meant that they had to switch to online software and “everything broke,” while supervisors “no longer had any visibility into how agents were performing.”

Image Credits: Invoca

Invoca is trying to address these issues by making sure that marketing, sales, customer experience and e-commerce teams all have access to the same call data.

For example, he said that agents at Invoca customer BBQGuys need data to understand what products to recommend for their customers if the specific grill that they want isn’t available. Or a healthcare provider might use call data to predict and prepare when COVID cases might be rising in their area.

“We’ve always viewed ourselves as an application and a platform,” Johnson added. “We already give you ability to use this data at Invoca to automatically apply these insights without any human intervention at all. So for us, we thought through use cases to feed this data into other tools and created four solutions … that are really joined at the hip.”

Invoca for eCommerce, Invoca for Sales and the existing Invoca for Marketing product are all available now, while Invoca for Sales is currently signing up beta testers for NOvember.

The Invoca Exchange, meanwhile, already includes more than 40 integrations, including Google, Salesforce, Facebook, Adobe, Tealium, and Five9. The company is also announcing new partnerships with FullStory and Criteo.

 

October 20th 2020, 12:45 pm

Google calls DOJ’s antitrust lawsuit “deeply flawed” in GIF-laden blog response

TechCrunch

Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.

Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.

Image Credits: Google

Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.

The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.

October 20th 2020, 12:26 pm

Google Photos revives its prints subscription service, expands same-day print options

TechCrunch

Google Photos is reviving its photo printing subscription service and introducing same-day prints. The company earlier this year had briefly tested a new program that used A.I. to suggest the month’s 10 best photos, which were then shipped to your home automatically. But Google ended the test on June 30.

During the trial, Google had offered users a $7.99 per month subscription that would automatically select 10 photos from one of three themes, including people and pets, landscapes, or “a little bit of everything” mix. The 4×6 photos were printed on matte, white cardstock with a 1/8-inch border.

Image Credits: Google

The new subscription, launching soon, leverages feedback from the early tests to now give users more control over which prints they receive and how they look. It also drops the price to $6.99 per month, including shipping and before tax.

With the new Premium Print Series, as the subscription is called, Google Photos will use machine learning techniques to pick 10 of your recent photos to print. But users can edit the photo selection and they can choose either a matte or glossy finish or add a border before the photos ship.

The photos can optionally be turned into postcards, thanks to the cardstock paper backing, Google notes.

Subscribers can also opt to skip a month and can easily cancel the service, if they’re no longer using it.

This updated version of service was recently discovered by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who detailed the new customization options and the lower price point.

Google says the Premium Print Series will make its ways to Google Photos users in the next few weeks.

The company today is also launching same-day printing at Walgreens, available immediately. This expands Google Photos’ existing same-day options, which already included same-day pickup from CVS and Walmart.

Using the Google Photos app, customers can now order 4×6, 5×7, or 8×10 photo prints for same-day pickup at Walgreens . This nearly doubles the number of stores offering same-day prints to Google Photos users, Google says.

In addition to prints and subscriptions, Google Photos continues to offer canvas prints and photo books — the latter now with up to 140 pages — as part of its online print store.

Image Credits: Google

The launch of the expanded photo printing services and subscription comes at a time when people are traveling less often, due to the pandemic, and are attending fewer large events where photo-taking may take place — like parties or concerts, for example.

But even if times have changed, people are continuing to take photos — though they may not be posting them across social media in order to avoid judgement.The subject of the photos may have changed, too, to now include more family and pets or nature scenes, instead of large, crowded places or big social gatherings, for instance.

The nostalgia for pre-pandemic times could see users turning to prints to help them relive fond memories, too.

Google didn’t say exactly when the new subscription will launch, but said users should be able to access the feature in the coming weeks.

 

 

October 20th 2020, 12:26 pm

Beam is building a web browser that gathers knowledge from your web activity

TechCrunch

Remember Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer? Those applications from the 1990s used emphatic metaphors in their names to talk about a simple task — browsing the web. Today, nobody would say that Google Chrome is a web explorer.

Browsing the web has become an effortless — and often mindless — task. You grab your phone or computer, you open a new tab and you type a few words in the address bar.

Beam, a new startup founded by Dom Leca and Sébastien Métrot, is working on a brand new app that is both a web browser and a note app. Dom Leca previously founded Sparrow, an email app for macOS and iOS that was acquired by Google in 2012. Sébastien Métrot has been working for Apple for several years.

“Everybody complains that Instagram and Facebook fry your brain and make you waste time,” Leca told me. And yet, web browsers represent infinite knowledge and infinite possibilities.

If you’re very passionate about a niche topic, chances are you can learn a ton of things by reading stuff, watching videos, interacting on forums and more. But when you close your browser window, everything disappears.

Sure, there’s a web history feature — but it’s a long list of links with no connection. Sure, you can bookmark pages or take notes in another app — but it’s a cumbersome process.

More importantly, you might not know what’s important and what’s not. Most passion projects start with meaningless search queries.

Beam’s mysterious logo. Image Credits: Beam

Beam aims to bring meaning to your web history. Every time you search for something, it creates a new note card. Beam passively follows users as they click on links, open new pages and spend time looking at stuff.

When you close the tab, you have a new card — your search query is the title of the card and you can see all links under that note. You can then add text, remove links that weren’t that relevant, etc.

By combining passive note creation with a tiny nudge when you close a tab, you get to reflect on your web activity. It’s a way to learn more about yourself and your habits. Sure, you may realize that you waste a ton of time. But you might also realize that you care more than you thought about cooking and Russian classical music.

“From a certain point of view, I’m designing this for people who don’t take notes,” Leca said.

But even if you use a note app, they interrupt you as you need to switch between multiple apps. Leca invested in Roam Research and likes it a lot. But he doesn’t think it solves that amnesia affect when you browse the web.

The startup is already thinking about ways to expand beyond that simple concept. You could imagine a way to interact with content directly from your notes — click on a YouTube link to view the video directly in your card, click on a podcast link to see an automated transcript, etc.

Eventually, Beam could let you share cards with other users. You could browse other user profiles based on matches with your interests.

Beam is leveraging WebKit as the browser engine and is working on a Mac app for now. It’s going to take a few months before a public release, but it’s going to be an interesting company to follow.

The company raised $3.5 million (€3 million) from Spark, Alven, C4V, Amaranthine, Tiny Capital (Andrew Wilkinson), Tiny vc, Secret Fund, Antoine Martin, Simon Dawlat, Nicolas Cohen and Spetses. Loren Brichter (remember Tweetie for Mac?) and Oliver Reichenstein (iA Writer) are advising the company.

October 20th 2020, 12:26 pm

Leading a $15 million round, Prosus Ventures makes the challenger bank Klar its first bet in Mexico

TechCrunch

Klar, a new online bank based in Mexico City, has become the first big bet that Prosus Ventures (the firm formerly known as Naspers Ventures) is taking in Latin America outside of Brazil.

Founded by Stefan Moller, a former consultant at Bain & Co. who advised large banks, Klar blends Moller’s work experience in Mexico with his connections to the German banking world and the tech team at Berlin -based n26, to create a challenger bank offering deposit and credit services for Mexican customers.

The Mexican market is woefully underserved when it comes to the finance industry, according to Moller. Only 10% of Mexican adults have a credit card, something Moller said is the cheapest consumer lending instrument around.

That’s why Klar launched last year with both credit and debit services. The company has 200,000 banking customers and roughly 27,000 of those customers have taken out loans through the bank. A typical loan is roughly $110, according to Moller, and each loan comes with a 68% annual percentage rate. 

If that sounds usurious, that’s because it is — at least by U.S. standards. In the U.S. a typical credit card will run somewhere between 16% and 24%, according to data from WalletHub. In Mexico, Moller said the typical interest rate is 70% (no wonder only 10% of adults have credit cards).

Still, the opportunity to expand credit and debit services made sense to Prosus, which led the company’s Series A round alongside investors including the International Finance Corporation and former investors Quona capital, who led Klar´s SEED round, Mouro Capital (formerly Santander Innoventures) and aCrew.

Banafsheh Fathieh, the Prosus Ventures principal who led the investment for the firm, said that the commitment to Klar will likely be the first of many investments that her firm makes in the region — both in fintech and likely in Mexico’s tech ecosystem more broadly.

Prosus is famous for making early bets on emerging technology companies in developing markets. Perhaps most famously the firm’s parent company was an early investor in Tencent — a multi-million dollar bet that has generated billions in returns.

Before this investment, Prosus had confined its work in the Latin American region to investments in Brazilian technology companies like Creditas and Movile .

“Prosus Ventures partners with entrepreneurs that are solving big societal problems with technology, in a uniquely local way. We invest in sectors of the economy where technology can lead to meaningful change in the lives of consumers. Klar has identified a massive need in the Mexican financial market and brings a unique solution through their credit and debit offering,” said Banafsheh Fathieh from Prosus Ventures, in a statement. “In less than a year, the team has shown an ability to build a world-class digital bank for the masses, one focused on financial access and inclusion. We are very excited to partner with them on that mission.”

October 20th 2020, 11:23 am

As startups accelerate in record Q3, Europe and Asia rack up huge VC results

TechCrunch

Venture capital activity in Europe and Asia saw a strong return to form in Q3, data indicates.

The two continents enjoyed more venture capital investment into their local startups than in some time, underscoring that strong VC results the United States saw in the third quarter were not a fluke, but part of a broader trend.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Data compiled by CB Insights shows a global acceleration in the number of dollars venture capitalists are putting to work around the globe as 2020 chews through its second half. The record figures that Q3 supplied stand in stark contrast to the fear that overtook startup-land in late Q1 and early Q2, when COVID-19 threw some young technology companies surprise turbulence.

But the dip in venture capital activity was short-lived. As many startups sold software, they found their wares suddenly in greater demand; across a host of verticals, startups benefited from an accelerated digital transformation as the world adapted to a new work environment. Aside from clear winners like video conferencing tools, other categories from remote learning to security tooling also got a bump.

The COVID-tailwind, as it is sometimes called, does not appear to be specific to the United States or North America. Instead, given what the venture capital data states, we can infer that startups the world around are enjoying a similar boost.1

Let’s get into the numbers to better understand what’s up in Europe and Asia. (As an aside, if you have data on African startups’ venture capital results, please email me as I am starting to poke around for a more global picture. Recent deal activity makes it plain that American media needs to do more and better reporting on the continent.)

A strong Q3

The venture capital world’s center of gravity still lands somewhere in the United States, but here’s how the three continents managed in Q3 2020, looking at their raised venture capital dollars:

  • North America: $37 billion
  • Asia: $24 billion
  • Europe: $9 billion

Asia’s result was its best since at least Q4 2018, as far back as our dataset goes. Europe’s total tied its high-water mark set in Q2 2019. But as a combined pair, venture capital outside North America might have just had its best quarter in years, if not ever.

Here’s the data in graphical format:

Via CB Insights, shared with permission.

October 20th 2020, 11:23 am

Sym raises $9M Series A for its security workflow platform

TechCrunch

Sym, a new platform that makes it easier for developers to integrate security and privacy workflows into their process, today announced that it has raised a $9 million Series A round led by Amplify Partners. Earlier this year, the company announced its $3 million seed round lead by Andy McLoughlin of Uncork Capital and Robin Vasan of Mango Capital. Angel investors include former Google CISO Gerhard Eschelbeck, Atlassian CTO Sri Viswanath and Jason Warner, the CTO of GitHub.

Sym co-founder Yasyf Mohamedali spent the last few years as CTO of health tech company Karuna Health. In that role, he became intimately familiar with working in a high-compliance industry, handling vendor reviews and security audits. To make those processes more efficient, his team built lots of small tools, but he realized that everybody else in the industry was doing the same.

Image Credits: Sym

“As an engineer, it’s frustrating when you see people building the same thing over and over,” Mohamedali told me. “For years, I had this kind of concept in my head of, ‘what if we just built it all once, and then people didn’t have to keep redoing the same thing over and over?’ And so when I stepped away from Karuna to start Sym, originally, what I wanted to do was exactly that — and specifically for HIPAA. It’s kind of a naïve approach where I was like, ‘you know, what, I’m just going to build all the tools, someone needs to do HIPAA and open source it as like a black box thing.”

What he realized, though, is that companies have their own security and governance workflows that tend to share the same core but also a lot of variabilities. So what Sym now does is offer these core tools and lets companies mix and match what they need from this developer-centric toolbox the company has created.

“What we’re building is a set of workflow templates and primitives that map to that shared 20% core — and then a set of integrations that you can use to pull down those workflow templates, and codify that last mile variance by connecting those templates to all your different services,” Mohamedali explained.

What’s interesting about this approach is that Sym offers a Python SDK and lets developers create these workflows and integrations with only a few lines of code. In part, that’s due to the company’s philosophy of putting engineers back into control of security — the same way DevOps allowed them to reclaim control over infrastructure and Q&A. “DevOps is a thing. So now, DevSecOps needs to be a thing. We need to reclaim security. And we want to be the tool to do that with,” he said.

Mohamedali stressed that this was very much an opportunistic round, and for the next few months this raise won’t change anything in the company’s road map. But because Sym started signing up large customers — and had made commitments to them — now was a good time to raise, especially because the right partners came along. That means hiring more engineers, but over time, the company obviously also plans to build out its sales and marketing teams. The product itself, though, will remain in private beta until about the middle of next year. At that time, Sym will also launch a self-serve version of its platform.

October 20th 2020, 11:23 am

Robotic kitchen startup YPC raises a $1.8M seed round

TechCrunch

Montreal-based YPC Technologies today announced that it has raised a $1.8 million seed round. Led by Hike Ventures and Real Ventures, the funding includes participation from Toyota AI Ventures and Uphill Capital, among others, designed to help the company pilot its kitchen robotics technology.

Toyota’s funding came as part of the company’s “Call of Innovation,” which finds it investing in early state AI, robotics and other cutting edge technologies. “At TRI, we’re always searching for ways to amplify human ability and help improve quality of life,” TRI’s Gil Pratt said in a statement. “Through the call for innovation, we got a first-hand look at how startups like YPC Technologies are addressing the needs of people in urban communities, and we’re encouraged and excited by their efforts.”

Robotics and automation generation has been a fairly hot category for VC investment, amid the on-going COVID-19 shut down. Food robotics, in particular, have been a focus. And it makes sense, certainly. After all, providing people with sustenance is about as essential as services get. The startup’s solution is built around a robotic arm that can prepare recipes with a variety of different ingredients — similar to other models we’ve seen.

One of the subscription-based service’s selling points is that it requires a relatively small amount of space, versus a standard commercial kitchen. That makes is a bit more versitile in applications, allowing it to be deployed in not only restaurants but smaller facilities like ghost kitchens and hotels.

The company also points out that the system is designed to work collaboratively with humans, replacing repetitive tasks rather than staff positions outright.

October 20th 2020, 11:23 am

As Blizzard sunsets StarCraft II, some of its key creators raise cash for a new gaming studio

TechCrunch

Even as Blizzard pulls the plug on new updates for its StarCraft II game, nearly a decade after its launch, gaming investors are financing the next new thing coming from key members of the game’s early development team.

Blizzard vets Tim Morten, the former production director for StarCraft II; and Tim Campbell, the lead campaign designer for WarCraft III; have launched a new studio with a number of colleagues from Blizzard to bring real time strategy games to a bigger audience.

The new company, Frost Giant Studios, has picked up $4.7 million in seed funding from the gaming and synthetic media focused investment firm, Bitkraft Ventures, along with participation from 1 Up Ventures, GC Tracker, Riot Games, and Griffin Gaming Partners, the company said.

“Frost Giant Studios is on a mission to bring one of the most beloved genres to a broader audience,” said Scott Rupp, Founding General Partner at Bitkraft Ventures. “We are excited to see some of the most experienced leaders in real-time strategy game development come together to build a game that will secure the future growth of the RTS genre while staying true to the core player fantasy of RTS.”

Building on their experience developing StarCraft II over the past ten years, the Frost Giant Studios strategy is focused on making gameplay better, easier, and more collaborative.

Think of it as taking some of the best elements of the battle royal genre and bringing them into real-time strategy games with an eye toward playability and competitive opportunities in esports.

“Real-time strategy players are an incredibly passionate community, and they deserve not just a great new game, but one they can share broadly with friends. Building a worthy successor will take time, but we’re incredibly excited and grateful to carry real-time strategy forward at Frost Giant Studios,” said Tim Morten, Frost Giant Studios CEO.

October 20th 2020, 11:23 am

Unusual Ventures’ Sarah Leary and John Vrionis join Extra Crunch Live today at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT

TechCrunch

Today at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, Unusual Ventures’ Sarah Leary and John Vrionis are joining us over at the Extra Crunch Live stage!

The Unusual Ventures team has investments spanning the consumer and enterprise space, including Robinhood, AppDynamics, Mulesoft, Winnie and more. That short list could be the basis for a fascinating chat, but I also want to hear their thoughts on the democratization of venture capital, their appetite ahead of the election and the future of remote work. A big goal of mine is to squash some of the buzzwords we hear on tech Twitter so we can get an honest take on where one VC firm is sitting right now in a chaotic year.

As we wrote last week, this year has been everything but business as usual for the venture and tech community. And we still have an election ahead of us! I’ll ask Leary and Vrionis to share their framework for working through a looming event such as a presidential election and get their ideas on how early-stage is working more broadly.

Thanks to all of you who have joined us for our ongoing live chat series, which has brought on big names in tech such as Sydney SykesAlexia von TobelMark Cuban, and more (all recordings are still accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers to watch and learn from).

If you’re new, welcome! You’ll be able to ask our experts questions live as long as you’re an EC member (sign up for Extra Crunch here).

Come hang, bring snacks and prep some good questions. We’d love to have you.

Details

Below are links so you can make it:

October 20th 2020, 11:09 am

Pickle app puts on users, as millennials/Gen-Z latch onto location apps to fight Covid lockdowns

TechCrunch

As the coming of winter combined with the coronavirus continues to put new restrictions on peoples’ movements, location-based apps are on the rise again. People are looking to find out who is close to them. Who is in their community. People are understandably looking for new friends and resources close to them.

Apps that connect young mums locally (Pumpspotting, Peanut), professionals (Fishbowl, Lunchclub), Jetset daters (Raya, Bumble), digital nomads (Homeis), locals (Nextdoor ) and millennials (Friended) are all being dialed-up.

And with government lockdowns coming back for their “2nd album” the UK’s millennials and Gen-Zs are increasingly turning to location-based apps to try and hang out with each other and burst the so-called ‘rule of six’ bubble, whether the government wants them to or not.

Pickle is fast making a name for itself amongst an estimated 350,000 millennials and Gen-Zs for that reason. After starting out as a taskrabbit-style app for Gen-Z, it is now seeing growth as an app for that generation to find fellow travelers locally, even as their normal travel has been curtailed by COVID-19.

Founder Daneh Westropp says: “Loneliness is the number one fear of young people today – ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. 71% of millennials reported feeling lonely [survey conducted by Cigna] and 69% of millennials experience FOMO when they can’t attend something that their family or friends are going to [study by Eventbrite]. So it comes as no surprise that people genuinely hate doing certain activities alone.” That’s why, she says, Pickle is climbing up app-store rankings.

Westropp understands the feeling of alienation. She ran away from Tehran during the 1988 Iran/Iraq war with her mother and sister, and was raised by a single mother who suffered from loneliness and depression. After dropping out of school at the age of 15 she went on to join the ranks of other entrepreneurs.

But a few problems remain with the Pickle app that are cause for concern. It has no 2FA for starters. Plus, the lack of regulation or content filtering means it’s anyone’s guess who users might be arranging to meet. Those are big red flags for the average observer.

Whether Gen-Z cares or not during a global pandemic that has shut down their lives, remains to be seen.

October 20th 2020, 10:54 am

The Polaris Slingshot is a 3-wheel pocket rocket begging for electrification

TechCrunch

The Polaris Slingshot has always wowed. Three wheels, open cockpit, and a design reminiscent of the Batmobile. It draws a crowd and is a blast to drive.

I spent several weeks in the reworked Polaris Slingshot. The company just unveiled a new version that is finally available with an automatic transmission. Past versions were limited to a standard transmission, radically limiting the 3-wheeler’s market to those who can drive a stick. But now, with a slushbox, the Slingshot is ready for the masses.

I just wish a gas engine didn’t power the Slingshot.

[gallery ids="2063236,2063239,2063235,2063238,2063237"]

The Slingshot is a thrilling ride. Is it like a motorcycle? Not really. Driving and riding in the Slingshot is akin to a go-kart or side-by-side ATV. The noises and feels are similar. It shifts hard, revs to infinity, and the wind is always in your face. It’s a blast.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Slingshot is not fast. Sure, it’s quick for its size, but it’s slower than it looks.

Thrills can be had even without breakneck speed. Without doors or a top, the Slingshot offers a driving experience offered in few vehicles.

Once warmed up, the Slingshot is eager to please. The tach goes to 10k and redlines around 8,500. Mashing the go-pedal sends the needle soaring and the rear tire screeching. And off you go.

The Slingshot was seemingly designed to power slide through corners. With the power going only to the single rear tire, the Slingshot easily loses traction, allowing for dramatic slide slides.

The thrilling ride makes up for the lack of raw speed. What are normally mundane drives are elevated to mini adventures. That is if you let the Slingshot warm up a bit.

She’s a cold-hearted lady, an uncle used to proclaim about his early eighties red Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup. This truck hauled as long as you gave the lady some time to warm up. The same thing is true with the Slingshot. Mass the gas pedal after just starting it up, and you’ll be greeted with shifts as rough as a dirt road.

My first impression of the new Slingshot was not a good one. I unloaded the Slingshot from the delivery semi, hopped in, and floored it. A long second later, as the transmission shifted from first to second, I discovered this was a bad idea. I immediately thought the Slingshot’s transmission is seemingly controlled by someone changing gears with a sledgehammer.

During my first drive, I concluded the new automatic Slingshot to be terrible before reaching the top gear. I was wrong. Once warm, the Slingshot improves but still lacks the shifting refinement of even the most basic automatic car.

Even when warmed up, shifts in traffic are clunky and hard. When the driver can power through each gear, shifts on the open road are better but still rough.

The transmission feel is my main concern with the Slingshot. Adding an automatic option opens the door to new buyers, but buyers must understand that the Slingshot is more ATV than a car.

Want a refined open-top roadster? Get a Mazda MX-5. Want a thrilling open ride? The Slingshot is a great option.

Polaris introduced the Slingshot in 2014, and I was lucky enough to drive one of the first in the country. That version was powered by a General Motors four-cylinder engine that provided ample power for the small frame. This time around, Polaris used its own four cylinder and mated it with an automatic gearbox.

The Slingshot in this new form is still thrilling, but the lackluster gearbox erases some of its potential and makes a case for an electric Slingshot.

Much of my hesitation about the automatic Slingshot would be erased if an electric motor powered the vehicle.

One, with an electric powertrain, the vehicle would dump the lackluster automatic transmission in favor of a direct drive system. It would still be accessible to the target market and yet gain a better driving experience. With the electric system, the Slingshot would be quicker off the line and around corners. It would be fast while still thrilling.

Two, the Slingshot doesn’t make a pleasant noise. Muscle cars deserve an exhaust note that expresses the gravitas of the motor. The Slingshot is not a muscle car, and the current exhaust note can only be described as being similar to an obnoxious go-kart. I spent much of my time in the Slingshot cruising through Michigan’s corn-lined back roads. I could smell the fresh corn while the sun beat down on my face. I love a loud exhaust as much as any dummy, but as I was driving through those backroads, I wished the Slingshot didn’t produce such a racket. An electric powertrain would improve the experience of the open-top machine.

And finally, an electric powertrain would make the Slingshot as fast as it deserves. As stated above, the Slingshot is not as fast as it looks. Quick? Sure. But it’s not fast, and an electric powertrain would address this shortcoming by offering more torque at the start giving it the speed the Slingshot deserves.

Of course, Polaris probably will not heed my electrification advice. I doubt it’s possible to make the Slingshot electric and maintain the same $30,000 price. A boy can still dream.

The Slingshot is a lot of fun, and the fun comes at a cost. In the end, with the crummy automatic transmission limits the appeal of the Slingshot. Even in the best circumstances, shifts are rough and off-putting and not up to par for passenger vehicles. ATV enthusiasts can probably live with the shifts; everyone else should cross-shop the Slingshot with something like a Mazda MX-5, or even a used BMW Z3. Or, better yet, learn a life-long skill and learn to drive a stick shift, and buy the Slingshot with the standard transmission.

Adding an electric powertrain to the Slingshot would considerably improve the vehicle. It would likely be faster and more enjoyable to drive since a smooth, direct-drive sensation would replace the hard shifts.

October 20th 2020, 10:38 am

Robin.io launches a free version of its cloud-native Kubernetes storage solution

TechCrunch

Robin.io, a cloud-native application and data management solution with enterprise customers like USAA, Sabre, SAP, Palo Alto Networks and Rakuten Mobile, today announced the launch of its new free(-mium) version of its service, in addition to a major update to the core of its tool.

Robin .io promises that it brings cloud-native data management capabilities to containerized applications with support for standard operations like backup and recovery, snapshots, rollbacks and more. It does all of that while offering bare-metal performance and support for all major clouds. The service is essentially agnostic to the actual database being used and offers support for the likes of PostgreSQL, MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, MariaDB, Cassandra, Elasticsearch and others.

Image Credits: Robin.io

“Robin Cloud Native Storage works with any workload on any Kubernetes-based platform and on any cloud,” said Robin founder and CEO Partha Seetala. “With capabilities for storing, taking snapshots, backing up, cloning, migrating and securing data — all with the simplest of commands — Robin Cloud Native Storage offers developers and DevOps teams a super simple yet highly performant tool for quickly deploying and managing their enterprise workloads on Kubernetes.”

The new free version lets teams manage up to 5 nodes and 5TB of storage. The promise here is that this a free-for-life offering and the company obviously expects that it allows enterprises to get a feel for the service and then upgrade to its paid enterprise plans over time.

Talking about those enterprise plans, the company also today announced that it is moving to a consumption-based pricing plan, starting at $0.42 per node-hour (though it also offers annual subscriptions). The enterprise plan includes 24×7 support and doesn’t limit the number of nodes or storage capacity.

Among the new features to Robin’s core storage service are data management support for Helm Charts (where Helm is the Kubernetes package manager), the ability to specify where exactly the data should reside (which is mostly meant to keep it close to the compute resources) and affinity policies that ensure availability for stateful applications that rely on distributed databases and data platforms.

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Genies updates its software development kit and partners with Gucci, Giphy

TechCrunch

Genies, has updated its software development kit and added Giphy and Gucci as new partners to enable their users to create personalized Genie avatars.

The company released the first version of its sdk in 2018 when it raised a $10 million to directly challenge Snap and Apple for avatar dominance. Now, with the latest update, the company said it has managed to create a new three dimensional rendering that can be used across platforms — if developers let Genies handle the animation.

Genies has already managed to sign up many of the biggest names in entertainment to act as their official manager through their Genies talent agency. These include celebrities like Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, and Rihanna. Genies also locked in deals with the National Football League’s player’s association along with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

Now, those celebrities and athletes can monetize exclusive digital goods made by Genies on platforms like Gucci and Giphy and the fashion house and meme generator can now give users their own digital identity to play around with.

“Over the past year, our technology has been sharpened by the exacting creative demands of celebrities. This advanced Genies’ march to be the go-to avatar globally,” said Akash Nigam, Genies CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “What was previously a celebrity exclusive experience, is now broadly available for consumers to use as their virtual portable identities. By opening up to the masses, we’ve now created an opportunity for tastemakers to forge new, unique relationships with their audiences through avatar digital goods.”

The SDK integrations are still highly curated and tailored (there’s a lot of heavy lifting that Genies needs to do with each one). For instance, Gucci users can try on the latest designs and the company will sell digital goods on its platform created by Genies. Giphy users will use their avatars as gifs on its site and through its distribution network.

“Our Avatar Agency has served as the go-to platform for thousands of artists, and with our next-gen, highly expressive and dynamic 3D Genie, we will further solidify our position as the universal digital identity,” said Izzy Pollak, Director of Avatar SDK at Genies. “For celebrities and everyday users alike, it unlocks new arenas and verticals for users to cultivate their avatars in. On top of traditional 2D environments like mobile apps and websites, Genies can now live in AR/VR platforms, games, and in use cases or SDK partner platforms that demand a 360-degree rendering of the digital goods they purchase,”

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Instagram rolls out fan badges for live videos, expands IGTV ads test

TechCrunch

Instagram is today introducing a new way for creators to make money. The company is now rolling out badges in Instagram Live to an initial group of over 50,000 creators, who will be able to offer their fans the ability to purchase badges during their live videos to stand out in the comments and show their support.

The idea to monetize using fan badges is not unique to Instagram. Other live streaming platforms, including Twitch and YouTube, have similar systems. Facebook Live also allows fans to purchase stars on live videos, as a virtual tipping mechanism.

Instagram users will see three options to purchase a badge during live videos: badges that cost $0.99, $1.99, or $4.99.

On Instagram Live, badges will not only call attention to the fans’ comments, they also unlock special features, Instagram says. This includes a placement on a creator’s list of badge holders and access to a special heart badge.

The badges and list make it easier for creators to quickly see which fans are supporting their efforts, and give them a shout-out, if desired.

Image Credits: Instagram

To kick off the roll out of badges, Instagram says it will also temporarily match creator earnings from badge purchases during live videos, starting in November. Creators @ronnebrown and @youngezee are among those who are testing badges.

The company says it’s not taking a revenue share at launch, but as it expands its test of badges it will explore revenue share in the future.

“Creators push culture forward. Many of them dedicate their life to this, and it’s so important to us that they have easy ways to make money from their content,” said Instagram COO Justin Osofsky, in a statement. “These are additional steps in our work to make Instagram the single best place for creators to tell their story, grow their audience, and make a living,” she added.

Additionally, Instagram today is expanding access to its IGTV ads test to more creators. This program, introduced this spring, allows creators to earn money by including ads alongside their videos. Today, creators keep at least 55% of that revenue, Instagram says.

The introduction of badges and IGTV ads were previously announced, with Instagram saying it would test the former with a small group of creators earlier this year.

The changes follow what’s been a period of rapid growth on Instagram’s live video platform, as creators and fans sheltered at home during the coronavirus pandemic, which had cancelled live events, large meetups, concerts, and more.

During the pandemic’s start, for example, Instagram said Live creators saw a 70% increase in video views from Feb. to March, 2020. In Q2, Facebook also reported monthly active user growth (from 2.99B to 3.14B in Q1) that it said reflected increased engagement from consumers who were spending more time at home.

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Stampli, an invoice management software startup, launches a payments product

TechCrunch

Stampli, a collaborative invoice management software company, introduced a payments product today called Stampli Direct Pay.

The startup launched back in 2015 with a mission to simplify invoice management through collaboration (and a dash of AI). Interestingly, Stampli said it was uninterested at the time in providing a payments product alongside its collaborative suite, focusing instead on the process of procure to pay.

This latest announcement marks a shift in the company’s thinking. Cofounder and CEO Eyal Feldman explained that conversations with customers revealed just how frustrated many organizations are with the current B2B payments landscape.

Organizations have several options: cut and mail their own paper checks, use ACH, or sign on with a payments provider to use ‘e-payments.’

Cutting and mailing checks is a pre-historic, time-intensive activity that doesn’t really belong in 2020, while ACH (which comes at a very low, flat cost) often groups multiple transactions into a single sum, making it difficult for accounting to reconcile individual line item purchases.

“Under the misleading banner of “e-payments,” [payments providers] offer AP departments a rebate and promise vendors faster payment,” explained Feldman in a blog post. “However, in order for vendors to get the payment, they must accept payments as virtual credit cards, which come with up to a 3.5% credit card fee per transaction.”

And many payments providers do not provide the data extracted from invoices and transactions back to the organization as a way to stay sticky.

Stampli’s customers illuminated these problems for the startup, which used to be payments agnostic. With the launch of Stampli Direct Pay, the company is still payments flexible, letting organizations work with their existing or different payments providers. But Stampli now offers an option that aims to resolve many of these industry issues.

Because Stampli’s core product already tracks all the contextual and relevant info for every transaction, that information is readily available during payment approval. Direct Pay also offers ACH as a payment option, but separates individual transactions out for easy reconciliation. And for customers who want to stick with checks, Stampli Direct Pay offers a service that allows customers to approve digital checks which come directly from their bank account with their signature, with Stampli handling printing, stamping, and mailing.

Stampli also offers a vendor payment portal that extracts the needed data for each vendor and lets the customer own that data, which can be downloaded and taken to another payment provider.

The company has spent the last four years solving an entirely different problem.

Usually, teams purchase products or services and those invoices end up in the finance department with little to no context, setting off a game of duck duck goose within the organization as accountants try to get the information and approvals they need to pay out that vendor.

Stampli, which has raised $32 million to date, built out a collaborative platform that allows non-accountants to participate in the invoice management process in a way that’s straightforward and simple. Each invoice becomes a communications hub, allowing folks across various departments fill in the blanks and. answer questions about the purchase. Stampli also uses machine learning to recognize patterns around allocating costs, managing approval workflows, and the data that needs to be extracted from invoices.

Each invoice is turned into its own communications hub, allowing people across departments to fill in the blanks and answer questions so that payments are handled as efficiently as possible. Moreover, Stampli uses machine learning to recognize patterns around how the organization allocates cost, manages approval workflows and what data is extracted from invoices.

With the launch of Direct Pay, Stampli is poised to take on a variety of new competitors with an obvious differentiator. The company has processed more than $13 billion in invoices annually.

The team has also grown to more than 100 employees. Fifty-six percent of the company’s US workforce is non-white and 33 percent of the executive leadership team is female, according to Feldman.

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app

TechCrunch

Gowalla is coming back.

The startup, which longtime TechCrunch readers will likely recall, was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare before an eventual $3 million acquihire in 2011 brought the company’s talent to Facebook.

The story certainly seemed destined to end there, but founder Josh Williams tells TechCrunch that he has decided to revive the Gowalla name and build on its ultimate vision by leaning on augmented reality tech.

“I really don’t think [Gowalla’s vision] has been fully realized at all, which is why I still want to scratch this itch,” Williams tells TechCrunch. “It was frankly really difficult to see it shut down.”

After a stint at Facebook, another venture-backed startup and a few other gigs, Williams has reacquired the Gowalla name, and is resurrecting the company with the guidance of co-founder Patrick Piemonte, a former Apple interface designer who previously founded an AR startup called Mirage. The new company was incubated inside Form Capital, a small design-centric VC fund operated by Williams and Bobby Goodlatte .

Founders Patrick Piemonte (left) and Josh Williams (right). Image credit: Josh Williams.

Williams hopes that AR can bring the Gowalla brand new life.

Despite significant investment from Facebook, Apple and Google, augmented reality is still seen as a bit of a gamble with many proponents estimating mass adoption to be several years out. Apple’s ARKit developer platform has yielded few wins despite hefty investment and Pokémon Go — the space’s sole consumer smash hit — is growing old.

“The biggest AR experience out there is Pokémon Go, and it’s now over six years old,” Williams says. “It’s moved the space forward a lot but is still very early in terms of what we’re going to see.”

Williams was cryptic when it came to details for what exactly the new augmented reality platform would look like when it launches. He did specify that it will feel more like a gamified social app than a social game, though he also lists the Nintendo franchise Animal Crossing as one of the platform’s foundational inspirations.

A glimpse of the branding for the new Gowalla. Image credit: Josh Williams

“It’s not a game with bosses or missions or levels, but rather something that you can experience,” Williams says. “How do you blend augmented reality and location? How do you see the world through somebody else’s eyes?”

A location-based social platform will likely rely on users actually going places, and the pandemic has largely dictated the app’s launch timing. Today, Gowalla is launching a waitlist, Williams says the app itself will launch in beta “in a number of cities” sometime in the first-half of next year. The team is also trying something unique with a smaller paid beta group called the “Street Team,” which will give users paying a flat $49 fee early access to Gowalla as well as “VIP membership,” membership to a private Discord group and some branded swag. A dedicated Street Team app will also launch in December.

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Index nabs $2.6M seed to create BI dashboards without coding

TechCrunch

Index founders, Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet, have been friends since they were small children in the Dominican Republic. Both came to college in the U.S., and last year the two decided to launch a startup to help non-technical users build business intelligence dashboards without coding.

Today they get to keep building on that dream with the help of a $2.6 million seed investment from David Sacks, Slack, Gradient Ventures, Y Combinator and other individual investors.

What has attracted this investment is a couple of young founders who are passionate about making it simple to build a data dashboard without help from experts like engineers or data analysts.

“Essentially what we do is we help companies build their business metrics dashboards with as little code or technical knowledge as possible. The byproduct of that is that anyone in the company can build their own metrics for their teams,” co-founder Xavier Pladevall told TechCrunch.

End users can connect to a growing list of data sources and Index deals with building the queries and displaying the data for the users without data scientists or data analysts to help. For now, that includes Salesforce and Hubspot for CRM data, Stripe payments data and certain databases from Postgres and MongoDB.

Company co-founders Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet. Image Credits: Index

As the founders build out the product, they want to stay lean with just the two founders and perhaps two additional engineers. “We’re actually looking to hire two people full time, and that’s going to take us to the Series A, and we’ve been very clear with investors about that,” he said.

As Latino immigrant founders, they want to build a company that’s diverse and inclusive. He says that’s it’s not hard for him and his co-founder to find people of color because they have formed friendships with a diverse  network of people they can tap into.

“Our job is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is to be friends with a bunch of different people because that is genuine and people can definitely tell you’re trying to meet some diversity quota versus when you’re generally a diversity-oriented type of company because it comes back to the founders themselves,” he said.

The two founders and their families have been friends since they were children. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, they didn’t have access to computer science classes, but they did have access to the internet and they got the startup bug from reading U.S. tech publications like this one, and learned to code from YouTube videos and StackOverflow. They both came to college in the U.S. and both interned at large companies — Pladevall at Facebook and Portet worked at Metadata in New York.

The idea came together because Pladevalll was part of a team at Facebook building a similar tool for internal use. He decided that it would be a viable commercial idea for companies without the resources of Facebook. He came together with his childhood friend and began building the company in January as the pandemic hit.

He acknowledges the hardship of this year, but says it really helped them focus because there wasn’t anything else to do. While they are amazed at having $2.6 million in the bank, he says they still have the hunger that he believes is part of the immigrant founder ethos.

“It’s just hunger to just prove yourself and if coding is what it takes, learn how to code. If it’s going through an early visa process, which is by the way, way harder than raising millions of dollars and going through YC, in my opinion, [you do that]” he said. He said it’s about doing whatever it takes.

As the two friends take their first steps as a company, they have some early customers and continue to refine the product. With today’s funding they have some lofty goals for the next year, which include building out that product, reaching $1 million in ARR and building distribution for the dashboard.

If they can meet those goals, Pladevall says, they should be able to get their Series A. I wouldn’t bet against them.

October 20th 2020, 10:25 am

Security testing firm NSS Labs ceases operations, citing coronavirus

TechCrunch

Security testing company NSS Labs “ceased operations” last week, the company said in a notice on its website, citing impacts related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Austin, Texas-based company was quietly acquired by private equity firm Consecutive last October. But last week, the company was reportedly preparing for layoffs, according to Dark Reading, which first reported news of the company’s shuttering.

In a brief post on LinkedIn, NSS Labs’ chief executive Jason Brvenik hinted at layoffs, adding: “If you are in need of excellent people that exceed my high standards, please get in touch.” (Brvenik listed himself as a former chief executive on his LinkedIn profile.)

Former employees told TechCrunch that they had been laid off as a result of the company’s closure.

NSS Labs, founded in 2007, was one of the most well-known product security testing companies, allowing customers to use real threat data to stress-test their products and discover potential vulnerabilities and security issues.

But the last few years have been rocky. NSS Labs retracted its “caution” rating for CrowdStrike’s Falcon platform in 2019, after the two companies confidentially settled a lawsuit challenging the results. NSS Labs also dropped its antitrust suit against the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization (AMTSO), Symantec and ESET, after the testing giant claimed it had discovered evidence of the companies allegedly conspiring to make it harder to test their products.

Spokespeople for NSS Labs and Consecutive did not immediately return requests for comment.


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October 20th 2020, 9:38 am

Review: iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, two gems, one jewel

TechCrunch

There’s an odd tension in only being able to review half of the new iPhone lineup. Though this review is focused on breaking down the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, we all know that the iPhone mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max are sitting out there in the wings. 

Fortunately, we can extrapolate a lot about those devices from these, especially as the iPhone 12 mini is a direct mini-turization of the iPhone 12. Because of the way that Apple has bifurcated the line into ‘Pro’ and ‘non-Pro’ options, these two represent the meaty center of this particular rack of ribs. I think it’s safe to say that for the broad majority, one of these devices is going to be the de-facto option this season. 

In some ways, these two phones are closer than ever before. They share a large chunk of internals, a nicely refreshed design philosophy and essentially complete parity of daily utility. 

In others, they diverge, taking two paths of that design ethos. One path towards the boardroom and the other path towards the coffee shop.

Let’s break it down.

Design

The 12 Pro is likely the most premium feeling piece of consumer electronics I’ve ever touched. 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of handling or wearing an insanely high-end timepiece you’ll know that there’s a particular blend of sensations that tells you you’re touching something special. The hundreds or thousands of person hours that went into its design and construction, the sheer density of its high quality materials and the finishes that defy the eye to differentiate it from something grown, rather than synthesized. 

Most of the iPhone 12 Pro finishes still use a physical vapor deposition process for edge coating. But the new gold (which I do not have in person but looks great) uses a special high-power, impulse magnetron sputtering (HiPIMS) process that lays down the coating in a super dense pattern, allowing it to be tough and super bright with a molecular structure that mimics the stainless steel underneath — making it more durable than “standard” PVD. One side effect is that it’s easier to wipe clean and takes on less fingerprints, something that my blue model was, uh, definitely prone to.

All of those characteristics of the world’s finest watches and jewelry pieces are present in the iPhone 12 Pro. Without the hundreds of thousands of dollars in usual cost.

And, like the proverbial ‘best soda’, you literally couldn’t pay anyone on the planet to make you a better one. When it comes to fine watches, the high end might as well be on another planet from most of us. When it comes to phones, the world is precisely 7.4mm thick.

Where the iPhone iPhone 12 Pro is jewel like, the iPhone 12 is fun, bright and utilitarian. The PVD coatings of the stainless steel are deep and rich on the Pro — but they gather fingerprints like they were in the business of collecting evidence. The blasted aluminum sides of the iPhone 12 welcome you to grab and go.

The back color on the blue model I had was also very well chosen. It’s deep indoors, bright in the sun and feels like part of a modern palette. All of which makes me sad that, as someone who seeks the high end of camera offerings with any of my phones, I can’t carry a bold color any more. 

As of a few models ago, Apple deemed bright colors ‘not high end’ and has produced mostly sedate (with a few gold-flavored exceptions) dark greens, greys and neutral silvers in its top line phones. If you want a nice cool mint or bold red, you’re going to have to be happy in the “middle” of the line. I hope that this situation changes and we see the same bright design energy that shows off so well in the iPhone 12 coming up to the top of the line. Maybe just produce a couple of special ‘Pro-only’ colors like gold or navy. 

One thing worth mentioning here too is that the iPhone 12 Pro is 189 grams where the iPhone 12 is 164 grams. While it may seem silly to note a 15 gram difference, I can say that in practice it does feel quite a bit lighter

Overall, the iPhone 12 feels like the Timex to the iPhone 12 Pro’s Rolex. It’s a great daily driver that feels light and fun. The iPhone 12 Pro leverages refinement as a category differentiator projecting a solidity that plays into the “Pro” posturing.

I have seen a few fine scratches crop up on my iPhone 12’s screen. I am not particularly careful with my review units, as I think it is my duty to treat these things as utility items that will get intense daily usage. Which is what they are. Nothing insanely noticeable, mind you, but whatever the improvements to overall hardness the new Corning Ceramic Shield process brings to the table it is not and will not be invincible to wear and tear. 

U.S. users will get one “special” design detail that other countries won’t have yet: a small translucent window on the right side of the device that allows Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband signals to pass through. It’s odd to see an external detail added to the iPhone when the company has been so obsessed with removing detail for a decade. Especially when this feature is one that most people will never get the chance to use. No 80% design philosophy behind this decision.

One last note, the squared-off sides make it far easier to grip and to pick up from a flat surface than the iPhone 11’s rounded edges. As a fan of the iPhone 5’s ID I welcome this change back. Over time, it could lead to less grip fatigue among those who go caseless because less pressure is required to secure it. 

For bottom finger resters, the return to a square edge means a bit more discomfort here for your pinky. But the new ‘unified’ mating of the edge metal and glass means that you get a nice bullnose and no additional ridge of glass like you did on the iPhone 4. This makes it much less of a factor.

Overall, a bunch of really stellar work on this refresh. It’s pleasant, durable and attractive. 

Pricing

This year’s iPhones did not increase in price. In fact, on a per-gigabyte basis the new iPhone 12 Pro is actually cheaper this year. The savings from the adapters and packaging probably negligible on a per-unit basis, though it does contribute to margins, obviously. The expanded storage options are actually cheaper by $50 this year. The overall effect is to make these new models a better value on every vector, especially if you upgrade. Even when you account for the loss in accessories. 

The $30 surcharge per carrier is a bit of a copout. This fee, whether marketed as an ‘unlock’ or ‘upgrade’ fee makes the iPhones more expensive across the board than Apple’s announced minimums. Zero points for clarity of messaging on this one, Apple.

Camera

When evaluating the cameras in the new models, It’s important to note that the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 all share the exact same sensor and hardware for the Wide and Ultra Wide cameras. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have received an updated 7-element lens that Apple says assists it in edge sharpness. 

 

I saw some signs of improvement here but it can be difficult to tell for a few reasons. The iPhone 11 Pro was already very sharp across the image field, for one, and there is so much computational blending happening that it can be hard to differentiate between something that the software improved and something that the hardware has improved. 

That, of course, is the whole point of software-driven photography. The hardware provides a foundation, but the image is built by algorithms whose parameters are decided on by engineers. 

[gallery ids="2063133,2063091,2063125,2063130,2063122,2063095,2063096,2063106,2063113"]

The other big upgrade in the Wide camera, though, is a new f1.6 aperture, which allows an Apple-quoted 27% more light in. In my testing I found the image quality to be pretty spectacular but without nullifying the iPhone 11 Pro except in some specific conditions. Simply put, the iPhone 11’s camera is already very, very good, but the moves forward in the iPhone 12 slot in above what would normally be a ‘one cycle’ difference.

There are some special upgrades that may be enticing to heavy iPhone photographers though, and I’ll get into those. 

[gallery ids="2063137,2063119,2063107,2063099"]

The cameras in the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro and therefore their performance are very nearly identical. The major differences in the iPhone 12 Pro camera system can be summed up to these items:

  • A telephoto lens
  • LiDAR assisted autofocus
  • LiDAR assisted Night Portrait Mode (wide lens only)

The LiDAR array is very nice to have on the iPhone 12 Pro. There is one completely new mode that is not available on the iPhone 12 here — Night Mode Portraits. The autofocus improvement is active in any low light situation.

The ISP and Neural Engine improvements on iPhone 12 mean that these devices can now use Deep Fusion and Smart HDR 3 on all cameras. And, of course, on the iPhone 12 Pro they also handle LiDAR integration for autofocus and even Night Mode portraits now. This means that at one time you could have a dozen layers of image processing, depth maps, segmentation maps, tone mapping and data from multiple sensors all firing off and being processed in the space of one shutter press. 

When Apple talks about Neural Engine performance increases, it’s not just the pure ML models that get “faster”, it’s the integrations into systems like these that get more capable. Unlike a CPU that foregrounds its benefits for you in terms of raw speed on a single tough task, the Neural Engine works in a quieter fashion to enable machine learning and compute tasks across the breadth of Apple’s baked in apps and third party apps that use the ML frameworks. 

This enhanced high tension threading weaves itself into the fabric of standard processes, making them faster and lighter lift computationally — this reduces power consumption making battery life longer at the same time as it enables features like Deep Fusion to make the jump to the front camera and Ultra Wide camera.

You also get a bump in raw range with the addition of highlight mapping in HDR 3. This bumps your range up as much as 3 stops in high contrast situations. One byproduct of this is that shadows on the iPhone 12/12 Pro tend to look a bit more ‘open’ than they used to. This can be an adjustment from the more clipped blacks on the iPhone 11 but overall allow for more detail. It’s one of those auteur-style choices made by the iPhone photography team. 

The practical benefits can be seen in the iPhone 12’s increased Ultra Wide lens quality. I absolutely love the iPhone 11 Pro’s Ultra Wide as a photographer — its bold angles and wide perspective open up a nice toolbox drawer for images of big stuff in tight spaces. But the fixed focus and generally lower sharpness always made me a tad reluctant to use it.

The iPhone 12 fixes this. The Ultra Wide is sharper edge-to-edge, crisper overall and has some very judiciously applied perspective correction built in to make sure that you don’t get distracting distortion along architectural lines in your images. 

I was a bit worried about this corrective approach because those can be notoriously sketch. But I’m happy to say that it was applied with restraint. You probably won’t notice it unless you compare but it is great to have it running in the background for you. 

For purists who love the distortion that wide angle lenses bring, this can be toggled off in the Camera Settings app.

The Ultra Wide lens getting Night Mode is hot, I’m glad this made the cut this year. The results mirror what you’d expect to see from the Wide camera, which is nice. The process is the same as it was last year when Night mode was introduced, with a slider for intensity (length of exposure) but now you get a nice alignment crosshair that helps you to keep your shot as straight as possible, which improves the ISP’s ability to align the multiple exposures being shot. 

Both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have an improved lens for the Wide camera. It’s got a 1.6f stop aperture now which Apple says gives it 27% more low light gathering. In my tests this held up with a nice improvement in image quality and sharpness in dim lighting conditions. In order to test this, I made sure to turn off Night Mode completely on both of my test models and you can clearly see better color rendition, better sharpness and greater tonal range. 

Where it gets tricky in this test is the iPhone 12’s improved optical image stabilization. I tested the phone in a stable position so it’s unlikely it contributed much but in handheld situations the 5000 actions per second of the new OIS system will give an edge to low light non-Night-Mode shots as well. 

I didn’t have time to test Night Mode timelapse, which is a thing that now exists.

There is also now a Scene Detection toggle in your camera settings. This enables or disables an additional layer of image improvement that uses ML models that have been trained off of hundreds of different scenes to apply adjustments to specific kinds of recognizable scenes.

Shooting food pics on a plate? It will ignore the broad, bright plate which normally causes under-exposure. Shooting images of a big blue sky? It will minimize texture and moire issues. If you don’t want this even more aggressive computational feature active you can turn it off. This one is going to require more extensive testing, I wasn’t able to reliably detect the difference between two images shot with the toggle on or off. 

At a time when Google’s Pixel line is leaning away from major camera improvements, there continues to be a lot of action in Apple’s camp. The majority of which you’ll get a benefit from whether you know the first thing about photography and editing or not.

Video

Apple has had a history of camera firsts with the iPhone and this year it’s Dolby Vision. Both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro record Dolby Vision in up to 4K. 

The iPhone 12 Pro can record 4k/60fps in HDR Dolby vision, but the iPhone 12 is limited to 4k/30fps in HDR. Here’s a screenshot of the modes and megabytes from the iPhone 12 Pro’s settings app.

10-bit HDR brings an expanded range of exposure and color possibilities for those that want to shoot extremely high quality video on an iPhone. Apple continues to use its home grown silicon to flex its video chops here. Processing over 50mb/s of 10-bit HDR video and then being able to edit it on device is pretty insane. In every day use, the iPhone 11 shoots pretty great video already. 

I’m going to be flat out honest with you: the vast majority of iPhone users will never even be able to access HDR footage or workflows, and will never ever need this. If you do most of your video shooting on an iPhone and then share directly to social networks or in Messages, HDR will likely bring you no major benefit. The iPhone 12 shoots pretty amazing right out of the camera 4k footage in 30 and 60 fps. 

However! If you shoot in demanding situations, and are among those who use the iPhone as a real filmmaking tool or simply love video as a hobby — you are in for a treat. In my testing, the iPhone 12 delivers a wider color gamut with an insane range of exposure. It retained detail in normally clipped highlights, displayed the ability to capture deep blacks with a real lack of crushing and blocking and was super forgiving in the edit bay. 

This analogy is not precisely accurate, but the loose idea here is the same as shooting stills in RAW vs. letting the camera handle the processing. If you shoot RAW, you have more information to play with, but by default the image often starts out looking worse to some degree because it requires that you, the shooter, make choices about it. That’s the burden that the ISP in the iPhone takes on for you, it makes the adjustments to get your video looking good right out of the camera.

I shot similar casual video with both the iPhone 12 Pro at 4k/60/HDR and the iPhone 11 Pro. It’s difficult to represent them side-by-side because you must color grade the iPhone 11 Pro to fairly represent it, but I applied light grading to both cameras in order to get you a feel for what a project might look like shot from each and then exported it in SDR. The results speak for themselves, in my opinion. This is a big jump forward for iPhone video quality, which was already excellent if you are willing to adjust and color grade your footage. If you shoot both phones straight up and hold them up side by side, the differences are pretty minimal. 

It was pretty straightforward to drop the Dolby Vision footage into Final Cut Pro X and edit it on a Pro Display XDR. But how many people have a setup like that yet? Obviously, HDR monitors and workflows are getting more common as we go but this is clearly a carrot dangled at serious video shooters and editors for now.

As a bonus, while shooting test images, I also managed to test the water resistance of both of the phones (great) and a set of AirPods (not great) when I stepped back into open air and fell right into my pool. You can see that at the end of the reel here. Great news, they kept recording, still work fine and the footage is crisp. The only long-term damage here involved my pride. Impressively, the AirPods pro worked just fine after I fished them off the bottom of the pool. 

Portrait mode improvements

The portrait mode on iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Plus are greatly improved in one major respect: they do a much better job of segmenting images along the border of things like leaves, hair, fur and other areas of fine detail. 

You’re going to get less ‘messy blur’ at the borders of heads and faces and more crisp differentiation and, for lack of a better term, more smoothly confident separation of foreground and background.

Night Mode portraits are also now go on the Wide camera but I’ll discuss those in the section below.

The True Depth camera Night Mode and Deep Fusion support. The Night Mode is welcome for sure, because without a real flash (the screen blink flash has always been pretty low utility) selfies in dark places became essentially impossible on previous iPhones. Having this option makes a nice neon-lit selfie with yourself or friends a strong possibility. I must note here that Apple aggressively processes these shots and Deep Fusion is in full effect. As in previous years, Apple is making pretty strong choices with regards to what it thinks the product of this front facing camera should be. I found them to be bright and well exposed, but a bit over-tweaked in many cases leading to more skin smoothing, shadows that are more open than average and a flatter, lower contrast look. 

LiDAR Stuff

LiDAR is an iPhone 12 Pro only feature. It enables faster auto-focus lock-in in low light scenarios as well as making Portrait Mode possible on the Wide lens in Night Mode shots. 

First, the auto-focus is insanely fast in low light. The image above is what is happening, invisibly, to enable that. The LiDAR array constantly scans the scene with an active grid of infrared light, producing depth and scene information that the camera can use to focus. 

In practice, what you’ll see is that the camera snaps to focus quickly in dark situations where you would normally find it very difficult to get a lock at all. The LiDAR-assisted low light Portrait Mode is very impressive, but it only works with the Wide lens. This means that if you are trying to capture a portrait and it’s too dark, you’ll get an on-screen prompt that asks you to zoom out. 

These Night  Mode portraits are demonstrably better looking than the standard portrait mode of the iPhone 11 because those have to be shot with the telephoto, meaning a smaller, darker aperture. They also do not have the benefit of the brighter sensor or LiDAR helping to separate the subject from the background — something that gets insanely tough to do in low light with just RGB sensors.

As a note, the LiDAR features will work great in situations under 5 meters along with Apple’s Neural Engine, to produce these low-light portraits. Out beyond that it’s not much use because of light falloff. 

Well lit Portrait Mode shots on the iPhone 12 Pro will still rely primarily on the information coming in through the lenses optically, rather than LiDAR. It’s simply not needed for the most part if there’s enough light.

If you’re a camera-oriented iPhone user, your usage of the telephoto lens is probably the most crisp deciding factor between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12. The LiDAR benefits are there, and they absolutely make a big difference. But not having a telephoto at all could be an easy make-or-break for some people. 

One easy trick here is to make a smart album in Photos on a Mac (or sort your photos using another tool that can read metadata) specifying images shot with a telephoto lens. If that’s a sizeable portion of your pics over the last year, then you’ve got a decision to make about whether you’re comfortable losing that option. 

When I did this, just about 19% of my iPhone 11 Pro shots were taken with the telephoto lens. Around 30% of those were portrait shots. So for me, 1 in every 5 images was shot with that tighter framing. It’s just something I find attractive. I like a little bit more precise of a crop and the nice amount of compression (for closer subjects) that comes with the longer focal length. Personally, I would absolutely miss it, which is a ding for me against the the otherwise solid iPhone 12. 

5G

I’m gonna be straightforward here: Nothing that even approaches next gen 5G is available in California’s Central Valley, where I live. On one hand, it’s not great that I can’t zip out to a 5Guw enabled city like San Jose or SF, but on the other hand I think plenty of other reviews will touch on this. 

The fact is that my experience will be shared by the vast majority of iPhone 12 buyers this year. The fastest flavors of 5G are available only on a few blocks of a handful of major cities at the moment and though the speeds are absolutely incredible there, that will have very little to do with the wider experience of buyers over the next 6 months. And, of course, millimeter wave 5G is not live for customers outside of the U.S. currently.

The LTE speeds delivered 50-80mbps average performance, but I did not perform extensive testing in this regard. My AT&T iPhone 11 routinely hits 150mpbs in the same area (I am within spitting distance of a Verizon and AT&T tower.) 

Accessories

There have been a lot of arguments about the fact that Apple is not including a power adapter with this iPhone. The truth is that this situation is simultaneously several things. It’s a big marketing coup for sustainability, it’s an actual step forward in reducing e-waste and it’s cost savings for Apple who did not reduce the prices of the phones to compensate for no headphones and power adapter. All-in you’re looking at a rough $40 expense to replace those items or a $40 savings if you already have power adapters and headphones littering your place. 

The big accessory news this time around, though, isn’t the lack of a power adapter or crapbuds, it’s MagSafe.

MagSafe

The reaction to MagSafe on iPhone will probably run the gamut from ‘this is a money grab’ to ‘finally’, to ‘meh’. I personally like it a lot as someone who charges almost exclusively via wireless charging now, but I can see the different perspectives here. 

The MagSafe charger is finished nicely with an aluminum ring. The cord relief seems adequate, especially given that it’s not going to be getting the yanking that a Lightning cord often does. The top of it is a soft pad that prevents the phone from getting scratched while sitting on it or being attached. 

Inside the back of the iPhone 12 lineup is a ring of magnets. There is no single polarization of the magnets in the phone, they are alternating which allows the alignment of accessories to be consistent and reliable. This means that no, they will not stick to your fridge. 

As an aside, there is a slight magnetism if you place the MagSafe Charger onto the back of an iPhone 11 Pro. Not enough to align it properly at all, probably just residual attraction from the Qi charging array.

The array inside means that alignment works as advertised, at any rotational angle your iPhone will pop onto the charger and begin charging right away. There is a visual affordance on the screen that mirrors the shape of the MagSafe charger. 

This process is way faster than fiddling with a Qi charger, and way less frustrating. Though I have had some luck with upright Anker chargers, the pad style chargers have always been crap at this. You have to fiddle to get them on right and often wake up realizing that you didn’t get it quite centered and your phone hasn’t charged at all.

In my testing, the iPhone 12 Pro charged an average of 11% every 20 minutes on the MagSafe charger connected to a 20W power adapter. For comparison, the iPhone 12 charged about 6% on a regular Qi charger over the same period. MagSafe also charges any phone that charges via Qi — it is in fact using a superset of Qi in a similar fashion to the way that AirPods use a superset of Bluetooth.

You can also use your iPhone while it’s charging with the MagSafe charger attached to the back. 

But, of course, you can do that with a Lightning cable too. But there are ways that you will be able to use MagSafe that you can’t use a Qi charger. I expect third party accessories to enable mounting your phone via the charger to the side of a bed or desk or wall for vertical charging, for instance. 

The MagSafe connection on the back of the phone is strong, but not massively so. The use of things like car mounts or PopSockets is going to depend on how strong the magnets in those units are. There is enough tension in it to hold the MagSafe charger on no problem. Which also means you must detach the charger by pulling it away or holding it down when you’re removing your phone. This will annoy some people but in practice is really not that big of a deal. I personally will likely use a small 3M pad under mine on my nightstand to keep it stationary. But for more heavy duty mounting situations, the covalent magnet strength is going to matter a lot.

And yes, it’s quite obvious that the MagSafe charger is paving the way to a portless iPhone altogether. Apple will be contributing many of the ‘enhancements’ it is making to the Qi standard back to the consortium so you may see more aligned magnetized stands in the future. This is not a ‘pay us dearly to license this tech’ situation, Apple wants this standard to proliferate.

The MagSafe Charger does not come with a power adapter, so be prepared to spend at least $60 total ($40 for the charger) getting it up and running if you don’t have a USB-C wall wart already.

Cases

I tested the silicon case and the clear case with the iPhone 12/12 Pro. I like the silicon case ust fine, and I’m glad that it now covers the bottom of the iPhone as well now. The clear case is pretty straightforward though I think a lot of people will be turned off by the large white ring (which does not center the Apple logo) on the back. 

That ring is a magnet array, same as the one that’s inside the silicon case or the MagSafe charger. You can just see it because the case is clear. The small vertical line is an orienting magnet that helps the wallet and the other vertical accessories like the Belkin card case go on and stay on in the right orientation. 

The magnets in the cases act as ‘passthrough’ for mounting, though the Qi field is just coming from the phone. The case allows other accessories like the wallet to be stacked, for instance — but you cannot charge through any more layers than you could before. 

Wallet

About the wallet. I like the concept of this a lot, but the actual use of it is a bit meh. Here are some observations:

  • It’s shielded. This means that the magnets in MagSafe won’t wipe your cards’ mag strip. Though the bare phone does have the potential to do this through a thin wallet or in your pocket with a hotel key. Keep them separated.
  • The shielding works inwards and outwards, letting the wallet act as an NFC and RFID blocking wallet as well. This means no scanning your stuff and no accidental payment activations at tap stations. 
  • You must to remove it to get cards out reliably. On the back of the wallet there is a thumb hole that lets you push to slide a card up and out. Some folks that have used them for a while tell me that sliding on the cards themselves from the front can work too. But in my experience, any way of getting them out that isn’t taking the wallet off the phone and pushing up on the back is an exercise in frustration.
  • It really only fits 3 “regular thickness” cards or 2 “premium thickness” cards like an Amex Platinum or Chase Reserve plus a thin ID card. Many credit cards like the Apple Card are now made of metal and thicker than they used to be. This means that the wallet actually has pretty limited storage capacity. Forget any folded cash.
  • The magnet effect is strong but not crazy strong. The wallet does not slide off but it’s not like it’s on there rock solid. It comes off pretty easily if you try. I am on the fence about how comfortable I feel trusting it to stay on there. More time with it is needed.

Performance and Battery

Battery usage seemed to be much in line with the iPhone 11 Pro. I typically clone all of my test devices off of my current devices and then do testing on performance once indexing has settled down. I got around 15 hours of heavy usage on the iPhone 12 Pro every day. The iPhone 12 seemed similar but it’s hard to say because I had to focus on one main device. 

Performance wise I ran standard benchmarks on them but really can’t bring myself to do much more these days. They perform great and there does not seem to be any big anomaly between their claims and what exists. The fact is that with the growing importance of the Neural Engine and background ML tasks, the raw clock speeds of Apple’s processors actually get less and less important every release. 

On the memory side, the iPhone 12 Pro seems to have 6GB of RAM and the iPhone 12 has 4GB of RAM. 

Packaging 

Apple has been working towards all paper packaging on all of its products for a while, though there is an outer plastic shell here they get closer than they have before.

The new packages are worth talking about the changes for a few reasons. They’ve ditched the accessories which means these are much much smaller profiles. That means more iPhones per square foot and lighter weight which means cheaper and more energy efficient to ship which actually means less emissions and expenditure down the complete line of the supply chain.

The boxes are thinner, because there is no need to accommodate the not-included power adapter or wired headphones. Apple has also completely eliminated the cheat sheet ‘manual’ from the package. That function is now performed by a simple screen protecting sheet of paper with the basic button functions stenciled on it. There’s even a wraparound ‘tail’ for the Lightning port. 

You still do get a sticker though.

Finale

I’m in the awkward position here, maybe for the first time since I’ve been reviewing iPhones, of having neither of the devices that I want to daily drive in my hand. Though both of these phones have many features to commend them, they fall outside of the parameters that I use to decide what to carry with me.

My device picking rubric is purely defined by two characteristics:

  • The most compact and unobtrusive shape.
  • The best camera that I can afford.

The iPhone 12 Pro is bested (theoretically) in the camera department by the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which has the biggest and best sensor Apple has yet created. )But its dimensions are similarly biggest.) The iPhone 12 has been precisely cloned in a smaller version with the iPhone 12 mini. By my simple decision-making matrix, either one of those are a better choice for me than either of the models I’ve tested. If the object becomes to find the best compromise between the two, the iPhone 12 Pro is the pick.

But, for most people, the iPhone 12 is a really stellar buy. Its bright colors, lightweight but sound construction and improved camera make it the ‘easy choice’ for those confused by Apple’s broad current lineup. 

As mentioned above in the camera section, if the telephoto lens is something you use a significant amount on your current phone, it’s a simple call, upgrade. If it’s not, do yourself a favor and think about putting a bit of color in your life, you’re not going to miss much by choosing the ‘regular’ iPhone 12. 

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Adobe Illustrator launches on iPad and Adobe Fresco comes to the iPhone

TechCrunch

Adobe today launched the first public version of its Illustrator vector graphics app on the iPad. That’s no surprise, given that it was already available for pre-order and as a private beta, but a lot of Illustrator users were looking forward to this day.

In addition, the company also today announced that its Fresco drawing and painting app is now available on Apple’s iPhone, too. Previously, you needed either a Windows machine or an iPad to use it.

Illustrator on the iPad supports Apple Pencil — no surprise there either — and should offer a pretty intuitive user experience for existing users. Like with Photoshop, the team adapted the user interface for a smaller screen and promises a more streamlined experience.

Image Credits: Adobe

“While on the surface it may seem simple, more capabilities reveal themselves as you work. After a while you develop a natural rhythm where the app fades into the background, freeing you to express your creativity,” the company says.

Over time, the company plans to bring more effects, brushes and AI-powered features to Illustrator in general — including on the iPad.

Image Credits: Adobe

As for Fresco, it’ll be interesting to see what that user experience will look like on a small screen. Since it uses Adobe’s Creative Cloud libraries, you can always start sketching on an iPhone and then move to another platform to finish your work. It’s worth noting that the iPhone version will feature the same interface, brushes and capabilities you’d expect on the other platforms.

The company also today launched version 2.0 of Fresco, with new smudge brushes, support for personalized brushes from Adobe Capture and more.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Microsoft debuts Azure Space to cater to the space industry, partners with SpaceX for Starlink datac

TechCrunch

Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.

One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.

The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).

This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

The Justice Department has filed its antitrust lawsuit against Google

TechCrunch

The Justice Department said it has filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google, confirming an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal.

In the suit, the Justice Department is expected to argue that Google used anticompetitive practices to safeguard its monopoly position as the dominant force in search and search-advertising, which sit at the foundation of the company’s extensive advertising, data mining, video distribution, and information services conglomerate.

It would be the first significant legal challenge that Google has faced from U.S. regulators despite years of investigations into the company’s practices.

A 2012 attempt to bring the company to the courts to answer for anti-competitive practices was ultimately scuttled because regulators at the time weren’t sure they could make the case stick. Since that time Alphabet’s value has skyrocketed to reach over $1 trillion (as of today’s share price).

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, holds a commanding lead in both search and video. The company dominates the search market — with roughly 90% of the world’s internet searches conducted on its platform — and roughly three quarters of American adults turn to YouTube for video, as the Journal reported.

In the lawsuit, the Department of Justice will say that Alphabet’s Google subsidiary uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors. The billions of dollars that the search giant collects wind up paying mobile phone companies, carriers and browsers to make the Google search engine a preset default. That blocks competitors from being able to access the kinds of queries and traffic they’d need to refine their own search engine.

It will be those relationships — alongside Google’s insistence that its search engine come pre-loaded (and un-deletable) on phones using the Android operating system and that other search engines specifically not be pre-loaded — that form part of the government’s case, according to Justice Department officials cited by the Journal.

The antitrust suit comes on the heels of a number of other regulatory actions involving Google, which is not only the dominant online search provider, but also a leader in online advertising and in mobile technology by way of Android, as well as a strong player in a web of other interconnected services like mapping, online productivity software, cloud computing and more.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/23: American multinational technology company Google logo seen at Google campus. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A report last Friday in Politico noted that Democrat Attorneys General would not be signing the suit. That report said those AGs have instead been working on a bipartisan, state-led approach covering a wider number of issues beyond search — the idea being also that more suits gives government potentially a stronger bargaining position against the tech giant.

A third suit is being put together by the state of Texas, although that has faced its own issues.

While a number of tech leviathans are facing increasing scrutiny from Washington, with the US now just two weeks from Election Day, it’s unlikely that we are going to see many developments around this and other cases before then. And in the case of this specific Google suit, in the event that Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there will also be a larger personnel shift at the DoJ that could also change the profile and timescale of the case.

In any event, fighting these regulatory cases is always a long, drawn-out process. In Europe, Google has faced a series of fines over antitrust violations stretching back several years, including a $2.7 billion fine over Google shopping; a $5 billion fine over Android dominance; and a $1.7 billion fine over search ad brokering. While Goolge slowly works through appeals, there are also more cases ongoing against the company in Europe and elsewhere.

Google is not the only one catching the attention of Washington. Earlier in October, the House Judiciary Committee released a report of more than 400 pages in which it outlined how tech giants Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook were abusing their power, covering everything from the areas in which they dominate, through to suggestions for how to fix the situation (including curtailing their acquisitions strategy).

That seemed mainly to be an exercise in laying out the state of things, which could in turn be used to inform further actions, although in itself, unlike the DoJ suit, the House report lacks teeth in terms of enforcement or remedies.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

DJI’s Pocket 2 gimbal is an extremely fun way to grab impressive smartphone shots

TechCrunch

The Pocket 2 is the kind of device that makes me wish I got out a bit more. I’ve been testing it out for a few days, and, while it’s done a reasonably good job making my life look a bit more interesting, there’s only so much such a little device can do during this lockdown. That’s no fault of DJI’s of course. There’s only so much that can be done — and at the end of the day, a camera can only really work with the content you give it.

Even so, I’ve enjoyed my time with the product. As I did with its predecessor, the DJI Osmo Pocket. The device returns this week with a truncated name and a handful of improvements. Nothing on board is particularly revolutionary, but the original device was such a cool and innovative product when it first arrived roughly two years ago, the company can be forgiven for mostly focusing on refinement.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The line builds on DJI’s know-how, developed with years of drone imaging and gimbal expertise. Unlike, say the Ronin or Osmo Mobile lines, however, the product works as a standalone, with a small built-in display that records directly onto a microSD card. But as with the original, the whole getup works a heck of a lot better when you’ve got an Android or iOS handset to work with. The Pocket still does the majority of the heavy imaging lifting, but your phone just works as a much better preview screen and control center than the measly one built into the device.

The system ships with a pair of connectors: USB-C and Lightning, depending on your device. It’s a solid setup, best controlled with two hands. I didn’t have any issues, but I don’t entirely trust the integrity of a connector enough to hold it with one. Better yet, there are wireless accessories that allow for you to control the system remotely via phone. And speaking of accessories, I highly recommend getting a mini tripod or splurging for the bonus pack that includes one. It can be tricky propping the system up correctly for those modes that require minutes-long record times. More than once a video ended when the device fell over due to a strong gust.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The underlying imaging hardware has been improved throughout. The camera now sports a larger sensor (64-megapixels) and wider lens, shooting better videos and stills than the original. The device can zoom up to 8x — though I’d recommend sticking with the 4x lossless optical, so as to not degrade those shots you’re taking. (HDR, incidentally, is coming at a later date.)

The mics, too, have been upgraded. There are four in total on board. Definitely use that optional wind noise reduction. For even better quality, the combo pack also includes a wireless microphone with windscreen, so that, too, may be worth investigating depending on what and where you plan to shoot. The three-axis gimbal does a good job keep things steady — and moves smoothly for a variety of different image and video capturing tasks. As with the last version, I found the battery to be lacking — that’s doubly the case for the gimbal charging up an attached phone by default.

As usual, the shooting modes are the real secret sauce. In particular, I’m really smitten with timelapse and hyperlapse. The former offers a sped-up image, using the gimbal to stabilize the shot as you move:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Hyperlapse takes it a step further, mechanically moving the gimbal from left to right in slow increments that give a sweeping shot of a space over time:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The system also borrows subject tracking from the drone line. Draw a rectangular around an object on the smartphone display and the gimbal will move along with it. The tracking proved to be pretty accurate, though I ran into some issues in the shadows and in situations when there’s a lot of divergent movement happening — like when I attempted to capture the runner in a softball game. On the whole however, it does a pretty solid job with people and animals alike.

The gimbal is also great for stitching together panorama shots — something that can be a pain on a standard smartphone. It can either do together a standard ultra wide 180-degree shot or create a highly detailed 3×3 image by essentially stitching together nine images in one:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Pocket 2 occupies a strange territory. It’s essentially a $349 add-on designed to augment smartphone photography. It’s an easy shortcut for grabbing some really cool shots, but pros are going to be much more interested in shooting with, say, a Ronin and an SLR. That leaves hobbyists with cash to spend on something that will, say, really wow their friends on social media. It’s a way to capture some drone-style shots without ever having to leave the ground.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Apple, Opera, and Yandex fix browser address bar spoofing bugs, but millions more still left vulnera

TechCrunch

Year after year, phishing remains one of the most popular and effective ways for attackers to steal your passwords. As users, we’re mostly trained to spot the telltale signs of a phishing site, but most of us rely on carefully examining the web address in the browser’s address bar to make sure the site is legitimate.

But even the browser’s anti-phishing features — often the last line of defense for a would-be phishing victim — aren’t perfect.

Security researcher Rafay Baloch found several vulnerabilities in some of the most widely used mobile browsers — including Apple’s Safari, Opera, and Yandex — which if exploited would allow an attacker to trick the browser into displaying a different web address than the actual website that the user is on. These address bar spoofing bugs make it far easier for attackers to make their phishing pages look like legitimate websites, creating the perfect conditions for someone trying to steal passwords.

The bugs worked by exploiting a weakness in the time it takes for a vulnerable browser to load a web page. Once a victim is tricked into opening a link from a phishing email or text message, the malicious web page uses code hidden on the page to effectively replace the malicious web address in the browser’s address bar to any other web address that the attacker chooses.

In at least one case, the vulnerable browser retained the green padlock icon, indicating that the malicious web page with a spoofed web address was legitimate — when it wasn’t.

An address bar spoofing bug in Opera Touch for iOS (left) and Bolt Browser (right). These spoofing bugs can make phishing emails look far more convincing. (Image: Rapid7/supplied)

Rapid7’s research director Tod Beardsley, who helped Baloch with disclosing the vulnerabilities to each browser maker, said address bar spoofing attacks put mobile users at particular risk.

“On mobile, space is at an absolute premium, so every fraction of an inch counts. As a result, there’s not a lot of space available for security signals and sigils,” Beardsley told TechCrunch. “While on a desktop browser, you can either look at the link you’re on, mouse over a link to see where you’re going, or even click on the lock to get certificate details. These extra sources don’t really exist on mobile, so the location bar not only tells the user what site they’re on, it’s expected to tell the user this unambiguously and with certainty. If you’re on palpay.com instead of the expected paypal.com, you could notice this and know you’re on a fake site before you type in your password.”

“Spoofing attacks like this make the location bar ambiguous, and thus, allow an attacker to generate some credence and trustworthiness to their fake site,” he said.

Baloch and Beardsley said the browser makers responded with mixed results.

So far, only Apple and Yandex pushed out fixes in September and October. Opera spokesperson Julia Szyndzielorz said the fixes for its Opera Touch and Opera Mini browsers are “in gradual rollout.”

But the makers of UC Browser, Bolt Browser, and RITS Browser — which collectively have more than 600 million device installs — did not respond to the researchers and left the vulnerabilities unpatched.

TechCrunch reached out to each browser maker but none provided a statement by the time of publication.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Venn, a network hoping to be gaming’s answer to MTV, raises $26 million

TechCrunch

VENN , the streaming network hoping to be gaming culture’s answer to MTV, has raised $26 million to bring its mix of video game-themed entertainment and streaming celebrity features to the masses.

The financing came from previous investor Bitkraft, one of the largest funds focused on the intersection of gaming and synthetic reality, and new investor Nexstar Media Group, a publicly traded operator of regional television broadcast stations and cable networks around the U.S.

The investment from Nexstar gives Venn a toehold in local broadcast that could see the network’s shows appear on regular broadcast televisions in most major American cities, and adds to a roster of Nexstar properties including CourtTV, Bounce, and Ion Television. The company has over 197 television stations and a network of websites that average over 100 million monthly active users and 1 billion page views, according to a statement from Ben Kusin, Venn’s co-founder and chief executive.

“VENN is a new kind of TV network built for the streaming and digital generation, and it’s developing leading-edge content for the millennial and Gen Z cultures who are obsessed with gaming,” Nexstar Media Group President, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer, Thomas E. Carter said in a statement. “Gaming and esports are two fast growing sectors and through our investment we plan to distribute VENN content across our broadcast platform to address a younger audience; utilize VENN to gain early access to gaming-adjacent content; and present local and national brands with broadcast and digital marketing and advertising opportunities to reach younger audiences.”

It’s unclear how much traction with younger audiences Venn has. The company’s YouTube channel has 14,000 subscribers and its Twitch Channel boasts a slightly more impressive 57.7 thousand subscribers. Still, it’s early days for the streaming network, which only began airing its first programming in September.

Since its launch a little over a year ago, Venn has managed to poach some former senior leadership from Viacom’s MTV and MTV Music Entertainment Group, which has been the model the gaming-focused streaming network has set for itself. Jeff Jacobs, the former senior vice president for production planning, strategies and operations at MTV’s parent company, Viacom and most recently an independent producer for Viacom, the NBA, Global Citizen and ACE Universe.

Venn is currently available on its own website and various streaming services as well as through partnerships with the Roku Channel, Plex, Xumo, Samsung TV Plus and Vizio.

The company has also managed to pick up some early brand partnerships with companies including Subway, Draft Kings, Alienware, Adidas and American Eagle.

 

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Adobe Photoshop gets new AI smarts with neural filters, sky replacement and more

TechCrunch

Adobe is betting big on its Sensei AI platform, and so it’s probably no surprise that the company also continues to build more AI-powered features into its flagship Photoshop applications. At its MAX conference, Adobe today announced a handful of new AI features for Photoshop, with Sky Replacement being the most obvious example. Other new AI-driven features include new so-called “Neural Filters” that are essentially the next-generation of Photoshop filters and new and improved tools for selecting parts of images, in addition to other tools to improve on existing features or simplify the photo-editing workflow.

Photoshop isn’t the first tool to offer a Sky Replacement feature. Luminar, for example, has offered that for more than a year already, but it looks like Adobe took its time to get this one right. The idea itself is pretty straightforward: Photoshop can now automatically recognize the sky in your images and then replace it with a sky of your choosing. Because the colors of the sky also influence the overall scene, that would obviously result in a rather strange image, so Adobe’s AI also adjusts the colors of the rest of the image accordingly.

Image Credits: Adobe

How well all of this works probably depends a bit on the images, too. We haven’t been able to give it a try ourselves, and Adobe’s demos obviously worked flawlessly.

Photoshop will ship with 25 sky replacements, but you can also bring in your own.

Neural Filters are the other highlight of this release. They provide you with new artistic and restorative filters for improving portraits, for example, or quickly replacing the background color of an image. The portrait feature will likely get the most immediate use, given that it allows you to change where people are looking, change the angle of the light source and “change hair thickness, the intensity of a smile, or add surprise, anger, or make someone older or younger.” Some of these are a bit more gimmicky than others, and Adobe says they work best for making subtle changes, but either way — making those changes would typically be a lot of manual labor, and now it’s just a click or two.

Image Credits: Adobe

Among the other fun new filters are a style transfer tool and a filter that helps you colorize black and white images. The more useful new filters include the ability to remove JPEG artifacts.

As Adobe noted, it collaborated with Nvidia on these Neural Filters, and, while they will work on all devices running Photoshop 22.0, there’s a real performance benefit to using them on machines with built-in graphics acceleration. No surprise there, given how computationally intensive a lot of these are.

Image Credits: Adobe

While improved object selection may not be quite as flashy as Sky Replacement and the new filters, “intelligent refine edge,” as Adobe calls it, may just save a few photo editors’ sanity. If you’ve ever tried to use Photoshop’s current tools to select a person or animal with complex hair — especially against a complex backdrop — you know how much manual intervention the current crop of tools still need. Now, with the new “Refine Hair” and “Object Aware Refine Mode,” a lot of that manual work should become unnecessary.

Other new Photoshop features include a new tool for creating patterns, a new Discover panel with improved search, help and contextual actions, faster plugins and more.

Also new is a plugin marketplace for all Creative Cloud apps that makes it easier for developers to sell their plugins.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Jam raises $3.5 million to Figma-tize product collaboration

TechCrunch

The web of collaboration apps invading remote work toolkits have led to plenty of messy workflows for teams that communicate in a language of desktop screenshots and DMs. Tracing a suggestion or flagging a bug in a company’s website forces engineers or designers to make sense of the mess themselves.  While task management software has given teams a funnel for the clutter, the folks at Jam question why this functionality isn’t just built straight into the product.

Jam co-founders Dani Grant and Mohd Irtefa tell TechCrunch they’ve closed on $3.5 million in seed funding and are ready to launch a public beta of their collaboration platform which builds chat, comments and task management directly onto a website, allowing developers and designers to track issues and make suggestions quickly and simply

The seed round was led by Union Square Ventures, where co-founder Dani Grant previously worked as an analyst. Version One Ventures, BoxGroup and Village Global also participated alongside some noteworthy angels including GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and former Robinhood VP Josh Elman.

Like most modern productivity suites, Jam is heavy on integrations so users aren’t forced to upend their toolkits just to add one more product into the mix. The platform supports Slack, Jira, GitHub, Asana, Loom and Figma, with a few more in the immediate pipeline. Data syncs from one platform to the other bidirectionally so information is always fresh, Grant says. It’s all built into a tidy sidebar.

Grant and Irtefa met as product managers at Cloudflare, where they started brainstorming better ways to communicate feedback in a way that felt like “leaving digital sticky notes all over a product,” Grant says. That thinking ultimately pushed the duo to leave their jobs this past May and start building Jam.

The startup, like so many conceived during this period, has a remote founding story. Grant and Irtefa have only spent four days together in-person since the company was started, they raised their seed round remotely and most of the employees have never met each other in-person.

The remote team hopes their software can help other remote teams declutter their workflows and focus on what they’re building.

“On a product team, the product is the first tab everyone opens and closes,” Grant says. “So we’re on top of your product instead of on some other platform”

Jam’s interface

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Stotles secures funding for platform which brings transparency to government tenders, contracts

TechCrunch

The public sector usually publishes its business opportunities in the form of ‘tenders,’ to increase transparency to the public. However, this data is scattered, and larger businesses have access to more information, giving them opportunities to grab contracts before official tenders are released. We have seen the controversy around UK government contracts going to a number of private consultants who have questionable prior experience in the issues they are winning contracts on.

And public-to-private sector business makes up 14% of global GDP, and even a 1% improvement could save €20B for taxpayers per year, according to the European Commission .

Stotles is a new UK startup technology that turns fragmented public sector data — such as spending, tenders, contracts, meeting minutes, or news releases — into a clearer view of the market, and extracts relevant early signals about potential opportunities.

It’s now raised a £1.4m seed round led by Speedinvest, with participation from 7Percent Ventures, FJLabs, and high-profile angels including Matt Robinson, co-founder of GoCardless and CEO at Nested; Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, COO at Go -Cardless; Charlie Songhurst, former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft; Will Neale, founder of Grabyo; and Akhil Paul. It received a previous investment from Seedcamp last year.

Stotles’ founders say they had “scathing” experiences dealing with public procurement in their previous roles at organizations like Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum.

The private beta has been open for nine months, and is used by companies including UiPath, Freshworks, Rackspace, and Couchbase. With this funding announcement, they’ll be opening up an early access program.

Competitors include: Global Data, Contracts Advance, BIP Solutions, Spend Network/Open Opps, Tussel, TenderLake. However, most of the players out there are focused on tracking cold tenders, or providing contracting data for periodic generic market research.

October 20th 2020, 9:26 am

Soleadify secures seed funding for database what tracks 40M business using machine learning

TechCrunch

Usually, databases about companies have to be painstakingly updated by humans. Soleadify is a startup that uses machine learning to create profiles for businesses in any industry. The first of the company’s products is a business search engine that keeps over 40 million business profiles updated, currently used by hundreds of companies in the USA, Europe and Asia for sales and marketing activities.

It’s now secured $1.5M in seed round funding from European venture firms GapMinder Venture Partners and DayOne Capital, as well as several prominent business angels, through Seedblink, an equity crowdfunding platform based out of Bucharest Romania.

The company plans to use the funds to further improve their technology, build partnerships and expand their marketing capabilities.

On top of Soleadify’s data, they build solutions for prospecting, market research, customer segmentation and industry monitoring.

The way it’s done is by frequently scanning billions of webpages, identifying and classifying relevant data points and creating connections between them. The result is a database of business data, that is normally only available through laborious, manual research.

October 20th 2020, 8:54 am

Handshake raises $80M more to build a more diversity-focused LinkedIn for college students

TechCrunch

College graduates this year (and perhaps in the near-term) have been looking for work in what is one of the most challenging job markets in a decade due to the coronavirus and its impacts on the economy and how people can interact with each other. Today, a startup that’s helping them with that job hunting process is announcing a big round of funding to grow its business.

Handshake, which provides a platform for college-aged students to register their interest and skills and search for suitable work, and for recruiters to search for candidates and advertise entry-level openings, has raised $80 million in a growth round of funding.

Handshake is not disclosing its valuation but a reliable source close to the startup said that the valuation has more than doubled since its last round. That was at $275 million, putting the likely valuation now between $550 million and $600 million.

The company has been around since 2014 and has built its profile in part as a more inclusive version of LinkedIn aimed at people only start starting out in the job market, and it’s using the funding to double down on that.

It now covers 17 million job seekers, 1,000 institutions of higher learning and nearly 500,000 employers, with partnerships with some 120 minority-serving institutions, which include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic Serving Institutions in the U.S., to help them and their students better tackle the job-hunting-recruitment market.

And in this year, Handshake has been using its latest funding — which actually closed in November 2019 — to expand to also including community colleges in its network, and expand its virtual events services.

The Series D is being led by GGV and also includes participation from all of its existing investors. Handshake already had an illustrious list of backers: its last round, a $40 million Series C in 2018, was led by EQT and also included the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network and Reach Capital, as well as True Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Spark Capital and KPCB Edge.

Garrett Lord, Handshake’s CEO who co-founded the company with Scott Ringwelski (CTO) and Ben Christensen (a board member), said that the coronavirus has not just impacted the job market, but also the job-hunting market.

“The pandemic, as you can imagine, has really reshaped the hiring economy,” he said. “Companies can no longer go to campus to recruit” — traditionally a huge part of how companies connect with those just entering the job market, by way of events where they can meet many people en masse — “so we’ve seen an unprecedented shift to virtual recruiting.”

Virtual events had, he added, been gaining more popularity “prior to Covid,” but suddenly it became the only game in town. He said that currently some 20,000 employers have managed virtual recruitment events at institutions using the Handshake platform. These take the form of online mixers and fairs, where it provides five 30-minute group meetings with up to 50 students in each, with recruiters providing presentations and talking with students; and/or 10-minute 1:1 meetings with students with up to 15 recruiters.

All well and good, except that the job market itself is still rocky. Lord said that there was a 20-30% drop in listings at the start of the pandemic, with particular sectors like hospitality leading that decline, with those still hiring pulling away from proactive campus recruitment. Now, seven months on, many of those realize that they have to continue to be visible and are slowly coming back.

“They need Handshake more than ever before, to replace boots on ground experience with digital and immersive experiences,” Lord said.

While managing the macroeconomic contraction, the expansion this year to including community colleges on Handshake has been a huge deal.

There has long been a perceived prestige and expertise divide between 2-year and 4-year institutions, but as our concept of higher education continues to evolve, with many students foregoing college altogether, or opting for vocational degrees that do not extend to four years of study at a university or college, and college becomes ever more expensive, it’s about time that platforms that are helping one tier of students also helps the other.

And for its investors, at a time when companies are not just talking about wanting to build more diverse work forces, but putting money where their mouths are, and internalizing that change is something that you sometimes need to be proactive to effect, Handshake is a compelling startup to invest in.

“Since its founding, Handshake has been laser focused on delivering on its vision to democratize job opportunity by connecting employers with job seeking students at institutions of higher education, and has built a rich network of 17 million job seekers, 1,000 institutions of higher learning and nearly 500,000 employers,” said Jeff Richards, Managing Partner of GGV, in a statement. “We’re delighted to join forces with the Handshake team to help the company further expand its impact by delivering innovative, industry-leading recruitment solutions and expanding into new markets.”

October 20th 2020, 8:38 am

Austin-based Verifiable raises $3 million for its api toolkit to verify healthcare credentials

TechCrunch

Before Nick Macario launched Verifiable, the Austin-based company that just raised $3 million for its api toolkit that verifies healthcare credentials, he ran a series of other businesses designed to offer public credentials for professionals.

His first foray into the world of identity management services was the personal website builder, branded.me. After that company was sold, Macario launched Remote.com, an outsourced provider of human resources services that was constantly running background checks and verifying employee credentials.

That’s where Macario got the idea for Verifiable and struck on a market opportunity that’s exploding thanks to the proliferation of telemedicine and on-demand services, and the shortage of qualified medical candidates to fill positions and meet growing demand.

This boom in remote medical services is one reason why Macario, working with co-founder and chief technology officer, Vivekanand Rajkumar, was able to raise $3 million from investors including Tiger Global, Liquid2 Ventures, Struck Capital, Soma Capital, Jack Altman, Max Mullen, and Sahil Lavingia.

“We’re at an inflection point with healthcare,” said Macario. “There are large volumes of healthcare verifications and certifications that are being verified manually… and the lack of infrastructure and credentialing is a big part of the bottleneck holding healthcare back.”

Verifiable uses Dock, a blockchain based ledger company that issues digital credentials and anchors them to a public ledger.

Verifiable provides an API that connects to hundreds of primary sources to keep updated records on the 17 million licensed healthcare providers working in the U.S.

Companies like Talkspace, Sesame and Verge Health are already using the  API to automate real-time verifications for more than 50,000 healthcare providers.

“From a broader scale, we’re automating credentialing processes, but specifically we’re automating licensing verification and monitoring,” Macario said.

The Verifiable chief executive estimates that several billions of dollars in revenue and fines are lost every year because healthcare providers don’t keep up with the credentialing and licensing practitioners need to work in the U.S.

“It’s not a one-and-done verification,” says Macario. “You need to check on a monthly basis to make sure that providers are compliant.”

Verifiable’s management service can range anywhere from two to ten dollars depending on how deeply a potential employer wants to dive to confirm the standing and licensing of their practitioners. The price is based on the number of verifications and the number of healthcare providers that need to be verified.

And while Verifiable is starting with a specific focus on verification, the company has much bigger vision. “Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data. It connects to many different areas of healthcare,” Macario said.

We’re starting in a specific focus with verification.. Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data… it connects to many different areas of healthcare. 

 

October 20th 2020, 8:38 am

Lux-backed Flex Logix announces availability of its fast and cheap X1 AI chip for the edge

TechCrunch

In the computing world, there are probably more types of chips available than your local supermarket snack aisle. Diverse computing environments (data centers and the cloud, edge, mobile devices, IoT, and more), different price points, and varying capabilities and performance requirements are scrambling the chip industry, resetting who has the lead right now and who might take the lead in new and emerging niches.

While there has been a spate of new chip startups like Cerebras, SiFive, and Nuvia funded by venture capitalists in the past two years, Flex Logix got its footing a bit earlier. The company, founded in 2014 by former Rambus founder Geoff Tate and Cheng Wang, has collectively raised $27 million from investors Lux Capital and Eclipse Ventures, along with Tate himself.

Flex Logix wants to bring AI processing workflows to the compute edge, which means it wants to offer technology that adds artificial intelligence to products like medical imaging equipment and robotics. At the edge, processing power obviously matters, but so does size and price. More efficient chips are easier to include in products, where pricing may put constraints on the cost of individual components.

In the first few years of the company, it focused on developing and licensing IP around FPGAs, or reprogrammable chips that can be changed after manufacturing through software. These flexible chips are critical in applications like AI or 5G, where standards and models change rapidly. It’s a market that is dominated by Xilinx and Altera, which was acquired by Intel for $16.7 billion back in 2015.

Flex Logix saw an opportunity to be “the ARM of FPGAs” by helping other companies develop their own chips. It built customer traction for its designs with organizations like Sandia National Laboratory, the Department of Defense and Boeing. More recently, it has been developing its own line of chips called InferX X1, creating a hybrid business model not unlike the model that Nvidia will have after its acquisition of ARM clears through regulatory hurdles.

With that background out of the way, Flex Logix unveiled the availability of its X1 chip, which is currently slated to be offered at four speeds ranging from 533Mhz to 933Mhz. CEO Tate stressed on our call that the company’s key differential is price: those chips will be priced between $99-$199 depending on chip speed for smaller orders, and $34-$69 per chip for large-scale orders.

It’s a chip, alright. Ain’t a lot of great stock art. But here is the X1. Photo via Flex Logix.

The reason those chips are cheaper is that they are significantly smaller than competing chips from Nvidia in its Jetson chip lineup according to Tate, up to 1/7 the size. Smaller chips generally have lower costs, since each wafer in a chip fab can hold more chips, amortizing the cost of manufacturing over more chips. According to the company, its chips outperform Nvidia’s Xavier module, although independent benchmarks aren’t available.

“Every customer we talk to wants more processing power per dollar, more processing power per unit of power … and with our die-size advantage we can give them more for their money,” Tate explained.

Customer samples for these new chips are expected to arrive in the first quarter next year, with scale manufacturing in the second quarter.

The company’s plan is to continue both sides of its business and continue to grow and mature its technology. “Our embedded FPGA businesses is now, as a standalone, profitable. The amount of money we’re bringing in exceeds the engineering and business. And now we’re developing this new business for inference which ultimately should be a bigger business because the market is growing very fast in the inference space,” Tate explained.

The company’s board consists of Peter Hébert and Shahin Farshchi of Lux, Pierre Lamond at Eclipse, and Kushagra Vaid, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft Azure. The company is based in Mountain View, California.

October 20th 2020, 8:26 am

Splunk acquires Plumbr and Rigor to build out its observability platform

TechCrunch

Data platform Splunk today announced that it has acquired two startups, Plumbr and Rigor, to build out its new Observability Suite, which is also launching today. Plumbr is an application performance monitoring service, while Rigor focuses on digital experience monitoring, using synthetic monitoring and optimization tools to help businesses optimize their end-user experiences. Both of these acquisitions complement the technology and expertise Splunk acquired when it bought SignalFx for over $1 billion last year.

Splunk did not disclose the price of these acquisitions, but Estonia-based Plumbr had raised about $1.8 million, while Atlanta-based Rigor raised a debt round earlier this year.

When Splunk acquired SignalFx, it said it did so in order to become a leader in observability and APM. As Splunk CTO Tim Tully told me, the idea here now is to accelerate this process.

Image Credits: Splunk

“Because a lot of our users and our customers are moving to the cloud really, really quickly, the way that they monitor [their] applications changed because they’ve gone to serverless and microservices a ton,” he said. “So we entered that space with those acquisitions, we quickly folded them together with these next two acquisitions. What Plumbr and Rigor do is really fill out more of the portfolio.”

He noted that Splunk was especially interested in Plumbr’s bytecode implementation and its real-user monitoring capabilities, and Rigor’s synthetics capabilities around digital experience monitoring (DEM). “By filling in those two pieces of the portfolio, it gives us a really amazing set of solutions because DEM was the missing piece for our APM strategy,” Tully explained.

Image Credits: Splunk

With the launch of its Observability Suite, Splunk is now pulling together a lot of these capabilities into a single product — which also features a new design that makes it stand apart from the rest of Splunk’s tools. It combines logs, metrics, traces, digital experience, user monitoring, synthetics and more.

“At Yelp, our engineers are responsible for hundreds of different microservices, all aimed at helping people find and connect with great local businesses,” said Chris Gordon, Technical Lead at Yelp, where his team has been testing the new suite. “Our Production Observability team collaborates with Engineering to improve visibility into the performance of key services and infrastructure. Splunk gives us the tools to empower engineers to monitor their own services as they rapidly ship code, while also providing the observability team centralized control and visibility over usage to ensure we’re using our monitoring resources as efficiently as possible.”

October 20th 2020, 8:26 am

Perch raises $123.5M to grow its stable of D2C brands that sell on Amazon

TechCrunch

While Amazon gradually builds out its own-branded line of products, third-party sellers continue to account for a significant part of the transaction volume and growth on its marketplace — by one estimate, accounting for $200 billion of the $335 billion in gross merchandise value sold on Amazon in 2019. Today, in a twist on the economies of scale that has propelled much of Amazon’s growth, a Boston startup that has built a tech platform that it uses both to buy up and then run D2C brands sold on Amazon is announcing a major round of growth funding to expand its business.

Perch, which acquires D2C businesses and products that are already selling on Amazon, and then continues to operate and grow those operations, has raised $123.5 million in funding.

Perch plans to use the capital mainly to continue acquiring D2C businesses, as well as to build out its team and invest in its platform, “but we are profitable so we plan to use cashflows from the business to build the team and the funding toward acquiring additional winning brands and products,” said Chris Bell, Perch’s CEO and founder, in an interview over email.

The company currently counts women’s athleisure brand Satina, kitchenware from Flathead and Aulett and others, health and personal care brands among its stable of companies. There are just 10 on the platform today, and the funding is coming on the back of success so far, as well as ambitious plans to grow that to 50 by the end of 2021, and eventually hundreds or thousands of brands.

And before you think that this is just about running a lot of smaller businesses together, Bell adds that “technology is the most important part of our model.”

Some 40% of the startup’s team works on its platform, which is used to onboard “eventually thousands of brands at scale in an e-commerce-native environment.” The platform is used to help run analytics on sales, determine pricing and ad strategy, and inventory positioning and other marketing decisions. Longer term it will also be used to help figure out how to sell and balance products on social and retail channels (while ultimately selling through Amazon, for now).

The funding — which brings the total raised by Perch to over $130 million — is being led by Spark Capital, with previous backer Tectonic Ventures and new investor Boston Seed also participating. The startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Amazon has grown in part on the principle of economies of scale, both in terms of procurement as well as in distribution. Both in the case of physical or digital goods, small margins on sales of a huge array of products adds up to strong returns; and the same goes for working out the costs for operating a logistics and distribution network.

Perch has essentially picked up on that idea and is developing its own take on it around the D2C model.

Direct-to-consumer businesses have been one of the big stories in e-commerce in the last decade: companies are leveraging the internet and newer innovations in manufacturing to build their own products and brands that they sell direct to customers, bypassing traditional retail chains, with some like Everlane, Warby Parker and Third Love finding huge success in the process.

But while a lot of those sales have focused around D2C companies developing their own sites or via social media, a very large proportion of the smaller players are also selling through marketplaces — and specifically Amazon’s marketplace.

As a larger category, they are growing fast — up 50% year-on-year in 2020, with some 86% of third-party sellers profitable.

But on an individual basis, most of them don’t necessarily have a strategy for how they will scale or exit the business eventually, so the opportunity here is to bring a number of these more promising smaller D2C brands into a bigger operation — the idea being to bring more economies of scale both to manufacturing those products as well as to collectively distributing them over Amazon.

“We typically do not retain the entrepreneurs or founders beyond a transition period, though we are open-minded if there is the right fit, though they are often excited to take some time off or start their next adventure,” said Bell. “For staff or contractors who work with the founder on the brand, we have a discussion with the founder and those individuals throughout the process and depending on need or mutual discussion we have retained some of those relationships.”

It’s Perch’s own realization of how to expand the economies of scale for D2C that has attracted investors here.

“The Perch team has the M&A, eCommerce, and Amazon experience to understand what makes a quality and scalable consumer product and take those products to the next level post-acquisition,” said Alex Finkelstein, General Partner, Spark Capital, in a statement. “We are beyond excited to lead this round. Perch is already off to an exceptionally strong start. Given the booming eCommerce market, I expect we will continue to see record numbers and additional acquisitions this year.”

Bell added that while any company can approach it to get acquired, it has a relatively strict set of criteria for what it would seriously consider.

“We look for winning products and brands,” he said. “What that means is the products need to have a proven track record of product-market fit, as evidenced through at least 18-24 months of profitable sales, great customer reviews, low return rate, no evidence of consistent product quality issues, and a trademarked brand that is recognized and enforced by their channel partners / marketplaces.”

There have been a number of companies that are trying to muscle in on Amazon’s supremacy in online retail markplaces in the US — including the likes of Walmart and Alibaba — but for now Amazon continues to be the main game in town, Bell said. (And no surprise there: one estimate in 2018 was that it was hovering at 49% marketshare in e-commerce in the U.S.)

“Amazon has created the leading third-party seller marketplace in a really differentiated way,” he said. “Not only do they have the most consumers visiting every day, but they also have the most maturity around technical integrations, brand protections, and a best-in-class fulfillment operation.”

He added that “Walmart is making good strides in terms of developing their seller services and technical integrations, and their announcement that they will be offering fulfillment for 3rd party merchants will help considerably. I expect they will continue to gain share, but they have a really long way to go to catch up with both consumers and marketplace sellers.” In terms of others, he also noted that “Google appears to be investing in their marketplace, but we haven’t seen as much traction there. Without an integrated fulfillment option, many sellers would prefer to use their Google ad dollars to send consumers to their own page to transact rather than through Google’s marketplace. Facebook/Instagram stores have promise but still very nascent.”

Interestingly, the Perch proposition provides a very different alternative to the e-commerce landscape that others see. Some like Shogun have built their business on premise that the only way foward is to move away from a reliance on third-party marketplaces like those of Amazon, Perch has doubled down on it, seemingly confident that it’s here to stay. And indeed, the bigger that Perch grows, the more likely it is that the bulked-up company has a chance of having some negotiating power of its own.

“We have some sales through standalone brand sites, but the vast majority of our focus is on the marketplace and we expect that to continue for the immediate future,” said Bell.

October 20th 2020, 7:55 am

Vectary, a design platform for 3D and AR, raises $7.3M from EQT and Blueyard

TechCrunch

Vectary, a design platform for 3D and Augmented Reality (AR), has raised a $7.3 million round led by European fund EQT Ventures. Existing investor BlueYard (Berlin) also participated.

Vectary makes high-quality 3D design more accessible for consumers, garnering over one million creators worldwide, and has more than a thousand digital agencies and creative studios as users.

With the coronavirus pandemic shifting more people online, Vectary says it has seen a 300% increase in AR views as more businesses start showcasing their products in 3D and AR.

Vectary was founded in 2014 by Michal Koor (CEO) and Pavol Sovis (CTO), who were both from the design and technology worlds.

The complexity of using and sharing content created by traditional 3D design tools has been a barrier to the adoption of 3D, which is what Vectary addresses.

Although Microsoft, Facebook and Apple are making it easier for consumers, the creative tools remain lacking. Vectary believes that seamless 3D/AR content creation and sharing will be key to mainstream adoption.

Designers and creatives can use Vectary to apply 2D design on a 3D object in Figma or Sketch; create 3D customizers in Webflow with Embed API; and add 3D interactivity to decks.

October 20th 2020, 7:55 am

Tiliter bags $7.5M for its ‘plug and play’ cashierless checkout tech

TechCrunch

Tiliter, an Australian startup that’s using computer vision to power cashierless checkout tech that replaces the need for barcodes on products, has closed a $7.5 million Series A round of funding led by Investec Emerging Companies.

The 2017-founded company is using AI for retail product recognition — claiming advantages such as removing the need for retail staff to manually identify loose items that don’t have a barcode (e.g. fresh fruit or baked goods), as well as reductions in packaging waste.

It also argues the AI-based product recognition system reduces incorrect product selections (either intentional or accidental).

“Some objects simply don’t have barcodes which causes a slow and poor experience of manual identification,” says co-founder and CEO Martin Karafilis. “This is items like bulk items, fresh produce, bakery pieces, mix and match etc. Sometimes barcodes are not visible or can be damaged.

“Most importantly there is an enormous amount of plastic created in the world for barcodes and identification packaging. With this technology we are able to dramatically decrease and, in some cases, eliminate single use plastic for retailers.”

Currently the team is focused on the supermarket vertical — and claims over 99% accuracy in under one second for its product identification system.

It’s developed hardware that can be added to existing checkouts to run the computer vision system — with the aim of offering retailers a “plug and play” cashierless solution.

Marketing text on its website adds of its AI software: “We use our own data and don’t collect any in-store. It works with bags, and can tell even the hardest sub-categories apart such as Truss, Roma, and Gourmet tomatoes or Red Delicious, Royal Gala and Pink Lady apples. It can also differentiate between organic and non-organic produce [by detecting certain identification indicators that retailers may use for organic items].”

“We use our pre-trained software,” says Karafilis when asked whether there’s a need for a training period to adapt the system to a retailer’s inventory. “We have focused on creating a versatile and scalable software solution that works for all retailers out of the box. In the instance an item isn’t in the software it can be collected by the supermarket in approx 20min and has self-learning capabilities.”

As well as a claim of easy installation, given the hardware can bolt onto existing retail IT, Tiliter touts lower cost than “currently offered autonomous store solutions”. (Amazon is one notable competitor on that front.)

It sells the hardware outright, charging a yearly subscription fee for the software (this includes a pledge of 24/7 global service and support).

“We provide proprietary hardware (camera and processor) that can be retrofitted to any existing checkout, scale or point of sale system at a low cost integrating our vision software with the point of sale,” says Karafilis, adding that the pandemic is driving demand for easy to implement cashierless tech.

The startup cites a 300% increase in ‘scan and go’ adoption in the US over the past year due to COVID-19, as an example, adding that further global growth is expected.

It’s not breaking out customer numbers at this stage — but early adopters for its AI-powered product recognition system include Woolworths in Australia with over 20 live stores; Countdown in New Zealand, and several retail chains in the US such as New York City’s Westside Market.

The Series A funding will go on accelerating expansion across Europe and the US — with “many” supermarkets set to be adopt its tech over the coming months.

October 20th 2020, 7:55 am

Math learning platform Knowledgehook raises £13.5M Series A to expand globally

TechCrunch

Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students have switched to online learning. So whereas EdTech used to be somewhat of an also-ran in the venture stakes, it has now become one fo the hottest spaces on the planet. It’s therefore of title surprise that funding rounds are following.

Knowledgehook, a proprietary mathematics learning platform, has now raised £13.5m Series A with participation from Mesoamerica’s Alexandria Corp., Nelson Education, Ideal Ventures, Nicoya Ventures and an unmanned UK-based EdTech fund. Knowledgehook raised a seed round in 2006 that included John Abele’s North Point Ventures.

Knowledgehook’s platform claims to have over 100,000 schools around the world that tracks where each student is on their math journey. In 2021, it plans extend its reach to 50,000,000 students globally. The platform offers school licenses, as well as Netflix-like home subscriptions.

Their programs connect a child’s at-home learning with in-school education, providing insights on learning gaps. Teachers then use this to develop a child’s understanding of the math concepts related to their challenges, enabling them to adjust instruction and monitor progress.
 
Co-Founder and CEO Travis Ratnam (pictured) said in a statement: “Our platform is not a game, it will pull together a 360 view on a child’s learning journey enabling people around them to improve their experience and outcomes.”

Created and launched from Canada, Knowledgehook now supports schools across the US, Mexico, and the UK.

October 20th 2020, 7:25 am

Dublin’s LearnUpon raises $56M for its online learning management system for enterprises

TechCrunch

One big technology by-product of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a much stronger focus on online education solutions — providing the tools for students to continue learning when the public health situation is preventing them from going into physical classrooms. As it happens, that paradigm also applies to the business world.

Today, a startup out of Dublin called LearnUpon, which has been building e-learning solutions not for schools but corporates to use for development and training, has raised $56 million to feed a growth in demand for its tools, particularly in the U.S. market, which currently accounts for 70% of LearnUpon’s sales.

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Partners . LearnUpon’s CEO and co-founder Brendan Noud said the capital will be used in two areas. First, to add more people to the startup’s engineering and product teams (it has 180 employees currently) to continue expanding in areas like data analytics, providing more insights to its customers on how their training materials are used on via its learning management system (commonly referred to as LMS in the industry). Second, to bring on more people to help sell the product particularly in countries where it is currently growing fast, like the U.S., to larger corporate clients.

LearnUpon already has some 1,000 customers globally, including Booking.com, Twilio, USA Football and Zendesk. And notably, eight-year-old LearnUpon was profitable and had only raised $1.5 million before now.

“We’ve been growing organically pretty fast since we started but especially for the last 4-5 years using a SaaS model, but now we’re at a scale where the opportunity is vast, especially with more people working from home,” he said. “We want to give ourselves firepower.”

Corporate learning has followed similar but not identical trajectory to that of online education for K-12 and higher learning. In common, especially in the last 8 months. has been a growing need to engage and connect with learners at a time when it’s been challenging, or in some cases impossible, to see each other in person.

What’s different is that corporate learning was already a very established market, with organizations widely investing in online tools to manage training and personal development for years before any pandemic necessitated it.

Areas like employee onboarding, personnel development, customer training, training on new products, partner training, sales development, compliance, and building training services that you then sell to third parties are all areas that count as corporate learning. One researcher estimated that the corporate learning market was valued at an eye-watering $64 billion in 2019, with LMS investments alone at over $9 billion that year, and both are growing.

That has been a boost for companies like LearnUpon, which provides services in all of those categories and says that annual recurring revenues have grown by more than 50% year-on-year for each of the last 12 quarters.

But that also underscores the challenge in the market.

“It’s definitely a very crowded space, with maybe over 1000 LMS’s out there,” said Noud, although he added that it only has about 10-15 actually direct competitors (which to me still sounds like quite a lot). They include the likes of Cornerstone, TalentLMS from the Greek startup Epignosis, the Candian publicly-traded Docebo, and 360Learning from France.

But also consider those that have moved into corporate learning from other directions. LinkedIn has made big moves into learning to complement its bigger recruitment and professional development profile; and companies originally built to target the education sector, such as Coursera and Kahoot, have also expanded into business training and education. Both represent further competitive fronts for companies like LearnUpon natively built to service the business market.

Noud said that one reason why LearnUpon is finding some traction against the rest of the pack, and why it’s better, is because it’s a more comprehensive platform. Users can run live or asynchronous (on-demand) learning or training, and the SaaS LMS is designed to handle material and learning environments for multiple “students” — be they internal users, partners of the organization, or customers. In contrast, he said that many other solutions are more narrow in their scope, requiring organizations to manage multiple systems.

“And the legacy platforms are overly bloated, with bad customer support, which was a key area for us,” he said, recalling back to eight years ago when he and co-founder Des Anderson were first starting LearnUpon. “Our first hire was in customer support, and that has carried through to how we have grown.”

One area where LearnUpon not doing anything right now is in content development. It does offer tools to construct tests and surveys, but users can also import content created with other e-learning authoring tools, Noud said. Similarly, it’s not in the business of building its own live teaching platforms: you can import links from others like Zoom to provide the platform where people will teach and engage.

That’s not going to be a focus for now for the company, but given that others it competes with are providing a one-stop shop, for those that are looking to simplify procurement and have a more direct hand in building training as well as managing it, you can see how this might be an area that LearnUpon might develop down the line.

“In today’s knowledge economy, we believe corporate learning has become a key requirement for all organizations of scale – and the added challenge of remote working has only accelerated the importance of delivering learning digitally,” said Antony Clavel, a Principal with Summit Partners, in a statement. “With its modern, cloud-based learning management system, strong product development organization, demonstrated dedication to customer success and capital efficient go-to-market model, we believe LearnUpon is strongly positioned to serve this growing and increasingly critical market need. We are thrilled to support Brendan and the LearnUpon team in this next phase of growth.”

Clavel is joining the LearnUpon Board of Directors with this round. The startup is not disclosing its valuation.

October 20th 2020, 6:07 am

Trilo lets merchants offer rewards to customers choosing bank-to-bank payments

TechCrunch

Open banking enables bank-to-bank payments, meaning that (in theory) merchants should be able to accept payments without having to hand over fees to Visa or Mastercard or other payment providers, such as Stripe. The challenge, however, isn’t just implementing open-banking based payments as a checkout option — there are are already a host of open banking tech providers — but persuading customers to switch to a new payment option they are likely unfamiliar with.

The solution, according to fintech Trilo, is to offer customers incentives, for using open banking, such as cashback or additional perks, coupled with a user-friendly payment flow. The U.K. startup is breaking cover today with the launch of its alpha.

Image Credits: Trilo

“Businesses lose out on so much of their hard-earned money whenever a payment is made with cards, their transaction fees can be up to and above 4% in some cases,” says founder Hamish Blythe, when asked to define the problem Trilo wants to solve. “[In addition], it takes an age for businesses to receive their funds, usually up to 7 days… thanks to cards being invented back in the 50s before we even went to the moon”.

Open banking-based payments doesn’t just offer the opportunity to begin to chip away at the Visa/Mastercard duopoly, but should also reduce fraud associated with cards, leading to lower costs for merchants beyond transaction fees alone and less issues for consumers. But that requires take up of the new payment option.

“Open Banking’s great. However, me and you, consumers, have little-to-no-reason to use it,” argues Blythe. “Without an enjoyable, rewarding, and simple user flow, it’s going to be very hard to take off”.

To help remedy this, Trilo is combining an open banking payments API with incentives and rewards for consumers electing to use bank-to-bank payments. The startup is also doing away with transaction fees for merchants and will instead charge a monthly subscription akin to a SaaS model.

“Say goodbye to transaction fees, we’ve scrapped them,” says Blythe. “Our merchant partners also get their money in 5 minutes on average, so they can re-deploy it even faster… [and] consumers get a boost whenever you pay. Our main USP is that we focus on you, making your time as enjoyable, easy and rewarding as possible, whether that’s 1% off, a free beer, or an upgrade, businesses give you a serious reason to stop using your card”.

More broadly, Blythe says open banking gives a startup like Trilo the opportunity to take on “the largest duopoly on earth”.

“But to do this, we need to have the simplest and easiest way to pay out there for me and you,” he says, “while also having some serious kickback available to consumers when they pay. With our network we can also power refunds, consumer protection, and all sorts of other perks that pure open banking simply doesn’t offer”.

To pay with Trilo, you simply scan a QR or tap the Trilo button on a partnering merchant’s website or app. You’ll be remembered on your phone with a cookie, you’ll then see who you’re paying, what bank, and what your boost is, with the amount to pay clearly displayed beneath. “When you tap pay, you’ll hop over to your bank app, and can securely finish off the payment with a tap of the screen,” explains Blythe.

Meanwhile, to kick off Trilo’s alpha and to demonstrate the payments flow, Trilo is partnering with Make It Wild, who are reforesting large areas of the U.K. to help restore the natural eco-system. “With our alpha you’ll be able to fund a tree for a fiver with Trilo, and the best bit, because it’s using Trilo, every single penny will go on the trees,” adds the Trilo founder.

October 20th 2020, 4:20 am

Eat Just partners with Proterra to launch a new subsidiary in Asia

TechCrunch

Eat Just, the plant-based food startup, is launching a new Asian subsidiary through a partnership with Proterra Investment Partners Asia. The agreement includes building Eat Just’s first factory in Asia, which will be based in Singapore.

As part of the deal, Proterra, which focuses on agri-tech, will invest up to $100 million in the facility, while Eat Just will invest $20 million. The new subsidiary, called Eat Just Asia, will focus on creating a fully-integrated supply chain, working with manufacturers and distributers for Eat Just’s flagship product, vegan egg substitute Just Egg, which is made from mung beans.

Once completed, the Singapore facility will “generate thousands of metric tons of protein,” said Eat Just’s announcement. Eat Just Asia also received support from the Singaporean government’s Economic Development Board.

In addition to Just Egg, Eat Just and Proterra said they are also in talks to expand their partnership to include the development of plant-based meat alternatives.

Eat Just’s current distribution partners in Asia include SPC Samlip in South Korea, Betagro in Thailand and an as-of-yet undisclosed new partner in China, where Just Egg is already available on Alibaba’s Tmall and JD.com.

Based in San Francisco and formerly known as Hampton Creek, Eat Just has received total of about $220 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Its investors include Khosla Ventures and Li Ka-Shing.

Eat Just announced in March that it will focus on global expansion this year, with partnerships in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia.

Over the following months, it announced a succession of distribution deals for Just Egg, including ones with American food manufacturer and distributor Michael Foods, a subsidiary of Post Holdings, and European plant-based food manufacturer Emsland Group.

In Asia, demand for plant-based protein foods grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to concerns about the safety of meat and other animal products. In an April 2020 Reuters article, Eat Just said sales of Just Egg on JD.com and Tmall had grown 30% since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

Other plant-based food startups focusing on Asian markets include Impossible Foods, which announced funding of $500 million in March to expand in Asia; Karana, a Singaporean startup that makes meat substitutes from jackfruit; and Malaysian-based Phuture Foods, which uses a variety of plants to make pork substitutes.

October 20th 2020, 3:51 am

Intel agrees to sell its NAND business to SK Hynix for $9 billion

TechCrunch

SK Hynix, one of the world’s largest chip makers, announced today it will pay $9 billion for Intel’s flash memory business. Intel said it will use proceeds from the deal to focus on artificial intelligence, 5G and edge computing.

“For Intel, this transaction will allow us to to further prioritize our investments in differentiated technology where we can play a bigger role in the success of our customers and deliver attractive returns to our stockholders,” said Intel chief executive officer Bob Swan in the announcement.

The Wall Street Journal first reported earlier this week that the two companies were nearing an agreement, which will turn SK Hynix into one of the world’s largest NAND memory makers, second only to Samsung Electronics.

The deal with SK Hynix is the latest one Intel has made so it can double down on developing technology for 5G network infrastructure. Last year, Intel sold the majority of its modem business to Apple for about $1 billion, with Swan saying that the time that the deal would allow Intel to “[put] our full effort into 5G where it most closely aligns with the needs of our global customer base.”

Once the deal is approved and closes, Seoul-based SK Hynix will take over Intel’s NAND SSD and NAND component and wafer businesses, and its NAND foundry in Dalian, China. Intel will hold onto its Optane business, which makes SSD memory modules. The companies said regulatory approval is expected by late 2021, and a final closing of all assets, including Intel’s NAND-related intellectual property, will take place in March 2025.

Until the final closing takes places, Intel will continue to manufacture NAND wafers at the Dalian foundry and retain all IP related to the manufacturing and design of its NAND flash wafers.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Dalian facility is Intel’s only major foundry in China, which means selling it to SK Hynix will dramatically reduce its presence there as the United States government puts trade restrictions on Chinese technology.

In the announcement, Intel said it plans to use proceeds from the sale to “advance its long-term growth priorities, including artificial intelligence, 5G networking and the intelligent, autonomous edge.”

During the six-month period ending on June 27, 2020, NAND business represented about $2.8 billion of revenue for its Non-volatile Memory Solutions Group (NSG), and contributed about $600 million to the division’s operating income. According to the Wall Street Journal, this made up the majority of Intel’s total memory sales during that period, which was about $3 billion.

SK Hynix CEO Seok-Hee Lee said the deal will allow the South Korean company to “optimize our business structure, expanding our innovative portfolio in the NAND flash market segment, which will be comparable with what we achieved in DRAM.”

October 20th 2020, 1:35 am

Trump says ‘nobody gets hacked’ but forgot his hotel chain was hacked — twice

TechCrunch

According to President Trump speaking at a campaign event in Tucson, Arizona, on Monday, “nobody gets hacked.” You don’t need someone who covers security day in and day out to call bullshit on this one.

“Nobody gets hacked. To get hacked you need somebody with 197 IQ and he needs about 15 percent of your password,” Trump said, referencing the recent suspension of C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully, who admitted falsely claiming his Twitter account was hacked this week after sending a tweet to former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

There’s a lot to unpack in those two-dozen words. But aside from the fact that not all hackers are male (and it’s sexist to assume that), and glossing over the two entirely contrasting sentences, Trump also neglected to mention that his hotel chain was hacked twice — once over a year-long period between 2014 and 2015 and again between 2016 and 2017.

We know this because the Trump business was legally required to file notice with state regulators after each breach, which they did.

In both incidents, customers of Trump’s hotels had their credit card data stolen. The second breach was blamed on a third-party booking system, called Sabre, which also exposed guest names, emails, phone numbers and more.

The disclosures didn’t say how many people were affected. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t “nobody.”

A spokesperson for the Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.

It’s easy to ignore what could be considered a throwaway line: To say that “nobody gets hacked” might seem harmless on the face of it, but to claim so is dangerous. It’s as bad as saying something is “unhackable” or “hack-proof.” Ask anyone who works in cybersecurity and they’ll tell you that no person or company can ever make such assurances.

Absolute security doesn’t exist. But for those who don’t know any different, it’s an excuse not to think about their own security. Yes, you should use a password manager. Absolutely turn on two-factor authentication whenever you can. Do the basics, because hackers don’t need an IQ score of 197 to break into your accounts. All they need is for you to lower your guard.

If “nobody gets hacked” as Trump claims, it makes you wonder whatever happened to the 400-pound hacker the president mentioned during his first White House run.

October 19th 2020, 10:31 pm

ShopUp raises $22.5 million to digitize millions of mom-and-pop shops in Bangladesh

TechCrunch

A startup that is aiming to digitize millions of neighborhood stores in Bangladesh just raised the country’s largest Series A financing round.

Dhaka-headquartered ShopUp said on Tuesday it has raised $22.5 million in a round co-led by Sequoia Capital India and Flourish Ventures. For both the venture firms, this is the first time they are backing a Bangladeshi startup. Veon Ventures, Speedinvest, and Lonsdale Capital also participated in the four-year-old ShopUp’s Series A financing round. ShopUp has raised about $28 million to date.

Like its neighboring nation, India, more than 95% of all retail in Bangladesh goes through neighborhood stores in the country. There are about 4.5 million such mom-and-pop stores in the country and the vast majority of them have no digital presence.

ShopUp is attempting to change that. It has built what it calls a full-stack business-to-business commerce platform. It provides three core services to neighborhood stores: a wholesale marketplace to secure inventory, logistics (including last mile delivery to customers), and working capital, explained Afeef Zaman, co-founder and chief executive of ShopUp​, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Image Credits: ShopUp

These small shops are facing a number of challenges. They are not getting inventory on time or enough inventory and they are paying more than what they should, said Zaman. And for these businesses, more than 73% (PDF) of all their sales rely on credit instead of cash or digital payments, creating a massive liquidity crunch. So most of these businesses are in dire need of working capital.

Zaman declined to reveal how many mom-and-pop shops today use ShopUp, but claimed that the platform assumes a clear lead in its category in the country. That lead has widened amid the global pandemic as more physical shops explore digital offerings to stay afloat, he said.

The number of neighborhood shops transacting weekly on the ShopUp platform grew by 8.5 times between April and August this year, he said. The pandemic also helped ShopUp engage with e-commerce players to deliver items for them.

“Sequoia India has been a strong supporter of the company since it was part of the first Surge cohort in early 2019 and it’s been exciting to see the company become a trailblazer facilitating digital transformation in Bangladesh,” said ​Klaus Wang, VP, Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

The startup has no intention to become an e-commerce platform like Amazon that directly engages with consumers, Zaman said. E-commerce is still in its nascent stage in Bangladesh. Amazon has yet to enter the country and increasingly Facebook is filling that role.

ShopUp sees immense opportunity in serving neighborhood stores, he said. The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to deepen its partnerships with manufacturers and expand its tech infrastructure.

It opened an office in Bengaluru earlier this year to hire local tech talent in the nation. Indian e-commerce platform Voonik merged with ShopUp this year and both of its co-founders have joined the Bangladeshi startup. Zaman said the startup will hire more engineering talent in India.

October 19th 2020, 9:01 pm

SAIF Partners rebrands as Elevation Capital, secures $400 million for its new India fund

TechCrunch

SAIF Partners has raised $400 million for a new fund and rebranded the 18-year-old influential venture capital firm as it looks to back more early-stage startups in the world’s second largest internet market.

The new fund is SAIF Partners’ seventh for early-stage startups in India. Its previous two funds were each $350 million in size, and the firm today manages more than $2 billion in assets.

SAIF Partners started investing in Indian startups 18 years ago. The firm began as a joint venture with SoftBank and its first high-profile investment was Sify. But the two firms’ joint venture ended more than a decade ago, so the firm is now getting around to rebranding itself, Ravi Adusumalli, the managing partner of SAIF Partners, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The firm — which has five unicorns in its portfolio, including Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications, food delivery startup Swiggy and online learning platform Unacademy — is rebranding itself as Elevation Capital.

“Elevation reflects our investment ethos and re-emphasises our commitment to the founders who help redefine our future. For our existing partners, it is a commitment of continued collaboration on our path-breaking journeys together. For our new partners, it is a promise to do all we can to achieve great heights together, from day one,” said Adusumalli.

SAIF Partners has backed more than 100 startups to date. The venture firm makes long-term bets on founders and backs young firms beginning their early years when they are raising their seed, pre-Series A and Series A financing rounds.

The venture firm invests in startups operating in a wide-range of sectors and plans to continue this strategy and add more areas of interest, said Deepak Gaur, a managing director at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Enterprise SaaS is one area where we are spending a lot of resources,” he said. “We believe the time has come for this sector and we will see many global companies emerge from India.”

More than 15 startups in Elevation Capital’s portfolio are projected to become a unicorn in the next few years, according to Tracxn, a firm that tracks startups and investments in India. These include healthcare booking platform PharmEasy, app-based platform to book home services Urban Company, insurance tech startup Acko, digital loan platform Capital Float, real estate property marketplace NoBroker and online marketplace for gold Rupeek.

A number of SAIF Partners-backed startups, including IndiaMART, MakeMyTrip and Justdial, have become publicly listed companies, too.

Mukul Arora, a managing partner at SAIF Partners, said that the state of the Indian startup ecosystem has changed for the better in the past decade. “A few years ago, we were seeing many startups replicate a foreign company’s play in India. Today, we are seeing our ideas being replicated outside of the country. Someone is building a Meesho for Brazil,” he said.

The founders have also grown more sophisticated, said Mayank Khanduja. Elevation Capital has over three dozen employees, with about two-dozen focused on the investment size.

Elevation Capital’s new fund comes at a time when many established venture capital firms have also closed their new funds for India in recent months. In July, Sequoia Capital announced two funds — totaling $1.35 billion in size — for India. A month later, Lightspeed raised $275 million for its third Indian fund. Accel late last year closed its sixth fund in India at $550 million.

All of the LPs participating in Elevation Capital’s new fund, as was the case with previous funds, are U.S.-based, and the vast majority of them are nonprofits, said Adusumalli. Without disclosing any figures, he said the firm’s previous funds have performed very well.

October 19th 2020, 7:47 pm

Lee Fixel burnishes his reputation, raising his second massive fund in 2020

TechCrunch

On Friday, former Tiger Global Management investor Lee Fixel registered plans for the second fund of his new investment firm, Addition, just four months after closing the first. But investors who were shut out of that $1.3 billion debut fund and who might have hoped to write a check this time around are already too late.

According to the Financial Times, that ship has sailed. Fixel has already secured a fresh $1.4 billion in capital commitments for the second fund, which Addition reportedly doesn’t plan to begin investing until next year.

It’s obviously a lot of money to raise in a very short amount of time, even in today’s go-go market, and will surely help cement Fixel’s reputation as a prized dealmaker, one whose reluctance to talk on the record with media outlets seems only to add to his mystique. (Forbes published a lengthy piece about Fixel this summer, in which Fixel seems to have provided just one public statement, confirming the close of Addition’s first fund and adding little else. “We are excited to partner with visionary entrepreneurs, and with our 15-year fund duration, we have the patience to support our portfolio companies on their journey to build impactful and enduring businesses,” it read.)

According to Forbes, that first fund — which Fixel is actively putting to work right now — intends to invest one-third of its capital in early-stage startups and two-thirds in growth-stage opportunities.

Whether that includes some of the special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs, that are coming together right and left, isn’t yet known, though one imagines these might appeal to Fixel, who has longed seemed to be at the forefront of new trends impacting growth-stage companies in particular. (A growing number of SPACs is right now looking to transform some of the many hundreds of richly valued private companies in the world into public companies.)

Clearer is that Addition is wasting little time in writing some big checks. Among its announced deals is Inshorts, a seven-year-old, New Delhi, India-based popular news aggregation app that last week unveiled $35 million new funding led by Fixel.

The deal represents Addition’s first India-based bet, even while Fixel knows both the country and the startup well. He previously invested in Inshorts on behalf of Tiger; he’s also credited for snatching up a big stake in Flipkart on behalf of Tiger, a move that reportedly produced $3.5 billion in profits when Flipkart sold to Walmart.

Addition also led a $200 million round last month in Snyk, a five-year-old, London-based startup that helps companies securely use open-source code. The round valued the company at $2.6 billion — more than twice the valuation it was assigned when it raised its previous round ten months ago.

And in August, Addition led a $110 million Series D round for Lyra Health, a five-year-old, Burlingame, Ca.-based provider of mental health care benefits for employers that was founded by former Facebook CFO David Ebersman.

A smaller check went to Temporal, a year-old, Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform. Last week, the company announced $18.75 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital, but Addition also joined the round, having been an earlier investor in the company.

According to Pitchbook data, Addition has made at least 17 investments altogether.

Fixel — whose bets while at Tiger include Peloton and Spotify — isn’t running Addition single-handedly, though according to Forbes, he is the single “key man” around which the firm revolves, as well as the biggest investor in Addition’s first fund.

He has also brought aboard least three investment principals from Wall Street and a head of data science who worked formerly for Uber (per Forbes). Ward Breeze, a longtime attorney who worked formerly in the emerging companies practice of Gunderson Dettmer, is also working with Fixel at Addition.

October 19th 2020, 7:17 pm

TikTok’s QAnon ban has been ‘buggy’

TechCrunch

TikTok has been cracking down on QAnon-related content, in line with similar moves by other major social media companies, including Facebook and YouTube, which focus on reducing the spread the baseless conspiracy theory across their respective platforms. According to a report by NPR this weekend, TikTok had quietly banned several hashtags associated with the QAnon conspiracy, and says it will also delete the accounts of users who promote QAnon content.

Tiktok tells us, however, these policies are not new. The company says they actually went on the books earlier this year.

TikTok had initially focused on reducing discoverability as an immediate step by blocking search results while it investigated, with help from partners, how such content manifested on its platform. This was covered in July by several news publications, TikTok said. In August, TikTok also set a policy to remove content and ban accounts, we’re told.

Despite the policies, a report this month by Media Matters documented that TikTok was still hosting at least 14 QAnon-affiliated hashtags with over 488 million collective views. These came about because the platform had yet to address how QAnon followers were circumventing its community restrictions using variations and misspellings.

After Media Matters’ report, TikTok removed 11 of the 14 hashtags it had referenced, the report noted in an update.

Today, a number of QAnon-related hashtags — like #QAnon, #TheStormIsComing, #Trump2Q2Q” and others — return no results in TikTok’s search engine. They don’t show under the “Top” search results section, nor do they show under “Videos” or “Hashtags.”

Instead of just showing users a blank page when these terms are searched, TikTok displays a message that explains how some phrases can be associated with behavior or content that violates TikTok’s Community Guidelines, and offers a link to that resource.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Media Matters praised the changes in a statement to NPR as something TikTok was doing that was “good and significant” even if “long overdue.”

While TikTok’s ban did tackle many of the top searches results and tags associated with the conspiracy, we found it was overlooking others, like Pizzagate and WWG1WGA, for instance. In tests this afternoon, these terms and many others still returned much content.

TikTok claims what we saw was likely “a bug.”

We had reached out to TikTok today to ask why searches for terms like “pizzagate” and “WWG1WGA” — popular QAnon terms — were still returning search results, even though their hashtags were banned.

For example, if you just searched for “pizzagate,” TikTok offered a long list of videos to scroll through, though you couldn’t go directly to its hashtag. This was not the case for the other banned hashtags (like #QAnon) at the time of our tests.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

The videos returned discussed the Pizzagate conspiracy — a baseless conspiracy theory which ultimately led to real-world violence when a gunman shot up a DC pizza business, thinking he was there to rescue trapped children.

While some videos were just discussing or debunking the idea, many were earnestly promoting the pizzagate conspiracy, even posting that it was was “real” or claimed to be offering “proof.”

Above: Video recorded Oct. 19, 2020, 3:47 PM ET/12:47 PM PT

Other QAnon-associated hashtags were also not subject to a full ban, including WWG1WGA, WGA, ThesePeopleAreSick, cannibalclub, hollyweird, and many others often used to circulate QAnon conspiracies.

When we searched these terms, we found more long lists of QAnon-related videos to scroll through.

We documented this with photos and videos before reaching out to TikTok to ask why these had been made exceptions to the ban. We specifically asked about the two top terms — Pizzagate and WWG1WGA.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

TikTok provided us with information about the timeline of its policy changes and the following statement:

“Content and accounts that promote QAnon violate our disinformation policy and we remove them from our platform. We’ve also taken significant steps to make this content harder to find across search and hashtags by redirecting associated terms to our Community Guidelines. We continually update our safeguards with misspellings and new phrases as we work to keep TikTok a safe and authentic place for our community.”

TikTok said also that the search term blocking must have been a bug, because it’s now working properly.

We found that, upon receiving TikTok’s confirmation, the terms we asked about were blocked, but others were not. This includes some of those mentioned above, as well as bizarre terms only a real conspiracy fan would know, like adrenochromereptilians.

We asked Media Matters whether it could still praise TikTok’s actions to ban QAnon content, given what, at the time, had appeared to be a loophole in the QAnon ban.

“TikTok has of course taken steps but not fully resolved the problem, but as we’ve noted, the true test of any of these policies — like we’ve said of other platform’s measures — is in how and if they enforce them,” the organization said.

Even if the banned content was only showing today because of a “bug,” we found that many of the users who posted the content have not actually banned from TikTok, it seems.

Though a search for their username won’t return results now that the ban is no longer “buggy,” you can still go directly to these users’ profile pages via their profile URL on the web.

We tried this on many profiles who had published QAnon content or used banned terms in their videos’ hashtags and descriptions . (Below are a few of examples.)

What this means is that although TikTok reduced these users’ discoverability in the app, the accounts can still be located if you know their username. And once you arrive on the account’s page, you can still follow them.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

These examples of “bugs” or just oversights indicate how difficult it is to enforce content bans across social media platforms.

Without substantial investments in human moderation combined with automation, as well as tools that ensure banned users can’t return, it’s hard to keep up with the spread of disinformation at social media’s scale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 19th 2020, 6:47 pm

Daily Crunch: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

TechCrunch

TikTok returns to Pakistan, Apple launches a music-focused streaming station and SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites. This is your Daily Crunch for October 19, 2020.

The big story: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the video app 11 days ago, over what it described as “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar” videos. The authority said today that it’s lifting the ban after negotiating with TikTok management.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused,” it continued.

This isn’t the first time this year the country tried to crack down on digital content. Pakistan announced new internet censorship rules this year, but rescinded them after Facebook, Google and Twitter threatened to leave the country.

The tech giants

Apple launches a US-only music video station, Apple Music TV —  The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour live stream of popular music videos and other music content.

Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool — The tool is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents.

Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram — The update means businesses will be able to integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more than 800 — That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational.

Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2M seed round — Propseller combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly.

Ready Set Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class — Ready Set Raise has changed its programming to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

Advice and analysis for Extra Crunch

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election? — Several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making these decisions.

Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes — With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed.

Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups — Investors backed a record 88 megarounds of $100 million or more.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

US charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack — Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion — SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora.

Original Content podcast: It’s hard to resist the silliness of ‘Emily in Paris’ — The show’s Paris is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that we’re happy to visit.

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 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

October 19th 2020, 6:17 pm

Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review: A mostly aesthetic update

TechCrunch

It’s been a busy few weeks for smart speakers. Amazon kicked things off in late September with newer, rounder versions of both the Echo and Echo Dot. Less than a week later, Google updated the Home, after four years, with the rebranded Nest Audio. And then, last week, Apple unveiled the long-awaited $99 HomePod Mini, finally delivering an affordable version of its Siri speaker.

Amazon, for its part, has easily offered the most regular refreshes of the three. Both the Echo and Echo Dot are currently on their fourth iterations. The Echo Dot with Clock is only on its second (having just been introduced), but for all intents and purposes, the device is basically an Echo Dot — but, you know, with a clock.

The latest update to the line finds the company offering a kind of design uniformity across the smart speakers. The Dot really does look like a diminutive version of the standard Echo. I wasn’t entirely sure how large a difference there would be between the two products, but it’s definitely pronounced. The Echo is the size of a large grapefruit and the Dot is essentially the size of a softball.

The Dot’s size lends it a good deal more flexibility in terms of placement. I could definitely see placing them in nooks and crannies throughout my place to create a kind of makeshift sound system (though the in-box cable is on the short side, so you’ll likely need an extension if you’re not close to an outlet).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The majority of the speaker is covered in fabric, though the hard plastic bottom arcs up on the back of the device, occupying a large portion of the back. This allows for the inclusion of two ports (power and auxiliary audio out), though it also limits the speaker surface area on the device, restricting a full 360 approach unlike the older hockey puck design. As such, the speaker is just front-facing, in spite of the round design.

The new Echo devices, it’s worth noting, are one in a growing number of devices from big companies that are included as part of a push toward climate consciousness. I won’t really address Amazon’s larger overall carbon footprint here, but it’s nice to see some of that trickling down into these products. According to the company, the plastics are 50% post-consumer recycled, while the fabric and aluminum (including the capable and adapter) are both 100%.

The setup process is as simple as ever. Tap a couple of buttons on the connected Echo app and you should be up and running. The status light ring has been moved to the bottom of the device — that seems to be more of a practical choice than anything. After all, the standard light ring wouldn’t really work at the top of a round, fabric-covered device.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Whether that’s a net positive kind of depends on where you put the Echo. If it’s around eye-level, great. If it’s below that, it moves the ring out of view, and you may have to rely on seeing how it reflects off the surface it’s sitting on. For my own use, it’s a small step in the wrong direction. The digital clock (the big differentiator between the two Dots) is also a bit low on the ball, leaving a lot of blank surface area up top.

Again, I think Amazon is anticipating people will stick it around eye level, which is certainly the case if you primarily use the clock while lying in bed. The clock itself is plenty bright. And honestly, it’s nice just having a simple digital display sometimes, versus a full-on smart screen. That’s especially the case if you plan to stick it near your bed. That, after all, is supposed to be a kind of refuge from screens. That’s doubly important these days when we’re seemingly never not in front of one.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, the uses for the face are pretty much limited. You get a “Hello” at launch, the time (naturally), the weather when prompted and the volume level. That last bit can be adjusted with voice or with a pair of physical buttons up top. Those are joined by the Alexa button, which fires up the assistant and the always-important microphone off. That turns red when you tap it, along with a red ring on the bottom of the device to let you known the speaker has stopped listening until it’s reenabled.

The sound quality is basically the same — which is to say, kind of what you’d expect from a $50 to $60 smart speaker. It’s good for all of the voice functionality you need, but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it as my default home speaker — even with a couple of them paired up. As an alarm clock, however, sure, go for it. It certainly beats the speaker on your phone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The $10 price difference between the Dot and Dot with Clock is a bit of a weird one. I’d anticipate in future generations, Amazon will just combine them into one product, priced the same as the standard Dot. For now, however, telling time at a glance is going to cost you a little extra.

The new Echo arrives October 22. The Dot with Clock won’t be available until November 5.

October 19th 2020, 5:31 pm

Who regulates social media?

TechCrunch

Social media platforms have repeatedly found themselves in the United States government’s crosshairs over the last few years, as it has been progressively revealed just how much power they really wield, and to what purposes they’ve chosen to wield it. But unlike, say, a firearm or drug manufacturer, there is no designated authority who says what these platforms can and can’t do. So who regulates them? You might say everyone and no one.

Now, it must be made clear at the outset that these companies are by no means “unregulated,” in that no legal business in this country is unregulated. For instance Facebook, certainly a social media company, received a record $5 billion fine last year for failure to comply with rules set by the FTC. But not because the company violated its social media regulations — there aren’t any.

Facebook and others are bound by the same rules that most companies must follow, such as generally agreed-upon definitions of fair business practices, truth in advertising, and so on. But industries like medicine, energy, alcohol, and automotive have additional rules, indeed entire agencies, specific to them; Not so social media companies.

I say “social media” rather than “tech” because the latter is much too broad a concept to have a single regulator. Although Google and Amazon (and Airbnb, and Uber, and so on) need new regulation as well, they may require a different specialist, like an algorithmic accountability office or online retail antitrust commission. (Inasmuch as tech companies act within regulated industries, such as Google in broadband, they are already regulated as such.)

Social media can roughly defined as platforms where people sign up to communicate and share messages and media, and that’s quite broad enough already without adding in things like ad marketplaces, competition quashing and other serious issues.

Who, then, regulates these social media companies? For the purposes of the U.S., there are four main directions from which meaningful limitations or policing may emerge, but each one has serious limitations, and none was actually created for the task.

1. Federal regulators

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission are what people tend to think of when “social media” and “regulation” are used in a sentence together. But one is a specialist — not the right kind, unfortunately — and the other a generalist.

The FCC, unsurprisingly, is primarily concerned with communication, but due to the laws that created it and grant it authority, it has almost no authority over what is being communicated. The sabotage of net neutrality has complicated this somewhat, but even the faction of the Commission dedicated to the backwards stance adopted during this administration has not argued that the messages and media you post are subject to their authority. They have indeed called for regulation of social media and big tech — but are for the most part unwilling and unable to do so themselves.

The Commission’s mandate is explicitly the cultivation of a robust and equitable communications infrastructure, which these days primarily means fixed and mobile broadband (though increasingly satellite services as well). The applications and businesses that use that broadband, though they may be affected by the FCC’s decisions, are generally speaking none of the agency’s business, and it has repeatedly said so.

The only potentially relevant exception is the much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (an amendment to the sprawling Communications Act), which waives liability for companies when illegal content is posted to their platforms, as long as those companies make a “good faith” effort to remove it in accordance with the law.

But this part of the law doesn’t actually grant the FCC authority over those companies or define good faith, and there’s an enormous risk of stepping into unconstitutional territory, because a government agency telling a company what content it must keep up or take down runs full speed into the First Amendment. That’s why although many think Section 230 ought to be revisited, few take Trump’s feeble executive actions along these lines seriously.

The agency did announce that it will be reviewing the prevailing interpretation of Section 230, but until there is some kind of established statutory authority or Congress-mandated mission for the FCC to look into social media companies, it simply can’t.

The FTC is a different story. As watchdog over business practices at large, it has a similar responsibility towards Twitter as it does towards Nabisco. It doesn’t have rules about what a social media company can or can’t do any more than it has rules about how many flavors of Cheez-It there should be. (There are industry-specific “guidelines” but these are more advisory about how general rules have been interpreted.)

On the other hand, the FTC is very much the force that comes into play should Facebook misrepresent how it shares user data, or Nabisco overstate the amount of real cheese in its crackers. The agency’s most relevant responsibility to the social media world is that of enforcing the truthfulness of material claims.

You can thank the FTC for the now-familiar, carefully worded statements that avoid any real claims or responsibilities: “We take security very seriously” and “we think we have the best method” and that sort of thing — so pretty much everything that Mark Zuckerberg says. Companies and executives are trained to do this to avoid tangling with the FTC: “Taking security seriously” isn’t enforceable, but saying “user data is never shared” certainly is.

In some cases this can still have an effect, as in the $5 billion fine recently dropped into Facebook’s lap (though for many reasons that was actually not very consequential). It’s important to understand that the fine was for breaking binding promises the company had made — not for violating some kind of social-media-specific regulations, because again, there really aren’t any.

The last point worth noting is that the FTC is a reactive agency. Although it certainly has guidelines on the limits of legal behavior, it doesn’t have rules that when violated result in a statutory fine or charges. Instead, complaints filter up through its many reporting systems and it builds a case against a company, often with the help of the Justice Department. That makes it slow to respond compared with the lightning-fast tech industry, and the companies or victims involved may have moved beyond the point of crisis while a complaint is being formalized there. Equifax’s historic breach and minimal consequences are an instructive case:

So: While the FCC and FTC do provide important guardrails for the social media industry, it would not be accurate to say they are its regulators.

2. State legislators

States are increasingly battlegrounds for the frontiers of tech, including social media companies. This is likely due to frustration with partisan gridlock in Congress that has left serious problems unaddressed for years or decades. Two good examples of states that lost their patience are California’s new privacy rules and Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) was arguably born out the ashes of other attempts at a national level to make companies more transparent about their data collection policies, like the ill-fated Broadband Privacy Act.

Californian officials decided that if the feds weren’t going to step up, there was no reason the state shouldn’t at least look after its own. By convention, state laws that offer consumer protections are generally given priority over weaker federal laws — this is so a state isn’t prohibited from taking measures for their citizens’ safety while the slower machinery of Congress grinds along.

The resulting law, very briefly stated, creates formal requirements for disclosures of data collection, methods for opting out of them, and also grants authority for enforcing those laws. The rules may seem like common sense when you read them, but they’re pretty far out there compared to the relative freedom tech and social media companies enjoyed previously. Unsurprisingly, they have vocally opposed the CCPA.

BIPA has a somewhat similar origin, in that a particularly far-sighted state legislature created a set of rules in 2008 limiting companies’ collection and use of biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition. It has proven to be a huge thorn in the side of Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and others that have taken for granted the ability to analyze a user’s biological metrics and use them for pretty much whatever they want.

Many lawsuits have been filed alleging violations of BIPA, and while few have produced notable punishments like this one, they have been invaluable in forcing the companies to admit on the record exactly what they’re doing, and how. Sometimes it’s quite surprising! The optics are terrible, and tech companies have lobbied (fortunately, with little success) to have the law replaced or weakened.

What’s crucially important about both of these laws is that they force companies to, in essence, choose between universally meeting a new, higher standard for something like privacy, or establishing a tiered system whereby some users get more privacy than others. The thing about the latter choice is that once people learn that users in Illinois and California are getting “special treatment,” they start asking why Mainers or Puerto Ricans aren’t getting it as well.

In this way state laws exert outsize influence, forcing companies to make changes nationally or globally because of decisions that technically only apply to a small subset of their users. You may think of these states as being activists (especially if their attorneys general are proactive), or simply ahead of the curve, but either way they are making their mark.

This is not ideal, however, because taken to the extreme, it produces a patchwork of state laws created by local authorities that may conflict with one another or embody different priorities. That, at least, is the doomsday scenario predicted almost universally by companies in a position to lose out.

State laws act as a test bed for new policies, but tend to only emerge when movement at the federal level is too slow. Although they may hit the bullseye now and again, like with BIPA, it would be unwise to rely on a single state or any combination among them to miraculously produce, like so many simian legislators banging on typewriters, a comprehensive regulatory structure for social media. Unfortunately, that leads us to Congress.

3. Congress

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

What can be said about the ineffectiveness of Congress that has not already been said, again and again? Even in the best of times few would trust these people to establish reasonable, clear rules that reflect reality. Congress simply is not the right tool for the job, because of its stubborn and willful ignorance on almost all issues of technology and social media, its countless conflicts of interest, and its painful sluggishness — sorry, deliberation — in actually writing and passing any bills, let alone good ones.

Companies oppose state laws like the CCPA while calling for national rules because they know that it will take forever and there’s more opportunity to get their finger in the pie before it’s baked. National rules, in addition to coming far too late, are much more likely also be watered down and riddled with loopholes by industry lobbyists. (This is indicative of the influence these companies wield over their own regulation, but it’s hardly official.)

But Congress isn’t a total loss. In moments of clarity it has established expert agencies like those in the first item, which have Congressional oversight but are otherwise independent, empowered to make rules, and kept technically — if somewhat limply — nonpartisan.

Unfortunately, the question of social media regulation is too recent for Congress to have empowered a specialist agency to address it. Social media companies don’t fit neatly into any of the categories that existing specialists regulate, something that is plainly evident by the present attempt to stretch Section 230 beyond the breaking point just to put someone on the beat.

Laws at the federal level are not to be relied on for regulation of this fast-moving industry, as the current state of things shows more than adequately. And until a dedicated expert agency or something like it is formed, it’s unlikely that anything spawned on Capitol Hill will do much to hold back the Facebooks of the world.

4. European regulators

Of course, however central it considers itself to be, the U.S. is only a part of a global ecosystem of various and shifting priorities, leaders, and legal systems. But in a sort of inside-out version of state laws punching above their weight, laws that affect a huge part of the world except the U.S. can still have a major effect on how companies operate here.

The most obvious example is the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, a set of rules, or rather augmentation of existing rules dating to 1995, that has begun to change the way some social media companies do business.

But this is only the latest step in a fantastically complex, decades-long process that must harmonize the national laws and needs of the E.U. member states in order to provide the clout it needs to compel adherence to the international rules. Red tape seldom bothers tech companies, which rely on bottomless pockets to plow through or in-born agility to dance away.

Although the tortoise may eventually in this case overtake the hare in some ways, at present the GDPR’s primary hindrance is not merely the complexity of its rules, but the lack of decisive enforcement of them. Each country’s Data Protection Agency acts as a node in a network that must reach consensus in order to bring the hammer down, a process that grinds slow and exceedingly fine.

When the blow finally lands, though, it may be a heavy one, outlawing entire practices at an industry-wide level rather than simply extracting pecuniary penalties these immensely rich entities can shrug off. There is space for optimism as cases escalate and involve heavy hitters like antitrust laws in efforts that grow to encompass the entire “big tech” ecosystem.

The rich tapestry of European regulations is really too complex of a topic to address here in the detail it deserves, and also reaches beyond the question of who exactly regulates social media. Europe’s role in that question of, if you will, speaking slowly and carrying a big stick promises to produce results on a grand scale, but for the purposes of this article it cannot really be considered an effective policing body.

(TechCrunch’s E.U. regulatory maven Natasha Lomas contributed to this section.)

5. No one? Really?

As you can see, the regulatory ecosystem in which social media swims is more or less free of predators. The most dangerous are the small, agile ones — state legislatures — that can take a bite before the platforms have had a chance to brace for it. The other regulators are either too slow, too compromised, or too involved (or some combination of the three) to pose a real threat. For this reason it may be necessary to introduce a new, but familiar, species: the expert agency.

As noted above, the FCC is the most familiar example of one of these, though its role is so fragmented that one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was originally created to ensure the integrity of the telephone and telegraph system. Why, then, is it the expert agency for orbital debris? That’s a story for another time.

Image Credit: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

What is clearly needed is the establishment of an independent expert agency or commission in the U.S., at the federal level, that has statutory authority to create and enforce rules pertaining to the handling of consumer data by social media platforms.

Like the FCC (and somewhat like the E.U.’s DPAs), this should be officially nonpartisan — though like the FCC it will almost certainly vacillate in its allegiance — and should have specific mandates on what it can and can’t do. For instance, it would be improper and unconstitutional for such an agency to say this or that topic of speech should be disallowed from Facebook or Twitter. But it would be able to say that companies need to have a reasonable and accessible definition of the speech they forbid, and likewise a process for auditing and contesting takedowns. (The details of how such an agency would be formed and shaped is well beyond the scope of this article.)

Even the likes of the FAA lags behind industry changes, such as the upsurge in drones that necessitated a hasty revisit of existing rules, or the huge increase in commercial space launches. But that’s a feature, not a bug. These agencies are designed not to act unilaterally based on the wisdom and experience of their leaders, but are required to perform or solicit research, consult with the public and industry alike, and create evidence-based policies involving, or at least addressing, a minimum of sufficiently objective data.

Sure, that didn’t really work with net neutrality, but I think you’ll find that industries have been unwilling to capitalize on this temporary abdication of authority by the FCC because they see that the Commission’s current makeup is fighting a losing battle against voluminous evidence, public opinion, and common sense. They see the writing on the wall and understand that under this system it can no longer be ignored.

With an analogous authority for social media, the evidence could be made public, the intentions for regulation plain, and the shareholders — that is to say, users — could make their opinions known in a public forum that isn’t owned and operated by the very companies they aim to rein in.

Without such an authority these companies and their activities — the scope of which we have only the faintest clue to — will remain in a blissful limbo, picking and choosing by which rules to abide and against which to fulminate and lobby. We must help them decide, and weigh our own priorities against theirs. They have already abused the naive trust of their users across the globe — perhaps it’s time we asked them to trust us for once.

October 19th 2020, 4:47 pm

Juniper Networks acquires Boston-area AI SD-WAN startup 128 Technology for $450M

TechCrunch

Today Juniper Networks announced it was acquiring smart wide area networking startup 128 Technology for $450 million.

This marks the second AI-fueled networking company Juniper has acquired in the last year and a half after purchasing Mist Systems in March 2019 for $405 million. With 128 Technology, the company gets more AI SD-WAN technology. SD-WAN is short for software-defined wide area networks, which means networks that cover a wide geographical area such as satellite offices, rather than a network in a defined space.

Today, instead of having simply software-defined networking, the newer systems use artificial intelligence to help automate session and policy details as needed, rather than dealing with static policies, which might not fit every situation perfectly.

Writing in a company blog post announcing the deal, executive vice president and chief product officer Manoj Leelanivas sees 128 Technology adding great flexibility to the portfolio as it tries to transition from legacy networking approaches to modern ones driven by AI, especially in conjunction with the Mist purchase.

“Combining 128 Technology’s groundbreaking software with Juniper SD-WAN, WAN Assurance and Marvis Virtual Network Assistant (driven by Mist AI) gives customers the clearest and quickest path to full AI-driven WAN operations — from initial configuration to ongoing AIOps, including customizable service levels (down to the individual user), simple policy enforcement, proactive anomaly detection, fault isolation with recommended corrective actions, self-driving network operations and AI-driven support,” Leelanivas wrote in the blog post.

128 Technologies was founded in 2014 and raised over $97 million, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent round was a $30 million Series D investment in September 2019 led by G20 Ventures and The Perkins Fund.

In addition to the $450 million, Juniper has asked 128 Technology to issue retention stock bonuses to encourage the startup’s employees to stay on during the transition to the new owners. Juniper has promised to honor this stock under the terms of the deal. The deal is expected to close in Juniper’s fiscal fourth quarter subject to normal regulatory review.

October 19th 2020, 3:45 pm

Lockheed picks Relativity’s 3D-printed rocket for experimental NASA mission

TechCrunch

Relativity Space has bagged its first public government contract, and with a major defense contractor at that. The launch startup’s 3D-printed rockets are a great match for a particularly complex mission Lockheed is undertaking for NASA’s Tipping Point program.

The mission is a test of a dozen different cryogenic fluid management systems, including liquid hydrogen, which is a very difficult substance to work with indeed. The tests will take place on a single craft in orbit, which means it will be a particularly complicated one to design and accommodate.

The payload itself and its cryogenic systems will be designed and built by Lockheed and their partners at NASA, of course, but the company will need to work closely with its launch provider during development and especially in the leadup to the actual launch.

Relativity founder and CEO Tim Ellis explained that the company’s approach of 3D printing the entire rocket top to bottom is especially well suited for this.

“We’re building a custom payload fairing that has specific payload loading interfaces they need, custom fittings and adapters,” he said. “It still needs to be smooth, of course — to a lay person it will look like a normal rocket,” he added.

Every fairing (the external part of the launch vehicle covering the payload) is necessarily custom, but this one much more so. The delicacy of having a dozen cryogenic operations being loaded up and tested until moments before launch necessitates a number of modifications that, in other days, would result in a massive increase in manufacturing complexity.

“If you look at the manufacturing tools being used today, they’re not much different from the last 60 years,” Ellis explained. “It’s fixed tooling, giant machines that look impressive but only make one shape or one object that’s been designed by hand. And it’ll take 12-24 months to make it.”

Not so with Relativity.

“With our 3D printed approach we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days,” Ellis said. “It’s also software defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise you’d have to lock in the design now.”

Ellis was excited about the opportunity to publicly take on a mission with such a major contractor. These enormous companies field billions of government dollars and take part in many launches, so it’s important to be in their good books, or at least in their rolodexes. A mission like this, complex but comparatively low stakes (compared with a crewed launch or billion-dollar satellite) is a great chance for a company like Relativity to show its capabilities. (Having presold many of its launches already, there’s clearly no lack of interest in the 3D printed launch vehicles, but more is always better.)

The company will be going to space before then, though, if all continues to go according to plan. The first orbital test flight is scheduled for late 2021. “We’re actually printing the launch hardware right now, the last few weeks,” Ellis mentioned.

The NASA Tipping Point program that is funding Lockheed with an $89.7 million contract for this experiment is one intended to, as its name indicates, help tip promising technologies over the edge into commercial viability. With hundreds of millions awarded yearly for companies pursuing things like lunar hoppers and robotic arms, it’s a bit like the agency’s venture fund.

October 19th 2020, 2:31 pm

Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes

TechCrunch

Disney announced earlier this month that it’s going all-in on streaming media.

As part of this new strategy, the company is undergoing a major reorganisation of its media and entertainment business that will focus on developing productions that will debut on its streaming and broadcast services.

This will include merging the company’s media businesses, ads and distribution, and Disney+ divisions so that they’ll now operate under the same business unit.

As TechCrunch’s Jonathan Shieber reports, Disney’s announcement follows a significant change to its release schedule to address new realities, including a collapsing theatrical release business; production issues; and the runaway success of its Disney+ streaming service — all caused or accelerated by the national failure to effectively address the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what better time than now to give Disney+ the Extra Crunch user experience teardown treatment. With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed. They include zero distractions while signing up, “the power of percentages,” and the importance of designing for trackpad, mouse and touch outside of native applications.

Zero distractions while signing up

If the user is trying to complete a very specific task — such as making a payment — don’t distract them. They’re experiencing event-driven behaviour.

The win: Disney have almost entirely removed any kind of distractions when signing up. This includes the header and footer. They want you to stay on-task.

Image Credits: Disney+

Steve O’Hear: This seems like a very easy win but one we don’t see as often as perhaps we should. Am I right that most sign-up flows aren’t this distraction-free and why do you think that is?

Peter Ramsey: Yeah, it’s such an easy win. Sometimes you see sign-up screens that have Google Adwords on it, and I think, “You’re risking the user getting distracted and leaving for what, half a penny?” If I had to guess why more companies don’t utilise this technique, it’s probably just because they don’t want to deal with the technical hassle of hiding a bunch of elements.

The power of percentages

Only use percentages when it makes sense. 80% off sounds like a lot, but 3% doesn’t. Percentages can be a great way of making a discount seem larger than it actually is, but sometimes it can have the reverse effect. This is because people are generally bad at accurately estimating discounts. “What’s 13% off £78?”

The fail: If you sign up to a year of Disney+, then you’re offered 16% free. But 16% of a £60 bundle isn’t easy to calculate in your head — so people guess. And sometimes, their guesses may be less than the actual value of the discount.

The fix: In this instance, it would be far more compelling (and require less mental arithmetic), if it was marketed as “60 days free.” Sixty days is both easy to understand and easy to assign value to.

Image Credits: Disney+

Percentages may be harder to process or evaluate in isolation as an end user but they are easy to compare with each other i.e., we all know 25% off is better than 10% off. Aren’t you advocating obscuring the actual saving in favour of what sounds better on a case-by-case basis and therefore actually working against the end user? Of course I’m playing devils advocate a little here.

So, it’s actually a really complex dilemma, and there’s no “easy” answer — this would probably make a great dinner time conversation. Yes, if you’re offering two discounts, then a percentage may be the easiest way for people to compare them.

October 19th 2020, 1:29 pm

U.S. charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack

TechCrunch

Six Russian intelligence officers accused of launching some of the “world’s most destructive malware” — including an attack that took down the Ukraine power grid in December 2015 and the NotPetya global ransomware attack in 2017 — have been charged by the U.S. Justice Department.

Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”

“No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously or irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite,” said John Demers, U.S. U.S. assistant attorney general for national security. “Today the Department has charged these Russian officers with conducting the most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group, including by unleashing the NotPetya malware. No nation will recapture greatness while behaving in this way.”

The six accused Russian intelligence officers. (Image: FBI/supplied)

In charges laid out Monday, the hackers are accused of developing and launching attacks using the KillDisk and Industroyer (also known as Crash Override) to target and disrupt the power supply in Ukraine, which left hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity two days before Christmas. The prosecutors also said the hackers were behind the NotPetya attack, a ransomware attack that spread across the world in 2017, causing billions of dollars in damages.

The hackers are also said to have used Olympic Destroyer, designed to knock out internet connections during the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Prosecutors also blamed the six hackers for trying to disrupt the 2017 French elections by launching a “hack and leak” operation to discredit the then-presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, as well as launching targeted spearphishing attacks against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the U.K.’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, tasked with investigating the use of the Russian nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, U.K. in 2018.

The alleged hackers — Yuriy Sergeyevich Andrienko, 32; Sergey Vladimirovich Detistov, 35; Pavel Valeryevich Frolov, 28; Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev, 29; Artem Valeryevich Ochichenko, 27; and Petr Nikolayevich Pliskin, 32 — are all charged with seven counts of conspiracy to hack, commit wire fraud, and causing computer damage.

The accused are believed to be in Russia. But the indictment serves as a “name and shame” effort, frequently employed by Justice Department prosecutors in recent years where arrests aren’t possible.

October 19th 2020, 1:17 pm

Raspberry Pi Foundation launches Compute Module 4 for industrial users

TechCrunch

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is launching a new product today — the Compute Module 4. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the Raspberry Pi releases, you know that the flagship Raspberry Pi 4 was released in June 2019. The Compute Module 4 features the same processor, but packed in a compute module for industrial use cases.

A traditional Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer with a ton of ports sticking out. Compute Modules are somewhat different. Those system-on-module variants are more compact single-board computers without any traditional port.

It lets you create a prototype using a traditional Raspberry Pi, and then order a bunch of Compute Modules to embed in your commercial products. “Over half of the seven million Raspberry Pi units we sell each year go into industrial and commercial applications, from digital signage to thin clients to process automation,” Eben Upton wrote on the Raspberry Pi blog.

Some things are strictly similar between the Raspberry Pi 4 and the Compute Module 4, such as the 64-bit ARM-based processor with VideoCore VI graphics. This is going to represent a huge upgrade for previous Compute Module customers.

In particular, you get much better video performance with 4Kp60 hardware decode for H.265 videos, 1080p60 hardware decode for H.264 videos, 1080p30 hardware encode of H.264 videos. You can also take advantage of the dual HDMI interfaces to connect up to two 4K displays at 60 frames per second.

Another big change with the Compute Module 4 is that there are a ton of options. You can choose compute modules with or without wireless technologies (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), with 1GB, 2GB, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, with 8GB, 16GB or 32GB of eMMC flash storage. There’s also a model without any eMMC flash storage in case you want to use external eMMC or the SD card interface.

You can mix-and-match those specs to keep your costs down at scale. The result is that there are 32 different versions of the Compute Module 4 ranging from $25 (no wireless, 1GB of RAM, ‘Lite’ eMMC) to $90 (wireless, 8GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC).

The form factor has changed compared to the previous Compute Module, which means that you’ll need a new Compute Module IO Board to take advantage of all the interfaces and start developing. It costs $35.

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

October 19th 2020, 12:59 pm

Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups

TechCrunch

Remember back in March when the VC game was done for the year, checkbooks were snapping shut and startup layoffs led the headlines? So much for all that. Q3’s venture capital numbers are in and they are anything but weak.

In retrospect, the Q2 VC slowdown looks more like a short-lived recharge ahead of a big push in Q3 than anything existential. We can see this today through the lens of data concerning what happened after June concluded and we moved into Q3.

According to data from PitchBook (data source) and CBInsights (data source), there was a lot to like about the third quarter if you were a U.S.-based startup.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


I want to dig into the data and pull out most important data points for you. We’ll get you informed and out the door in around 900 words.

If you want a more global look at the venture capital world in Q3, don’t worry. We’re doing that tomorrow right here at The Exchange. Ready? This should be both fun and informative. Let’s go!

A massive third quarter

To get a clear look at the U.S. venture capital market, we’ll start from the top down. So, the biggest numbers first, followed by increasingly narrow slices of data so we can drill down into smaller startups.

First, the top-line numbers:

  • How much money was raised by U.S.-based startups in Q3 2020? $36.5 billion, according to CBInsights, $37.8 billion according to PitchBook. Those numbers are effectively the same for purposes. CBInsights calls the number a seven-quarter high, up 22% from the Q3 2019 number and 30% from the Q2 2020 result. PitchBook agrees that Q3 2020 was strong, but has its count just under Q2 2020’s own.
  • How many deals was that money spread between? CBInsights counts 1,461 VC deals in Q3 2020 for U.S.-based startups. Per its numbers, that figure is up 1% from Q2 2020 and down 11% from Q3 2019. PitchBook, in contrast, counts 2,990 total deals, inclusive of rounds that it expects to be added as information about the quarter fills in. That tally “held steady” compared to Q3 2019, per the company.

What to make of all this information? Simple: Q3 2020 U.S.-based startup venture capital dollar volume was very strong, with deal counts coming in slightly weaker.

This means that we saw fewer, larger deals in the quarter on average, right? Let’s see:

October 19th 2020, 12:59 pm

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion

TechCrunch

SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora across all tiers of the streaming service. The deal brings top Stitcher titles to Pandora, including Freakonomics Radio, My Favorite Murder, SuperSoul Conversations from the Oprah Winfrey Network, Office Ladies, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Literally! with Rob Lowe, LeVar Burton Reads, and WTF with Marc Maron, among others.

On Pandora, the podcasts will be indexed using the company’s proprietary Podcast Genome Project technology. This system leverages  automated technology — like natural language processing, collaborative filtering, and other machine learning approaches — then combines that with human curation to make personalized recommendations to podcast listeners on Pandora’s app.

The podcasts will also continue to be available in the Stitcher app in North America, the company says.

The Stitcher acquisition brought with it several key assets, including its own mobile listening app, which includes a premium tier of exclusives, and the Midroll Media network for podcast advertising. Stitcher also creates its own original programs and runs multiple content networks, via Earwolf.

That means SirusXM gained thousands of top podcasts with the deal’s closure. The company also now claims it has the “largest addressable audience in North America” across all categories of digital audio, including music, sports, talk, and podcasts thanks to the combination of satellite radio service SiriusXM, streaming app Pandora, and now Stitcher.

The company believes the deal will help it to attract more creators to its platform, thanks to the enhanced production, marketing, and distribution capabilities it offers, following the deal’s close. Advertisers, meanwhile, will be able to more precisely target podcasts for better ad efficiency, and will gain access to improved measurements, says SiriusXM.

In terms of Stitcher’s execs, CEO Erik Diehn will now report to Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of SiriusXM, who also oversees content at Pandora. Stitcher’s Chief Revenue Officer, Sarah van Mosel, will report directly to John Trimble, Chief Advertising Revenue Officer of SiriusXM.

“We are deepening our position in podcasting, the fastest-growing sector in digital audio, and with completion of this transaction, our vision is taking shape,” said SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer, in a statement about the deal’s completion. “With Stitcher and its varied assets, we are now a one-stop shop able to meet the needs of podcast creators, publishers and advertisers, while also providing listeners with access to great shows, series and programming.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted many consumer trends and accelerated others, podcasting still remains one of the fast-growing digital audio industries. Podcast downloads returned to pre-COVID levels this summer, and Spotify reported that podcast consumption more doubled in Q2 and nearly a quarter (21%) of its active users now listen to podcasts.

Stitcher was not SiriusXM’s first acquisition focused on podcasts or ad technologies. It also bought podcast management platform Simplecast this June, and before that, it acquired AdsWizz for $66.3 million to power Pandora’s advertising efforts.

October 19th 2020, 12:29 pm

EU switches on cross-border interoperability for first batch of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps

TechCrunch

The European Union has switched on cross-border interoperability for a first batch of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps that use Bluetooth proximity to calculate the exposure risk of smartphone users after a pilot of the system last month.

National apps whose backends are now linked through the gateway service are Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, the Republic of Ireland’s COVID tracker, and Italy’s immuni app.

This means a user of one of those apps who travels to any of the other countries can expect their national app to send relevant exposure notifications in the same way it should if they had not travelled — without the need to download any additional software.

Collectively, the three national COVID-19 apps have been downloaded by around 30 million people which the EU said corresponds to two-thirds of such downloads in the region.

Image credit: EU Publications Office

Other national apps are expected to gain interoperability as they are added to the service in the coming weeks — with at least 18 more compatible national apps identified at this stage.

A second batch of national apps is expected to be added next week after a period of testing — namely: Czechia’s eRouška, Denmark’s smitte stop, Latvia’s Apturi COVID and Spain’s Radar Covid (although the latter still doesn’t have full coverage in Spain with the Catalonia region yet to integrate it with its regional healthcare system). Further compatible apps are slated to be added in November.

The gateway has been designed to work, in the first instance, with official coronavirus apps that have a decentralized architecture — meaning any that use a centalized architecture, such as France’s StopCovid app, aren’t currently compatible.

The UK’s collection of apps, meanwhile — for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — are unlikely to get plugged in, despite having a technically compatible app architecture, as the country is due to exit the trading bloc at the end of this year. (So interoperability would require a separate agreement between the UK and the EU.)

“About two third of EU Member States have developed compatible tracing and warning apps, and the gateway is open to all of them, once they are ready to connect. The connection will gradually take place during October and November, however apps can also connect at a later stage if national authorities wish so. An ‘onboarding protocol’ has been developed, setting out the necessary steps,” the Commission notes in an Q&A.

The cross-border system for the EU’s apps works via the use of a gateway server, developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP and operated from the Commission’s data centre in Luxembourg, which receives and passes on arbitrary identifiers between national apps.

“No other information than arbitrary keys, generated by the apps, will be handled by the gateway,” the EU notes in a press release. “The information is pseudonymised, encrypted, kept to the minimium, and only stored as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individual persons, nor to track location or movement of devices.”

Getting a cross-border system up and running so swiftly across a patchwork of national COVID-19 apps is an achievement for the EU, even as there are ongoing questions about the utility of Bluetooth-based coronavirus exposure notifications in the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus — with much of Europe now experiencing a second wave of the pandemic.

However EU commissioners suggested today that such apps can be a useful complement to other measures, such as manual contact tracing.

Commenting in a statement, StellaKyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety, said: “Coronavirus tracing and warning apps can effectively complement other measures like increased testing and manual contact tracing. With cases on the rise again, they can play an important role to help us break the transmission chains. When working across borders these apps are even more powerful tools. Our gateway system going live today is an important step in our work, and I would call on citizens to make use of such apps, to help protecting each other.”

“Free movement is an integral part of the Single Market — the gateway is facilitating this while helping save lives,” added Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market.

October 19th 2020, 11:59 am

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election?

TechCrunch

Before the 2016 election, Vice Ventures founder and general partner Catharine Dockery was bullish about the future of recreational cannabis in the United States.

“We saw quite a bit more optimism around national legalization, with the feeling that a wave of states legalizing recreational use would be the final push needed” to see drug reform, she said. It was good news for Dockery, who was planning to launch a firm investing in categories like cannabis, CBD, psychedelics and sextech.

She announced a $25 million fund in June 2019, but the national policy landscape had shifted considerably.

“The vitriol and division around the election really haven’t left room for substantive discussions. I think this will eventually change, but don’t have high hopes for much policy debate until the election is complete, if at all,” she said. “In a time of uncertainty, we’re taking a small step back.”

Along with many VC firms, Vice Ventures has raised the bar regarding which startups it will fund, but several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making decisions in the closing days of the presidential campaign. After a booming summer, some said momentum is increasing, while others told us that expectations have never been higher for startups.

“If anything, the pace is increasing,” said Alexa Von Tobel of Inspired Capital. Traditionally, she said founders scale back on fundraising efforts close to the winter holidays because investors’ vacation mentality is kicking in. This year, “I think we’ll continue to see founders taking advantage of the ample flow of capital right now and shore up resources so they can enter 2021 on strong footing,” she said.

While that may be good news for founders, Von Tobel said Inspired Capital is not giving too much weight to the election internally.

“We think of ourselves as patient capital, focused on looking for the best companies no matter the timing,” she said. “While we know the election will create noise and have an impact on businesses long-term, it does not have a place in our process right now.”

Inspired Capital invests more broadly in the early-stage environment, which plays a part in its ability to invest through crises and turbulence. It seems that firms that have more niche investment theses have been more likely to change their pace ahead of the election.

October 19th 2020, 11:47 am

The OpenStack Foundation becomes the Open Infrastructure Foundation

TechCrunch

This has been a long time coming, but the OpenStack foundation today announced that it is changing its name to ‘Open Infrastructure Foundation,” starting in 2021.

The announcement, which the foundation made at its virtual developer conference, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Over the course of the last few years, the organization started adding new projects that went well beyond the core OpenStack project and renamed its conference to the ‘Open Infrastructure Summit.’ The organization actually filed for the ‘Open Infrastructure Foundation’ trademark back in April.

Image Credits: OpenStack Foundation

After years of hype, the open-source OpenStack project hit a bit of a wall in 2016, as the market started to consolidate. The project itself, which helps enterprises run their private cloud, found its niche in the telecom space, though, and continues to thrive as one of the world’s most active open-source projects. Indeed, I regularly hear from OpenStack vendors that they are now seeing record sales numbers — despite the lack of hype. With the project being stable, though, the Foundation started casting a wider net and added additional projects like the popular Kata Containers runtime and CI/CD platform Zuul.

“We are officially transitioning and becoming the Open Infrastructure Foundation,” long-term OpenStack Foundation executive president Jonathan Bryce told me. “That is something that I think is an awesome step that’s built on the success that our community has spawned both within projects like OpenStack, but also as a movement […], which is [about] how do you give people choice and control as they build out digital infrastructure? And that is, I think, an awesome mission to have. And that’s what we are recognizing and acknowledging and setting up for another decade of doing that together with our great community.”

In many ways, it’s been more of a surprise that the organization waited as long as it did. As the foundation’s COO Mark Collier told me, the team waited because it wanted to sure that it did this right.

“We really just wanted to make sure that all the stuff we learned when we were building the OpenStack community and with the community — that started with a simple idea of ‘open source should be part of cloud, for infrastructure.’ That idea has just spawned so much more open source than we could have imagined. Of course, OpenStack itself has gotten bigger and more diverse than we could have imagined,” Collier said.

As part of today’s announcement, the group is also adding four new members at Platinum tier, its highest membership level: Ant Group, the Alibaba affiliate behind Alipay, embedded systems specialist Wind River, China’s Fiberhome (which was previously a Gold member) and Facebook Connectivity. To become a Platinum member, companies have to contribute $350,000 per year to the foundation and must have at least 2 full-time employees contributing to its projects.

“If you look at those companies that we have as Platinum members, it’s a pretty broad set of organizations,” Bryce noted. “AT&T, the largest carrier in the world. And then you also have a company Ant, who’s the largest payment processor in the world and a massive financial services company overall — over to Ericsson, that does telco, Wind River, that does defense and manufacturing. And I think that speaks to that everybody needs infrastructure. If we build a community — and we successfully structure these communities to write software with a goal of getting all of that software out into production, I think that creates so much value for so many people: for an ecosystem of vendors and for a great group of users and a lot of developers love working in open source because we work with smart people from all over the world.”

The OpenStack Foundation’s existing members are also on board and Bryce and Collier hinted at several new members who will join soon but didn’t quite get everything in place for today’s announcement.

We can probably expect the new foundation to start adding new projects next year, but it’s worth noting that the OpenStack project continues apace. The latest of the project’s bi-annual releases, dubbed ‘Victoria,’ launched last week, with additional Kubernetes integrations, improved support for various accelerators and more. Nothing will really change for the project now that the foundation is changing its name — though it may end up benefitting from a reenergized and more diverse community that will build out projects at its periphery.

October 19th 2020, 11:29 am

AMC offers private theater rentals starting at $99, as cinemas continue to struggle

TechCrunch

Like countless other sectors of the entertainment industry, movie theaters have been devastated by a global pandemic with seemingly no end in sight. Initial closings stretched on for months, as distributors have delayed their biggest films, or simply cut out the middle man by skipping straight to video-on-demand services.

Even as theaters have begun to reopen in some states, actually getting moviegoers back in seats is far easier said than done as fears over catching the highly contagious virus persist. From pop-up drive-ins to popcorn delivery services, some clever individuals have looked toward ways to stay afloat during a prolonged lockdown. A number of locations have also begun offering private theater rentals — a transitional approach that offers movie fans an opportunity to return to the movie-going experience without being surrounded by strangers.

As CNN notes, mega-chain AMC has begun to offer the option through its site, with prices for renting out a theater starting at a surprisingly reasonable $99 (though not in New York, Alaska and Hawaii). Split among ten friends, and you’re already paying less than a normal movie ticket.

Attendees can invite as many as 20 people to a screening, which consists of classic titles like Jurassic Park and Halloween-centric fare like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Prices go up from there. New titles like Tenet and The New Mutants, cost up to $349 for a single screening. The former, helmed by blockbuster director Christopher Nolan, was set to be a kind of litmus test for moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters.

After months of delays, however, Warner Bros. took the relatively rare step of releasing the film internationally first, as the U.S. has continued to struggle with the spread of COVID-19. The United States on-going struggles have also recently allowed China to overtake the country as the world’s largest box office. Over the summer, AMC noted that it had “substantial doubt” it would be able to withstand the pandemic.

October 19th 2020, 11:29 am

Apple launches a U.S.-only music video station, Apple Music TV

TechCrunch

Apple is expanding its investment in music with today’s launch of “Apple Music TV.” The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour livestream of popular music videos and other music content, including, exclusive video premieres, curated music video blocks, live shows, fan events, chart countdowns and guest appearances.

The service doesn’t have its own dedicated app, but is instead offered as a new feature within two of Apple’s existing entertainment apps. At launch, you can watch Apple Music TV from within the Browse tab of either the Apple Music app or the Apple TV app. (Accessible via apple.co/AppleMusicTV).

While Apple Music is a paid subscription service, Apple Music TV will be free to users in the U.S., the company says.

To kick off its launch, Apple Music TV today began with a countdown of the top 100 most-streamed songs ever across all of Apple Music, based on U.S. data.,

During brief tests of the new service, we found it to be a fairly basic (if uncensored) experience. The video stream only offered artist and song details at the beginning, instead of as the music played. It also didn’t take advantage of the integration with Apple Music to offer additional features to paying subscribers — like being able to favorite the song or add it to a playlist, for instance.

The stream would stop when the Apple Music app was closed, as it didn’t support background play.

Image Credits: Apple

There also weren’t any on-screen tools to share what you were watching via a social media post. You had to dig to find the “share” button under the three-dot, “more” menu.

You could stop the livestream and then return after a short pause, but after a bit, the stream will disconnect and the thumbnail of the paused music video will revert to the Apple Music TV image. When live, the text and icons will also be shown in red, and they revert to white when you’ve disconnected, as a visual cue.

Despite its shortcomings, Apple Music TV gives Apple an immediate new home for its music-related original content, which over the years has included exclusive interviews, concert films, and more. It also provides Apple with another advantage with it goes to negotiate with artists for their premieres, as it introduces additional platform for reaching the artist’s fans — not only with the premiere itself, but by offering artists blocks of airtime leading up to their next debut that they can use to promote their releases.

The new station can also leverage content produced for the Apple Music 1 (formerly Beats 1) radio station, as it goes about running these promotions.

For example, on Thursday, October 22, Apple Music TV will promote the upcoming release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” with music video blocks featuring his greatest videos, plus as exclusive interview with Zane Lowe, and a special livestream fan event.

Fridays, meanwhile, will focus on new music. This Friday, October 23, at 9 AM PT Apple Music TV will showcase two new exclusive video premieres – Joji’s “777” and SAINt JHN’s “Gorgeous.”

Apple Music TV’s biggest advantage, of course, is the fact that it’s freely accessible to millions of Apple device owners. But it lacks the features that make other livestream fan events or premieres engaging — like group chats or direct interactions with creators.

Instead, it’s more like a traditional TV broadcast — even MTV-like — compared with other online destinations where artists today connect with fans and promote their albums, like YouTube, VEVO, or more recently, Facebook, which just this year launched music videos.

Apple didn’t say if it planned to expand the new station outside the U.S.

October 19th 2020, 10:59 am

Mobile by Peak Design is a new, complete mobile mounting solution for everyday convenience

TechCrunch

After a steady stream of successful product launches and Kickstarter campaigns, Peak Design is back with a new one – Mobile by Peak Design. The startup that created a rich ecosystem of photography and packing gear is tackling mobile devices next, and has devices a clever interconnect system that seems to have anticipated Apple’s new MagSafe magnetic phone accessory scheme – but that’s designed for all smartphones and mobile devices.

Similar to Peak Design’s Capture, Anchor and mounting plate system, Mobile by Peak Design offers a way to connect smartphones to all kinds of accessories, including tripods, car mounts, charging stands, bike handlebars and much more. The system is entered around what Peak calls its “SlimLink” connector, which is a clever combo magnetic and physical mounting receiver that you can attach to your phone either with dedicated cases, or a universal sticky-backed accessory. SlimLink then works with both soft-lock and hard-lock accessories, which use either magnets alone (soft) or magnets combined with physical catchments (hard) for varying degrees of stable connection with a line of mounts.

Peak Design is launching on Kickstarter with a crowdfunding campaign, but the product is already designed and produced to a high level of quality. It sent out media samples of a range of products in the Mobile lineup, including a SlimLink universal phone mount, a handlebar mount, the folding tripod, two magnetic/stick-backed universal mounting pads, and an in-car dashboard mount.

I’ve been using these for the past couple of weeks and have found them to be incredibly versatile and convenient. Peak also supplied an iPhone 11 Pro case, but since I’m using an iPhone 11 Pro Max, I just affixed the 3M-backed universal plate directly to my phone using the included sizing and alignment guide. The attachment is incredibly secure, and doesn’t add very much thickness to your phone at all (it basically provides just enough clearance that the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera bump barely clears table surfaces).

The magnetic connection between it and the ‘soft-lock’ mounts is strong enough that I’m never worried about them coming loose – I’ve used the general purpose magnetic mounts on my fridge often, and the phone hasn’t moved. The bike mount, with its additional physical prongs, is rock solid while actually biking around, and the arm on the mount puts the phone is a great position for acting as a navigation device while biking around, in both portrait and landscape orientations.

Peak has really outdone itself with the design of this system, but that is maybe most true when it comes to the tripod. The clever, three-legged folding design is tiny – smaller overall footprint than a credit card, though a bit thicker – and it’s amazing to be able to carry this everywhere in a pocket and have a stable platform for taking time-lapse photos. You can adjust its stability using the included Allen key, too.

The car mount has an adhesive backing for sticking to your dashboard, and fits in the recessed SlimLink slot on the phone mount/case without physically catching. It’s stable and secure in testing, and best of all, Peak has made the adjustable ball that lets you orient your phone just the right amount of stiff that you can move it but it doesn’t require any additional tightening. My one complaint thus far with the universal mount has been that it isn’t compatible with my Nomad Base Station Pro charger, though Peak says it’s testing the accessory with wireless chargers and will advise as to compatibility in future. The Peak Everyday phone case, meanwhile, is compatible with many Qi chargers.

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Peak says these designs are subject to change, and of course, MagSafe was a surprise to the company just as it was to the rest of the world. Peak still plans to create iPhone 12 cases for the range, and says that all of its soft-locking accessories will also work with both Apple MagSafe phones, as well as MagSafe cases. Apple MagSafe accessories, like the wallet, will also likewise attach to MagSafe phones.

This could’ve been one of those moments where Apple announces something that renders a competing product obsolete before it even gets to market, but Peak’s Mobile system design actually makes them complimentary – and provides very similar benefits to phones and devices that otherwise would’ve have been able to take advantage of what MagSafe offers.

The Kickstarter campaign launches today, and Peak believes it will be able to ship the Mobile system cases and accessories starting in Spring 2021.

October 19th 2020, 10:13 am

Pimloc gets $1.8M for its AI-based visual search and redaction tool

TechCrunch

UK-based Pimloc has closed a £1.4 million (~$1.8M) seed funding round led by Amadeus Capital Partners. Existing investor Speedinvest and other unnamed shareholders also participated in the round.

The 2016-founded computer vision startup launched a AI -powered photo classifier service called Pholio in 2017 — pitching the service as a way for smartphone users to reclaim agency over their digital memories without having to hand their data over to cloud giants like Google.

It has since pivoted to position Pholio as a “specialist search and discovery platform” for large image and video collections and live streams (such as those owned by art galleries or broadcasters) — and also launched a second tool powered by its deep learning platform. This product, Secure Redact, offers privacy-focused content moderation tools — enabling its users to find and redact personal data in visual content.

An example use-case it gives is for law enforcement to anonymize bodycam footage so it can be repurposed for training videos or prepared for submitting as evidence.

Pimloc has been working with diverse image and video content for several years supporting businesses with a host of classification, moderation and data protection challenges (image libraries, art galleries, broadcasters and CCTV providers),” CEO Simon Randall tells TechCrunch.

“Through our work on the visual privacy side we identified a critical gap in the market for services that allow businesses and governments to manage visual data protection at scale on security footage. Pimloc has worked in this area for a couple of years building capability and product, as a result Pimloc has now focussed the business solely around this mission.”

Secure Redact has two components: A first (automated) step that detects personal data (e.g. faces, heads, bodies) within video content. On top of that is what Randall calls a layer of “intelligent tools” — letting users quickly review and edit results.

“All detections and tracks are auditable and editable by users prior to accepting and redacting,” he explains, adding: “Personal data extends wider than just faces into other objects and scene content including ID cards, tattoos, phone screens (body worn cameras have a habit of picking up messages on the wearer’s phone screen as they are typing, or sensitive notes on their laptop or notebook).”

One specific user of redaction the tool he mentions is the University of Bristol. There a research group, led by Dr Dima Damen, an associate professor in computer vision, is participating in an international consortium of 12 universities which is aiming to amass the largest dataset on egocentric vision — and needs to be able to anonymise the video data set before making it available for academic/open source use.

On the legal side, Randall says Pimloc offers a range of data processing models — thereby catering to differences in how/where data can be processed. “Some customers are happy for Pimloc to act as data processor and use the Secure Redact SaaS solution — they manage their account, they upload footage, and can review/edit/update detections prior to redaction and usage. Some customers run the Secure Redact system on their servers where they are both data controller and processor,” he notes.

“We have over 100 users signed up for the SaaS service covering mobility, entertainment, insurance, health and security. We are also in the process of setting up a host of on-premise implementations,” he adds.

Asked which sectors Pimloc sees driving the most growth for its platform in the coming years, he lists the following: smart cities/mobility platforms (with safety/analytics demand coming from the likes of councils, retailers, AVs); the insurance industry, which he notes is “capturing and using an increasing amount of visual data for claims and risk monitoring” and thus “looking at responsible systems for data management and processing”; video/telehealth, with traditional consultations moving into video and driving demand for visual diagnosis; and law enforcement, where security goals need to be supported by “visual privacy designed in by default” (at least where forces are subject to European data protection law).

On the competitive front, he notes that startups are increasingly focusing on specialist application areas for AI — arguing they have an opportunity to build compelling end-to-end propositions which are harder for larger tech companies to focus on.

For Pimlock specifically he argues it has an edge in its particular security-focused niche — given “deep expertise” and specific domain experience.

“There are low barriers to entry to create a low quality product but very high technical barriers to create a service that is good enough to use at scale with real ‘in the wild’ footage,” he argues, adding: The generalist services of the larger tech players do not match-up with domain specific provisions of Pimloc/Secure Redact. Video security footage is a difficult domain for AI, systems trained on lifestyle/celebrity or other general data sets perform poorly on real security footage.”

Commenting on the seed funding in a statement, Alex van Someren, MD of Amadeus Capital Partners, said: “There is a critical need for privacy by design and large-scale solutions, as video grows as a data source for mobility, insurance, commerce and smart cities, while our reliance on video for remote working increases. We are very excited about the potential of Pimloc’s products to meet this challenge.”

“Consumers around the world are rightfully concerned with how enterprises are handling the growing volume of visual data being captured 24/7. We believe Pimloc has developed an industry leading approach to visual security and privacy that will allow businesses and governments to manage the usage of visual data whilst protecting consumers. We are excited to support their vision as they expand into the wider Enterprise and SaaS markets,” added Rick Hao, principal at Speedinvest, in another supporting statement.

October 19th 2020, 10:13 am

Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool

TechCrunch

Google Cloud today announced the launch of Lending DocAI, its first dedicated service for the mortgage industry. The tool, which is now in preview, is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents, using specialized machine learning models to automate routine document reviews.

Some of this may sound familiar, because, with Document AI, Google Cloud already offers a more general tool for performing OCR over complex documents and then extracting data from those. Lending DocAI is essentially the first vertically specialized Google Cloud service to use this technology.

“Our goal is to give you the right tools to help borrowers and lenders have a better experience and to close mortgage loans in shorter time frames, benefiting all parties involved,” writes Google product manager Sudheera Vanguri. “With Lending DocAI, you will reduce mortgage processing time and costs, streamline data capture, and support regulatory and compliance requirements.”

Google argues that its tool will have speed up the mortgage workflow process and improve the experience for borrowers, too. If you’ve ever gone through the mortgage process, you know how much time it takes to compile all of the necessary documents and how much lag there is before your bank or mortgage broker tells you that everything is in order (or not).

In addition, Google Cloud also argues that this technology can help “reduce risk and enhance compliance posture by leveraging a technology stack (e.g. data access controls and transparency, data residency, customer managed encryption keys) that reduces the risk of implementing an AI strategy.”

In many ways, this new product is a good example for Google Cloud’s current strategy under the leadership of its CEO Thomas Kurian. While it continues to develop a plethora of general services for developers at every level, it now also bundles these together to sell as complete solutions to enterprises in various verticals. That’s where Google Cloud believes it can generate the most benefit for these companies — and hence generate the most revenue. With industry solutions for retailers, telcos, gaming companies and more — and industry partners to help them get up to speed — Kurian and his team believe that they can offer solutions while its competitors focus on offering tools. So far, that strategy seems to be working out alright, with Google Cloud’s revenue growing over 43 percent in the last quarter.

October 19th 2020, 9:58 am

Equity Monday: Three neat venture rounds, and Alibaba’s latest

TechCrunch

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest big news, chats about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here — and don’t forget to check out last Friday’s episode.

  • American equities are set to rise, which is good news for the startup-VC world as it means that the current up-cycle will continue. But the good public market is not landing evenly, as Europe sees its VC-backed IPO tally lag the rest of the world.
  • The biggest recent news stories in tech and venture were Alibaba’s enormous Sun Art deal that echoes the Amazon-Whole Foods deal at first blush, and SpaceX’s latest success. The quiet weekend could herald the return of a slower, holiday news cycle as we close in on November.

On the funding front, we found three super cool startups:

  • AiFi raised $14.5 million in a round that Crunchbase News covered. Autonomous, checkout-free stores? Count us in.
  • Lawmatics raised a $2.5 million Seed round. The startup does vertical SaaS (CRM, marketing) for lawyers. That just sounds lucrative.
  • And then there was Chiper, which put together a $12 million round to help build out its ecommerce service in Latin America. Investors Monashees, Kaszek Ventures, and WIND Ventures put the money up.

And to close we took a look at some Q3 2020 data from CBInsights and Crunchbase News.

That’s all we got. The show is back in just a few days. Hugs!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

October 19th 2020, 9:58 am

Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram

TechCrunch

Following the updates to Instagram and Messenger that delivered cross-app communication and other features, Facebook today announced its Messenger API has also been updated to allow businesses to manage their communications across Instagram, in addition to Messenger .

Before today, businesses could only respond to customer inquiries through the Instagram app and through Facebook’s unified business inbox. This could work for some smaller businesses, but for larger brands with a high volume of messages, it could be difficult to be efficient this way.

The update means businesses will be able to now also integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations. Specifically, they’ll be able to use rich media — like photos, URL links and more — and work with developers to integrate the API with their product and customer databases to provide the same experience on Instagram as they do today on Messenger.

For example, a business with a CRM system integration would be able to view the customer loyalty information and take that into account when they respond.

Businesses using the API can also manage their Instagram presence, including their Profile, Shops and Stories, Facebook says.

Image Credits: Facebook

The change comes at a time when Instagram is pushing Shopping as a core activity on Instagram, and follows the launch of Instagram shops and visual changes to the app to highlight shopping features.

According to Facebook, daily conversations between people and businesses on Messenger and Instagram combined grew over 40% over the last year.

With the launch of the new API, Facebook is also introducing new features on Instagram that will allow businesses to respond immediately to common questions using automation, while still offering to connect customers to live support, if needed. An alpha test with partner Clarabridge on this feature indicated that client brands improved response rates on Instagram by up to 55% by managing DMs through its platform.

The updated Messenger API is launching into beta testing with businesses like Adidas, Amaro, Glossier, H&M, MagazineLuiza, Michael Kors, Nars, Sephora and TechStyle Fashion Group, among other consumer brands. The beta is also open to a limited number of developer partners. Today, other businesses and developers can join a waitlist to request access to the API post-beta.

Cross-app communication, a key part of the recent Instagram and Messenger update, is not available in the API at launch, however. For now, the messages will appear a brand’s Messenger or Instagram tab depending on where their customers are messaging from. However, Facebook confirmed it plans to “eventually” bring cross-app communication to businesses and developers in a later update.

October 19th 2020, 9:58 am

Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2 million seed round

TechCrunch

Propseller, a Singapore-based real estate agency that combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly, announced today it has raised $1.2 million in seed funding.

The round included investment from Iterative; Hustle Fund; XA Network; Rapzo Capital; Lazada co-founder Stein Jakabo; and Dot Property founder Ben Neve. Propseller also said “three undisclosed highly strategic investors” and returning private investors participated.

Propseller’s last funding announcement was in December 2018, when it raised SGD $1 million (about $737,000) in seed funding.

Founded in 2018 and launched the next year, Propseller says its technology platform enables transactions to close more quickly, helping with tasks like property valuations, and reduces standard commission fees to 1% from 2% because the startup’s in-house agents are able to finish more transactions in less time.

The company claims it is currently handling about SGD $75 million worth of properties each year. During the pandemic, tech-enabled services like online dashboards and virtual viewings have allowed Propseller’s agents to continue working with clients.

Despite the economic impact of COVID-19, Singapore’s real estate market is expected to recover relatively quickly, especially the residential sector, because of demand for new condominiums and foreign investment.

Another Singaporean real estate-focused startup that recently raised funding is PropertyGuru. Last month, the property listing platform announced an investment of $220 million from KKR and TPG to expand into new Southast Asian markets. PropertyGuru’s most direct competitor is 99.co, but startups like Propseller, Ohmyhome and Greyloft, which offer agent services combined with tech platforms, all provide an alternative in the Singaporean real estate market.

In a press statement about its investment in Propseller, Iterative partner (and founder of Divvy Homes, a San Francisco-based proptech startup) Brian Ma said, “Worldwide, modern estate agencies are already taking market share at breakneck speeds. In a market like Singapore with high property prices and the need for high quality service, we believe digitalization will be inevitable. We’re excited for Propseller to lead the charge there.”

October 19th 2020, 8:57 am

Ready, Set, Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class

TechCrunch

In 2018, Leslie Feinzaig, the founder of Female Founders Alliance, launched a free, equity-free accelerator for women called Ready, Set, Raise. The goal was to provide under-networked female founders the coaching and connections needed to raise money.

This year, as funding for female founders drops to 2017 levels, Feinzaig realized why accelerators, hers included, might not work for women as well as they work for men: demo day. A common culminating event in most accelerators, demo day is an event where founders pitch to a room to investors, angels, and journalists with the hope of raising a round and landing some coverage.

“The truth is, you don’t raise a round based on a 5-minute, highly scripted, polished and practiced on-stage pitch,” Feinzaig continued. “You raise it by being able to pitch your startup to any person, at any time, in any context, and get them excited enough to want to participate in your journey.”

So, Feinzaig says the “aha moment” led to Ready, Set, Raise changing its programming, which will run 8-weeks, to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

The coronavirus has impacted the way that accelerators work, Y Combinator and Techstars moved to live, virtual programming, which has the opportunity to be more accessible to parents or people who cannot relocate to Palo Alto for three months out of the year. That said, Y Combinator’s latest batch had a drop in diversity, with only 16% of the companies having a founder who identified as female. In the previous batch, nearly 21% of companies had a founder who identified as female.

The drop in access makes Feinzaig’s work even more difficult, and important. This year, as applications rolled in for Ready, Set, Raise, Feinzaig noticed that more mature companies were applying than usual. The detail led to the founder surveying female founders and discovering that women who had the ambition to start a company before the pandemic, are less likely to do so now. Still, she’s optimistic, saying that they saw the “highest caliber of applicants” to her accelerator than ever before.

Today, Ready Set Raise announced its third cohort, including a startup that digitizes retailers which sell outdoor equipment, a marketplace for ethical and legal data exchange, and a digital platform that connects Black women to culturally-aware providers.

Here’s a look at Ready, Set, Raise’s third cohort of startups:

Brightly: Founded by Laura Wittig and Liza Moiseeva, Brightly is a startup that combines commerce, content, and community with the goal of scaling conscious consumerism. It is based in Seattle, WA.

Womp.ai: Founded by Gabriela Trueba, Womp wants to help anyone explore, create, and share 3D. It is based in Brooklyn, NY

FixFake: Founded by Kathryn Harrison and Jason Law, FixFake offers decision support tools to reduce fraud in e-commerce. It is based in Bozeman, MT

tbd health: Founded by Stephanie Estey, Daphne Chen, and Sherwin Lu, tbd health is an at-home, STI screening platform made for women. It is based in New York, NY.

Gearo: Founded by Justine Barone, Gearo digitizes outdoor retailer operations and brings in adventure-seekers as customers. It is based in Denver, CO

Mary Louise Cosmetics: Founded by Akilah Releford, Mary Louise Cosmetics sells natural skincare and personal care products. It is based in Los Angeles, CA

datacy: Founded by CEO Paroma Indilo and Kaleb Wilson, Datacy is a marketplace focused on enabling ethical and legal data exchange. It is based in San Jose, CA.

Health In Her HUE: Founded by Ashlee Wisdom and Eddwina Bright, the company is a digital platform connecting Black women to culturally competent providers. It is based in New York, NY.

The class will begin October 19th. Members will receive coaching from a variety of partners including Cooley LLP, Carta, Grasshopper Bank, Madrona Venture Group, UPS and Zendesk for Startups.

October 19th 2020, 8:44 am

Pakistan lifts ban on TikTok

TechCrunch

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said on Monday it has lifted the ban on TikTok, 11 days after the South Asian nation’s telecom authority blocked the popular short video app in the country over problematic videos on the platform. The authority, however, warned that TikTok still needs to actively moderate content on its app or else it will be permanently blocked in the nation.

The telecom authority said it was lifting the ban after engaging with TikTok’s senior management, which assured it would moderate content in accordance with “societal norms and the laws of Pakistan.” TikTok has about 20 million monthly active users in Pakistan, the authority said.

TikTok’s senior management team has also ensured that it will block users who show a repeated pattern of uploading “unlawful” content, the telecom authority said in a statement.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused. PTA will be constrained to permanently block the application incase said condition is not fulfilled,” the authority warned.

Pakistan banned TikTok in the nation earlier this month and also after issuing a “final” warning to the app in July. In its warning, Pakistan had expressed serious concerns over some videos that were circulating on the platform. The nation said some videos were “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar.”

The ban had also raised concerns with some (via Techmeme), who cautioned that the move was Pakistan’s attempt to enforce a top down censorship in the nation. Earlier this year, Pakistan unveiled some of the world’s most sweeping rules on internet censorship that would have severely impacted American tech firms operating in the nation. But it later retreated the rules after Facebook, Google and Twitter among other firms threatened to leave the nation.

Neighboring nation India has also banned TikTok, among hundreds of other Chinese apps. In case of India, the ban has been enforced over cybersecurity concerns.

More to follow…

October 19th 2020, 8:14 am

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more

TechCrunch

SpaceX on Sunday launched another batch of 60 of its internet-beaming Starlink satellites, growing its constellation even further. That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational (some were test satellites that were intentionally decommissioned). The launch, from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, also included a successful controlled landing and recovery of the first stage booster, as well as a semi-successful dual catch of the fairing halves used to protect the cargo during launch.

I say semi-successful because both of SpaceX’s recovery barges actually did catch the fairing halves as they parachuted back down to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, but one of the nets on the barges gave way during the catch. SpaceX says the recovery crew is fine, but that’s obviously not an ideal outcome. Still, being positioned correctly to catch both fairing halves is definitely a win for the company’s efforts on that aspect of Falcon 9 launch vehicle reusability.

This is another impressive show of SpaceX’s ability to maintain a very fast and frequent pace of launches, which has this year focused mostly on delivering its own Starlink satellites to orbit. The company has already launched almost 300 new Starlink satellites since June, and has plans to launch at least two more batches during the next month, including a tentative launch scheduled for this coming Wednesday.

Starlink is already in the process of being tested internally by SpaceX employees and technicians, and the company is readying for a broader public beta to begin before the end of this year.

October 19th 2020, 7:44 am

Instagram’s handling of kids’ data is now being probed in the EU

TechCrunch

Facebook’s lead data regulator in Europe has opened another two probes into its business empire — both focused on how the Instagram platform processes children’s information.

The action by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), reported earlier by the Telegraph, comes more than a year after a US data scientist reported concerns to Instagram that its platform was leaking the contact information of minors. David Stier went on to publish details of his investigation last year — saying Instagram had failed to make changes to prevent minors’ data being accessible.

He found that children who changed their Instagram account settings to a business account had their contact info (such as an email address and phone number) displayed unmasked via the platform — arguing that “millions” of children had had their contact information exposed as a result of how Instagram functions.

Facebook disputes Stier’s characterization of the issue — saying it’s always made it clear that contact info is displayed if people choose to switch to a business account on Instagram.

It also does now let people opt out of having their contact info displayed if they switch to a business account.

Nonetheless, its lead EU regulator has now said it’s identified “potential concerns” relating to how Instagram processes children’s data.

Per the Telegraph’s report the regulator opened the dual inquiries late last month in response to claims the platform had put children at risk of grooming or hacking by revealing their contact details. 

The Irish DPC did not say that but did confirm two new statutory inquiries into Facebook’s processing of children’s data on the fully owned Instagram platform in a statement emailed to TechCrunch in which it notes the photo-sharing platform “is used widely by children in Ireland and across Europe”.

“The DPC has been actively monitoring complaints received from individuals in this area and has identified potential concerns in relation to the processing of children’s personal data on Instagram which require further examination,” it writes.

The regulator’s statement specifies that the first inquiry will examine the legal basis Facebook claims for processing children’s data on the Instagram platform, and also whether or not there are adequate safeguards in place.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes specific provisions related to the processing of children’s information — with a hard cap set at age 13 for kids to be able to consent to their data being processed. The regulation also creates an expectation of baked in safeguards for kids’ data.

“The DPC will set out to establish whether Facebook has a legal basis for the ongoing processing of children’s personal data and if it employs adequate protections and or restrictions on the Instagram platform for such children,” it says of the first inquiry, adding: “This Inquiry will also consider whether Facebook meets its obligations as a data controller with regard to transparency requirements in its provision of Instagram to children.”

The DPC says the second inquiry will focus on the Instagram profile and account settings — looking at “the appropriateness of these settings for children”.

“Amongst other matters, this Inquiry will explore Facebook’s adherence with the requirements in the GDPR in respect to Data Protection by Design and Default and specifically in relation to Facebook’s responsibility to protect the data protection rights of children as vulnerable persons,” it adds.

In a statement responding to the regulator’s action, a Facebook company spokesperson told us:

We’ve always been clear that when people choose to set up a business account on Instagram, the contact information they shared would be publicly displayed. That’s very different to exposing people’s information. We’ve also made several updates to business accounts since the time of Mr. Stier’s mischaracterisation in 2019, and people can now opt out of including their contact information entirely. We’re in close contact with the IDPC and we’re cooperating with their inquiries.

Breaches of the GDPR can attract sanctions of as much as 4% of the global annual turnover of a data controller — which, in the case of Facebook, means any future fine for violating the regulation could run to multi-billions of euros.

That said, Ireland’s regulator now has around 25 open investigations related to multinational tech companies (aka cross-border GDPR cases) — a backlog that continues to attract criticism over the plodding progress of decisions. Which means the Instagram inquiries are joining the back of a very long queue.

Earlier this summer the DPC submitted its first draft decision on a cross-border GDPR case — related to a 2018 Twitter breach — sending it on to the other EU DPAs for review.

That step has led to a further delay, as the other EU regulators did not unanimously back the DPC’s decision — triggering a dispute mechanisms set out in the GDPR.

In separate news, an investigation of Instagram influencers by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority found the platform is failing to protect consumers from being misled. The BBC reports that the platform will roll out new tools over the next year including a prompt for influencers to confirm whether they have received incentives to promote a product or service before they are able to publish a post, and new algorithms built to spot potential advertising content.

October 19th 2020, 5:57 am

Alibaba Group will spend $3.6 billion to take control of Chinese supermarket giant Sun Art

TechCrunch

Alibaba Group said today it will spend about $3.6 billion to take a controlling stake in Sun Art, one of China’s largest big-box and supermarket chains. After the transaction is complete, Alibaba Group will own 72% of Sun Art.

As in other countries, COVID-19 lockdowns increased demand for online food orders in China, drawing in shoppers who had still preferred to buy groceries in person. Even though lockdowns have lifted, many have continued to purchase online. Alibaba’s new investment in Sun Art will be made by acquiring 70.94% of equity interest in A-RT Retail Holdings from France-based Auchan Retail International. A-RT Retail holds about 51% of the equity interest in Sun Art.

After the deal closes, Alibaba will consolidate Sun Art in its financial statements. Sun Art chief executive officer Peter Huang has also been named its new chairman.

Alibaba first invested in Sun Art back in 2017, spending about $2.88 billion to pick up a 36.16% share in the chain, whose brands include RT-Mart, as part of its “New Retail” strategy.

“New Retail” aims to blur the lines between online and offline commerce through steps like turning physical stores in pickup points for online orders, integrating supply chains and enabling shoppers to use the same digital payment methods on its e-commerce platforms and in brick-and-mortar stores.

All of Sun Art’s 484 physical retail locations in China are now integrated into Alibaba’s Taoxianda and Tmall Supermarket platforms for groceries, as well as Ele.me and Cainiao, its on-demand food demand delivery app and logistics businesses, respectively. For customers, this means faster deliveries and larger selections, while giving Alibaba more sources of data it can use to improve its supply chain and business operations.

Other e-commerce companies are taking a similar approach to integrating offline and online grocery shopping, including Alibaba’s main rival JD, which has similar alliances with supermarket group Yonghui and Walmart.

In press statement, Alibaba chairman and chief executive officer Daniel Zhang said, “As the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the digitization of consumer lifestyles and enterprise operations, this commitment to Sun Art serves to strengthen our New Retail vision and serve more consumers with a fully integrated experience.”

October 19th 2020, 2:09 am
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