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Rent the Backyard wants to build a studio apartment in your yard

TechCrunch

Rent the Backyard is one of the rare startups with a name that perfectly suits what it does.

The company, which is part of Y Combinator’s current batch, builds studio apartments in homeowners’ backyards, which are then rented out for income.

Of course, if you already own a house with a yard, you could theoretically do this for yourself, without getting a startup involved, but co-founder Brian Bakerman told me, “The goal is to have no headaches for the homeowners.”

That means Rent the Backyard works with a partner to build the apartment, finances the construction, lists the property, selects the tenant, collects the rent and serves as the landlord. In exchange for all that, it has an ownership stake in the unit and keeps 50 percent of the rent.

The startup also handles the permitting, which co-founder Spencer Burleigh said has become much easier with recent changes in California law. In fact, he pointed to stories about how these changes have led to skyrocketing applications (16 in 2016, 350 in 2018) to build “in-law” units in San Jose, which is where the startup is focused for now.

Bakerman said that many homeowners simply can’t afford the upfront cost of building these units, so by providing the financing, Rent the Backyard can unlock new income and make home ownership more affordable. At the same time, it’s also helping renters by creating more apartments.

Of course, for a homeowner, that means giving up a big piece of your backyard (which must be at least 30 feet by 30 feet in size), but Bakerman said that many yards are “underutilized” anyway.

“In places like the Bay Area … people are spending a ridiculous amount on their homes,” he added. “They often can’t afford those lifestyles, but everyone wants to attain home ownership.”

The company’s website includes a calculator of how much rental income you might earn, and it says that most owners will be able to make more than $10,000 of additional income each year.

Over time, Rent the Backyard will give the homeowner an increasing share of equity in the apartment, until they own it completely after 30 years. Homeowners can also buy out the startup’s equity and take full ownership at any time (which they’ll need to do if they sell their home and move out).

To be clear, Rent the Backyard hasn’t actually built any apartments yet, but it’s already signed up construction partners, and the goal is to get 10 units permitted and ready for construction by the end of the summer.

“It’s a pretty fast process,” Bakerman said. “It could just be a handful of weeks before we’re able to start building” — and since the units use prefabricated construction methods, the actual building could take as little as a week and a half.

July 18th 2019, 5:08 pm

Toyota creates accessible last-mile electric shuttle for 2020 Olympic Games

TechCrunch

Toyota is readying for Tokyo’s Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, which it’s hosting in 2020, with an all-new short range battery electric shuttle it designed to be maximally accessible for all attendees. It’s called the APM, or ‘Accessible People Mover,’ and 200 of them will be used in service of getting Games fans, athletes, and staff from venue to venue.

The APM comes in two model variants, including a ‘Basic’ edition that offers three rows of seating (including up front) for a total max capacity of six, including five passengers and the driver. The second row seat can be folded to accommodate passengers using a wheelchair (there are anchor plates in the floor, as well, for stability during travel), and you can enter and exit from either open side of the shuttle, with long low ramps for wheelchair access.

A second, ‘Relief’ configuration of the APM takes away half of the second and third-row seating to accommodate a stretcher than can be secured while the vehicle’s moving, with caretaker personal seated directly next to it. This is meant to help with any non-urgent medical transport needed during the Games, when the car’s top speed of 19 km/h (around 12 mph) isn’t an issue.

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These are designed for light duty, as mentioned, but they can still go up to 100 km (62 miles) on a single charge, which is probably plenty for venue-to-venue shuttle work required throughout a day at the Olympics.

In addition to this custom EV, which is still driven the old-fashioned, human way, Toyota has also previously discussed demonstrating working versions of some of its autonomous vehicles, including concept models its shown off at the annual CES conference in Las Vegas.

July 18th 2019, 5:08 pm

How Carl Pope helped drive a $500 million pledge to push the U.S. “Beyond Carbon” (Part 2)

TechCrunch

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg recently pledged to rapidly spend $500 million in a bid to push the U.S. “Beyond Carbon,” aiming to end this country’s use of coal and natural gas power in a generation or less.

In another recent piece, I featured an in-depth interview with Carl Pope, the veteran environmental leader who has essentially been the inspirational force behind Bloomberg’s evolution. The former New York City Mayor had never given a major gift to environmental causes as of a decade or so ago, until Pope “convinced” him to get involved.

My previous piece was an attempt to understand the ethical vision influencing Bloomberg’s work, by looking at Pope’s personal story and the history of the environmental movement he has helped to shape. Below, Pope joins me again to look at the details of Bloomberg’s “Beyond Carbon” plan, including how he was able to persuade Bloomberg to take it on, and some areas of controversy that could arise as the $500 million is distributed.

Greg Epstein: You and Michael Bloomberg met around a decade ago or so, right?

Carl Pope: About 12 years ago, actually. 2007.

Epstein: Bloomberg had never given a major gift to an environmental group before he met you, and, as he writes in the book, you “convinced him” to get massively involved, to the tune now of many hundreds of millions of dollars. What do you think it is about you, the way that you approach things, or the work you do that made the two of you, in this relatively unlikely partnership, work so well?

Pope: We both like big ideas, and we both like to pursue them very pragmatically. We set very high expectations for what we want to get, and we’re willing to take necessarily small steps to get there. That’s one thing.

The second thing is, my original environmental frame was air pollution, [which] I worked on the first seven or eight years I was an environmentalist. Mike is a big public health advocate. So the fact that I was talking about saving people’s lives made a lot of sense to him.

Epstein: He talked about how you ‘showed him the numbers,’ back in 2011, on just how deadly coal actually is.

Pope: Yeah, that was the deal sealer.

Epstein: Interpersonally, what the interactions between you and him like?

Pope: We’re both public figures who are actually somewhat introspective, and so it works.

Epstein: I’ve read the “Beyond Carbon” plans as they’re presented by the Bloomberg organization. They do seem quite promising as far as broad, sweeping PR statements go.

But whether or not they will work is all in the details, right? You’re a detail-oriented person, as you just mentioned, so, what are some of the practical steps the plan calls for that you think deserve the most attention, beyond the headlines?

Pope: In A Climate of Hope, Mike and I articulated an approach to climate in which we gave our reasons for thinking that most climate leadership is going to come not from national governments but from businesses, cities, provinces, civic organizations, from the bottom up.

July 18th 2019, 4:24 pm

This is one way Toyota plans to shuttle people around during the 2020 Olympics

TechCrunch

When thousands of people converge in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the city’s infrastructure will be tested. Toyota is getting into the mix to handle some of the ways people will get around the city and the Olympics venue.

Toyota unveiled Thursday a new product called APM or Accessible People Mover that is designed for the Olympics and Paralympic Games.

The aim, according to Toyota, is for this vehicle to provide “mobility for all” and to solve the so-called “last mile” problem. In Toyota’s view, that means a vehicle that can transport as many people as possible, including elderly, pregnant women, families with young children and people with disabilities.

Toyota will deploy 200 of these vehicles, which will operate in and around the event. There will be two models — basic and relief — in the fleet. The basic version is a low-speed short-distance battery electric vehicle that will be used to transport visitors and staff within the Olympic grounds. Each vehicle will hold six people, including the driver. When used for passengers in wheelchairs, the configuration can be modified by folding the seats to allow the wheelchair rider in the second row.

The “relief” model will be used for emergencies. The rows can be moved to provide space for a stretcher and two relief stretchers.

These APM vehicles are just a taste of what Toyota plans to deliver during the 2020 Olympics. The automaker has shown off eight other vehicles as well as assistive robotics, all under the mobility for all moniker, including the e-Palette vehicle, which is basically a flexible blank slate on wheels with an electric motor and a fully modular interior design.

Other vehicles include the JPN Taxi, which was introduced in 2017 and can accommodate people using wheelchairs, and the Toyota i-ROAD, a standing-riding device designed for support working staff at the Games, such as security officers.

Toyota plans to demonstrate automated vehicles that will be able to handle all driving functions in certain well-defined areas in the Tokyo Water Front City and Haneda areas in Tokyo. It also will demonstrate  the TOYOTA Concept-i, a car that recognizes drivers’ emotions and preferences and can make conversation using artificial intelligence.

July 18th 2019, 4:24 pm

Instagram will now warn you before your account gets deleted, offer in-app appeals

TechCrunch

Instagram this morning announced several changes to its moderation policy, the most significant of which is that it will now warn users if their account could become disabled before that actually takes place. This change goes to address a longstanding issue where users would launch Instagram only to find that their account had been shut down without any warning.

While it’s one thing for Instagram to disable accounts for violating its stated guidelines, the service’s automated systems haven’t always gotten things right. The company has come under fire before for banning innocuous photos, like those of mothers breastfeeding their children, for example, or art. (Or, you know, Madonna.)

Now the company says it will introduce a new notification process that will warn users if their account is at risk of becoming disabled. The notification will also allow them to appeal the deleted content in some cases.

For now, users will be able to appeal moderation decisions around Instagram’s nudity and pornography policies, as well as its bullying and harassment, hate speech, drug sales and counter-terrorism policies. Over time, Instagram will expand the appeal capabilities to more categories.

The change means users won’t be caught off guard by Instagram’s enforcement actions. Plus, they’ll be given a chance to appeal a decision directly in the app, instead of only through the Help Center as before.

In addition, Instagram says it will increase its enforcement of bad actors.

Previously, it could remove accounts that had a certain percentage of content in violation of its policies. But now it also will be able to remove accounts that have a certain number of violations within a window of time.

“Similarly to how policies are enforced on Facebook, this change will allow us to enforce our policies more consistently and hold people accountable for what they post on Instagram,” the company says in its announcement.

The changes follow a recent threat of a class-action lawsuit against the photo-sharing network led by the Adult Performers Actors Guild. The organization claimed Instagram was banning the adult performers’ accounts, even when there was no nudity being shown.

“It appears that the accounts were terminated merely because of their status as an adult performer,” James Felton, the Adult Performers Actors Guild legal counsel, told The Guardian in June. “Efforts to learn the reasons behind the termination have been futile,” he said, adding that the Guild was considering legal action.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also this year launched an anti-censorship campaign, TOSSed Out, which aimed to highlight how social media companies unevenly enforce their terms of service. As part of its efforts, the EFF examined the content moderation policies of 16 platforms and app stores, including Facebook, Twitter, the Apple App Store and Instagram.

It found that only four companies — Facebook, Reddit, Apple and GitHub — had committed to actually informing users when their content was censored as to which community guideline violation or legal request had led to that action.

“Providing an appeals process is great for users, but its utility is undermined by the fact that users can’t count on companies to tell them when or why their content is taken down,” said Gennie Gebhart, EFF associate director of research, at the time of the report. “Notifying people when their content has been removed or censored is a challenge when your users number in the millions or billions, but social media platforms should be making investments to provide meaningful notice.”

Instagram’s policy change focused on cracking down on repeat offenders is rolling out now, while the ability to appeal decisions directly within the app will arrive in the coming months.

July 18th 2019, 4:24 pm

How US national security agencies hold the internet hostage

TechCrunch

Team Telecom, a shadowy US national security unit tasked with protecting America’s telecommunications systems, is delaying plans by Google, Facebook and other tech companies for the next generation of international fiber optic cables.

Team Telecom is comprised of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice (including the FBI), who assess foreign investments in American telecom infrastructure, with a focus on cybersecurity and surveillance vulnerabilities.

Team Telecom works at a notoriously sluggish pace, taking over seven years to decide that letting China Mobile operate in the US would “raise substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks,” for instance. And while Team Telecom is working, applications are stalled at the FCC.

The on-going delays to submarine cable projects, which can cost nearly half a billion dollars each, come with significant financial impacts. They also cede advantage to connectivity projects that have not attracted Team Telecom’s attention – such as the nascent internet satellite mega-constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon .

Team Telecom’s investigations have long been a source of tension within Silicon Valley. Google’s subsidiary GU Holdings Inc has been building a network of international submarine fiber-optic cables for over a decade. Every cable that lands on US soil is subject to Team Telecom review, and each one has faced delays and restrictions.

July 18th 2019, 2:08 pm

Daily Crunch: Netflix has a rough quarter

TechCrunch

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

1. Netflix reports net subscriber loss in the US, misses global subscriber growth predictions

Netflix’s price hikes might finally be convincing some consumers to unsubscribe. The company reported net growth of 2.7 million subscribers worldwide, but it actually added 2.83 million new subscribers internationally while losing around 130,000 in the United States.

Growth was lower than expected across the board, but it underperformed more noticeably in regions where it introduced a price hike.

2. FaceApp gets federal attention as Sen. Schumer raises alarm on data use

In a letter to the heads of the FBI and FTC, the senator wrote, “FaceApp’s location in Russia raises questions regarding how and when the company provides access to the data of U.S. citizens to third parties, including potentially foreign governments.”

3. Facebook’s regulation dodge: Let us, or China will

The company’s top executives have each claimed that if the U.S. limits Facebook’s size, blocks its acquisitions or bans its cryptocurrency, Chinese companies without these restrictions will win abroad.

4. On a growth tear, work trip SaaS TravelPerk adds $60M to its Series C

TravelPerk now has more than 2,000 customers for its business travel booking platform.

5. Slack resets user passwords after 2015 data breach

Slack will reset the passwords of users it believes are affected by the historical data breach. The company says this does not apply to “the approximately 99% who joined Slack after March 2015” or those who changed their password since.

6. Google teams up with Apollo 11 astronaut to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing

To mark the event, Google teamed up with NASA and Michael Collins — the astronaut who piloted the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the Moon.

7. Learn how to change banking one dollar at a time at Disrupt SF

Chime CEO Chris Britt, a16z partner Angela Strange and Omer Ismail of Goldman Sachs are all coming to Disrupt to discuss how banks and payments will change in the future.

July 18th 2019, 1:38 pm

The climate is our biggest threat. Carl Pope is fighting to change our fate

TechCrunch

Michael Bloomberg is an unrepentant capitalist who, as he says in his 2017 book A Climate of Hope, is “not exactly your stereotypical environmentalist.” Yet over the past decade, Bloomberg has become arguably the biggest environmental philanthropist in the world — especially given the $500 million investment Bloomberg announced last month that he would soon make in rapidly moving the U.S. “Beyond Carbon,” off both coal and natural gas and to a “100% clean energy economy.” How did this happen?

It turns out one of the biggest factors in Bloomberg’s green transformation has been his friendship with Carl Pope, the longtime former head of the Sierra Club, whom Bloomberg first met about a decade ago, as Mayor of New York.

Pope is not exactly a household name, but nonetheless at this point can probably be called one of the most influential environmental activists in history. He wears a leather jacket and a weathered-looking sweater on the cover of Climate of Hope alongside Bloomberg’s suit, tie, and flag pin.

The two co-authored the book — and not just in the sense that Pope ghost-wrote Bloomberg’s opinions, as happens regularly when busy political and cultural celebrities take on a lesser-known co-author for some glamour project they may barely even read. A Climate of Hope is an extended dialogue between Bloomberg and Pope, with the two alternating chapters throughout and at times even disagreeing on potentially important issues.

What there’s no disagreement on, however, is that Pope “convinced” his co-author to dive into massive environmental spending (a feat accomplished in part by showing the health-conscious Bloomberg the numbers on how lethal coal can be).

Pope is no stranger to controversy — perhaps unsurprising for a nonprofit leader who has raised money well into the nine figures. He’s a “pragmatist,” as he says many times in the interview below, which depending on who you ask either means compromise to the point of being compromised, or simply that he has a knack for actually getting things done where others merely talk.

His legacy has previously been associated with taking money from natural gas executives in a fundraising bid some saw as necessary and others called ethically tainted; with overlooking people’s polluting individual choices to buy large cars and even bigger homes; and with “looking forward to an active partnership” with Republican leaders when it was obvious they weren’t completely on board with key tenets of the environmental movement.

But Pope has also been equally or better known for pushing the Clinton/Gore administration to be better on emissions; preventing neoliberal environmentalists from adopting a nativist stance on immigration; championing a more diverse and inclusive environmental movement; and now, of course, with potentially ending the use of carbon fuel in America.

Despite 30+ years in the public eye, Carl Pope is a relatively private person who doesn’t seem to like to talk much about himself. So for starters below, I wanted to see if I could figure out what makes him tick.

Because if we could get into the heads of people who persuade billionaires to act against their short-term economic interests, with the bigger human picture in mind, maybe we could do it more often.

Then our conversation moved on to NASA, Ro Khanna, Tesla, AOC and the Green New Deal, and more. And in a soon to come follow up piece, I’ll talk with Pope about the details of the Beyond Carbon plan, including how he was able to persuade Bloomberg to take it on, and some areas of controversy that could arise as the $500 million is distributed.

All of this, after all, is part of what it means to think about the ethics of technology — Pope and Bloomberg’s work, love it or not, is certainly an attempt to reform or transform some of the most influential technologies human hands have ever touched.

How do we motivate people of all backgrounds and means to help make changes for the greener? How do we know what the right changes are to make? How do we grapple with the ethical dilemmas involved and the compromises that can seem to be required?

(Oh and by the way: in the weeks since I spoke with Pope, I have mostly been skipping big evening meals and eating more healthily in the afternoon. So at least there’s that!)

Greg Epstein: I have enjoyed discovering you as —  I would even say as a historical figure, though important parts of your story are yet to be told.

I’d like to hear a bit about the key developments in your life that gave you the ethical perspective that you have.

Carl Pope: I can tell you some things about my childhood and my formation. Which particular ingredients formed my ethical perspective, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you, but I’ll tell you some things [that might] help.

July 18th 2019, 1:38 pm

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith joins Disrupt SF to talk about bringing the Moon within reach

TechCrunch

Private spaceflight company Blue Origin has its sights set on the Moon, and in May unveiled a new lander to help it get there. This October, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith will join us onstage at Disrupt SF 2019 to talk about how the company plans to get to the Moon, and beyond — and what the opportunities are for private space companies once it does.

Smith and the Jeff Bezos -backed Blue Origin have been busy with more than just building lunar landers: It has been testing the company’s New Shepard spacecraft since 2015 and through this year, when it plans to perform its first crewed mission. To date, its tests have largely been successful and are a strong indicator that it’s well-positioned among the various companies hoping to return the U.S. to crewed launches.

That’s a key milestone in Blue Origin’s goal of getting to the Moon by 2024, which is the timeline the company declared in May. But their plan isn’t strictly about human achievement or scientific discovery — it’s about business, and establishing a permanent presence in space to provide access to resources and help humanity expand beyond its finite, Earth-bound constraints.

We’ll talk to Smith about what it means to go from today’s launches to low Earth orbit to making the trip to the Moon in just five short years, and what Blue Origin believes the commercial spaceflight industry will look like once we’ve gotten there and established a permanent commercial presence.

Blue sky opportunity is old news — Smith will help us suss out what the blue space opportunity is for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 to October 4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Tickets are available at an early-bird rate here.

July 18th 2019, 1:38 pm

Investor Jocelyn Goldfein to join us on AI panel at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise

TechCrunch

Artificial intelligence is quickly becoming a foundational technology for enterprise software development and startups have begun addressing a variety of issues around using AI to make software and processes much more efficient.

To that end, we are delighted to announce that Jocelyn Goldfein, a Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners will be joining on us a panel to discuss AI in the enterprise. It will take place at the TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise show on September 5 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.

It’s not just startups that are involved in AI in the enterprise. Some of the biggest names in enterprise software including Salesforce Einstein, Adobe Sensei and IBM Watson have been addressing the need for AI to help solve the enterprise data glut.

Computers can process large amounts of information much more quickly than humans, and as enterprise companies generate increasing amounts of data, they need help understanding it all as the volume of information exceeds human capacity to sort through it.

Goldfein brings a deep engineering background to her investment work. She served as a VP of engineering at VMware and as an engineering director at Facebook, where she led the project that adopted machine learning for the News Feed ranker, launched major updates in photos and search, and helped spearhead Facebook’s pivot to mobile. Goldfein drove significant reforms in Facebook hiring practices and is a prominent evangelist for women in computer science. As an investor, she primarily is focused on startups using AI to take more efficient approaches to infrastructure, security, supply chains and worker productivity.

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, she’ll be joining Bindu Reddy from Reality Engines along with other panelists to discuss the growing role of AI in enterprise software with TechCrunch editors. You’ll learn why AI startups are attracting investor attention and how AI in general could fundamentally transform enterprise software.

Prior to joining Zetta, Goldfein had stints at Facebook and VMware, as well as startups Datify, MessageOne and Trilogy/pcOrder.

Early Bird tickets to see Joyce at TC Sessions: Enterprise are on sale for just $249 when you book here; but hurry, prices go up by $100 soon! Students, grab your discounted tickets for just $75 here.

July 18th 2019, 1:20 pm

iOS 13: Here are the new security and privacy features you might’ve missed

TechCrunch

In just a few weeks Apple’s new iOS 13, the thirteenth major iteration of its popular iPhone software, will be out — along with new iPhones and a new iPad version, the aptly named iPadOS. We’ve taken iOS 13 for a spin over the past few weeks — with a focus on the new security and privacy features — to see what’s new and how it all works.

Here’s what you need to know.

You’ll start to see reminders about apps that track your location

Ever wonder which apps track your location? Wonder no more. iOS 13 will periodically remind you about apps that are tracking your location in the background. Every so often it will tell you how many times an app has tracked where you’ve been in a recent period of time, along with a small map of the location points. From this screen you can “always allow” the app to track your location or have the option to limit the tracking.

You can grant an app your location just once

To give you more control over what data have access to, iOS 13 now lets you give apps access to your location just once. Previously there was “always,” “never” or “while using,” meaning an app could be collecting your real-time location as you’re using it. Now you can grant an app access on a per use basis — particularly helpful for the privacy-minded folks.

And apps wanting access to Bluetooth can be declined access

Apps wanting to access Bluetooth will also ask for your consent. Although apps can use Bluetooth to connect to gadgets, like fitness bands and watches, Bluetooth-enabled tracking devices known as beacons can be used to monitor your whereabouts. These beacons are found everywhere — from stores to shopping malls. They can grab your device’s unique Bluetooth identifier and track your physical location between places, building up a picture of where you go and what you do — often for targeting you with ads. Blocking Bluetooth connections from apps that clearly don’t need it will help protect your privacy.

Find My gets a new name — and offline tracking

Find My, the new app name for locating your friends and lost devices, now comes with offline tracking. If you lost your laptop, you’d rely on its last Wi-Fi connected location. Now it broadcasts its location using Bluetooth, which is securely uploaded to Apple’s servers using nearby cellular-connected iPhones and other Apple devices. The location data is cryptographically scrambled and anonymized to prevent anyone other than the device owner — including Apple — from tracking your lost devices.

Your apps will no longer be able to snoop on your contacts’ notes

Another area that Apple is trying to button down is your contacts. Apps have to ask for your permission before they can access to your contacts. But in doing so they were also able to access the personal notes you wrote on each contact, like their home alarm code or a PIN number for phone banking, for example. Now, apps will no longer be able to see what’s in each “notes” field in a user’s contacts.

Sign In With Apple lets you use a fake relay email address

This is one of the cooler features coming soon — Apple’s new sign-in option allows users to sign in to apps and services with one tap, and without having to turn over any sensitive or private information. Any app that requires a sign-in option must use Sign In With Apple as an option. In doing so users can choose to share their email with the app maker, or choose a private “relay” email, which hides a user’s real email address so the app only sees a unique Apple-generated email instead. Apple says it doesn’t collect users’ data, making it a more privacy-minded solution. It works across all devices, including Android devices and websites.

You can silence unknown callers

Here’s one way you can cut down on disruptive spam calls: iOS 13 will let you send unknown callers straight to voicemail. This catches anyone who’s not in your contacts list will be considered an unknown caller.

You can strip location metadata from your photos

Every time you take a photo your iPhone stores the precise location of where the photo was taken as metadata in the photo file. But that can reveal sensitive or private locations — such as your home or office — if you share those photos on social media or other platforms, many of which don’t strip the data when they’re uploaded. Now you can. With a few taps, you can remove the location data from a photo before sharing it.

And Safari gets better anti-tracking features

Apple continues to advance its new anti-tracking technologies in its native Safari browser, like preventing cross-site tracking and browser fingerprinting. These features make it far more difficult for ads to track users across the web. iOS 13 has its cross-site tracking technology enabled by default so users are protected from the very beginning.

Read more:

July 18th 2019, 12:50 pm

The FTC looks to change children’s privacy law following complaints about YouTube

TechCrunch

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering an update to the laws governing children’s privacy online, known as the COPPA Rule (or, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). The Rule first went into effect in 2000 and was amended in 2013 to address changes in how children use mobile devices and social networking sites. Now, the FTC believes it may be due for more revisions. The organization is seeking input and comments on possible updates, some of which are specifically focused on how to address sites that aren’t necessarily aimed at children, but have large numbers of child users.

In other words, sites like YouTube .

The FTC’s announcement comes only weeks after U.S. consumer advocacy groups and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent complaint letters to the FTC, urging the regulators to investigate YouTube for potential COPPA violations.

The advocacy groups allege that YouTube is hiding behind its terms of service which claim YouTube is “not intended for children under 13” — a statement that’s clearly no longer true. Today, the platform is filled with videos designed for viewing by kids. Google even offers a YouTube Kids app aimed at preschooler to tween-aged children, but it’s optional. Kids can freely browse YouTube’s website and often interact with the service via the YouTube TV app — a platform where YouTube Kids has a limited presence.

According to the letter written by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Google has now collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S., and it used this data to engage in “very sophisticated digital marketing techniques.”

The groups want YouTube to delete the children’s data, set up an age-gate on the site, and separate out any kids content into its own app where YouTube will have to properly follow COPPA guidelines.

These demands are among those pushing the FTC to this action.

The Commission says it wants input as to whether COPPA should be updated to better address websites and online services that are not traditionally aimed at children but are used by kids, as well as whether these “general audience platforms” should have to identity and police the child-directed content that’s uploaded by third parties.

In other words, should the FTC amend COPPA so it can protect the privacy of the kids using YouTube?

“In light of rapid technological changes that impact the online children’s marketplace, we must ensure COPPA remains effective,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons, in a published statement. “We’re committed to strong COPPA enforcement, as well as industry outreach and a COPPA business hotline to foster a high level of COPPA compliance. But we also need to regularly revisit and, if warranted, update the Rule,” he added.

While YouTube is a key focus, the FTC will also seek comment on whether there should be an exception for parental consent for the use of educational technology in schools. And it wants to better understand the implications for COPPA in terms of interactive media, like interactive TV (think Netflix’s Minecraft: Story Mode, for example), or interactive gaming.

More broadly, the FTC wants to know how COPPA has impacted the availability of sites and services aimed at children, it says.

The decision to initiate a review of COPPA was a unanimous decision from the FTC’s five commissioners, which includes three Republicans and two Democrats.

Led by Simons, the FTC in February took action against Musical.ly (now TikTok), by issuing a record $5.7 million fine for its COPPA violations. Similar to YouTube, the app was used by a number of under-13 kids without parental consent. The company knew this was the case, but continued to collect the kids’ personal information, regardless.

“This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law,” Simons had said at the time.

The settlement with TikTok required the company to delete children’s videos and data and restrict underage users from being able to film videos.

It’s unclear why the FTC can’t now require the same of YouTube, given the similarities between the two services, without amending the law.

“They absolutely can and should fine YouTube, not to mention force YouTube to make significant changes, under the current regulations,” says Josh Golin, the Executive Director for CCFC. “As for the YouTube decision – by far the most important COPPA case in the agency’s history – it’s extremely concerning that the Commission appears to be signaling they do not have the authority under the current rules to hold YouTube accountable,” he says.

“COPPA rules could use some updating but the biggest problem with the law is the FTC’s lack of enforcement, which is something the Commission could address right away without a lengthy comment period,” Golin adds.

The FTC says it will hold a public workshop on October 7, 2019 to examine the COPPA Rule.

July 18th 2019, 12:50 pm

YouTube Music now lets you seamlessly switch between songs and music videos

TechCrunch

Google today announced an update to YouTube Music on iOS and Android that will make it easier to seamlessly switch between merely listening to the audio and watching a song’s music video. To do so, you only have to tap a button at the top of the screen. This should work for almost every song that has a video since Google has time-matched over 5 million official music videos to their audio tracks.

You have to be a paying YouTube Premium or YouTube Music Premium subscriber to get access to this new feature, though. If you’re using a free account, you’re out of luck.

While this is not exactly a fancy new feature, it definitely improves the user experience in YouTube Music. Google also argues that this move will make music videos more discoverable in the app.

Don’t care about music videos? Don’t worry. YouTube Music also features a “Don’t play music videos” setting.

Google’s music strategy is about as confusing as its messaging strategy, but as things stand right now, YouTube Music will replace the older Google Play Music experience at some point later this year. Or not. It’s always hard to tell with Google, given that Hangouts is still hanging in there, too. Clearly, though, the company’s music investments are now going into YouTube Music.

July 18th 2019, 12:50 pm

Google creates massive-scale tribute to Apollo 11 software lead Margaret Hamilton

TechCrunch

Google has a number of different celebrations of the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing going on right now, but one organized by the Maps team might be the most grandiose in terms of scale and effect. At the Ivanpah Solar Facility in the Mojave Desert, Google set about creating a huge portrait celebrating Apollo program lead software engineer Margaret Hamilton, using reflective solar panels and the light of the Moon.

The portrait is made up of over 107,000 mirrors, which cover an area spanning 1.4-square miles, which is actually bigger in surface area than Central Park in NYC – or, for a different sense of scale, it’s an area that would fit over 200 Eiffel Towers lined up side-by-side. You could spot the image created from as high up as 1,900 meters (about 6,233 feet).

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The gigantic image includes not only a portrait of Hamilton, but also her name along with the ‘Apollo 11’ mission title, and an image of the lunar lander used to bring astronauts to the surface for the first time. That’s in reference to Hamilton’s key role in ensuring that the Apollo 11 landing went as planned, thanks to her creation of a priority display that provided astronauts with the info they needed despite an overloaded guidance computer near the end of the lander’s trip to the surface.

Hamilton, now 82, recently provided an interview to The Guardian detailing her path to Apollo and her role leading the software team for the Apollo 11 mission.

July 18th 2019, 12:38 pm

InCountry raises $15M for its cloud-based private data storage-as-a-service solution

TechCrunch

The rise of data breaches, along with an expanding raft of regulations (now numbering 80 different regional regimes, and growing) have thrust data protection — having legal and compliant ways of handling personal user information — to the top of the list of things that an organization needs to consider when building and operating their businesses. Now a startup called InCountry, which is building both the infrastructure for these companies to securely store that personal data in each jurisdiction, as well as a comprehensive policy framework for them to follow, has raised a Series A of $15 million. The funding is coming in just three months after closing its seed round — underscoring both the attention this area is getting and the opportunity ahead.

The funding is being led by three investors: Arbor Ventures of Singapore, Global Founders Capital of Berlin, and Mubadala of Abu Dhabi. Previous investors Caffeinated Capital, Felicis Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and Team Builder Ventures (along with others that are not being named) also participated. It brings the total raised to date to $21 million.

Peter Yared, the CEO and founder, pointed out in an interview the geographic diversity of the three lead backers: he described this as a strategic investment, which has resulted from InCountry already expanding its work in each region. (As one example, he pointed out a new law in the UAE requiring all health data of its citizens to be stored in the country — regardless of where it originated.)

As a result, the startup will be opening offices in each of the regions and launching a new product, InCountry Border, to focus on encryption and data handling that keep data inside specific jurisdictions. This will sit alongside the company’s compliance consultancy as well as its infrastructure business.

“We’re only 28 people and only six months old,” Yared said. “But the proposition we offer — requiring no code changes, but allowing companies to automatically pull out and store the personally identifiable information in a separate place, without anything needed on their own back end, has been a strong pull. We’re flabbergasted with the meetings we’ve been getting.” (The alternative, of companies storing this information themselves, has become massively unpalatable, given all the data breaches we’ve seen, he pointed out.)

In part because of the nature of data protection, in its short six months of life, InCountry has already come out of the gates with a global viewpoint and global remit.

It’s already active in 65 countries — which means it’s already equipped to stores, processes, and regulates profile data in the country of origin in these markets — but that is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The company points out that more than 80 countries around the world have data sovereignty regulations, and that in the US, some 25 states already have data privacy laws. Violating these can have disastrous consequences for a company’s reputation, not to mention its bottom line: In Europe, earlier this month the UK data regulator is now fining companies the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars when they violate GDPR rules.

This ironically is translating into a big business opportunity for startups that are building technology to help companies cope with this. Just last week, OneTrust raised a $200 million Series A to continue building out its technology and business funnel — the company is a “gateway” specialist, building the welcome screens that you encounter when you visit sites to accept or reject a set of cookies and other data requests.

Yared says that while InCountry is very young and is still working on its channel strategy — it’s mainly working directly with companies at this point — there is a clear opportunity both to partner with others within the ecosystem as well as integrators and others working on cloud services and security to build bigger customer networks.

That speaks to the complexity of the issue, and the different entry points that exist to solve it.

“The rapidly evolving and complex global regulatory landscape in our technology driven world is a growing challenge for companies,” said Melissa Guzy of Arbor Ventures, in a statement. Guzy is joining the board with this round. “InCountry is the first to provide a comprehensive solution in the cloud that enables companies to operate globally and address data sovereignty. We’re thrilled to partner and support the company’s mission to enable global data compliance for international businesses.”

 

 

July 18th 2019, 12:38 pm

Last chance! Apply for the All Raise female founder program at Disrupt SF 2019

TechCrunch

Newsflash for all female founders of the early-stage startup variety. Your chance to meet with leading women VCs at Disrupt SF 2019 on October 2-4 ends on July 19 at 5 p.m. (PT). Apply for an AMA session before the deadline expires.

We’re serious when it comes to supporting women in tech, which is why we partnered with All Raise — a startup nonprofit dedicated to accelerating female founder success. They’re hosting a day-long AMA (“ask me anything”) event, where you and about 100 other female founders can schedule a session to pick the brain of a leading female VC.

Here’s what you need to know about the All Raise AMA event. It takes place on October 3 in a reserved area within Startup Alley. The sessions are 30 minutes, and there will be at least 30 scheduled throughout the day.

Each AMA session consists of three founders and one All Raise community VC. You’ll be face-to-face with one of the best investors around; someone who’s willing to share and support your dream — talk about a rare opportunity. In fact, here are some of the female VCs you might meet:

You qualify to apply for an All Raise AMA if you meet the following criteria: you’re a U.S.-based woman founder and you’ve raised at least $250,000 in a Seed, A or B round. All Raise gives special consideration to founders from underrepresented groups (e.g. Black, Latinx or LGBTQIA women).

All Raise will review the applications and base acceptance on availability for session spots, investor fit with industry sector and company stage, as well as demand for certain categories.

If they select you to participate, all you need to do is buy any pass to Disrupt SF (including Expo Only). All Raise will contact you via email to let you know when your AMA session takes place.

An opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day, and your chance to take advantage of it ends soon. Don’t wait, apply to the All Raise AMA event before the deadline expires on July 19 at 5 p.m. (PT). Get your burning questions answered!

If you are interested in sponsoring this event or exhibiting at Disrupt San Francisco 2019, fill out this form to get in contact with our sales team.

July 18th 2019, 12:19 pm

Google will now pay bigger rewards for discovering Chrome security bugs

TechCrunch

Bug hunting can be a lucrative gig. Depending on the company, a serious bug reported through the proper channels can earn whoever found it first tens of thousands of dollars.

Google launched a bug bounty program for Chrome in 2010. Today they’re increasing the maximum rewards for that program by 2-3x.

Rewards in Chrome’s bug bounty program vary considerably based on how severe a bug is and how detailed your report is — a “baseline” report with fewer details will generally earn less than a “high-quality” report that does things like explain how a bug might be exploited, why it’s happening, and how it might be fixed. You can read about how Google rates reports right here.

But in both cases, the potential reward size is being increased. The maximum payout for a baseline report is increasing from $5,000 to $15,000, while the maximum payout for a high quality report is being bumped from $15,000 to $30,000.

There’s one type of exploit that Google is particularly interested in: those that compromise a Chromebook or Chromebox device running in guest mode, and that aren’t fixed with a quick reboot. Google first offered a $50,000 reward for this type of bug, increasing it to $100,000 in 2016 after no one had managed to claim it. Today they’re bumping it to $150,000.

They’ve also introduced a new exploit category for Chrome OS rewards: lockscreen bypasses. If you can get around the lockscreen (by pulling information out of a locked user session, for example,) Google will pay out up to $15,000.

Google pays additional rewards for any bugs found using its “Chrome Fuzzer Program” —a program that lets researchers write automated tests and run them on lots and lots of machines in the hopes of finding a bug that only shows up at much larger scales. The bonus for bugs found through the Fuzzer program will be increased from $500 to $1000 (on top of whatever reward you’d normally get for a bug in that category.)

Google says that it’s paid out over $5M in bug bounties through its Chrome Vulnerability Rewards Program since it was introduced in 2010. As of February of this year, the company had paid out over $15M across all of their bug bounty programs.

July 18th 2019, 12:19 pm

Haus, the real estate startup founded by Garrett Camp, raises $7.1M

TechCrunch

Haus, a startup aiming to make home ownership more affordable and flexible, is announcing that it has raised $7.1 million in new funding.

This amount combines a $4.1 million seed equity investment led by Montage Ventures and $3 million in debt, which will help finance Haus’ new co-investment model.

Haus was created by Uber co-founder Garrett Camp as part of his startup studio Expa . When it launched in 2016, it was focused on digitizing and bringing more transparency to the home-buying process. Since then, former Trulia executive Jonathan McNulty joined as CEO, and he’s introduced that co-investment model, where Haus helps to finance a purchase by buying equity in the home.

The idea is that instead of taking on debt, the homeowner is sharing both the risks and the rewards of changing home values with Haus. Nad instead of paying off a mortgage, the homeowner makes monthly payments Haus that both purchase more equity and the startup and its investors.

The company estimates that these payments are, on average, 30% lower than a traditional mortgage payment. In an email, McNulty said that Haus caps the “option” portion of the payment, so that homeowners are always purchasing as much equity as they did with their first payment, even if the home’s value increases.

“From a consumer perspective, there have historically only been two ownership options, pay cash for your home, or borrow money from a bank or lender with a mortgage,” he said. “With Haus, we replace that mortgage relationship and create a direct partnership with the consumer, to create an entirely new way of financing a home.”

Haus can also work with existing homeowners to replace part or all of their mortgage —  McNulty noted that in some cases, it may make sense “to keep some mortgage debt active for tax purposes.”

When asked about how the consumers have responded so far, McNulty declined to provide specific numbers, but he said the service is active in Washington, California and Oregon, and that “the early demand is significant, which makes sense given the affordability challenges we see in these western states.”

Other new investors include RIT Capital Partners and Tim Ferriss. McNulty said the funding will allow the company to expand its team, particularly to do more marketing and to enter new geographies.

“The current real estate model has been broken for a long time,” Montage Ventures Partner Matt Murphy in a statement. “Homeownership … for people ages 25 to 34 is much lower than it should be. We are excited to partner with Haus to bring much needed relief to current homeowners and prospective buyers alike.”

July 18th 2019, 11:34 am

Storytelling community Wattpad launches Paid Stories and its ad-free subscription globally

TechCrunch

Online storytelling community Wattpad, also now a content feeder for streaming services and other media companies, is taking its two consumer-facing paid products global. Wattpad Premium, the ad-free subscription tier, first launched in 2017 and has only been available in a handful of countries to date. It’s now available to Wattpad’s 70 million-plus worldwide users, as of today. In addition, Wattpad’s Paid Stories, which offers exclusive, paywalled content to readers, is also now available to the global user base.

This product launched last November into beta testing, when it was then called Wattpad Next. It was initially available in the U.S. with plans for a global launch planned for this year.

Technically speaking, Wattpad quietly launched Paid Stories globally last week, but it has now completed its rollout to all users, the company says. The stories give readers another way to support their favorite writers as they can purchase the serialized content either when the story is finished, or as it’s still being written. This past month, readers spend more than 5.5 million minutes on Paid Stories, the company says.

Users purchase access to the stories using Wattpad’s virtual currency, Coins. These Coins are sold in packs that start at $0.99 for 9 Coins, and go as high as $7.99 for 230 Coins.

With the global expansion, the two products are also being better integrated.

Now, Wattpad Premium subscribers will receive discounted Coins to buy the Paid Stories. They also receive bonus Coins — up to 66% more free Coins, the company says — every time they buy a Coin package to unlock a Paid Story.

“Our vision at Wattpad is to entertain and connect the world through stories, creating the best platform and community on the planet for every type of reader and writer,” said Wattpad General Manager, Jeanne Lam. “Every innovation and initiative at Wattpad supports that vision while improving the experience for users. Wattpad Premium and Wattpad Paid Stories give users everywhere more control over their Wattpad experience and options to enjoy the platform in new ways — whether it’s uninterrupted, ad-free reading or the chance to support the writers who make those stories possible.”

The products do generate some revenue for the company — Wattpad is No. 11 Top Grossing app in the Books category on the App Store and No. 8 on Google Play. However, the company’s bigger business these days is its content deals. Wattpad earlier this year inked a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television, and has a development deal with Universal Cable Productions, among others. Internationally, it’s working with iflix, Bavaria Fiction, Huayi Brothers Korea, Penguin Random House India, Mediaset, NL Film, Mediacorp, and eOne.

Wattpad’s stories have been turned into feature films, as well as movies and TV shows for streaming services like Netflix (The Kissing Booth) and Hulu (Light as a Feather).

It now has its own print publishing arm, too, with Wattpad Books.

These broader efforts capitalize on Wattpad’s generally younger and devoted fanbase.

For example, one of the more popular Wattpad Books titles, The QB Bad Boy & Me by Tay Marley, was read more than 26.3 million times on Wattpad, and will become available in book form on August 20, 2019.

July 18th 2019, 11:34 am

Only 24 hours left to apply for TC Top Picks at Disrupt SF 2019

TechCrunch

Early-stage startup founders, you have just 24 hours left to complete one small task — a task that holds the potential to shift your venture into hyperdrive. Apply to be a TC Top Pick and the chance to exhibit for free at Disrupt San Francisco 2019 in October. There’s no time left to drag your feet, because this opportunity expires on July 19 at 5 p.m. (PT).

Does your startup qualify? We’re looking specifically for pre-Series A startups that fall into one of these tech categories: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, SaaS and Social Impact/Education.

Applying is easy; however, earning a Top Pick designation — not so much. Our highly discerning TechCrunch editors thoroughly vet qualified applicants and choose up to five outstanding startups in each category.

Our TC Top Picks get the VIP treatment at Disrupt, starting with a free Startup Alley Exhibition Package good for one full day of exhibiting in Startup Alley. You also receive three Founder passes, access to the complete Disrupt SF 2019 press list and invitations to special events — like the investor reception. Opportunity, I hear you knocking!

You’ll exhibit in a dedicated space within Startup Alley and, because we promote the heck out of TC Top Picks in our pre-conference marketing, you can expect intense interest from investors, media, other founders and potential customers. Top Picks stand in a very bright spotlight.

One of the best perks provides value that lasts long after Disrupt ends. A TechCrunch editor will interview each Top Pick — live on the Showcase Stage in Startup Alley. We’ll record the interviews and promote them across our social media platforms.

Here’s another reason to apply. Every early-stage startup exhibiting in Startup Alley has a shot at participating in Startup Battlefield, our epic pitch competition. TechCrunch editors will pick two startups as Wild Card teams — and they’ll compete for $100,000 equity-free cash, the Disrupt Cup and even more investor and media attention.

Disrupt San Francisco 2019 takes place October 2-4, and one simple task can shift your business in a whole new direction. You have just 24 hours. Apply to be a TC Top Pick now — before the clock runs out on July 19 at 5 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring at Disrupt SF 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

July 18th 2019, 11:34 am

Inside Harley Davidson’s EV shift with a ride on its LiveWire

TechCrunch

Harley-Davidson will release its first production electric motorcycle in September, the LiveWire.

Yes, the American symbol for internal combustion, chrome and steel is going all in on two-wheeled EVs.

Founded in Milwaukee in 1903, Harley Davidson opened a Silicon Valley office in 2018 with plans to add a future line-up of electric vehicles—from motorcycles to bicycles to scooters.

With these moves HD joins a list of established transportation companies that are redefining themselves in the transformation of global mobility.

TechCrunch talked to the company’s senior management on the EV pivot and got a chance to test the  LiveWire on New York’s Formula E race track. 

The battery powered Harley will do 0-60 mph in 3 seconds, 110 mph, and charge to 100 percent in 60 minutes for a $29,799 MSRP.

The motorcycle’s 15.5kWh battery and magnet motor produce 105 horsepower and 86 ft-lbs of torque for a city range of 146 miles (and 95 for combined city/highway riding).

In contrast to some of Harley’s minimalist gas motorcycles, the company teched out the LiveWire. The e-moto has five processors to manage performance and app-based connectivity, according to HD’s Chief Engineer for EV Technology, Sean Stanley.

The LiveWire’s tablet type dash synchronizes with smartphones and allows for preset and customized digital riding modes. From the dash or a smartphone one can calibrate and monitor the LiveWire’s power output, charge-status, traction-control settings, and ABS braking characteristics. The EV has navigation capabilities and a Bluetooth system for music, helmet comms, and to accept incoming phone calls.

Harley Davidson is famous for its internal combustion rumble—which warranted a new signature electric sound generated from the LiveWire’s mechanical movements. “We spent a lot of time optimizing it…The sound comes from a combination of the electric motor, the transmission, and the drive line,” explained Stanley.

You can power the LiveWire on a home outlet or get your electric motor running to head out on the highway with the same fast-charging networks that power Teslas—such as Chargepoint.

HD is also adding charging stations at its LiveWire selling dealers and announced a partnership last week with Electrify America to provide new owners 500 kW for free.

Harley Davidson’s electric-shift puts the iconic American company in a position to hedge competition from e-moto startups, as it jumps out front as the EV leader among established motorcycle companies.

The major gas names have been slow to embrace production e-motos. None of the big motorcycle manufacturers—Honda, Kawasaki, BMW—offer a street-legal, electric motorcycle in the U.S. KTM introduced its Freeride E-XC off-road motorcycle in 2018 and will soon offer a junior version for the first all electric Supercross racing class.

Harley’s electric moves come after a period of revenue decline for the company and stagnation in the powered two-wheeler market.

The U.S. motorcycle industry has been in pretty bad shape since the recession. New sales dropped by roughly 50 percent since 2008—with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40—and have never recovered.

Analysts, such as UBS’s Robin Farley, have suggested that appealing to the preferences of more tech-savvy millennials, over those of baby boomers, should be a priority for Harley Davidson.

For the last several years, e-motorcycle startups have worked to produce models that rejuvenate interest from a younger generation, while creating gas rider converts. In addition to offering more tech features to attract new riders, companies such as California based Zero have worked to close gaps on price, range, charge times and performance compared to petrol powered motorcycles. The startup began shipping its 2020 $18,995 SR/F model—a potential LiveWire competitor—with a 161 mile city range, one-hour charge capability, and a top speed of 124 mph.

E-moto startup Fuell will debut its $10,995 Flow with 2.7 second 0-60 speed, 150 mile range, and 30 minute charge times in Europe this year, then the U.S., according to founder Erik Buell.

So market competition aside, what’s it like to ride Harley Davidson’s LiveWire? Nearly a dozen laps around NYC’s Formula E circuit offered a solid first impression. The LiveWire is everything that’s becoming the e-motorcycle experience: lightning-like acceleration with little noise beyond the wind cracking around you.

The biggest distinction between the LiveWire—vs. gas motorcycles—is its monster torque and uninterrupted forward movement. The machine has one gear, so there’s no clutch or shifting. With only a battery, processor, and drive-train there’s much less that needs to happen mechanically to deliver power from the throttle to the rear wheel. You simply twist and go.

As Harley Davidson rolls out its adrenaline inducing LiveWire, there are several things to watch. The first is how the $29K price-point fares in the market vis-a-vis startup competitors, such as Zero—who are launching comparable, yet less expensive e-motos. HD’s Paul James (see video) gives LiveWire an edge over Zero on performance attributes and Harley’s service and dealer networks. Sales figures will soon tell if buyers agree.

Harley Davidson’s EV foray could also create the spark that pushes the gas motorcycle industry toward electric—which would make HD a case of the almost disrupted transportation company becoming the disruptor.

And even more significant than the LiveWire release is what Harley Davidson offers next. The company has committed to produce a lighter, lower priced, e-motorcycle in the near future, as well as e-scooters and e-bicycles.

At an event this spring, Harley Davidson’s VP for Product Marc McAllister stressed the need for HD to remain a premium motorcycle transportation company, while developing products for a more on-demand, urban mobility era.

Harley Davidson’s LiveWire is a leap in that direction, but the company’s next round of two-wheel EVs—and the market response—will tell us more about HD’s relevance in the transformation of how people chose to move from place to place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 18th 2019, 11:34 am

Facebook accused of contradicting itself on claims about platform policy violations

TechCrunch

Prepare your best * unsurprised face *: Facebook is being accused of contradicting itself in separate testimonies made on both sides of the Atlantic.

The chair of a UK parliamentary committee which spent the lion’s share of last year investigating online disinformation, going on to grill multiple Facebook execs as part of an enquiry that coincided with a global spotlight being cast on Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, has penned another letter to the company — this time asking which versions of claims it has made regarding policy-violating access to data by third party apps on its platform are actually true.

In the letter, which is addressed to Facebook global spin chief and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, Damian Collins cites paragraph 43 of the Washington DC Attorney General’s complaint against the company — which asserts that the company “knew of other third party applications [i.e. in addition to the quiz app used to siphon data off to Cambridge Analytica] that similarly violated its Platform Policy through selling or improperly using consumer data”, and also failed to take “reasonable measures” to enforce its policy.

The Washington, D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, is suing Facebook for failing to protect user data — per allegations filed last December.

Collins’ letter notes Facebook’s denial of the allegations in paragraph 43 — before raising apparently contradictory evidence the company gave the committee last year on multiple occasions, such as the testimony of its CTO Mike Schroepfer, who confirmed it is reviewing whether Palantir improperly used Facebook data, among “lots” of other apps of concern; and testimony by Facebook’s Richard Allen to an international grand committee last November when the VP of EMEA public policy claimed the company has “taken action against a number of applications that failed to meet our policies”.

The letter also cites evidence contained in documents the DCMS committee seized from Six4Three, pertaining to a separate lawsuit against Facebook, which Collins asserts demonstrate “the lax treatment of abusive apps and their developments by Facebook”.

He also writes that these documents show Facebook had special agreements with a number of app developers — that allowed some preinstalled apps to “circumvent users’ privacy settings or platform settings, and to access friends’ information”, as well as noting that Facebook whitelisted some 5,200 apps “according to our evidence”.

“The evidence provided by representatives of Facebook to this Select committee and the International Grand Committee as well as the Six4Three files directly contradict with Facebook’s answer to Paragraph 43 of the complaint filed against Facebook by the Washington, D.C. Attorney General,” he writes.

“If the version of events presented in the answer to the lawsuit is correct, this means the evidence given to this Committee and the International Grand Committee was inaccurate.”

Collins goes on to ask Facebook to “confirm the truthfulness” of the evidence given by its reps last year, and to provide the list of applications removed from its platform in response to policy violations — which, in November, Allan promised to provide the committee with but has so far failed to do so.

We’ve also reached out to Facebook to ask which of the versions of events it’s claimed are true is the one it’s standing by at this time.

July 18th 2019, 11:34 am

VComply raises $2.5 million seed round led by Accel to simplify risk and compliance management

TechCrunch

Risk and compliance management platform VComply announced today that it has picked up a $2.5 million seed round led by Accel Partners for its international growth plan. The funding will be used to acquire more customers in the United States, open a new office in the United Kingdom to support customers in Europe and expand its presence in New Zealand and Australia.

The company was founded in 2016 by CEO Harshvardhan Kariwala and has customers in a wide range of industries, including Acreage Holdings, Ace Energy Solutions, CHD, the United Kingdom’s Department of International Trade and Burger King. It currently claims about 4,000 users in more than 100 countries. VComply is meant to be used by all departments in a company, with compliance information organized into a central dashboard.

While there are already a roster of governance, risk and compliance management solutions on the market (including ones from Oracle, HPE, Thomson Reuters, IBM and other established enterprise software companies), VComply’s competitive edge may be its flexibility, simple user interface and easy deployment (the company claims customers can on-board and start using the solution for compliance tasks in about 30 minutes). It also seeks out smaller companies whose needs have not been met by compliance solutions meant for large enterprises.

Kariwala told TechCrunch in an email that he began thinking of creating a new risk and compliance solution while working at his first startup LIME Learning Systems, an education management platform, after being hit with a $4,000 penalty due to a non-compliance issue.

“Believe me, $4,000 really hurts when you’re bootstrapped and trying to save every single cent you can. In this case, I had asked our outsourced accounting partners to manage this compliance and they forgot!” he said. After talking to other entrepreneurs, he realized compliance posed a challenge for most of them. LIME’s team built an internal compliance tracking tool for their own use, but also shared it with other people. After getting good feedback, Kariwala realized that despite the many governance, risk and compliance management solutions already on the market, there was still a gap in the market, especially for smaller businesses.

VComply is designed so organizations can customize it for their industry’s regulations and standards, as well as their own workflow and data needs, with competitive pricing for small to medium-sized organizations (a subscription starts at $3,999 a year).

“Most of the traditional GRC solutions that exist today are expensive, have a steep learning curve and entail a prolonged deployment. Not only are they expensive, they are also rigid, which means that organizations have little to no control or flexibility,” Kariwala said. “A GRC tool is often looked at as an expense, while it should really be treated as an investment. It is particularly the SMB sector that suffers the most. With the current solutions costing thousands of dollars (and sometimes millions), it becomes the least of their priorities to invest in a GRC platform, and as a result they fall prey to heightened risks and hefty penalties for non-compliance.”

In a press statement, Accel partner Dinesh Katiyar said “The first generation of GRC solutions primarily allowed companies to comply with industry-mandated regulations. However, the modern enterprise needs to govern its operations to maintain integrity and trust, and monitor internal and external risks to stay successful. That is where VComply shines, and we’re delighted to be partnering with a company that can redefine the future of enterprise risk management.”

July 18th 2019, 9:31 am

Toys ‘R’ Us taps tech startup b8ta to bring its stores into the future

TechCrunch

b8ta, the retail as a service startup that has partnered with the likes of Google and Macy’s, is getting into the kids’ toys space. As part of a new joint venture with Tru Kids Brands, which owns Toys “R” Us, b8ta will bring its expertise in experiential retail to the iconic children’s toy store. Both entities will own 50% of the venture.

After about eight to ten months of working together, b8ta and Tru Kids Brands are pulling back the curtains on what they’ve been working on. With these new stores, parents and kids can expect theaters for movies and video games, a treehouse where kids can play, STEAM workshops and more. The first two stores, which will open in November in Houston and New Jersey, are about 6,500 square feet with future stores being closer to 10,000-square feet. For context, these are much smaller than the size of the Toys “R” Us stores people became used to, which were about 30,000-square feet.

b8ta’s solution offers brands that want a physical presence with an experiential-driven store that comes with software for checkout, inventory, point of sale, inventory management, staff scheduling services and more. That means toy brands will have the option to pay to showcase their products in an interactive way Toys “R” Us. Those brands can then manage their in-store experiences and give customers the options to buy things in the store, or direct them to buy online.

“I think there is an interesting mash up between experiential retail that b8ta has been perfecting in its store with those hands-on experiences,” Tru Kids Brands CEO Richard Berry told TechCrunch. “Having the ability for brands to showcase things and give them online experiences too.”

This joint venture comes after Tru Kids Brands announced the return of Toys “R” Us in February, following the toy store shuttering its operations in the U.S. last year. For b8ta, it seems to have found a niche with struggling retailers. Last June, Macy’s acquired a minority stake in b8ta and used it to enhance some of its spaces. That came during a time when Macy’s was closing a bunch of its stores.

With Toys “R” Us, b8ta saw this as an opportunity to expand into the kids category.

“As you may recall, we had mentioned we were interested in taking our business model and our approach to designing stores in other categories,” b8ta CEO Vibhu Norby told TechCrunch. “Last year, we took a serious interest in the kids space. Around the same time, we heard the news aout what happened at Toys ‘R’ Us and thought it was interesting.”

Fast forward a bit to when Norby was introduced to Berry, and that’s when they landed on the idea for a joint-venture to operate Toys “R” Us in the U.S. Next year, the companies will open additional locations in high-traffic areas throughout the U.S. To date, b8ta has raised $39 million in funding from Macy’s, Sound Ventures, Khosla Ventures and others.

 

July 18th 2019, 9:31 am

Slack resets user passwords after 2015 data breach

TechCrunch

Slack will reset the passwords of users it believes are affected by a historical data breach that affected the company more than four years ago.

In 2015, the company said it was hit by hackers who gained access to its user profile database, including their scrambled passwords. But the hackers inserted code that scraped the user’s plaintext password as it was entered by users at the time.

Slack said it was recently contacted through its bug bounty about a list of allegedly compromised Slack account passwords. The company believes the case may relate to the 2015 data breach incident.

Slack said the security incident does not apply to “the approximately 99% who joined Slack after March 2015” or those who changed their password since.

Accounts that require single sign-on through a company’s network are not affected.

The company also said it has no reason to believe accounts were compromised but provided no evidence for its claim.

Slack said 1% of accounts in 2015 were affected by the breach. An earlier report suggested that the figure may amount to 65,000 accounts. When reached, a Slack spokesperson would not comment further nor confirm the figure.

Slack recently debuted on the New York Stock Exchange, valuing the company at about $15.7 billion.

July 18th 2019, 9:31 am

ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon lander mission launch reset for July 22

TechCrunch

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was all set to launch its Chandrayaan-2 mission to deliver a rover to the Moon’s South Pole last week, but a “technical snag” observed during the last hour of launch prep put a hold on those plans. Now, ISRO has officially set a new date for the launch: Monday, July 22, 2019 at 2:43 PM IST (5:13 AM EST).

Chandrayaan-2 will aim to deliver a lunar orbiter to the Moon, which will have a lunar lander and rover on board. It’ll be the first attempt by any space agency to soft land a rover at the Moon’s South Pole, as well as India’s first attempt at this kind of soft decent, where a lander attempts to control its path the moon’s surface and touch down gently, instead of an orbiter essentially just firing an impact-shielded vessel at the surface with research equipment on board. India will become only the fourth country to have managed this kind of Moon landing, if the mission is successful.

We’ll provide a live stream closer to the launch date, and it should be quite the sight to see when the GSLV Mk-III rocket carrying the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft makes its way to orbit.

 

July 18th 2019, 9:02 am

Qualcomm hit with $271M EU fine over predatory pricing of baseband chips

TechCrunch

A long-running European antitrust investigation into whether Qualcomm used predatory pricing when selling UMTS baseband chips about a decade ago has landed the chipmaker with a fine of €242 million (~$271M) — aka, 1.27% of its global revenue for 2018.

The EU regulator concluded Qualcomm used abusive pricing to force its main rival at the time, UK-based company Icera, out of the market — by selling certain quantities of three of its UMTS chipsets below cost to two strategically important customers: Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE.

Commenting on the decision in a statement, competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, said: Baseband chipsets are key components so mobile devices can connect to the Internet. Qualcomm sold these products at a price below cost to key customers with the intention of eliminating a competitor. Qualcomm’s strategic behaviour prevented competition and innovation in this market, and limited the choice available to consumers in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies. Since this is illegal under EU antitrust rules, we have today fined Qualcomm €242M.

Qualcomm has come out fighting in response — dismissing what it dubs as the Commission’s “novel theory” and saying it plans to appeal.

It also says it will provide a financial guarantee in lieu of paying the fine while this appeal is pending.

The case — which was triggered by a complaint filed by Icera — dates back to 2015, and relates to Qualcomm business practices between 2009 and 2011. The baseband chipsets in question were used over the period for connecting smartphones and tablets to cellular networks, including 3G networks, and for both for voice and data transmission.

The Commission says Icera had been offering advanced data rate performance vs Qualcomm’s chipsets, thereby posing a threat to the latter’s business.

The EU regulator found Qualcomm held a dominant position in the global market for UMTS baseband chipset between 2009 and 2011 — when it had a marketshare of around 60% (almost 3x that of its biggest competitor), as well as on the high barriers to entry to the market — such as significant initial investments in R&D for designing such chipsets  and IP barriers given the volume of related patents Qualcomm holds.

European competition rules mean those holding a dominant position in a market have a special responsibility not to abuse their powerful position by restricting competition.

The Commission says its conclusion that Qualcomm engaged in predatory pricing during the probe period is based on a price-cost test for the three Qualcomm chipsets concerned; and “a broad range of qualitative evidence demonstrating the anti-competitive rationale behind Qualcomm’s conduct, intended to prevent Icera from expanding and building market presence”.

“The results of the price-cost test are consistent with the contemporaneous evidence gathered by the Commission in this case,” it writes. “The targeted nature of the price concessions made by Qualcomm allowed it to maximise the negative impact on Icera’s business, while minimising the effect on Qualcomm’s own overall revenues from the sale of UMTS chipsets. There was also no evidence that Qualcomm’s conduct created any efficiencies that would justify its practice.

“On this basis, the Commission concluded that Qualcomm’s conduct had a significant detrimental impact on competition. It prevented Icera from competing in the market, stifled innovation and ultimately reduced choice for consumers.”

In May 2011 Icera was acquired for $367M by US tech company Nvidia — which the Commission notes then decided to wind down the baseband chipset business line in 2015.

In its press release responding to the decision, Qualcomm’s Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel, comes out throwing punches — claiming the Commission’s theory is without precedent and “inconsistent”.

“The Commission spent years investigating sales to two customers, each of whom said that they favored Qualcomm chips not because of price but because rival chipsets were technologically inferior.  This decision is unsupported by the law, economic principles or market facts, and we look forward to a reversal on appeal,” he writes. “The Commission’s decision is based on a novel theory of alleged below-cost pricing over a very short time period and for a very small volume of chips. There is no precedent for this theory, which is inconsistent with well-developed economic analysis of cost recovery, as well as Commission practice.

“Contrary to the Commission’s findings, Qualcomm’s alleged conduct did not cause anticompetitive harm to Icera, the company that filed the complaint. Icera was later acquired by Nvidia for hundreds of millions of dollars and continued to compete in the relevant market for several years after the end of the alleged conduct. We cooperated with Commission officials every step of the way throughout the protracted investigation, confident that the Commission would recognize that there were no facts supporting a finding of anti-competitive conduct.  On appeal we will expose the meritless nature of this decision.”

The size of the fine being issued to Qualcomm — which is dwarfed by the $1.23BN fine also handed out to the company by EU regulators a year ago (for iPhone LTE chipset related market abuse) — has been calculated on the basis of the value of its direct and indirect sales of UMTS chipsets in the European Economic Area, with the Commission also factoring in the duration of the infringement it found to have taken place.

In addition to being fined, the Commission decision orders Qualcomm not to engage in the same or equivalent practices in the future.

July 18th 2019, 8:32 am

Intel announces deep, multi-year partnership with SAP

TechCrunch

Intel announced a deep partnership with SAP today around using advanced Intel technology to optimize SAP software tools. Specifically the company plans to tune its Intel Xeon Scalable processors and Intel Optane DC persistent memory for SAP’s suite of applications.

The multi-year partnership includes giving SAP early access to emerging Intel technologies and building a Center of Excellence. “We’re announcing is a multi-year technology partnership that’s focused on optimizing Intel’s platform innovations… across the entire portfolio of SAP’s end-to-end enterprise software applications including SAP S/4HANA,” Rajeeb Hazra, corporate vice president of Intel’s Enterprise and Government Business told TechCrunch.

He says that this will cover broad areas of Intel technology including CPU, accelerators, data center, persistent memory and software infrastructure. “We’re taking all of that data-centric portfolio to move data faster, store data more efficiently, and process all kinds of data for all kinds of workloads,” he explained.

The idea is to work closely together to help customers understand and use the two sets of technology in tandem in a more efficient manner. “The goal here is [to expose] a broad portfolio of Intel technologies for the data-centric era, close collaboration with SAP to accelerate the pace of innovation of SAP’s entire broad suite of enterprise class applications, while making it easier for customers to see, test and deploy this technology,” he said.

Irfan Kahn, president of Platform and Technologies at SAP says this partnership should help deliver better performance across the SAP suite of products including SAP S/4HANA, its in-memory database product. “Our expanded partnership with Intel will accelerate our customers’ move to SAP S/4HANA by allowing organizations to unlock the value of data assets with greater ease and operate with increased visibility, focus and agility,” Kahn said in a statement.

Hazra says that this is part of a broader enterprise strategy the company has been undertaking for many years, but it is focusing specifically on SAP for this agreement because of its position in the enterprise software ecosystem. He believes that by partnering with SAP at this level, the two companies can gain further insight that could help customers as they use advanced technologies like AI and machine learning.

“This partnership is [significant for us] given SAP’s focus and position in the markets that they serve with enterprise class applications, and the importance of what they’re doing for our core enterprise customers in those areas of the enterprise. This includes the emerging areas of machine learning and AI. With their suite [of products], it gives those customers the ability to accelerate innovation in their businesses by being able to see, touch, feel and consume this innovation much more efficiently,” he said.

July 18th 2019, 8:32 am

Plaid introduces Liabilities to create debt-tracking apps, starting with student loans

TechCrunch

Plaid has always been about helping developers build financial applications. Up until now that has involved standard checking and savings, and more recently investments. Today, they are introducing a new product called Liabilities endpoint to help developers build applications around debt. For starters, they are taking aim at a big problem in the US, student loan debt.

The product will expand to cover other kinds of debt over time, but the company wanted to start with student loans because of the depth of the problem. “We’re launching with student loan data given the crisis levels it has reached in the U.S., where it is the second largest debt category behind mortgage. Today, over 44 million people, hold $1.6 trillion in outstanding loans,” Plaid’s Kate Adamson wrote in a blog post introducing the new product.

She added that this level of debt is having an impact on people’s ability to save for larger life milestones like getting married, buying a home and saving for retirement. Plaid says that it is launching this new product to help developers build applications that will in turn help borrowers better manage their debt.

To do this, the new API gives developers access to data from a number of large student loan debt managers including Navient, Nelnet, FedLoan, Great Lakes and others. Eventually, they hope to layer on other types of debt services, so that developers can build applications with a total view of a person’s debt, and perhaps suggest ways to reduce it more quickly, or understand how the accruing interest is adding to their overall debt load.

The Liabilities product along with the investments tool introduced earlier this year shows that Plaid is trying to expand into a full service financial technology platform. Among the companies using Plaid to power their apps are Transferwise, Venmo, Acorns, Robinhood and Expensify.

The company has raised over $350 million since it launched in 2012. The most recent round at the end of last year was for $250 million at a $2.65 billion valuation.

July 18th 2019, 8:02 am

Watch an unfiltered interview of PicsArt founder at Disrupt Berlin

TechCrunch

Smartphones have become a creative playground thanks to cameras and innovative apps, such as PicsArt. With PicsArt, anybody can add filters, stickers and tweak photos and videos in many different ways. It has been a massive hit with 130 million monthly active users. And that’s why I’m excited to announce that PicsArt founder and CEO Hovhannes Avoyan is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

PicsArt started with a simple app that lets you edit photos before sharing them. There are many companies in this space, including VSCO, Snapseed and Prisma. But PicsArt has managed to become a cultural phenomenon in many countries including China.

If you’re thinking about editing a photo or video in one way or another, chances are you can do it in PicsArt. In addition to traditional editing tools (cropping, rotating, curves, etc.), you can add filters, auto-beautify your face, change your hair color, add stickers and text, cut out your face and use masks just like in Photoshop… I’m not going to list everything you can do because it’s a long list.

The result is an app packed with features that lets you express yourself, create visual storytelling and improve your social media skills. If you’re an Instagram user, chances you’ve seen more than one photo that has been edited using PicsArt.

While the app is free with ads, users can also subscribe to a premium subscription to unlock additional features. And PicsArt is not just about editing as you can also use the app as its own social network.

PicsArt is based in the U.S. and has raised $45 million over the years. But the company is also betting big on Armenia with a big engineering team over there.

And it’s a natural fit as Hovhannes Avoyan is originally from Armenia. In addition to PicsArt, he has founded many successful startups in the past — Lycos, Bertelsmann, GFI, Teamviewer and Helpsystems. Many entrepreneurs would have a hard time founding just one of these companies, so I can’t wait to hear how Avoyan manages to work on so many different products and turn those products into successes.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.



Hovhannes Avoyan is a serial entrepreneur, investor and scholar. He is the founder and CEO of PicsArt, the #1 photo and video editing app and community with more than 130 million monthly active users. PicsArt is backed by Sequoia Capital, Insight Venture Partners, DCM and Siguler Guff. The company employs more than 350 people and is headquartered in San Francisco with offices across the globe in Yerevan, Armenia; Los Angeles; Beijing; and an AI Lab in Moscow.

Avoyan brings more than 25 years of experience in computer programming and global business management. Prior to PicsArt, Avoyan founded five other startups, all of which had successful acquisitions by global companies including Lycos, Bertelsmann, GFI, Teamviewer, and Helpsystems.

He is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Bertelsmann Senior Executive's program. He received his B.S. and M.S. from the State Engineering University of Armenia and his M.A. in Political Science and International Affairs from the American University of Armenia. He’s also a frequent speaker at business conferences on topics ranging from business strategy to international team building and Al.

July 18th 2019, 7:16 am

On a growth tear, work trip SaaS TravelPerk adds $60M to its Series C

TechCrunch

Business travel SaaS startup, TravelPerk, has announced it’s more than doubled the $44M Series C round we wrote about just nine months ago — taking in a further $60M from its existing investors, which brings the round to $104M, and the business’ total raised to date to $134M.

Investors increasing the size of their Series C commitment are Kinnevik, partners of DST Global, Target Global, Felix Capital, Sunstone, and LocalGlobe.

A mere three years ago the 2015-founded, Barcelona-based startup had bagged a $7M Series A — with a pitch to take the pain out of business travel booking.

Since then it’s been on a major growth tear. Co-founder and CEO Avi Meir says this momentum is behind the Series C expansion.

“We grew faster than expected,” he tells TechCrunch. “Unit economics are fantastic. Investors have been pushing us to inject more funding, accelerate our growth, and expand faster. We weren’t looking for more runway.

“We always knew that expanding this round was an option depending on performance, and as we exceeded even our most optimistic targets, we had the choice to stay on our same path or become even more aggressive.”

“The team has grown 250% since January and bookings on the platform have increased by 300%,” he adds. “The number of active users has grown by 150% this year compared to last. When you look at those two numbers side-by-side, it demonstrates that not only are we adding customers, but our existing ones are booking more often.”

TravelPerk now has more than 2,000 customers for its business travel booking platform — including some very familiar names n the European startup scene, such as Adyen, Farfetch, Transferwise, Sumup, GetYourGuide and Glovo.

It’s not disclosing the latest valuation of the business but Meir says it’s more than doubled in the last eight months — due to “rapid growth”.

He’s also not sharing the GMV target for the year — but says it’s 300% higher than last year.

The extra Series C funds will be ploughed into further fuelling its European expansion.

It is also trailing “major product additions in the coming weeks and months” — which TravelPerk claims will bring “a new level of disruption to the pricing structure of an industry that is still dominated by outdated solutions that make business travel expensive and painful”.

It’s certainly true that you don’t have to ask too many office workers before you find someone more than willing to hate long and loud on legacy platforms their employer forces them to use when they need to book a work trip.

“In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing products that give the business traveler more freedom and flexibility than ever before,” says Meir. “Meaning business travelers are not restricted by the rigid, outdated systems of the travel industry. With these releases, we’ll not be playing catchup with the leisure travel industry, but bringing to market features designed specifically for the business traveler.”

Given the sustained growth tear that’s encouraged its investors to increase their commitments, what about an IPO? Is that now fast looming on the horizon for TravelPerk?

“It’s a very natural path for us,” says Meir. “We don’t have a hard and fast plan, we’re focused on building a really big company that will be a market leader for years to come, and we’re certainly not at all focused on selling.”

“We want to be THE choice for the modern business traveler,” he adds. “A no-brainer choice for anyone booking, managing, reporting, or analyzing their business travel.”

Discussing the startup’s plans for the next year, he says they’ll aim to bolster their position with SMEs in Europe — and “expand outwards”

“We’re planning to have 430 people hired by the end of this year, and more than 580 by end of 2020 – that’s nearly doubling in a year,” he continues. “This is the plan as it stands today, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year is an even higher trajectory. Certainly that’s the pattern when I look back at our journey so far.”

Commenting in a statement, Antoine Nussenbaum, partner at Felix Capital added: “We are excited to see Avi and his team hitting and surpassing their objectives, as a result we are doubling up our investment as part of this large Series C.

“We’re delighted to be strengthening our relationship with TravelPerk and look forward to seeing the business continue to grow. We are particularly thrilled about the new features soon to be released which will materially transform the traveller experience — building on TravelPerk’s leadership position as the new standard for business travel.”

July 18th 2019, 7:02 am

EBay picks 5.5% stake in India’s Paytm Mall

TechCrunch

EBay said today it is buying a 5.5% stake in e-commerce marketplace Paytm Mall as the global firm makes another push to gain footprint in India’s fast-growing e-commerce market.

The two firms did not disclose financial terms of the deal, but a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that EBay has invested between $150 million to $200 million in Paytm Mall at a valuation of $3 billion, up from under $2 billion last year. Paytm Mall had raised about $650 million prior to today’s announcement, the source said.

The agreement will see more than a million products of EBay be made available for purchase to users on Paytm Mall, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm said in a statement. “We will jointly select the inventory we want to bring here. It will be done in a month’s time,” he added. EBay will continue to operate its e-commerce site in India, the company said.

The deal could strengthen Paytm Mall’s position in India, where it competes with Walmart -owned Flipkart, and Amazon India. Online retail sales in India are expected to grow to about $72 billion in three years, according to research firm eMarketer.

Paytm Mall, which is backed by SoftBank, Alibaba, Ant Financial, and SAIF Partners, reported GMV sales of $188 million in 2018. In last one year, sales at the e-commerce arm of One97 Communications, which also runs Paytm wallet, has lost momentum after it cut down the lofty offers it was bandying out to customers, according to an Economic Times report.

Like Amazon and Flipkart, Paytm Mall operated on an inventory-led model in India, but has in recent months shifted to an offline-to-online model, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local brand stores. Paytm Mall claims to have over 100,000 seller partners on its platform.

This is EBay’s third investment in India. The company made its first investment in the country in Snapdeal in 2013, and then on Flipkart. After the Indian firm was acquired by Walmart for $16 billion, EBay sold its stake for $1.1 billion and relaunched its e-commerce site with cross-border trade as its new focus.

“We are deeply committed to India and believe there is huge growth potential and significant opportunity in this dynamic market,” said Jooman Park, Senior Vice President of EBay’s APAC business. “This new relationship will accelerate our cross-border trade efforts in a rapidly growing market, providing hundreds of millions of Paytm and Paytm Mall customers with access to EBay’s unparalleled selection of goods.”

July 18th 2019, 3:59 am

Congressional testimony reveals some faults in Facebook’s digital currency plans

TechCrunch

As Facebook continues to lay the foundation for getting some of the world’s largest payment processing and technology companies a seat at the global monetary policy table, the company faces significant obstacles to enacting its plans from both sides of the Congressional aisle.

In the second of what’s sure to be many (many many many) hearings in front of Congressional committees, David Marcus, the chief executive of Facebook’s new digital payments subsidiary, Calibra, faced hours of questions from Representatives on the House Financial Services Committee about the how and why of Facebook’s digital currency plans.

Facebook’s critics had questions about both sides of the company’s two-pronged approach to transforming the global financial services industry.

Marcus was able to avoid answering some of his toughest questioning by taking advantage of the grey area between Facebook’s role as the chief architect behind Libra (a financial instrument that uses blockchain technology to enable transactions using a digital currency managed by a consortium of private companies) and Calibra (the payments subsidiary that Facebook owns).

Marcus stated in his testimony, Facebook’s plans for Libra are entirely about getting the digital currency that the company is creating recognized by international financial bodies — skirting the oversight of U.S. banking and financial services regulators in favor of Switzerland’s “neutral” approach.

Representatives, rightly, have concerns about each step of the process, so it’s probably best to examine the currency that Facebook is hoping to create with its partners in the Libra Association and the Calibra subsidiary separately.

First, there are significant questions around the Libra Association that Facebook assembled itself, and the regulatory responsibility that Congress and various Federal agencies have to oversee the digital currency that it’s hoping to create.

The structural problems of the Libra Association and its currency

Concerns begin with the independence of the association Facebook selected to be its partners in the cryptocurrency. There are any number of ties between the corporations and investors that are on Libra’s existing governing body and Facebook. The fact that Facebook selected the initial charter members that paid $10 million for the privilege of being co-founders of the currency was not lost on Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the first term representative from New York.

“The membership is open, based on certain criteria,” Marcus said in his testimony responding to a question from Representative Ocasio Cortez about the membership of the Libra Association. “The first 27 members that have joined are companies that have shared that desire to build this network and solve problems.”

Representative Ocasio Cortez responded, “So, we are discussing a currently controlled by an undemocratically selection of largely massive corporations.”

The New York representative wasn’t alone in her criticism of the composition of the Libra Association, questioning whether Facebook would have undue influence over the organization.

Setting aside the independence of the Libra Association, Representatives also had some pertinent questions about the ways in which the currency is structured.

Libra’s currency is set up as a stablecoin whose value is set by the Association and is pegged to a basket of global currencies that provide a hedge against the the currency fluctuating in value as a result of speculative investment. Users pay in a certain amount of currency and receive an amount of Libra that they can spend at participating merchants or companies (a vast network considering that Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa are all participating in the Association).

Given the size of Facebook’s user base (which numbers in the billions), if every user put an average of $100 into the network, the Libra Association would vault into the ranks of the top 20 largest banks in America (assuming $100 billion in assets). That alone would warrant regulatory oversight by any number of Federal agencies, some representatives argued.

They also expressed concern about how the Libra Association and its membership could manipulate currencies and potentially displace the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency.

“Sovereign currencies should remain sovereign and we do not want to challenge sovereign currencies,” said Marcus in response to a particularly sharp line of questioning. “We just want to augment their capabilities in the way they can be used.”

It’s an engineer’s answer to a question about the social function of currencies. Facebook can use the basket of currency structure to argue that Libra isn’t actually a currency, but instead rests atop of several currencies to provide more stability and access for its users — and make the system function more effectively. But should Libra’s adoption begin to accelerate, the organization behind it would be able to pick currency winners and losers and begin to leverage its holdings to potentially manipulate markets, some representatives feared.

Facebook could destabilize currencies and governments,” said California Rep. Maxine Waters. “Facebook’s entry is troubling because it has already harmed vast numbers of people.”

For some members of the Finance Committee, the structure of the asset-backed currency itself makes it resemble a financial instrument that also demands regulation from government agencies. At varying times they compared the proposed currency to an Exchange Traded Fund (because it relies on a basket of currencies to create value) or an alternative fiat currency itself.

“What exactly is this? Is it fish or fowl? And it seems to me that it’s more of a platypus and it evolves in its different parts,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, of Michigan.

For Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the foreign currency risk that users could be exposed to presents an opportunity for the government to exercise oversight under investment laws passed in 1940. “They will have some degree of volatility,” said Marcus in his testimony.

“This looks to me exactly like an exchange traded fund. Backed by a series of short term instruments in foreign currency… it even has a creation and remittance mechanism,”  says Himes. If that’s true, then the Libra Association would be subject to regulations under the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Marcus says that the instrument behind Libra isn’t an exchange traded fund, because the users that will transact using the cryptocurrency through services like Facebook’s Calibra, aren’t going to be speculating on the currency’s rise in value. However, that logic seems to be slightly faulty given that all of the members of the Libra Association are expected to generate returns from the assets that are held in Libra and invested in the short term basket of currencies.

What’s the matter with Calibra?

If the Libra Association and its mechanism for establishing a stablecoin creates one knot for regulators to untie, then the actual transaction mechanism that Facebook is proposing in the form of the Calibra subsidiary is yet another.

Here again a host of issues raise their head for members of Congress… Some are associated with Facebook’s perennial privacy problems and the history of predatory behavior that reared its head yet again with the company’s $5 billion fine for continuing violations.

MROthers are related to the company’s policy of what conservative critics called “social engineering” which saw Facebook boot some controversial users from its platforms (potentially denying them access to the benefits of Libra). Still another batch of concerns rests on Facebook’s ability to properly implement the know your customer (KYC) regulations that are required of banks and other financial services institutions.

The concern about Facebook’s propensity for de-platforming was topmost in the mind of Wisconsin’s Republican Representative Duffy

“Can Milo Yiannopoulos or Louis Farrakhan use Libra?” Duffy asked. “I bring that up because both of those two individuals have been banned from Facebook.”

Marcus could only respond “I don’t know yet.”

Rep. Duffy compared the potential for Facebook to engage in the same kind of social engineering to grant access to its new payment network as the experiments that China is conducting with its social credit scoring.

“For this system, I think you’re going to see a lot of pushback from both sides,” said Duffy. “I’m also concerned about the data privacy and how we’re going to use that data… How we spend our money is really powerful information and you have access to that too.”

Calibra may face anticompetitive challenges too. Facebook has said that its payment processing app will be the only one that’s directly integrated with the company’s other social networking and communication tools, but that other potential wallets would be interoperable. The exclusive access to Facebook gives Calibra an automatic advantage over other potential payment tools and opens the company up to receive a whole host of transaction information that it would otherwise not be privy to.

And while Facebook is restricting wallet access on its platform to its own digital payments service, it’s giving free rein to developers to build other apps for Libra’s payment platform without vetting them at all.

It’s a situation that could lead to another Cambridge Analytica-style scandal for Facebook and is yet another hole in the company’s oversight.

The appropriate response 

The Libra project is hugely ambitious and its critics have several valid concerns about its execution. Some of the concerns about the risk that it poses are justified and it could, indeed, become a systemic player in the global financial system more quickly than its proponents are willing to accept. All of that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be thrown out or dismissed because of the potential dangers it poses, some economists argued.

The hard work of governing demands appropriate oversight (which Facebook has been calling out for — although it’s arguably doing it in the jurisdictions that will have the lightest touch over its activities).

No less an expert than the acting International Monetary Fund chair, David Lipton, has said as much in recent discussions over the role that Libra should play (or could play) in the global monetary system.

“Risks include the potential emergence of new monopolies, with implications for how personal data is monetized; the impact on weaker currencies and the expansion of dollarization; the opportunities for illicit activities; threats to financial stability; and the challenges of corporates issuing and thus earning large sums of money — previously the realm of central banks,” Lipton said of Facebook’s proposed digital currency, according to Bloomberg. “So, regulators — and the IMF — will need to step up”

But stepping up does not mean regulating Facebook’s currency out of existence.

“We look back at the the history of technology and innovation, and a conclusion is you never know at the beginning how valuable a technology will be,” Lipton said. “It requires experimentation and adaptation over years and often decades.”

July 18th 2019, 2:56 am

Banking startup N26 raises another $170 million at $3.5 billion valuation

TechCrunch

Fintech startup N26 is raising $170 million a few months after raising $300 million. While it’s technically structured as a new round, the company considers today’s new funding as an extension of the Series D round.

N26 has only reached out to existing investors. All the investors in the Series D round are investing again, as well as a few investors that have been around for a while. So that’s Insight Venture Partners, GIC (Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund), Tencent, Allianz X, Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, Earlybird Venture Capital and Greyhound Capital.

“It’s a raise in valuation of about 30%. It’s only existing investors that participated. We didn’t go external as it is also quite quickly after the round that we did earlier this year,” co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me. “But I think it’s a good testament of the development of the company over the last couple of months.”

With this new influx of funding, N26 has now reached a post-money valuation of $3.5 billion. The company has raised $670 million in total. And N26 says that it is now the highest valued German startup and one of the highest valued fintech startups in the world.

N26 has been building a retail bank that works better. The company lets you sign up from your phone, get a card that you can control from your phone and make purchases all around the world without any foreign transaction fee. And the company has managed to attract 3.5 million customers all around Europe.

More recently, N26 launched its challenger bank in the U.S. The company plans to expand to Brazil in the coming months and launch more products to make it easier to manage your money. Many features will be based on Spaces, which are sub-accounts that let you separate your money in multiple pools and eventually share Spaces with other people.

I chatted with N26 co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf about the future of N26. Here’s our interview, which was edited for clarity and brevity.

TechCrunch: You announced N26 You already. What’s the idea behind it?

Valentin Stalf: We launched it yesterday or the day before yesterday. There are different card colors and we’re differentiating our premium tier [N26 Metal] a little bit more from the mid tier [N26 You]. I think it was a little bit similar.

But now, N26 You is more individual. And then it’ll come together in a couple of weeks when we launch additional cards for one account. You can have different colors. And then, with Spaces, I think we're trying to build the most flexible bank account to live and think your way.

And then, in the next quarter we’ll do an app update with a transaction-based timeline.

TC: Does it mean that because of the new colors, people will get multiple cards and attach one card to one Space for instance?

Stalf: In the end, you’ll be able to attach the cards freely to different Spaces. It’s not even that important that you attach one card to one Space. Sometimes, people want to have multiple cards. But if you only use one card, then you can swap a transaction to a different Space.

TC: Now that you’re bringing perks from N26 Metal to N26 You, what does it mean for Metal customers? Do you just get a different card?

Stalf: I think with Metal, we’ll go more and more in the premium direction.

We also mentioned that we’ll be relaunching our insurance packages. The new package will be based on traveling but also mobility. You’ll have a lot of things in the mobility space including scooter riding.

TC: Let’s talk about product. You talked about Shared Spaces and multiple cards. There’s a redesign that is coming out in the next few months, what will it look like?

Stalf: With the app update that we’re doing, it’s not just a design update of the front end, it’s really an update of the way we talk to our customers and how we present transactions. We’ll be changing what you see in the app timeline.

We want to give you more context and we cant to make it smarter. We’ll integrate customer support interactions, we’ll integrate transactions that didn’t work… These features will launch over time.

We’re launching the infrastructure and then we’re launching each of the features. For instance, you’ll have the opportunity to start a customer service interaction directly from a transaction, straight to live chat.

And it’s coming together with Shared Spaces. It’s also something that needs to be reflected in the timeline in a smart way. Some of the transactions that might show up in your timeline might not be done by yourself but maybe by someone else.

Depending on which transaction you do, we move more details into the timeline directly based on what we think is important. So let’s say it’s a transaction in a new country, you might want to see the exchange rate in the timeline directly. If it’s rent, sending the same amount every month, you don’t need to see more details. It just needs to say rent — okay fine.

TC: What did you promise when you raised some more money? New countries, user numbers, improved monthly transaction volume?

Stalf: We have an opportunity that we build a bank that has more than 50 million users around the globe. Today, we only have 3.5 million users but we’re accelerating.

From a country perspective, we have agreed already that we go to Brazil. There’s no plan after Brazil yet. Now let’s focus on the U.S., then on Brazil, then next year we’ll find out what’s the feedback from these two markets.

July 18th 2019, 12:09 am

Georgia Tech’s ant-sized micro-robots move through vibration

TechCrunch

The above image is a shot of Georgia Tech’s latest robot posed next to a penny. The 3D printed bot is roughly two millimeters in length — or about the size of the world’s smallest ants, per the school. The tiny devices are designed to move using vibration from a variety of sources, ranging from ultrasound to more traditional speakers.

With the proper source, the bristles allow them to move four times their own size in roughly a second by moving the legs up and down. Different sized legs react differently, responding to a variety of different frequencies The actuators that generate the vibration are outside of the robot, however, since batteries small enough to be housed on their bodies simply don’t exist.

The research team believes robots of this size could ultimately prove useful for a variety of different tasks, ranging from environmental sensing to human body repair. For now, however, we’re just dealing with some tiny prototypes.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” assistantships professor Azadeh Ansari said in a release tied to the news. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

July 18th 2019, 12:09 am

Southeast Asian cloud communications platform Wavecell acquired by 8×8 in deal worth $125 million

TechCrunch

Wavecell, a cloud-communications platform for companies in Southeast Asia, announced today that it has been acquired by 8×8 in a deal worth about $125 million. The acquisition will help San Jose, California-based 8×8 expand in Asia, where Wavecell already has offices in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Wavecell’s cloud API platform, which includes SMS, chat, video and voice messaging, is used by companies such as Paidy, Lalamove and Tokopedia. It has relationships with 192 network operators and partners like WhatsApp and claims its infrastructure is used to share more than two billion messages each year.

The terms of the deal includes $69 million in cash and about $56 million in 8×8 common shares. Founded in 2010, Wavecell’s investors included Qualgro VC, Wavemaker Partners and MDI Ventures.

In a prepared statement, 8×8 CEO Vik Verma said “8×8 is now the only cloud provider that owns the full, global-scale, cloud-native, technology stack offering voice, video, messaging, and contact center delivered both as pre-packaged applications and as enterprise-class APIs. We’re excited to welcome the Wavecell employees to the 8×8 family. We now have a significant market presence in Asia and expect to continue to expand in the region and globally in order to meet evolving customer requirements.”

July 17th 2019, 11:08 pm

How a Hong Kong startup gets caught up in US-China trade war

TechCrunch

Taylor Host has been operating his artificial intelligence startup out of Hong Kong for more than two years. The American entrepreneur has clients from Europe, North America and Asia, but he settled in the city for its adjacency to Southeast Asia and mainland China’s massive market.

Miro, which Host co-founded in 2017 with a British software engineer, had bootstrapped to six employees before raising a small note investment. Backed by Silicon Valley-based SOSV, it’s now seeking $2 million in a new funding round. As trade tensions between China and the U.S. drag on, the company is considering relocating for the first time because being a Hong Kong entity starts to turn off western investors.

Miro uses computer vision to tag images and videos of runners for the brands they wear. It then attributes that data — sporting goods purchases — to consumers profiles that are part of its clients’ customer relations management (CRM) system. Miro’s AI processes data in markets around the world, but China data, in particular, is desirable for western sports brands.

The Chinese rising middle-class has been fueling a marathon fever in recent years as they search for a healthier lifestyle. When they participate in a race, Miro’s sensors could be tracking their shoes and outfits for event organizers and sponsors. The technology has so far been used in nearly 500 events around the world and analyzed more than 10 million athletes — while most of the technical development has been conducted in Hong Kong.

“My co-founder and I both spent a considerable amount of time in Hong Kong. The majority of our team would call themselves Hong Kong Chinese, so we have a very strong foothold in Hong Kong and we love it here,” Host told TechCrunch over a phone interview.

“Lately though, it’s become very difficult to rationalize keeping the business in Hong Kong. There’s a number of reasons for that, but I think the ones that stand out are geopolitical.”

For one, Host has sensed a “dramatic” sentiment change among western investors towards Hong Kong, where a contentious extradition bill triggered a wave of mass protests recently. At the heart of the issue are fears that the special administrative region is ceding autonomy to Beijing. Critics cite examples of the disappearance of a Hong Kong bookseller and a Financial Times journalist’s visa denied by the local government.

Miro, a Hong Kong-based startup, uses computer vision to tag images and videos of runners for the brands they wear. / Photo: Miro

In an alarming move, the U.S. government stated the extradition bill “imperils the strong U.S.-Hong Kong relationship” that includes a special trade arrangement independent from that of mainland China.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam announced in early July that the bill was “dead“, but the die has been cast as concerns linger for Hong Kong’s autonomous status. Businesses in the territory now risk being dragged into the U.S.-China trade war.

In March, Miro won a pitch competition at SXSW and has since attracted institutional investors of all sizes. But two of its potential backers based in the U.S. have decided to leave the negotiation table seeing Hong Kong as a risk.

“Not a single firm has overlooked the issue of us being a Hong Kong-based company,” said Host. “There is zero appetite from the U.S. investors who we have talked to to invest in our Hong Kong entity right now.”

The risk of backing Miro, which processes seas of data with image recognition capabilities, is more pronounced than funding companies with little or no core technology as intellectual property is one of the main targets of the U.S.-China negotiations.

“Foreign venture capitalists have become more vigilant about investing in Chinese AI and chips companies, even when they don’t own core technology,” Joe Chan, founding partner of Hong Kong-based MindWorks Ventures, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Meanwhile, the trade war has had a tangential impact on U.S. fundings for Chinese startups that focus on education, lifestyle and other non-deep tech sectors, according to a handful of investors who we have spoken to in recent months.

Southeast Asia gains

With the help of legal and tax consultants, Miro has recently shifted to a U.S. entity by registering in Delaware but will keep its operations in Hong Kong. It’s a move which, in Host’s words, has “pleased and allowed the company to move forward” with some of its interested U.S. investors.

“It was a requirement of our conversations with those U.S. investors that they are investing in a U.S. — not Hong Kong — entity,” the founder noted. “If you are dead set on your company being the biggest company in your industry, why would you even consider being in a place that has so much uncertainty and risk?”

For China-based companies whose cross-border business is anchored in Asia, Southeast Asia could be a safe haven from the trade war. As Chan observed, some Chinese startups have intended to move to Singapore “to become less politically sensitive.”

Miro won a pitch competition at SXSW and has since attracted institutional investors of all sizes. But potential backers have decided to leave the negotiation table seeing Hong Kong as a risk. / Photo: Miro

Miro is also hedging risks by looking to Southeast Asia, which many would argue is emerging as a winner from the U.S.-China fight. Like China, the region has a burgeoning middle class that is getting into running and a range of other hobbies and habits that will spawn startup ideas.

Indeed, there’s been a lot of chatter about the rise of the region with a population of 640 million. A few big-name global investors, including Warburg Pincus and TPG Capital, have set aside new funds over the past few months to back Southeast Asian startups. Corporate investors including Tencent, Alibaba, Didi Chuxing and JD.com, are also clamoring to gain a foothold in this rising part of the continent, as we wrote two years ago.

“On a macro level, the trade war certainly has a substantial impact on China’s economy, so we are seeing a lot more money flowing to Southeast Asia,” said Chan.

“For example, some manufacturers have moved to Indonesia where labor is cheaper. China’s tech industry — and this is not entirely linked to the trade war — is reaching saturation and dominated by the BAT [Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent], so the window of opportunity is small. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is still in development.”

In a way, the trade war has accelerated the shift of attention from China to neighboring countries. The momentum was what brought Miro to visit one of the region’s largest tech conferences Techsauce recently.

“Nobody is talking about the trade war out here in Bangkok. We are talking about how Southeast Asia is exploding. And that is not just Chinese investors. It’s western investors too,” said Host.

July 17th 2019, 10:56 pm

FaceApp gets federal attention as Sen. Schumer raises alarm on data use

TechCrunch

It’s been hard to get away from FaceApp over the last few days, whether it’s your friends posting weird selfies using the app’s aging and other filters, or the brief furore over its apparent (but not actual) circumvention of permissions on iPhones. Now even the Senate is getting in on the fun: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has asked the FBI and the FTC to look into the app’s data handling practices.

“I write today to express my concerns regarding FaceApp,” he writes in a letter sent to FBI Director Christopher Wray and FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. I’ve excerpted his main concerns below:

In order to operate the application, users must provide the company full and irrevocable access to their personal photos and data. According to its privacy policy, users grant FaceApp license to use or publish content shared with the application, including their username or even their real name, without notifying them or providing compensation.

Furthermore, it is unclear how long FaceApp retains a user’s data or how a user may ensure their data is deleted after usage. These forms of “dark patterns,” which manifest in opaque disclosures and broader user authorizations, can be misleading to consumers and may even constitute a deceptive trade practices. Thus, I have serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it.

In particular, FaceApp’s location in Russia raises questions regarding how and when the company provides access to the data of U.S. citizens to third parties, including potentially foreign governments.

For the cave-dwellers among you (and among whom I normally would proudly count myself) FaceApp is a selfie app that uses AI-esque techniques to apply various changes to faces, making them look older or younger, adding accessories, and, infamously, changing their race. That didn’t go over so well.

There’s been a surge in popularity over the last week, but it was also noticed that the app seemed to be able to access your photos whether you said it could or not. It turns out that this is actually a normal capability of iOS, but it was being deployed here in somewhat of a sneaky manner and not as intended. And arguably it was a mistake on Apple’s part to let this method of selecting a single photo go against the “never” preference for photo access that a user had set.

Fortunately the Senator’s team is not worried about this or even the unfounded (we checked) concerns that FaceApp was secretly sending your data off in the background. It isn’t. But it very much does send your data to Russia when you tell it to give you an old face, or a hipster face, or whatever. Because the computers that do the actual photo manipulation are located there — these filters are being applied in the cloud, not directly on your phone.

His concerns are over the lack of transparency that user data is being sent out to servers who knows where, to be kept for who knows how long, and sold to who knows whom. Fortunately the obliging FaceApp managed to answer most of these questions before the Senator’s letter was ever posted.

The answers to his questions, should we choose to believe them, are that user data is not in fact sent to Russia, the company doesn’t track users and usually can’t, doesn’t sell data to third parties, and deletes “most” photos within 48 hours.

Although the “dark patterns” of which the Senator speaks are indeed an issue, and although it would have been much better if FaceApp had said up front what it does with your data, this is hardly an attempt by a Russian adversary to build up a database of U.S. citizens.

While it is good to see Congress engaging with digital privacy, asking the FBI and FTC to look into a single app seems unproductive when that app is not doing much that a hundred others, American and otherwise, have been doing for years. Cloud-based processing and storage of user data is commonplace — though usually disclosed a little better.

Certainly as Sen. Schumer suggests, the FTC should make sure that “there are adequate safeguards in place to protect the privacy of Americans…and if not, that the public be made aware of the risks associated with the use of this application or others similar to it.” But this seems the wrong nail to hang that on. We see surreptitious slurping of contact lists, deceptive deletion promises, third-party sharing of poorly anonymized data, and other bad practices in apps and services all the time — if the federal government wants to intervene, let’s have it. But let’s have a law or a regulation, not a strongly worded letter written after the fact.

Schumer Faceapp Letter by TechCrunch on Scribd

July 17th 2019, 8:56 pm

Altitude Angel launches an API for safer drone flights

TechCrunch

Altitude Angel, a U.K. startup that provides safety, data and traffic management systems for drones, is launching a de-confliction service for drone flights — available via its developer API platform.

“The dynamic system will continuously monitor the airspace around an aircraft for the ‘unexpected’ such as other aerial vehicles or changes to airspace (such as a Temporary Flight Restriction/Dynamic Geofence around a police incident),” it writes of the new service.

“After identifying a potential conflict, CRS will make the necessary routing adjustments, allowing the drone to maintain an appropriate separation standard between other airspace users or fly around restricted airspace so it can continue safely (and efficiently) to its destination.”

The global Conflict Resolution Service (CRS) has two components: Strategic de-confliction, which will launch first, on July 23, letting drone operators submit flight plans to the startup to determine whether there are any conflicts with other previously submitted flight plans, or against ground and airspace geofenced areas available in Altitude Angel’s worldwide data feeds.

If a conflict is identified Altitude Angel says its CRS will propose alterations to the take-off time and/or route to “eliminate the conflict” — suggesting, as it puts it “minimally invasive changes to permit the mission to continue unobstructed”.

The service also supports ‘private’ modes for fleet operators who only want to check for conflicts against their own drones or customers.

The second component — which will launch in late September — is called Tactical de-confliction. This will provide information to drone pilots or the drone itself to ensure separation is maintained during the in-flight phase.

“We’re bringing in commercially available data feeds of every piece of manned air traffic available today. So that’s every commercial flight, that’s in some instances police helicopters, medical choppers etc etc. So the tactical service will then supplement that drone on drone collision data [from the Statistical CRS] with drone on manned aviation,” says CEO Richard Parker.

The UK startup, which also provides data to power geofencing services for drones (drone maker DJI is among its customers) is positioning its software and services business as an enabling layer for unmanned traffic management (UTM) companies, national organizations and fleet operators to embed into their own products, says Parker.

“What we’re doing is going beyond what a typical UTM company sees as its own customers and then providing the flight plans that we’ve received out to everybody,” he tells TechCrunch. “So, for example, Uber might use the [CRS] service to register all of Uber’s flights and Amazon might use the service to register all of Amazon’s flights — but together, via the API, they effectively can avoid each other.

“So that’s a service which connects everybody together, and only tells you when there’s conflict that’s expected to occur.”

Clearly, the Strategic de-confliction component will increase in utility as it gains more users — enabling it to increase the visibility it can provide of what’s being flown where and when.

Although Altitude Angel does not pretend it will be able to offer a comprehensive view of absolutely every artificial thing in the sky.

“One of the things we think is rife in the UTM industry today is false claims,” says Parker. “It would be really easy for us to market this wrongly — we could have done this to say this service guarantees no drones will ever crash. That’s simply not true. What it does guarantee, however, is any drone that has submitted a plan to us is going to be told up front whether it’s likely to conflict with another one.

“And when the tactical service comes online, again, we will be extremely clear — providing everything else you might conflict with is using that service then we can provide that separation.”

He points out that not even Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) can see all air traffic all of the time. So the CRS is pitched as a way for drone operators to increase awareness of what else might be flying in the vicinity — thereby reducing the risk of collision or a safety incident.

As regards the dynamic tactical de-confliction component of the CRS, which is designed to alert drone operators to unexpected craft in their vicinity, Altitude Angel says this is based on “tried and trusted safety technology”.

The core platform underpinning it has been in operation since 2016, according to Parker — and was originally used by general aviation pilots to request access to transit Class D airspace, meaning it’s “racked up thousands of requests” and had “a lot of scrutiny” globally, including from national air traffic services.

“It’s an extremely reliable and robust service,” he claims.

Altitude Angel is also layering on its GuardianUTMS airspace management platform. While Parker flags that the company’s enterprise background is in massive distributed cloud systems — ergo, it’s used to handling something along the lines of 7M-10M API requests per month.

“So we think we’ve got a reasonably robust and reliable system,” he says. “One which can also tolerate failure and it can do a lot of self-healing. From an infrastructure perspective it’s very robust, and from an application perspective it’s been doing a lot of operational use cases and load for one of the world’s most trusted and respected ANSPs.”

“Usage is still increasing. We’re still learning from that. But again our main primary goal is to get this out, get it used, monitor it, make sure that we improve it over time. It’s kind of a crawl, walk and run type service,” he adds.

All Altitude Angel’s current customers are signed up to go live with the CRS — which Parker suggests will translate into some 5,000 to 6,000 flights per month feeding the de-confliction service.

“We’re then going to connect in our additional flights that have been shared with us as well so I think we’re talking about a fairly significant proportion of all of the flights that are being shared with any UTM today,” he continues. “What we’re then going to be doing is working with our ANSP customers to see if the permission requests that they’re currently managing can also be connected into that network. And I think that’s a really interesting area to explore.

“Because again we’re only doing this because, ultimately, everyone in the industry wants to go beyond line-of-sight, everyone wants to be able to have a more automated flight system. But the reality is the infrastructure just isn’t there on the ANSP and regulatory side — and the technology isn’t there, from a safety management perspective, on the commercial side either.

“So that’s the gap that we’re trying to plug here so that more people can access to do that.”

While it might make more sense for drone de-confliction platforms to be run by national bodies, rather than a commercial entity, Parker isn’t worried that regulators will swoop in and claim the space because the business is positioning itself to play multiple roles: Helping drone operators integrate and adapt to changeable regulations, while also making sure it can take on a gateway service role for ANSPs should governments decide a regulator should provide UTM.

“The technology that we provide to our customers we provide on our own developer platform for the commercial industry to use but we also provide a version of that same system, effectively, to ANSPs to be able to offer that service nationally,” he says.

“I think it’s important to recognize that many of those ANSPs aren’t required to do this yet. So they’re not necessarily deploying those foundations… The key piece that might be an interesting angle is that our commitment to those developer customers, and people who are using our commercial technology, is to abstract them away from whatever local regulations and differences might occur internationally.”

“In the UK, if the government suddenly turns around to [UK air traffic operator] NATS and says hey you guys have to provide UTM services for the whole country it won’t be us that are operating the service but we’re very much hopeful that we’ll have the opportunity to provide NATS with the technology to actually provide that capability to the rest of the industry,” he adds, noting that Altitude Angel is already providing airspace user portal technology to NATS. 

“So, again, we’ve got this commercial side of the business — which is all about enabling those folks to integrate with the regulated community, and then we’ve got a technology capability [Guardian UTMS] that’s what we’re pushing to ANSPs to enable them to open up the skies and work with and embrace drones within their airspace estate.”

July 17th 2019, 8:21 pm

Coinbase tells you if top holders are buying or selling a crypto asset

TechCrunch

Coinbase is taking advantage of its significant user base to give you more information about trading behavior and price correlation. Given that there are now 15 different cryptocurrencies on Coinbase that you can trade, the new features should provide some signals.

In addition to price and variation information, you can see what Coinbase customers with large balances are currently doing. You get a buy/sell percentage for each asset.

Behind the scene, Coinbase looks at users with a Coinbase balance in the top 10%. The exchange then counts how many users in that pool have increased or decreased their positions over the last 24 hours. The signal is updated every two hours.

Coinbase is also calculating two other data points — the average hold time and the popularity of each asset. This time, the company relies on the entire Coinbase user base to tell you how long people keep a specific asset before selling it or sending it to another address.

Unfortunately, when you transfer your assets to a hardware wallet or a more secure wallet, Coinbase considers that you’re no longer “holding” that asset because it’s no longer on your Coinbase account.

Finally, Coinbase is looking at price data to find out if prices of multiple assets are correlated. For instance, if Crypto X and Crypto Y have a correlation of 0%, it means that they go up and down in parallel. A negative correlation means that two assets move in opposite directions. This feature could help you build a more balanced portfolio of cryptocurrencies.

July 17th 2019, 7:06 pm

Netflix will roll out a lower-priced subscription plan in India

TechCrunch

Netflix said on Wednesday that it will roll out a cheaper subscription plan in India, one of the last great growth markets for global companies, as the streaming giant scrambles to find ways to accelerate its slowing growth worldwide.

The company added 2.7 million new subscribers in the quarter that ended in June this year, it said today, far fewer than the 5 million figure it had forecasted earlier this year.

The company said lowering its subscription plan, which starts at $9 in the U.S., would help it reach more users in India and expand its overall subscriber base.

Netflix started to test a lower-priced subscription plan in India and some other markets in Asia late last year. The plan restricts the usage of the service to only one mobile device and offers only the standard definition viewing (~480p). During the period of testing, which was active as of two months ago, the company charged users as low as $4.

The company did not specify the exact amount it intends to charge for the mobile only, cheaper plan. During the testing period, Netflix also provided users the option to get a subscription that would only last for a week. The company also did not say if it intends to bring the cheaper plan to other markets. TechCrunch has reached out to Netflix for more details.

“After several months of testing, we’ve decided to roll out a lower-priced mobile-screen plan in India to complement our existing plans. We believe this plan, which will launch in Q3, will be an effective way to introduce a larger number of people in India to Netflix and to further expand our business in a market where Pay TV ARPU is low (below $5),” it said in its quarterly earnings report.

The India challenge

Selling an entertainment service in India, the per capita GDP of which is under $2,000, is extremely challenging. The vast majority of companies that have performed exceedingly well in the nation offer their products and services at a very low price. Just look at Spotify, which entered India earlier this year and for the first time decided to offer full access to its service at no cost to local users. Even its premium option that features playback in higher quality costs Rs 119 ($1.6) per month.

That’s not to say that winning in India, home to more than 1.3 billion people, can’t be rewarding. Disney-owned streaming service Hotstar, which offers 80% of its content catalog at no cost, has amassed more than 300 million monthly active users.

In fact, Hotstar set a global record for most simultaneous views to a live event — about 25.3 million users — during the recently concluded ICC cricket world cup. It broke its own previous records. Hotstar’s free offering comes bundled with ads, while its ad-free premium option costs Rs 999 ($14.5) for a year-long access.

Amazon, another global rival of Netflix, bundles its Prime Video streaming service in its Prime membership, which includes access to faster delivery of packages and its music service, for Rs 999 a year.

For Netflix, the decision to lower its pricing in India comes at a time when it has hiked the subscription cost in many parts of the world. In the U.S., for instance, Netflix said earlier this year that it would raise its subscription price by up to 18%.

During a visit to India early last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the country could eventually emerge as the place that would eventually add the next 100 million service to his platform. “The Indian entertainment business will be much larger over the next 20 years because of investment in pay services like Netflix and others,” he said.

So far, Netflix has largely tried to lure customers through its original series. (Many popular U.S. shows such as NBC’s “The Office” that are available on Netflix’s U.S. catalog are not available in its India palate.) The company, which has produced more than a dozen original shows and movies for India, this week unveiled five more that are in the pipeline.

July 17th 2019, 7:06 pm

Toyota locks in more than a supply of EV batteries in deal with China’s CATL

TechCrunch

Toyota needs more than a secure and steady supply of batteries if it hopes to meet its ambitious global sales goal for electric vehicles. If it hopes to compete, the Japanese automaker will need better quality lithium-ion batteries that don’t squeeze profit margins.

The automaker is turning to Chinese EV battery supplier CATL for the answer. The companies announced Wednesday a wide-ranging partnership that covers the gamut of the battery ecosystem from developing new technology and locking in supply to improving product quality and reusing and recycling batteries.

Toyota said in June that it would partner with CATL, also known as Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd and EV maker BYD for battery procurement. This new agreement widens the scope of the relationship.

The companies said the partnership was borne out of a shared belief that a stable supply of batteries is critical and that battery technology must be further developed and advanced. CATL will combine its battery development and supply capabilities with Toyota’s electrified vehicle and battery development technologies, the companies said in a joint announcement.

Panasonic already supplies Toyota with batteries for hybrids and hybrid plug-ins. That won’t be enough, however, to meet its EV goals considering that virtually every other automaker is adding electric vehicles to their portfolio mix. Tesla and Nissan, once the only two notable producers of electric vehicles, are no longer alone. Audi and Jaguar Land Rover have introduced new all-electric vehicles. Bigger acts will soon follow. Volkswagen plans to have a portfolio of more than 20 full-electric models and to sell 1 million electric vehicles annually by 2025.

Meanwhile, Toyota has said that electric vehicles will make up half of its global sales by 2025. (That means annual sales of about 5.5 million electric vehicles.) Those EV plans have extend to other Toyota brands such as Lexus as well as other automakers.

The company said every Lexus model will have an electrified version by 2025. Toyota and Subaru announced in June plans to jointly develop a platform dedicated to battery electric vehicles for midsize and large passenger vehicles and to jointly develop a C-segment-class all-electric SUV model for sale under each company’s own brand.

July 17th 2019, 6:35 pm

SpaceX’s ‘Starhopper’ bursts into flames during static fire test

TechCrunch

SpaceX’s test vehicle, a small-scale demonstration craft for some Starship components, caught fire after what appears to be a fuel leak or dump following an otherwise successful static fire test last night. It’s not clear why the craft suddenly burst into flames, or whether it was seriously or even superficially damaged.

The “Starhopper,” as SpaceX has been calling it, is a much smaller scale version of the Starship craft the company has in development, meant to test them out in a live-fire environment and even perform short flights called hops — hence the name. It’s being assembled and operated at SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.

The big shiny craft looks a bit like a toy, but it’s a functioning rocket and it was planned that this week it would do an untethered hovering flight at some 20 meters, a step above the short tethered flights it has already accomplished. But last night’s test firing of the engines seems to have produced an anomaly.

As captured by several in the SpaceX community, the static fire started and stopped, but flames continued to burn around the base of the engines. A stream of liquid (very likely water) is directed towards it, at which point the whole rocket appears to ignite in an impressive fireball — then does it again a few seconds later. You can see the whole process (in 4K no less) in Everyday Astronaut’s video:

It’s unclear at this point what the cause of the fireball is, and whether it was in any part intentional. What’s certain is that this is not how previous test fires have gone, and generally speaking you don’t want your rocket to be on fire, even if it is highly heat-resistant.

Some have speculated that there was a fuel dump following the tests that produced lighter-than-air vapors, which rose and surrounded the rocket. The water jet may have caused the small fire to ignite the vapor, producing the fireball. I’ve asked SpaceX for any information they can share.

Images taken the next day don’t show a molten pile of slag, and in fact the vehicle doesn’t look any worse for wear on the outside. But while that’s testament to the test vehicle’s durability and stainless steel skin, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong inside.

Anything unexpected happening during a test like this is reason to abort and reassess, so it won’t be a surprise if we hear that Starhopper tests have been indefinitely delayed. LabPadre, who took another video of the event, noted on Twitter that the local authorities told him SpaceX withdrew all road and beach closures, so testing is apparently off for now.

I’ll update this story if and when SpaceX provides further information on the event.

July 17th 2019, 5:35 pm

Instagram will now hide likes in 6 more countries

TechCrunch

Would the Internet be a better place if we all paid a little less attention to fake Internet points? Instagram is still trying to figure it out.

Just a few months back, Instagram started testing a design tweak that would no longer show the total number of “likes” other user’s posts had received. You could still see everyone that liked your photos and videos – but anyone else’s stuff? Don’t worry about it.

While the company hasn’t said much about how the tests are going so far, it seems they’re going well enough to expand them. Initially rolled out in just Canada, it’ll roll out to users in six more countries starting today:

Curiously, some users in Canada (the first country where hidden likes were tested) reported yesterday that likes had returned to their feed. Instagram confirmed to us that the testing in Canada is still ongoing. Meanwhile, likes seem to be gone again in Canada as of this afternoon.

We wrote about Instagram’s like-hiding experiments a few weeks prior to the public tests, after the pending rollout was discovered by reverse engineering extraordinaire Jane Manchun Wong.

So why hide likes? Instagram says it’s “because [they] want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”

In other words: when likes are public, people care too much about them. People view it as a metric of success – teasing those who get too few, or buying likes to try to gain admiration. If a post doesn’t get enough likes, people delete them to make it seem like all of their photos are hits. In theory, hiding likes from the feed but making them visible to the creator lets people get some sense of whats working, without having to worry so much about whatever anyone else is taking away from the like count on any given photo.

Here’s what Instagram looks like with the design tweak. Note the banner up top giving the user a heads up of the change, and that the like bar just says “Liked by username and others” instead of any specific number of users:

 

 

July 17th 2019, 5:20 pm

Microsoft has warned 10,000 victims of state-sponsored hacking

TechCrunch

Microsoft said it has notified close to 10,000 people in the past year that they have been targeted by state-sponsored hackers.

The tech giant said Wednesday that the victims were either targeted or compromised by hackers working for a foreign government. In almost all cases, Microsoft said, enterprise customers were the primary targets — such as businesses and corporations. About one in 10 victims are consumer personal accounts, the company said.

Microsoft said its new data, revealed at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, demonstrates the “significant extent to which nation-states continue to rely on cyberattacks as a tool to gain intelligence, influence geopolitics, or achieve other objectives.”

On top of that the company also said it has made 781 notifications of state-sponsored attacks on organizations using its AccountGuard technology, designed for political campaigns, parties and government institutions.

Almost all of the attacks targeted U.S.-based organizations, the company said, but a spokesperson would not disclose the percentage of successful attacks.

Most of the attacks were traced back to activity by hacking groups believed to be associated with Russia, North Korea and Iran.

One such group, the so-called APT 33 group operating out of Iran — which Microsoft calls Holmium — has been in Microsoft’s cross-hairs before. In March the company said the Tehran-backed hackers stole corporate secrets and destroyed data in a two-year-long hacking campaign. Weeks later the company sued to obtain a restraining order for another Iranian hacker group, APT 35, or Phosphorus. A year earlier it took similar legal action against Russian hackers, known as APT 28, or Fancy Bear, which was blamed for disrupting the 2016 presidential election.

“Cyberattacks continue to be a significant tool and weapon wielded in cyberspace. In some instances, those attacks appear to be related to ongoing efforts to attack the democratic process,” said Microsoft’s customer security chief Tom Burt in a blog post.

Microsoft said it expects to see the “use of cyberattacks to specifically target democratic processes” ahead of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

July 17th 2019, 5:20 pm

Apple gives a sneak peak of its new Peanuts series with ‘Snoopy in Space’ trailer

TechCrunch

As the U.S. commemorates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Apple took to the internet to give audiences a peak into the first of its new Peanuts series, “Snoopy in Space”.

The series will follow Charles M. Schulz’s characters as they take afield trip to a NASA location where Snoopy and . Woodstock are selected for a space mission.

Charlie Brown and the rest of the characters will staff mission control, while Snoopy and Woodstock fly into the great beyond.

The series is set to launch on Apple TV+ in the Fall.

July 17th 2019, 5:02 pm

Twitter officially launches its ‘Hide Replies’ feature, initially to users in Canada

TechCrunch

Twitter today is beginning its test of a radical and controversial change to its service with the launch of a new “Hide Replies” feature. Effectively, this option gives users the ability to wrestle back control over a conversation they’ve started, by hiding any replies they feel aren’t worthy contributions — for example, replies that are irrelevant or outright offensive.

One of the problems with Twitter — and with many social networks, for that matter — is that an otherwise healthy conversation can easily be disrupted by a single individual or a small number of people who don’t contribute in a positive fashion. They come into a thread to start drama or they make inappropriate, rude or even hateful remarks.

Of course, users can choose for themselves to either Mute or Block people like this, which limits their ability to affect their own personal experience on Twitter. But this doesn’t remove their comments from others’ view. The “Hide Replies” feature, however, will.

But it’s not the equivalent of a delete button. In other words, hidden replies are not removed from Twitter entirely, they are just placed behind an icon. If people want to see the hidden replies, they can press this icon to view them.

Twitter’s goal with the feature is to encourage more civil conversation its platform. It could work, as those who want their comments seen by a wide audience will have to find a way to express themselves in an appropriate fashion — without taking the conversation off course or resorting to insults or trolling. Otherwise, they know their replies could be hidden from the default view.

But this change is not without significant downsides.

For example, a user could choose to hide replies that simply (and even politely!) disagreed with their view. This would then create a “filter bubble” where only people who shared the original poster’s same opinion would have their comments prominently displayed. In this case, the feature would be silencing of other viewpoints — and that’s in direct opposition to Twitter’s larger goal of creating a public town square on the web, where every voice has a chance to be heard.

More worryingly, a user could choose to hide replies that attempt to correct misinformation or offer a fact check. That’s a significant concern at a time when social media platforms have turned into propaganda dissemination machines, and have been infiltrated by state-supported actors from foreign governments looking to manipulate public sentiment and influence elections.

Twitter claims the feature provides transparency because hidden replies are still available for viewing to anyone who wishes to see them. But this assumes that people will notice the small “hidden replies” icon and bother to click it.

The ability to hide replies is initially available only to users in Canda, but tweets with hidden replies will be accessible by all Twitter users worldwide.

In a statement posted as a series of tweets and replies to others, Twitter explained its goals around the new addition:

“We’re testing a feature to hide replies from conversations. This experience will be available for everyone around the world, but at this time, only people in Canada can hide replies to their Tweets…They’ll be hidden from the main conversation for everyone behind a new icon. As long as it hasn’t been deleted and/or is not from an account with protected Tweets, everyone can still interact with a hidden reply by clicking the icon to view. We want everyone on Twitter to have healthy conversations, and we’re working on features that will help people feel more comfortable. We’re testing a way for people to hide replies they feel are irrelevant or offensive.”

Twitter had previously confirmed its plans to test a “Hide Replies” feature, and had announced its plan to launch the feature sometime this week.

Social media is due for a course correction, and Twitter at least isn’t afraid to try significant changes to its platform. (It’s even trying a new prototype of its app, called twttr.) However, some would argue that permanent bans on rulebreakers and more attention to enforcing existing policies would negate the need for features like this.

 

July 17th 2019, 4:48 pm

Netflix reports first net subscriber loss in the U.S., misses global subscriber growth predictions

TechCrunch

Netflix’s continued subscription price hikes might finally have reached the end of some customers’ patience in the U.S., judging from an overall paid subscriber decline the company reported in its quarterly earnings for its fiscal second quarter 2019 results. The company’s overall growth for paid subscribers climbed by 2.7 million worldwide, but it actually added 2.83 million new subscribers around the world – while losing around 130,000 net in the U.S. to account for the difference.

Netflix’s price for consumers went up from $10.99 to $12.99 during its fiscal Q2 reporting period, which definitely could account for some of the fall-off. The company doesn’t seem to have anticipated such a strong reaction, however, since it had anticipated a net 5.0 million subscriber growth number as of last quarter, based at least in part on the 5.5 million it added in paying customers during Q2 2018.

The company specifically says that it missed its subscriber growth adds more significantly in regions where it introduced a price hike, vs. those where it did not – though its growth was lower than expected in all regions where it operates. You might think that some of its shedding of users in the U.S. has to do with competition, but the company points out that most of its material competitors are actually just announced, not available in market, so it thinks this isn’t really a significant cause.

Instead, Netflix points at its content library, as well as those pricing changes in markets where they do apply. The Q2 content slate caused fewer new sign-ups than the company expected, it said in its earnings release. That’s despite strong four-week performance numbers from When They See Us (25 million households), Our Planet (33 million), Murder Mystery (73 million), The Perfect Date (48 million) and Always Be My Maybe (32 million).

Still, the company thinks it will add a whole heap of new subscribers in Q3 this year, with an expectation of 7 million paid membership adds, which is significantly up from the 6.1 million it added last year. One big reason for this optimism might be that it’s going to launch a new, mobile-only and more affordable tier for India, which will launch during the quarter.

Netflix’s stock price is down more than 10 percent after hours as of this writing based on these results. The full Q2 Netflix earnings are available here.

July 17th 2019, 4:48 pm

HBO Max is bringing back ‘Gossip Girl’

TechCrunch

“Gossip Girl,” the soapy CW drama about wealthy teenagers behaving badly in New York City’s Upper East Side, is returning to TV thanks to HBO Max.

Specifically, the streaming service has placed a 10-episode, straight-to-series order for an updated version of the show. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Joshua Safran (a writer and executive producer on the original show) will be spearheading the new series, while Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (the original creators) have signed on as executive producers.

It’s not clear yet whether any “Gossip Girl” stars will return, but Safran described this as an “extension” of the previous show, focusing on a new generation of teenagers.

To be clear, this won’t be on HBO, but instead on the yet-to-launch WarnerMedia streaming service now known as HBO Max, which will include HBO and other streaming content (including new shows and also “Friends”).

“Gossip Girl” initially aired from 2007 to 2012. It was never a huge ratings hit, but it had passionate fans, and particularly in its early seasons, it spurred plenty of adoring and/or scandalized headlines — maybe that’s what a new streaming service is looking for.

And this is where I acknowledge that I was, for a while, one of those fans. I tried to binge the entire first season in a single night, but my interest faded rapidly during season two, and I only returned for the ridiculous finale. Still, when the show was working, it was about as fun and addictive as TV gets.

July 17th 2019, 3:31 pm

Peloton’s new automated vehicle system gives one driver control of two trucks

TechCrunch

The trucking world has been inundated in recent years by startups and large companies alike pitching an array of automated driving technology and business strategies, all aiming to solve the big three problems with freight: safety, fuel costs and driver shortages.

For Peloton Technology, a Silicon Valley company that launched in 2011, the answer doesn’t strip out the human driver. Instead, it wants to augment a human truck driver’s ability with automated vehicle technology. The company, which has raised $78 million from BP Ventures, Intel Capital, Volvo Group and a dozen other venture and strategic investors, wants to commercialize a partially automated vehicle platooning system that enables two trucks (and maybe a whole string of them) to operate at close following distances.

Peloton Technology already has a product called PlatoonPro that six customers are using in their freight operations. Now, the company has unveiled an advanced product called Level 4 Automated Following that it says will double the productivity of truck drivers. Peloton Technology revealed details on the new automated platooning system Wednesday at the Automated Vehicle Symposium 2019 in Orlando.

PlatoonPro is considered a “Level 1” driver assistance system that requires drivers in both the lead and follow trucks. In this system, the driver in the follow truck must steer the vehicle. The system controls the powertrain and brakes to allow a close following distance and immediately reacts to acceleration or braking by the lead truck. The system boosts fuel savings by an average of 7%, the company says.

The new Automated Following system, a human driver is in the lead truck. But this time, the follow truck won’t have a human driver.  The system combines vehicle-to-vehicle communication with radar-based active braking and software. Together, the human driver in the lead vehicle is able to guide the steering acceleration and braking of the follow truck and connects the safety systems between the trucks with minimal latency, according to Peloton Technology.

“We’ve taken a different approach to commercial introduction of automation in class 8 vehicles.” Peloton Technology CEO Josh Switkes said. “We see the drivers as the world’s best sensors, and we are leveraging this to enable today’s drivers to be more productive through automated following platoons.”

And Switkes isn’t kidding. The human driver is front and center to this technology. The lead truck relies completely on the skill set of the professional truck driver. The system works alongside any of the driver assistance features like collision warnings or automatic emergency braking that might come with the Class 8 truck. But it does not provide additional driver assistance features.

The L4 Automated Following product, which is being tested internally, will double the amount of freight a truck driver can haul in a single trip, according to the company.

July 17th 2019, 3:01 pm

For World Emoji Day, the Unicode Consortium redesigns its site to be more user-friendly

TechCrunch

Ahead of World Emoji Day on Wednesday, July 17, Apple and Google announced plans to bring an expanded set of emoji to their respective platforms. Today, the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit organization responsible for determining which emoji get the greenlight, is relaunching its website with an updated, modern design that aims to make its information more accessible to the general public.

Before, its website design was very basic — just text and links to various pages about the Consortium itself, the standard, miscellaneous FAQs, projects in progress, and other information. It looked like a technical resource, and certainly one that hadn’t been updated in years.

With an outdated layout, ancient social share buttons and boring font choices, it really looked more like an ancient government website than a resource designed for public consumption.

Above: the old site 

That changes with the redesign. Not only is the site more mainstream-friendly, it more actively encourages participation and involvement from the public.

Unicode is a global technology standard that is one of the core building blocks of the internet,” said Unicode board member Greg Welch, in an announcement about the changes to the site. “Unicode has helped facilitate the work of programmers and linguists from around the world since the 1990s. But with the rise of mobile devices and public enthusiasm for emoji, we knew it was time to redesign the Unicode website to make information more easily accessible, and increase community involvement,” he says.

Above: the Emoji section on the new site

Although the Consortium itself is focused more broadly on developing text standards, their work with emoji now gets the most attention. Today, emoji are used by 92% of the world’s online population, which has put the organization into the spotlight, it says.

The updated site was built with help from a team of designers from Adobe, and features a homepage covered in emoji. The main navigation directs visitors to information about emoji, including how to submit a proposal for a new emoji (which is still not a user-friendly a process), as well as information about “adopting” an emoji — that is, a way to offer a tax-deductible donation to the Unicode Consortium while gaining access to a custom badge you can show off on your own website or social media accounts.

There are currently 136,000 emoji available for “adoption,” the organization notes, including the newly announced additions like the sloth, sea otter, waffle and Saturn.

The new site is definitely more attractive and easier to use, following the redesign. But for those who miss the classic look, it’s still live at http://unicode.org/main.html. (Often, you’ll hit the old site when you click through links from the new one. The redesign only goes so deep, it seems.)

While the redesign is welcome, people in search of information about their favorite emoji — like, how it looks on different platforms, when it was officially added, or what the emoji means, for example — may find the website Emojipedia a better bet.

 

 

July 17th 2019, 2:31 pm

Facebook’s regulation dodge: Let us, or China will

TechCrunch

Facebook is leaning on fears of China exporting its authoritarian social values to counter arguments that it should be broken up or slowed down. Its top executives have each claimed that if the U.S. limits its size, blocks its acquisitions, or bans its cryptocurrency, Chinese company’s absent these restrictions will win abroad, bringing more power and data to their government. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and VP of communications Nick Clegg have all expressed this position.

The latest incarnation of this talking point came in today and yesterday’s congressional hearings over Libra, the Facebook-spearheaded digital currency it hopes to launch in the first half of 2020. Facebook’s head of its blockchain subsidiary Calibra David Marcus wrote in his prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee today that:

“I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will. If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different”

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 16: Head of Facebook’s Calibra David Marcus testifies during a hearing before Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee July 16, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Marcus also told the Senate Banking Subcommittee yesterday that “I believe if we stay put we’re going to be in a situation in 10, 15 years where half the world is on a blockchain technology that is out of reach of our national-security apparatus” .

This argument is designed to counter House-drafted “Keep Big Tech Out Of Finance” legislation that Reuters reports would declare that companies like Facebook that earn over $25 billion in annual revenue “may not establish, maintain, or operate a digital asset . . .  that is intended to be widely used as medium of exchange, unit of account, store of value, or any other similar function.”

The message Facebook is trying to deliver is that cryptocurrencies are inevitable. Blocking Libra would just open the door to even less scrupulous actors controlling the technology. Facebook’s position here isn’t limited to cryptocurrencies, though.

The concept crystallized exactly a year ago when Zuckerberg said “I think you have this question from a policy perspective, which is, do we want American companies to be exporting across the world?” in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher.

“We grew up here, I think we share a lot of values that I think people hold very dear here, and I think it’s generally very good that we’re doing this, both for security reasons and from a values perspective. Because I think that the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies. If we adopt a stance which is that, ‘Okay, we’re gonna, as a country, decide that we wanna clip the wings of these companies and make it so that it’s harder for them to operate in different places, where they have to be smaller,’ then there are plenty of other companies out that are willing and able to take the place of the work that we’re doing.”

When asked if he specifically meant Chinese companies, Zuckerberg doubled down, saying:

“Yeah. And they do not share the values that we have. I think you can bet that if the government hears word that it’s election interference or terrorism, I don’t think Chinese companies are going to wanna cooperate as much and try to aid the national interest there.”

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This April, Zuckerberg went deeper when he described how Facebook would refuse to comply with data localization laws in countries with poor track records on human rights. The CEO explained the risk of data being stored in other countries, which is precisely might happen if regulators hamper Facebook and innovation happens elsewhere. Zuckerberg told philosopher Yuval Harari that:

“When I look towards the future, one of the things that I just get very worried about is the values that I just laid out [for the internet and data] are not values that all countries share. And when you get into some of the more authoritarian countries and their data policies, they’re very different from the kind of regulatory frameworks that across Europe and across a lot of other places, people are talking about or put into place . . . And the most likely alternative to each country adopting something that encodes the freedoms and rights of something like GDPR, in my mind, is the authoritarian model, which is currently being spread, which says every company needs to store everyone’s data locally in data centers and then, if I’m a government, I can send my military there and get access to whatever data I want and take that for surveillance or military.

I just think that that’s a really bad future. And that’s not the direction, as someone who’s building one of these internet services, or just as a citizen of the world, I want to see the world going. If a government can get access to your data, then it can identify who you are and go lock you up and hurt you and your family and cause real physical harm in ways that are just really deep.”

Facebook’s newly hired head of communications Nick Clegg told reporters back in January that:

“These are of course legitimate questions, but we don’t hear so much about China, which combines astonishing ingenuity with the ability to process data on a vast scale without the legal and regulatory constraints on privacy and data protection that we require on both sides of the Atlantic . . .  [and this data could be] put to more sinister surveillance ends, as we’ve seen with the Chinese government’s controversial social credit system.”

In response to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ call that Facebook should be broken up, Clegg wrote in May that “Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account. Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”

He hammered home the alternative the next month during a speech in Berlin:

“If we in Europe and America don’t turn off the white noise and begin to work together, we will sleepwalk into a new era where the internet is no longer a universal space but a series of silos where different countries set their own rules and authoritarian regimes soak up their citizens’ data while restricting their freedom . . . If the West doesn’t engage with this question quickly and emphatically, it may be that it isn’t ours to answer. The common rules created in our hemisphere can become the example the rest of the world follows.”

COO Sheryl Sandberg made the point most directly in an interview with CNBC in May:

“You could break us up, you could break other tech companies up, but you actually don’t address the underlying issues people are concerned about . . . While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States about the size and power of Chinese tech companies and the … realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 5: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Scared Tactics

Indeed, China does not share the United States’ values on individual freedoms and privacy. And yes, breaking up Facebook could weaken its products like WhatsApp, providing more opportunities for apps like Chinese tech giant Tencent’s WeChat to proliferate.

But letting Facebook off the hook won’t solve the problems China’s influence poses to an open and just internet. If Framing the issue as ‘strong regulation lets China win’ creates a false dichotomy. There are more constructive approaches if Zuckerberg seriously wants to work with the government on exporting freedom via the web. And the distrust Facebook has accrued through the mistakes it’s made in the absence of proper regulation arguably do plenty to hurt the perception of how American ideals are spread through its tech companies.

Breaking up Facebook may not be the answer, especially if it’s done in retaliation for its wrong-doings instead of as a coherent way to prevent more in the future. To that end, a better approach might be stopping future acquisitions of large or rapidly growing social networks, forcing it to offer true data portability so existing users have the freedom to switch to competitors, applying proper oversight of its privacy policies, and requiring a slow rollout of Libra with testing in each phase to ensure it doesn’t screw consumers, enable terrorists, or jeopardize the world economy.

Resorting to scare tactics shows that it’s Facebook that’s scared. Years of growth over safety strategy might finally catch up with it. The $5 billion FTC fine is a slap on the wrist for a company that profits more than that per quarter, but a break-up would do real damage. Instead of fear-mongering, Facebook would be better served by working with regulators in good faith while focusing more on preempting abuse. Perhaps it’s politically savvy to invoke the threat of China to stoke the worries of government officials, and it might even be effective. That doesn’t make it right.

July 17th 2019, 2:01 pm

Daily Crunch: Neuralink prepares for brain-computer testing

TechCrunch

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

1. Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Musk said that in the long term, Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

For now, however, the plan is to use a robot that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant threads, which are incredibly thin, deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

2. AI photo editor FaceApp goes viral again on iOS, raises questions about photo library access

In this current wave of virality, some new questions are floating around about FaceApp, like whether it uploads your camera roll in the background. We found no evidence of this, and neither did security researcher and Guardian App CEO Will Strafach or researcher Baptiste Robert.

3. Europe is now formally investigating Amazon’s use of merchant data

European regulators have announced a formal antitrust investigation of Amazon’s use of data from third parties selling on its e-commerce platform.

Lora DiCarlo’s debut product, Osé, set to release this fall. The company says the product is currently undergoing changes and will look different upon release.

4. CES will allow sex tech on a one-year trial basis, and finally bans booth babes

This comes after the CTA royally messed up with sex tech company Lora DiCarlo last year. The CTA revoked an innovation award from the company, only to later re-award it and apologize.

5. Amazon sells over 175M items during Prime Day 2019, more than Black Friday & Cyber Monday combined

While Prime Day 2018 became the biggest sales day in Amazon history, it’s getting harder to directly compare one Prime Day sale with another, because Amazon keeps stretching them out.

6. With help from ‘Game of Thrones,’ HBO conquers Netflix in Emmy nominations

When the Emmy nominations were announced last year, Netflix had a big win, overtaking HBO for the first time. But this year, HBO is back in the lead, with 137 nominations compared to Netflix’s 117.

7. The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

VidCon, the annual summit for social media stars and their fans to meet each other, drew more than 75,000 attendees over the past week. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

July 17th 2019, 2:01 pm

Let CrunchMatch simplify your networking at Disrupt SF 2019

TechCrunch

Set in the city where startup dreams began, TechCrunch’s flagship tech conference — Disrupt San Francisco 2019 — takes place October 2-4. And with more than 10,000 attendees converging on Moscone North Convention Center, the networking possibilities can seem downright daunting. More like a contact sport than a business opportunity, right?

Why waste your valuable time talking to the wrong people? Reap the benefits of simplified networking with CrunchMatch. This free business match-making platform — available to attendees with Innovator, Founder or Investor passes — helps you find and connect with the people who can move your business forward.

How does it all work? Qualified pass holders will be able to access the platform via the Disrupt app to fill out their CrunchMatch profile outlining their specific roles, goals and the type of people they want to meet. Founders, for example, would list category, stage, location, funding status, etc. Investor profiles might include investment categories, preferred funding stage, geographic preferences and the like.

It’s not just for founders and investors. Whether you’re a developer looking for founders, a technology service provider searching for new customers or a startup looking for marketers, CrunchMatch can help you zero in on the right people, too.

CrunchMatch gets to work matching people based on their mutual business interests. It suggests meetings and sends out invitations (which recipients can easily accept or decline). Here’s another real time-saver: CrunchMatch lets you reserve dedicated meeting spaces where you can network in comfort. No more shouting just to be heard.

At a conference this size, an efficient strategic planning tool like CrunchMatch comes in handy. You’ll gain access to the Disrupt app in September, which gives you plenty of time to view the CrunchMatch platform and vet meeting requests before you step foot inside the Moscone Center.

Here’s what Michael Kocan, managing partner at Trend Discovery, had to say about his experience with CrunchMatch:

I scheduled more than 35 meetings with startups that I pre-vetted using CrunchMatch, and we made a significant investment in one of them.

On the other side of the investor/founder coin, Caleb John, co-founder of Cedar Robotics, appreciated the platform’s time-saving efficiency:

CrunchMatch is a great way to pitch your ideas to investors quickly. Instead of approaching each one individually, just type up your pitch and send it to 50 people. Even if only 10 percent get back to you, you still have five investors. It’s one of the best benefits.

Make the most of your time at Disrupt San Francisco 2019. Buy an Innovator, Founder or Investor pass and take advantage of the many networking benefits CrunchMatch has to offer. We’ll see you in October!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt San Francisco 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

July 17th 2019, 1:18 pm

AT&T signs $2 billion cloud deal with Microsoft

TechCrunch

While AWS leads the cloud infrastructure market by wide margin, Microsoft isn’t doing too badly, ensconced firmly in second place, the only other company with double-digit share. Today, it announced a big deal with AT&T that encompasses both Azure cloud infrastructure services and Office 365.

A person with knowledge of the contract pegged the combined deal at a tidy $2 billion, a nice feather in Microsoft’s cloud cap. According to a Microsoft blog post announcing the deal, AT&T has a goal to move most of its non-networking workloads to the public cloud by 2024, and Microsoft just got itself a big slice of that pie, surely one that rivals AWS, Google and IBM (which closed the $34 billion Red Hat deal last week) would dearly have loved to get.

As you would expect, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke of the deal in lofty terms around transformation and innovation. “Together, we will apply the power of Azure and Microsoft 365 to transform the way AT&T’s workforce collaborates and to shape the future of media and communications for people everywhere,” he said in a statement in the blog post announcement.

To that end, they are looking to collaborate on emerging technologies like 5G and believe that by combining Azure with AT&T’s 5G network, the two companies can help customers create new kinds of applications and solutions. As an example cited in the blog post, they could see using the speed of the 5G network combined with Azure AI-powered live voice translation to help first responders communicate with someone who speaks a different language instantaneously.

It’s worth noting that while this deal to bring Office 365 to AT&T’s 250,000 employees is a nice win, that part of the deal falls on the under the SaaS umbrella, so it won’t help with Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure marketshare. Still, any way you slice it, this is a big deal.

July 17th 2019, 12:29 pm

Crowdfunded spacecraft LightSail 2 snaps amazing photos ahead of solar sail deployment

TechCrunch

LightSail 2 may still have at least a few days to go before it begins its primary purpose, by unfurling the solar sail it has on board and finding out more about propelling a spacecraft using only the force of photons, but it’s not wasting any time on its orbital voyage. New photos from the crowdfunded spacecraft, which is operated by The Planetary Society, provide a stunning high-resolution look at the Earth from its unique vantage point.

The spacecraft just got a firmware update that corrected some issues with its orientation control after a test of its solar sailing mode, absent the actual use of the sail itself. The patch was uploaded successfully, according to The Planetary Society, and the spacecraft overall is “healthy and stable” as it stands. The earliest possible date for solar sail deployment is June 21, which is this Sunday, but that’ll depend on the mission team’s confidence in it actually being ready to unfurl and use successfully.

LightSail 2’s development was funded in part via a successful crowdfunding campaign run by the Bill Nye-led Planetary Society, and continues to seek funding for its ongoing operation on Crowdrise. Its goal is to test a spacecraft’s ability to fly powered only by the force of photons from the Sun striking a solar sail constructed of mylar. This method of space-based transportation is extremely slow to get started, but thanks to the inertia-free medium of outer space, it could be an extremely energy-efficient way for research craft to travel long distances.

It launched on June 25 as part of the shared payload of SpaceX’s most recent Falcon Heavy launch.

July 17th 2019, 12:29 pm

How much HR does a scale-up need?

TechCrunch

There is a special chaos that happens when a startup reaches 30 employees. People have a harder time tracking what’s going on, and it’s easy for some to feel left out or ignored.

Right when you want employees focusing on taking the company to the next level, they’re suddenly focused on their own futures. Insecurities and politics can abound, and the work can suffer.

How to stop the madness? In my experience, it all comes down to structure. It might seem early, or scary to a company used to succeeding on grit, but 30 is a key time to begin putting processes into place.

You’re no longer 10 people sitting around a table together, and communication can start to break down. Looking to large companies is no help either. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of frameworks, and you don’t want to overwhelm your team.

What steps can you take to keep things on track and scale effectively? How much is too much?

My company, Bright + Early, works with companies at exactly this stage, helping them grow up without losing the culture that makes them special. For a company just on the verge of scaling, here’s what I recommend.

Values

July 17th 2019, 12:29 pm

In-space shuttle service, Momentus, raises $25.5 million as investments climb for “new space” tech

TechCrunch

With commercial launch services expected to reach $7 billion by 2024, there’s increasing demand for an array of new technologies that can offer advantages to companies looking to get communications infrastructure in orbit.

That’s one of the reasons behind the new $25.5 million financing for Momentus, which sells in-space shuttle services to move satellites between orbits.

The company joins other satellite and telecommunications technology vendors like Akash Systems, which raised $14.5 million for its advanced telecommunications chipsets used in satellites, that have raised money from investors who are looking beyond basic launch services.

A motley assortment of venture capital firms, hedge funds family offices and other institutional investors came in to finance the new round of funding for Momentus including:  Y Combinator, the Lerner Family, the University of Wyoming Foundation, Quiet Capital, Mountain Nazca, ACE & Co., Liquid 2 Ventures, and Drake Management. The financing was led by Prime Movers Lab.

With $34 million in funding to date, Momentus said it will use its new cash to continue the development of its two shuttles designed to move payloads between different orbits. As the space in space fills up, the ability to maneuver payloads once they reach low earth orbit will become more important.

“In the past 18 months, Momentus has rapidly matured their water plasma propulsion system to deliver the world’s safest and most affordable in-space transportation services. They recently launched their first demonstration and are on track to radically reshape the landscape of the space economy,” said Dakin Sloss, Founder, and General Partner at Prime Movers Lab, in a statement. “I look forward to Momentus delivering on their massive backlog of contracts and partnerships with NASA, SpaceX and other top players in the space ecosystem.”

A backlog of contracts is impressive, but the down payment on a potential flight is minimal compared to the ability to get on a vehicle, so companies tend to spread the wealth.

The money will also pay for building in house research and development for the company’s technology and additional flight demonstrations throughout 2020, according to Momentus chief executive Mikhail Kokorich. The company expects to generate its first revenue next year as well, Kokorich said.

The company has three flights scheduled for 2020.

July 17th 2019, 12:29 pm

Spotify partners with Disney on a new streaming hub aimed at families

TechCrunch

In an effort likely aimed at boosting family memberships, Spotify this morning announced a new partnership with Disney on the creation of a Disney Hub on its streaming service. Here, Disney fans in select markets including the U.S. will find a selection of Disney playlists like soundtracks from Disney, Pixar and Marvel movies, Star Wars instrumentals, classics, sing-alongs and more.

The Disney Hub is also live in the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It can be discovered by doing a search for “Disney” in the Spotify app.

Disney songs in particular appeal to families with children, and Spotify memberships that offer multiple profiles for both parents and kids alike are of more value to the streaming service. For example, Spotify Premium in the U.S. is $9.99 per month, but the Family membership is $14.99 per month. Of course, kids could just listen in under mom or dad’s account, but every parent knows that ruins one of Spotify’s best value propositions — its personalized playlists, like Discover Weekly.

Though Spotify isn’t always thought of as a family service, that’s increasingly changing as kids get their own devices at earlier ages, and music streaming because commonplace in the car and in the home, via smart speakers — often placed in kids’ rooms.

Spotify says Disney songs are popular on its service, with users having streamed over 2 billion minutes of Disney music this year so far. The top song to date is still “Let it Go” from Frozen, but Disney’s new slate of remakes is helping push others up the charts, with “A Whole New World” from the live-action Aladdin now the most-repeated song in the past month.

The Disney Hub will also include the following playlists:

It’s worth noting, too, that Spotify already has a close partnership with Hulu, which is now majority-owned by Disney. In the past, the companies have offered a Hulu-Spotify bundle at a discounted price to gain more subscribers. In March 2019, for example, the two launched an even more steeply discounted bundle than before, at $9.99 per month for both — or effectively Spotify Premium with Hulu for free.

As for Disney, working with Spotify can help it build interest in its new movies by creating more of a connection with fans. Spotify notes that the Disney Hub will, in fact, continue to be updated with music as more Disney films launch over the course of the summer and the rest of the year.

 

 

July 17th 2019, 11:57 am

Fifth Wall Ventures raises $503M for second real estate fund

TechCrunch

Fifth Wall Ventures, an investor in Clutter, b8ta, ClassPass, Lime and others, has raised $503 million for its sophomore venture capital fund.

The firm, which closed on $212 million for its debut fund in May 2017, prefers to invest in the burgeoning real estate industry but has made opportunistic investments in other sectors.

The Los Angeles firm counts real estate owners as limited partners, as well as a number of global partners including U.S.-based Cushman & Wakefield, Japan’s Mitsubishi Estate, and the U.K.s’ British Land and SEGRO.

“Fifth Wall sees powerful network effects in our unique fund model as it becomes a centralized platform for the world’s largest real estate companies to share insights and access new technologies to enhance their businesses,” Fifth Wall managing partner Brendan Wallace said. “For our entrepreneurs, Fifth Wall efficiently opens distribution channels for their products to more than 50 corporate strategic investors globally and we have dedicated a team to support the success of those partnerships and integrations.”

July 17th 2019, 11:44 am

VidCon, seed-stage dilution, advertising, privacy, and building a career in design

TechCrunch

The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

Extra Crunch media columnist Eric Peckham took part in all the craziness that has become VidCon this past week, where 75,000 influencers, YouTubers, advertisers, and more congregate in one place to see how many likes they all can generate (and I guess to discuss business strategy). This year, there were voluminous discussions about the rise of Chinese social media giant ByteDance’s TikTok as well as the future dangers and opportunities of synthetic media — deepfakes and also fictional influencers.

Eric has all the details of what was interesting from the conference in an exclusive conference wrap-up for Extra Crunch.

One of the use cases for synthetic media is the creation of “virtual influencers” — computer-generated characters whose social media accounts engage real people online and gain a large following. This remains a novelty rather than a mainstream trend, but it is on the mind of a number of people I spoke to.

Charlie Buffin co-manages (human) social media stars but is also developing virtual influencers like Cade Harper and Pippa Pei that post content with each other and with real human influencers. He explained to me that the opportunity is to own the original IP of these characters and craft storylines between them, plus for real-life influencers to create virtual representations of themselves that can engage fans in more ways.

What seed-stage dilution tells us about changing investor expectations

Scale Venture Partners operating partner Dale Chang discusses one of the major trends in seed financing: the rising dilution of early-stage rounds of capital. From there, he then investigates how those changes at the seed stage are changing expectations for Series A and B rounds.

July 17th 2019, 11:14 am

Amazon sells over 175M items during Prime Day 2019, more than Black Friday & Cyber Monday combined

TechCrunch

Amid worker protests and antitrust investigations, Amazon’s Prime Day sales event carried on as usual — and that means it again set new records for the online retailer. This time, Amazon says Prime Day 2019 was bigger than both Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, as Prime members purchased more than 175 million items during the event.

While last year’s Prime Day 2018 became the biggest sales day in Amazon history, it’s getting harder to directly compare one Prime Day sale with another, because Amazon keeps stretching them out.

Prime Day 2019, for example, was a full 48-hour sale, up from 36 hours last year and 30 hours the year before.

What we are able to tell, however, is that people will continue to shop as long as there are bargains being offered. During Prime Day 2018’s 36-hour sale, Prime members bought 100 million items. During this year’s 48-hour sale, members purchased over 175 million items. (Neither calculation includes Whole Foods sales.)

Amazon has also succeeded in making Prime Day bigger than its Black Friday online sales, thanks to its deep discounts — often at cost or below — on its own hardware devices, like the popular Echo speakers or Fire TV.

This year’s two-day sale was larger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2018 sales put together, Amazon says.

The retailer also notes that Prime Day was the biggest sales event for Amazon devices. Again, the top-sellers worldwide continued to be the Echo Dot, Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote, and the Fire TV Stick 4K with Alexa Voice Remote. The Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick were top-selling devices yesterday, and it’s not surprising to see them again win this title as they have for several years in a row.

The Echo Dot, in particular, hit its lowest-ever price point of $22 and was bundled in with some other Alexa device deals, almost as a giveaway.

“We want to thank Prime members all around the world,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a statement. “Members purchased millions of Alexa-enabled devices, received tens of millions of dollars in savings by shopping from Whole Foods Market and bought more than $2 billion of products from independent small and medium-sized businesses. Huge thank you to Amazonians everywhere who made this day possible for customers.”

In addition, Amazon claims a record number of U.S. Prime members shopped the site during Prime Day. But given the sale length and the growth in membership — there are now over 100 million worldwide members — this is not the most difficult milestone to achieve.

In the U.S., Prime member bought more than 100,000 lunchboxes, 100,000 laptops, 200,000 TVs, 300,000 headphones, 350,000 luxury beauty products, 400,000 pet products, 650,000 household cleaning supplies, and more than one million toys, says Amazon. They also bought over 200,000 LifeStraw Personal Water Filters and 150,000 Crest 3D White Professional Effects Whitestrips Kits, and saved “tens of millions” by shopping Amazon-owned Whole Foods.

Other top sellers in the U.S. included the Instant Pot DUO60 and 23andMe Health + Ancestry kits.

Amazon also sold millions of smart home devices, including iRobot Roomba 690 Robot Vacuum, MyQ Smart Garage Door Opener Chamberlain MYQ-G0301, and Amazon Smart Plug. It doubled the sales of the Ring and Blink devices, as well as Fire TV Edition TVs, versus last year, when comparing a two-day period. It sold 6x the number of eero devices compared with any other prior sale. And it sold more than ever Fire tablets, Kindle devices, and Alexa with screens (Echo Show and Echo Show 5.)

The largest and most important aspect to Prime Day is not ultimately the sales themselves, but the Prime memberships. This locks in consumers to Amazon’s e-commerce ecosystem for a year, and gives Amazon a chance to win their loyalty when it comes time to resubscribe.

This year, Prime Day’s effect on new subscriptions also improved, with Amazon signing up more new Prime members on July 15 than on any other day ever, and July 16 nearly hit that milestone as well.

In total, Amazon says Prime members worldwide saved over a billion dollars on purchases, and millions of items shipped in one day or faster.

 

July 17th 2019, 11:14 am

FaceApp responds to privacy concerns

TechCrunch

FaceApp, the AI-powered selfie-editing app that’s been having another viral moment of late, has now responded to a privacy controversy that we covered earlier here.

We’ve pasted the company’s full statement at the bottom of this post.

The tl;dr here is that concerns had been raised that FaceApp, a Russian startup, uploads users’ photos to the cloud — without making it clear to them that processing is not going on locally on their device.

Another issue raised by FaceApp users was that the iOS app appears to be overriding settings if a user had denied access to their camera roll, after people reported they could still select and upload a photo — i.e. despite the app not having permission to access their photos.

As we reported earlier, the latter is actually allowed behavior in iOS — which gives users the power to choose to block an app from full camera roll access but select individual photos to upload if they so wish.

This isn’t a conspiracy, though Apple could probably come up with a better way of describing the permission, as we suggested earlier.

On the wider matter of cloud processing of what is, after all, facial data, FaceApp confirms that most of the processing needed to power its app’s beautifying/gender-bending/age-accerating/-defying effects are done in the cloud.

Though it claims it only uploads photos users have specifically selected for editing. Security tests have also not found evidence the app uploads a user’s entire camera roll.

FaceApp goes on to specify that it “might” store the photos users have chosen to upload in the cloud for a short period, claiming this is done for “performance and traffic” — such as to make sure that a user doesn’t repeatedly upload the same photo to carry out another edit.

“Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date,” it adds.

It also claims no user data is “transferred to Russia”, even though its R&D team is based there. So the suggestion is that storage and cloud processing are being performed using infrastructure based outside Russia. (We’ve asked it to confirm where this is done. Update: Founder Yaroslav Goncharov told us it uses AWS and Google Cloud.)

“We don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties,” it adds.

FaceApp also says users can request their data is deleted. Though it doesn’t yet have a very smooth way to do this — instead it asks users to send delete requests via the mobile app using “Settings->Support->Report a bug” with the word “privacy” in the subject line, adding that it’s “working on a better UI for that”.

It also points out that the vast majority of FaceApp users don’t log in — making the point that it’s not able to link photos to identities in most cases.

Here’s its statement in full:

We are receiving a lot of inquiries regarding our privacy policy and therefore, would like to provide a few points that explain the basics:

1. FaceApp performs most of the photo processing in the cloud. We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing. We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud.

2. We might store an uploaded photo in the cloud. The main reason for that is performance and traffic: we want to make sure that the user doesn’t upload the photo repeatedly for every edit operation. Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date.

3. We accept requests from users for removing all their data from our servers. Our support team is currently overloaded, but these requests have our priority. For the fastest processing, we recommend sending the requests from the FaceApp mobile app using “Settings->Support->Report a bug” with the word “privacy” in the subject line. We are working on the better UI for that.

4. All FaceApp features are available without logging in, and you can log in only from the settings screen. As a result, 99% of users don’t log in; therefore, we don’t have access to any data that could identify a person.

5. We don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties.

6. Even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia.

Additionally, we’d like to comment on one of the most common concerns: all pictures from the gallery are uploaded to our servers after a user grants access to the photos (for example, https://twitter.com/joshuanozzi/status/1150961777548701696).  We don’t do that. We upload only a photo selected for editing. You can quickly check this with any of network sniffing tools available on the internet.

July 17th 2019, 11:14 am

ClassPass introduces a corporate wellness program

TechCrunch

ClassPass has set up yet another revenue stream, signing on partners like Facebook, Glossier, Google, Morgan Stanley, Under Armour, Etsy, Southwest Airlines and Gatorade to a corporate wellness program.

The program will give employees at these companies access to the ClassPass network of more than 22,000 studio partners across 2500 cities around the world, which includes studio brands like Barry’s Bootcamp, Flywheel Sports, and CorePower Yoga. Corporate partners also get access to a ‘large library’ of on-demand audio and video workouts.

This comes after ClassPass retooled the ClassPass Live product, in which it invested the resources to build out a new live broadcast studio, and rebuilt it into a library of on-demand video workouts.

The company launched ClassPass Live in 2018 with the hopes that users could workout from home within the ClassPass ecosystem. CEO Fritz Lanman told TechCrunch in June that the company stopped doing live classes in April 2019 and repackaged the content into free, on-demand video classes.

According to the release, one of the issues with corporate wellness programs is that HR departments have to patch together programs based on the regions in which their companies have offices/employees. ClassPass argues that its scale across the country, and in 17 other countries, gives it an edge with corporations who have global workforces.

Moreover, the ClassPass corporate wellness program only charges employers when employees actually use the service, and allows employers to reward good behaviors (going to a certain number of classes per month) by offering additional credits toward ClassPass experiences.

Here’s what Lanman had to say about it in a prepared statement:

The ClassPass Corporate Program enables employers of all sizes to offer the world’s most extensive, one-stop fitness and wellness program to their employees worldwide. ClassPass is the best fitness program ever created for consumers. With this launch, it’s now also the best fitness program ever created for employers and their employees.

July 17th 2019, 10:44 am

10x Ascend aims to help tech talent with job negotiations

TechCrunch

10x Ascend is a new firm that helps software development, cybersecurity and data science professionals negotiate for better deals.

Founders Michael Solomon and Rishon Blumberg started out in talent management for the music industry (their clients still include musicians like Vanessa Carlton), then moved into representing tech freelancers with their firm 10x Management. More recently, they decided that there was an opportunity to provide similar services to full-time employees.

Given the rising demand for tech talent (the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that software development roles will grow by 31 percent through 2026), you might think that developers and engineers can get anything they want when they’re look for a job.

However, Blumberg suggested that many of these prospective hires simply don’t feel comfortable asking for what they want or what they’re worth — whether that’s more money, more equity, more flexibility in working from home, more vacation or anything else that’s important to them. He also pointed out that there’s no one else representing the employee’s interest in these discussions, since the recruiter ultimately works for the employer.

“Even though technologists are data-driven people who work in data-driven environments, they don’t negotiate that much,” Blumberg said.

So 10x Ascend can help, either by getting directly involved in the negotiations, or by advising prospective hires on things like counter-offers. (It’s not doing this in secret — Solomon said that either way, “We want the employer to know that we’re involved.”)

The firm is spinning out of 10x Management, and it’s been testing the model out through a beta program. It says it’s already helped nearly 50 senior tech executives negotiate their job offers, increasing their compensation by an average of 35% — and as much as 100% in some cases.

In exchange, 10x Ascend collects between 6% and 8% of first-year salaries (the percent is lower for high-level jobs), starting with a $3,500 retainer.

Even though the firm is compensated based on salary, Solomon said that was simply the “cleanest” approach, and he emphasized that 10x Ascend isn’t just pushing clients to take the highest paying offer. In fact, it’s created a free lifestyle calculator that helps people identify their priorities, whether that’s salary, job logistics, work-life balance and so on, which then informs the negotiations.

Blumberg also acknowledged that there’s been an “education” process with employers. He suggested that while engineers are sometimes nervous that they’ll blow a job offer by asking for too much, it’s actually helpful to have a third party who can take some of the heat.

“They can say, ‘That was my stupid advisor,'” Blumberg said. “We’re happy to be the bad cop.”

He also said that in some cases, employers are ultimately grateful to have 10x Ascend involved, as it helps them figure out packages that are more likely to attract and retain talent — which may mean offering more money, but could also mean creating more “bespoke” deals that provide flexibility or compensation in other areas. (You can read more about some of the negotiations on the 10x Ascend website.)

Given the name of the firm and the timing of the launch, I had to bring up the recent discussion around “10x engineers,” which led to some delightful social media backlash. Blumberg said he hadn’t been aware of the latest controversy, but he pointed out that this is a longstanding discussion. And inasmuch as “10x engineers” exist, he suggested that they have team skills and emotional intelligence as much as technical skills.

“That doesn’t mean writing 10x lines of code or being 10x as fast,” Solomon added. “But we have definitely seen people who produce 10x results.”

July 17th 2019, 10:44 am

Dust Identity secures $10M Series A to identify objects with diamond dust

TechCrunch

The idea behind Dust Identity was originally born in an MIT lab where students developed a system of uniquely identifying objects using diamond dust. Since then, the startup has been working to create a commercial application for the advanced technology, and today it announced a $10 million Series A round led by Kleiner Perkins, which also led its $2.3 million seed round last year.

Airbus Ventures and Lockheed Martin Ventures, New Science Ventures, Angular Ventures and Castle Island Ventures also participated in the round. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $12.3 million.

The company has an unusual idea of applying a thin layer of diamond dust to an object with the goal of proving that object has not been tampered with. While using diamond dust may sound expensive, the company told TechCrunch last year at the time of its seed round funding that it uses low-cost industrial diamond waste, rather than the expensive variety you find in jewelry stores.

As CEO and co-founder Ophir Gaathon told TechCrunch last year, “Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it’s actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly.”

Ilya Fushman, who is leading the investment for Kleiner, says the company is offering a unique approach to identity and security for objects. “At a time when there is a growing trust gap between manufacturers and suppliers, Dust Identity’s diamond particle tag provides a better solution for product authentication and supply chain security than existing technologies,” he said in a statement.

The presence of strategic investors Airbus and Lockheed Martin shows that big industrial companies see a need for advanced technology like this in the supply chain. It’s worth noting that the company partnered with enterprise computing giant SAP last year to provide a blockchain interface for physical objects, where they store the Dust Identity identifier on the blockchain. Although, the startup has a relationship with SAP, it remains blockchain agnostic, according to a company spokesperson.

While it’s still early days for the company, it has attracted the attention from a broad range of investors and intends to use the funding to continue building and expanding the product in the coming year. To this point, it has implemented pilot programs and early deployments across a range of industries including automotive, luxury goods, cosmetics and oil, gas and utilities

July 17th 2019, 10:12 am

Peer-to-peer car sharing marketplace Turo raises $250M at over $1B valuation from IAC

TechCrunch

Car-sharing startup Turo has raised $250 million in a Series E round of funding from IAC, the internet media company that owned and spun out Match.com, and OKCupid. This round pushes Turn into Unicorn territory, with its valuation now “past the billion-dollar” mark according to Turo CEO Andre Haddad.

This late round of funding brings the company’s total to nearly $450 million, raised across multiple rounds since its founding as Relay Rides in 2009. The company plans to use the investment to fuel its growth, further refine the customer experience aspect of its product and generally support its overall mission of increasing utilization rates for the over one billion cars currently estimated to be on the road around the world today.

IAC makes sense as a strategic partner for Turo because of its proven track record of helping companies scale to “household name” recognition status, Haddad said in a blog post. The company now has almost 400,000 vehicles available on the platform, with over 10 million users across both those listing their cars and those renting. Turo says its growth rate overall has been at around 2x over the past two years, and at 8x in its bourgeoning international markets, including the UK and Germany (where it took over Daimler’s car-sharing business alongside a strategic investment deal and officially launched last year).

July 17th 2019, 10:12 am

Google’s Area 120 launches Byteboard to improve technical interviews

TechCrunch

Area 120, Google’s lab for experimental projects, is launching Byteboard today, a new tool that aims to make the technical interview experience less tedious and more effective. The team argues that today’s interview process for software engineers just doesn’t cut it since it doesn’t really measure how well somebody would do in a day-to-day engineering job. Instead, it does a good job of figuring out how well somebody can remember material from an advanced algorithm class and then repeat that in a whiteboard session.

“Between day jobs and family responsibilities, the current technical interview process is anxiety-inducing and burdensome for candidates — benefiting those who have the time and resources to prepare, while creating a barrier for those who do not,” said Sargun Kaur, the General Manager for Byteboard. “So despite companies investing 7 to 9 hours per person on interviewing, they miss out on great, capable talent by testing for memorization instead of practical application of skills.”

Byteboard replaces this old-fashioned process with an identity-blind, project-based evaluation process that highlights real-world skills that will be used on the job. To do this, Byteboard presents the interviewees with a real-world coding environment, for example, and candidates can choose between their own coding environment or Byteboard’s embedded web editor. Supported languages include Java, Python, Ruby, C++, C# JavaScript (node.js) and Go.

Employees can customize what domains they want candidates to work on, Kaur said. To do this, the team works with each employer to understand what they are looking for.

It’s worth noting that Google isn’t the first to do this, though this project does fit in well with the company’s recent focus on job search tools. HackerRank and others already offer employers similar tools for evaluating candidates. Kaur argues that Byteboard is different, though.

“Most other technical interview platforms focus on digitizing the traditional approach to technical interviews, which primarily tests for understanding of overly theoretical concepts,” he told me. “This still unfairly benefits those who have the time and resources to prepare for these interviews that over-index on algorithms and data structures and doesn’t allow companies to accurately assess how likely a candidate is to succeed in their job. The Byteboard interview is designed to simulate what engineers actually do on the job, asking candidates to work on a project from its design to implementation.”

The results are then assessed by a group of highly experienced engineers who have been trained to review each interview — after it has been anonymized — and rate it according to a set of rubrics that evaluate about 20 software engineering skills.

Google stresses that the evaluation process is anonymous, which will hopefully take most of the bias out of at least the early interview process.

The team also notes that some companies that have already tested the service have been able to replace all of their pre-onsite interviews with Byteboard interviews. Betterment, for example, has used it to interview over 50 engineering candidates and found that 86 percent of the candidates that made it through the process were “strong candidates.”

July 17th 2019, 10:12 am

Uber riders now earn rewards for shopping during their trip with new Cargo app

TechCrunch

Uber is launching a new shopping app with commerce partner Cargo, a startup it signed an exclusive global partnership with last year. The app will feature items curated by Uber including products like Nintendo Switch, Apple hardware, Away luggage, Glossier cosmetics and more, and will be available to download for Uber riders making trips in cars that have Cargo consoles on board. The Cargo app will also provide in-ride entertainment, including movies from Universal Studios available to purchase for between $5 and $10 each (with bundle discounts for multiple movies), which are then viewable in the Movies Anywhere app.

Uber riders will also benefit by receiving 10 percent of their purchase value back in Uber Cash, which they can then use either on future trips, or on other purchases made through the Cargo app while riding. Uber drivers also benefit, earning 25 percent of the value of items purchased from the Cargo Box in-car, and an additional $1 for each first purchase by a passenger through the new app.

Riders just need to grab the iOS or Android app and then scan the QR code located on the Cargo Box in their driver’s car. Cargo’s app only allows purchases while on the trip, and then the item will be automatically shipped to a rider’s home address for free with an estimated delivery time of between two and five business days.

This tie-up is a natural evolution for Uber’s business – the company hosts millions of riders every week, and many of those are taking relatively long trips to and from airports and other transit hubs, which provides ample opportunity to get them buying stuff or watching purchased content. Cargo, in which Uber has some equity stake, has a good opportunity to figure out how best to make the most of those trips.

This is hardly without precedent – airlines have attempted to capture consumer interest in the skies with onboard duty-free and other sales, as well as content for purchase. The big question will be whether Uber and Cargo together can provide enough additional purchase incentive vs. riders just opening the Amazon app or whatever other commerce options they have available on their own personal devices to make it a sustainable extension of their business.

July 17th 2019, 9:58 am

Snyk brings in new CEO to help lead future expansion

TechCrunch

Startup founders typically face a management challenge. They often began their careers in technical engineering jobs, and are thrust into the CEO role when starting a company. Sometimes it makes sense to bring in a more experienced executive to guide a fast-growing startup, and that is what Snyk announced it’s doing today, shifting founder/CEO Guy Podjarny to president and chairman of the board, while bringing in board member and investor Peter McKay as CEO.

Over the past 18 months the company has grown significantly moving from just 18 employees to 150 as its open source software development approach to security has taken hold in the marketplace. McKay is someone who makes sense for the job given he has been involved with the company as an investor since its early days, and has known Podjarny in various roles for 15 years. The two talked about having a good working relationship, something that Podjarny said was essential to this transition.

“I think I would be going through many sleepless nights if I was bringing just somebody we interviewed into the company for a role like this at a time like this,” he said. He added that having known and worked with McKay for so long has helped ease the role changes.

As important as the working relationship between the two is going to be, McKay brings an executive pedigree that includes stints as co-CEO at Veeam and general manager of Americas at VMware, where he managed an operation with $4 billion in annual revenue.

McKay says that he and Podjarny have had many conversations about how they will handle their new roles moving forward. “Guy and I have spent a great deal of time talking through a lot of [issues] before we ever said that we were going to move forward with this change,” he said. He added, “We wanted to make sure we’re aligned on how we would handle decisions. We want to be aligned on how we handle things like diversity, how we handle things like empowering and core company values,” he said.

As for Podjarny, he says this move allows him to return to a more technical function, and the two will take advantage of each other’s strengths as they move into these new roles. “Peter brings in extensive large-scale management experience, experience with markets. This is experience that I don’t have, but which naturally complements my product vision and community leadership skills,” he explained.

As a startup grows, picking the right leader to guide the company into the future is a tricky decision, and one that Podjarny and McKay did not take lightly. In spite of their long relationship, they recognize there will be challenges ahead as company founder and board member/investor take on new roles, but they believe that this is the best decision for the company to develop and grow moving forward. Time will tell if they are right.

July 17th 2019, 9:13 am

Amazon amends seller terms worldwide after German antitrust action

TechCrunch

Amazon has agreed to make a raft of changes to the business terms it offers sellers on its marketplaces following an intervention by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (FCO).

The regulator instigated an investigation in November last year after receiving a large number of complaints from sellers pertaining to Amazon’s German marketplace, amazon.de: The largest of the company’s five European marketplaces.

Among the changes the ecommerce giant has agreed to make are amendments to its liability provisions towards sellers to bring it into line with European standards for b2b relations, and changes to account termination and blocking to remove its unlimited right to do so without justification — meaning ordinary account terminations will in future require 30 days notice.

In a statement, Amazon said:

We are making several changes to the Amazon Services Business Solutions Agreement to clarify selling partner rights and responsibilities. The changes will become effective August 16th. 58% of the physical gross merchandise sales on Amazon are from third-party sellers, and we’ll continue working hard, investing heavily, and inventing new tools and services to help our selling partners around the world reach new customers and grow their business.

The company has also agreed to remove exclusivity of court of jurisdiction, meaning European sellers with a dispute against it may not only be able to instigate legal proceedings in Luxembourg but could, under certain conditions, be able to take it to a domestic court in future.

Other changes include reductions to confidentiality requirements Amazon has used to bind what sellers can say about it in public; product information rights and quality requirements; and over product reviews and seller ratings.

The new business terms, which will come into effect in 30 days times, will apply not just to all Amazon’s European marketplaces but also to its marketplaces worldwide, including in North American and Asia.

In a press release detailing what the FCO bills as the “far-reaching improvements” it has obtained in Amazon’s terms for sellers, it confirms the amendments conclude its proceedings against the company.

“The amendments address the numerous complaints about Amazon that the [FCO] received from sellers,” said president, Andreas Mundt, in a statement. “They concern the unilateral exclusion of liability to Amazon’s benefit, the termination and blocking of sellers’ accounts, the court of jurisdiction in case of a dispute, the handling of product information and many other issues.

“With our proceedings we have obtained far-reaching improvements for sellers active on Amazon marketplaces worldwide. The proceedings are now terminated.”

Also today Reuters reports that Austria’s regulator has also dropped a separate competition investigation of Amazon’s business as a result of the amended business terms.

Despite settling probes by EU Member States, Amazon is still facing antitrust scrutiny in the region, with the European Commission today announcing a formal investigation of how it handles merchant data.

The pan-EU competition regulator has the power to levy major fines if it determines the bloc’s rules have been broken, as well as to order a cessation of any infringing behavior — backed by the threat of additional fines for continued violation.

The FCO notes it refrained from placing further requirements on Amazon regarding the rules for product reviews in today’s settlement in light of this ongoing Commission inquiry, as well as in view of a current sector inquiry it’s conducting into online user reviews. So there could be further changes to Amazon’s terms coming down the pipe as a result of ongoing investigations. 

New EU rules intended to regulate the fairness and transparency of online platform businesses are also looming — and likely concentrating minds at Bezos HQ — having been agreed by EU institutions earlier this year.

The platform regulation will likely come into force across Europe before the end of next year.

July 17th 2019, 9:13 am

DJI introduces a Ronin stabilizer for mirrorless cameras

TechCrunch

The camera stabilizer has been an interesting piece of DJI’s product play. A kind of offshoot of the company’s advanced drone-based imaging systems, the Ronin line has allowed it to appeal to photographers and videographers of the terrestrial variety. And as with its drone line, the accessories have grown at an impressive rate, becoming one of the key de facto choices for professional filmmakers.

The Ronin-SC, finds DJI branching out further, with an offering designed for novices looking to up their shooting game. The product sits somewhere between the line’s high end SLR models and entry level products like the smartphone-friendly Osmo Mobile and Pocket.

The device targets mirrorless camera owners — a no-brainer as the most rapidly growing category in the consumer imaging space. Designed for smaller cameras, the stabilizer itself is also smaller and lighter. It’s cheaper, too, starting at $439 for the standalone device. In spite of this, the gimbal is actually more capable than the higher-end Ronins, incorporating a number of smarts developed for drones like the Mavic line.

We happened to be at the company’s Shenzhen office this week, ahead of the launch and were able to take the product for a spin in person. As with most of DJI’s other offerings, we were pretty impressed with what the product can do. Among the more compelling on-board features is the addition of Force Mobile. A consumer-focused version of the Force Pro, the feature syncs mobile phone movements up to the gimbal.

Users can mount a smartphone on a tripod or more it manual and the Ronin will move accordingly. The feature works up to 82 feet away, so a second user can control the direction of the lens while the first moves around the camera. Users can also change the direction of a stationary Ronin seated on a desktop.

Active Track 3.0 has been borrowed from the drone line, as well. Here a deep learning algorithm helps the device track subjects. The addition brings some of the ease of user from DJI’s Mavic line to the product for easier one person shots. A DJI rep also demonstrated the ease with with the shooter can walk forward, camera facing behind them, with losing the subject in the process. Other app-connected features borrowed from the drone line include Motionlapse, Time-lapse and Panorama.

The hardware itself is essentially a scaled down version of previous Ronins, with features designed from single-handed use. The Ronin-SC is available starting today for $439 or $539 for a more deluxe version that brings additional pro features like an external focus motor and a Remote Start Stop splitter.

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July 17th 2019, 9:13 am

Another 2.2 million patients affected by AMCA data breach

TechCrunch

Another clinical lab ensnared in the AMCA data breach has come forward.

Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) says 2.2 million patients may have had their names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, dates of service, balance information and treatment provider information stolen in the previously-reported breach.

Another 34,500 patients had their credit card or banking information compromised.

The breach was limited to U.S. residents, the company said.

CPL blamed the AMCA, which it and other labs used to process payments for their patients, for not providing more details on the breach when it was disclosed in June.

“At the time of AMCA’s initial notification, AMCA did not provide CPL with enough information for CPL to identify potentially affected patients or confirm the nature of patient information potentially involved in the incident, and CPL’s investigation is on-going,” said the company in a statement.

LabCorp was first hit with 7.7 million patients affected, then 11.9 million Quest Diagnostics patients were next. BioReference Laboratories pushed the breach over the 20 million mark.

Then, AMCA filed for bankruptcy protection amid several class action suits.

Several lawmakers have since contacted both Quest and LabCorp, two of the biggest laboratories in the U.S. to demand answers about the breach and why it went undetected for close to a year.

Read more:

July 17th 2019, 8:57 am

Nintendo introduces a Switch model refresh with better battery life

TechCrunch

Nintendo already announced an entirely new Switch console this month, the Switch Lite, and now it’s bumping some of the specs on the existing Switch with a slightly updated version, spotted by The Verge. This update improves the hardware right where it counts when it comes to Switch portable playing power.

The new model will provide between 4.5 and 9 hours of battery life, depending on use, which is a big bump from the 2.5 to 6.5 hour rating on the original hardware that’s been offered to date. This is likely an improvement derived from a change in the processor used in the console, as well as more power-efficient memory, both of which were detailed in an FCC filing from last week.

Nintendo’s official Switch comparison page lists the models with improved battery life as model number ‘HAC-001(-01), with the bracketed addition distinguishing it from the original. You can check the version based on the serial number, with XKW preceding the newer hardware, and XAW starting off serials for the older, less power efficient version. No word on a specific street date, but if you’re in the market it’s worth taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to ensure this battery boosted hardware is the one you get.

In all other respects the two Switch models appear to be similar, if not identical, so it’s probably not enough of a change to get anyone considering an upgrade, unless the battery life on your current version really seems to fall about two hours short of your ideal play session length on average.

July 17th 2019, 8:57 am

Ebix to acquire Indian travel company Yatra for $337.8M

TechCrunch

Atlanta-based software firm Ebix said today it is acquiring online travel booking company Yatra through a merger deal at an enterprise value of $337.8 million as they look to strengthen their position in India and footprints worldwide. Once the acquisition has completed, Yatra will become part of Ebix’s EbixCash travel portfolio — which also includes Via and Mumbai-based Mercury — and will continue to serve customers under the Yatra brand, the two companies said.

Yatra, which went public in 2016 following a reverse-merger with a listed company, Terrapin 3 Acquisition Corporation, counts Reliance Industries-owned Network18 and Reliance Capital, Macquarie Group and Rotation Capital among its shareholders. Yatra posted a revenue of $31.7 million in Q4 2018. It had about 800 corporate clients as of earlier this year.

The combined entity will leverage Yatra’s large and loyal existing customer base, comprehensive service offering and multi-channel platform to take advantage of the dynamic and growing multibillion-dollar opportunity in India, the companies said in a joint statement.

The announcement follows months of negotiations between the two firms. In March, Ebix offered to buy Yatra for $336 million, adding that it might reduce its offer size if Yatra does not accept it soon enough.

Ebix, which develops software solutions for insurance, financial, and healthcare industries, said it is targeting an EbixCash IPO in the second quarter of next year. “The synergies and the cross-selling opportunities can create tremendous economic value for the shareholders, once the IPO is done,” the companies said.

In a statement, Dhruv Shringi, cofounder and CEO of Yatra, said, “Becoming a part of Ebix’s EbixCash travel portfolio will enable us to continue on that path. As part of a larger diversified organization with the necessary scale and resources to be a leader in today’s dynamic travel marketplace, we will provide more options and an enhanced experience for our joint customers and will be an even stronger partner to the airline, hotel, car rental and other businesses we work with.”

“We are confident that combining Yatra’s loyal customer base, comprehensive service offering and multi-channel platform with Ebix’s complementary Via and Mercury businesses, will create a leading online travel platform and India’s largest corporate travel platform that will capture growth opportunities and deliver enhanced value to shareholders.”

More to follow…

July 17th 2019, 8:43 am

Nexar’s Live Map is like Street View with pictures from 5 minutes ago

TechCrunch

We all rely on maps to get where we’re going or investigate a neighborhood for potential brunch places, but the data we’re looking at is often old, vague, or both. Nexar, maker of dashcam apps and cameras, aims to put fresh and specific data on your map with images from the street taken only minutes before.

If you’re familiar with dash cams, and you’re familiar with Google’s Street View, then you can probably already picture what Live Map essentially is. It’s not quite as easy to picture how it works or why it’s useful.

Nexar sells dash cams and offers an app that turns your phone into one temporarily, and the business has been doing well, with thousands of active users on the streets of major cities at any given time. Each node of this network of gadgets shares information with the other nodes — warning of traffic snarls, potholes, construction, and so on.

The team saw the community they’d enabled trading videos and sharing data derived by automatic analysis of their imagery, and, according to co-founder and CTO Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz, asked themselves: Why shouldn’t this data shouldn’t be available to the public as well?

Actually there are a few reasons — privacy chief among them. Google has shown that properly handled, this kind of imagery can be useful and only minimally invasive. But knowing where someone or some car was a year or two ago is one thing; knowing where they were five minutes ago is another entirely.

Fortunately, from what I’ve heard, this issue was front of mind for the team from the start. But it helps to see what the product looks like in action before addressing that.

Zooming in on a hexagonal map section, which the company has dubbed “nexagons,” polls the service to find everything the service knows about that area. And the nature of the data makes for extremely granular information. Where something like Google Maps or Waze may say that there’s an accident at this intersection, or construction causing traffic, Nexar’s map will show the locations of the orange cones to within a few feet, or how far into the lanes that fender-bender protrudes.

You can also select the time of day, letting you rewind a few minutes or a few days — what was it like during that parade? Or after the game? Are there a lot of people there late at night? And so on.

Right now it’s limited to a web interface, and to New York City — the company has enough data to launch in several other areas in the U.S. but wants to do a slower roll-out to identify issues and opportunities. An API is on the way as well. (Europe, unfortunately, may be waiting a while, though the company says it’s GDPR-compliant.)

The service uses computer vision algorithms to identify a number of features, including signs (permanent and temporary), obstructions, even the status of traffic lights. This all goes into the database, which gets updated any time a car with a Nexar node goes by. Naturally it’s not in 360 and high definition — these are forward-facing cameras with decent but not impressive resolution. It’s for telling what’s in the road, not for zooming in to spot a street address.

Of course, construction signs and traffic jams aren’t the only things on the road. As mentioned before it’s a serious question of privacy to have constantly updating, public-facing imagery of every major street of a major city. Setting aside the greater argument of the right to privacy in public places and attendant philosophical problems, it’s simply the ethical thing to do to minimize how much you expose people who don’t know they’re being photographed.

To that end Nexar’s systems carefully detect and blur out faces before any images are exposed to public view. License plates are likewise obscured so that neither cars nor people can be easily tracked from image to image. Of course one may say that here is a small red car that was on 4th, and is on 5th a minute later — probably the same. But systematic surveillance rather than incidental is far easier with an identifier like a license plate.

In addition to protecting bystanders, Nexar has to think of the fact that an image from a car by definition places that car in a location at a given time, allowing them to be tracked. And while the community essentially opts into this kind of location and data sharing when they sign up for an account, it would be awkward if the public website let a stranger track a user all the way to their home or watch their movements all day.

“The frames are carefully random to begin with so people can’t be soloed out,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “We eliminate any frames near your house and your destination.” As far as the blurring, he said that “We have a pretty robust model, on par with anything you can see in the industry. We probably are something north of 97-98 percent accurate for private data.”

So what would you do with this kind of service? There is, of course, something fundamentally compelling about being able to browse your city in something like real time.

On Google, there’s a red line. We show you an actual frame – a car blocking the right lane right there. It gives you a human connection,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “There’s an element of curiosity about what the world looks like, maybe not something you do every day, but maybe once a week, or when something happens.”

No doubt we are many of us guilty of watching dash-cam footage or even Street View pictures of various events, pranks, and other occurrences. But basic curiosity doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately there are more compelling use cases.

“One that’s interesting is construction zones. You can see individual elements like cones and barriers – you can see where exactly they are, when they’re started etc. We want to work with municiapl authorities, department of transportation, etc on this — it gives them a lot of information on what their contractors are doing on the road. That’s one use case that we know about and understand.”

In fact there are already some pilot programs in Nevada. And although it’s rather a prosaic application of a 24/7 surveillance apparatus, it seems likely to do some good.

But the government angle brings in an unsavory linen of thinking — what if the police want to get unblurred dash cam footage of a crime that just happened, or one of many such situations where tech’s role has historically been a mixed blessing?

“We’ve given a lot of thought to this, and it this concerns our investors highly,” Fernandez-Ruiz admitted. “There are two things we’ve done. One is we’ve differentiated what data the user owns and what we have. The data they send is theirs – like Dropbox. What we get is these anonymized blurred images. Obviously we will comply with the law, but as far as ethical applications of big data and AI, we’ve said we’re not going to be a tool of an authoritarian government. So we’re putting processes in place — even if we get a subpoena, we can say: This is encrypted data, please ask the user.”

That’s some consolation, but it seems clear that tools like this one are more a question than an answer. It’s an experiment by a successful company and may morph into something ubiquitous and useful or a niche product used by professional drivers and municipal governments. But in tech, if you have the data, you use it. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

You can test out Nexar’s Live Map here.

July 17th 2019, 8:43 am

India’s 30-year-old MyMoneyMantra raises $15M to scale its financial services marketplace

TechCrunch

MyMoneyMantra, a 30-year-old New Delhi-based firm that operates a marketplace of financial services, has raised $15 million in its maiden funding round from an external source to expand its offerings and reach in the nation.

Dutch investment firm IFSD BV and private equity firm Vaalon Capital funded the $15 million round in MyMoneyMantra, the Indian firm said on Wednesday. A person familiar with the matter said the round valued MyMoneyMantra at about $50 million.

The company’s founder Raj Khosla said MyMoneyMantra, which employs about 2,500 employees and serves over 4 million customers across 50 cities, will use the capital to explore ways to capture a larger share of the market.

Khosla said the firm would work closely with Vaalon Capital’s team to expand its offerings and deepen its ties with banks and insurance companies. In the financial year that ended in March, MyMoneyMantra generated a revenue of $19.6 million.

MyMoneyMantra works with over 90 banks, non-bank lenders, and insurance companies to help customers get deals on loans and credit cards. The firm, which competes with BankBazaar and Andromeda in India, has done business of over $5.5 billion to date.

Today’s announcement underscores investors’ growing interest in India’s fintech market that saw tens of millions of users try out digital payment services for the first time after the Indian government banned some paper bills. Cash still dominates most of the transactions in the country.

India’s fintech startups raised $285.6 million in the quarter that ended in March this year, thereby surpassing China to become Asia’s top fundraising hub for financial technology, according to CBInsights.

And that momentum continues. In recent months, a score of startups that are trying to help India’s next hundreds of millions of users access financial services have secured significant capital from major investors. While some startups such as Open and Niyo are operating “neo banks” to help blue-collar workers access financial services, many big names like Paytm and Ola have launched their own credit cards.

July 17th 2019, 7:57 am

Atomico founding partner Mattias Ljungman is leaving to start his own seed fund

TechCrunch

Changes are afoot at European VC Atomico, with news breaking that founding partner Mattias Ljungman is leaving to raise his own seed fund.

TechCrunch understands that staff at the London-headquartered firm, which he co-founded in 2006 with Skype founder Niklas Zennström, were informed of his decision to part ways earlier today, although he won’t be leaving immediately. Instead, I’m told Ljungman will be transitioning out over the next six months to ensure as little disruption as possible.

Atomico is also thought to be on the verge of closing a new fund, so arguably the timing is well-aligned, too. ‘In between’ funds is the best time for a founding partner to leave a VC firm, if there ever is one.

In the meantime, Ljungman will be carrying on with existing portfolio responsibilities and gradually handing over his board seats to other Atomico team members. He currently sits on the boards of Peakon, Teatime Games, Bossa Studios, and Lendinvest, to name a few.

Ljungman’s seed firm is to be called Moonfire Ventures and my understanding is that Atomico will invest in the new venture and become one of its first LPs (the ‘Series A and beyond’ VC is an LP in a sprawling number of seed funds, something that it tends to keep quite quiet).

Meanwhile, Ljungman’s thinking is that while European seed stage investing has blossomed recently, the European early-stage ecosystem remains “too fragmented, immature and definitely underfunded”. He believes that there are some excellent seed funds in Europe, but more are needed and especially ones that can think on a pan-European basis and have global ambition.

“My hope is to assemble a team of investors who can light a fire within seed stage investing in Europe to help entrepreneurs grow their boundless ambition and burning creativity,” Ljungman writes in a blog post to be published shortly.

“Given Europe’s diversity and fragmentation issues, I believe it’s time to reimagine how venture capital adds value by embracing technology to help with discovery, evaluation and more efficient provision of support for the most promising ventures”.

July 17th 2019, 7:43 am

Stonly lets you create interactive step-by-step guides to improve support

TechCrunch

French startup Stonly wants to empower users so that they can solve their issues by themselves. Instead of relying on customer support agents, Stonly wants to surface relevant content so that you can understand and solve issues.

“I’m trying to take the opposite stance of chatbots," founder and CEO Alexis Fogel told me. “The issue [with chatbots] is that technology is not good enough and you often end up searching through the help center.”

If you’re in charge of support for a big enough service, chances are your customers often face the same issues. Many companies have built help centers with lengthy articles. But most customers won’t scroll through those pages when they face an issue.

That’s why Stonly thinks you need to make this experience more interactive. The service lets you create scripted guides with multiple questions to make this process less intimidating. Some big companies have built question-based help centers, but Stonly wants to give tools to small companies so that they can build their own scenarios.

A Stonly module is basically a widget that you can embed on any page or blog. It works like a deck of slides with buttons to jump to the relevant slide. Companies can create guides in the back end without writing a single line of code. You can add an image, a video and some code to each slide.

At any time, you can see a flowchart of your guide to check that everything works as expected. You can translate your guides in multiple languages as well.

Once you’re done and the module is live, you can look back at your guides and see how you can improve them. Stonly lets you see if users spend more time on a step, close the tab and drop in the middle of the guide, test multiple versions of the same guide, etc.

But the startup goes one step further by integrating directly with popular support services, such as Zendesk and Intercom. For instance, if a user contacts customer support after checking a Stonly guide, you can see in Zendesk what they were looking at. Or you can integrate Stonly in your Intercom chat module.

As expected, a service like Stonly can help you save on customer support. If users can solve their own issues, you need a smaller customer support team. But that’s not all.

“It’s not just about saving money, it’s also about improving engagement and support,” Fogel said.

Password manager company Dashlane is a good example of that. Fogel previously co-founded Dashlane before starting Stonly. And it’s one of Stonly’s first clients.

“Dashlane is a very addictive product, but the main issue is that you want to help people get started,” he said. It’s true that it can be hard to grasp how you’re supposed to use a password manager if you’ve never used one in the past. So the onboarding experience is key with this kind of products.

Stonly is free if you want to play with the product and build public guides. But if you want to create private guides and access advanced features, the company has a Pro plan ($30 per month) and a Team plan (starting at $100 per month with bigger bills as you add more people to your team and use the product more extensively).

The company has tested its product with a handful of clients, such as Dashlane, Devialet, Happn and Malt. The startup has raised an undisclosed seed round from Eduardo Ronzano, Thibaud Elzière, Nicolas Steegmann, Renaud Visage and PeopleDoc co-founders. And Stonly is currently part of the Zendesk incubator at Station F.

July 17th 2019, 7:27 am

Europe is now formally investigating Amazon’s use of merchant data

TechCrunch

European regulators have announced a formal antitrust investigation of Amazon’s use of data from third parties selling on its ecommerce platform.

Commenting in a statement, competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager said: European consumers are increasingly shopping online. Ecommerce has boosted retail competition and brought more choice and better prices. We need to ensure that large online platforms don’t eliminate these benefits through anti-competitive behaviour. I have therefore decided to take a very close look at Amazon’s business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer, to assess its compliance with EU competition rules.

The move is not a surprise as Amazon was already on the radar of Vestager’s department.

Last fall it emerged the regulator was making preliminary enquiries about Amazon’s use of third party sellers’ data — to try to determine whether or not merchants selling on its platform are being placed at a competitive disadvantage vs the products Amazon also sells as a consequence of its access to their data.

Dual sided platforms — that both host sellers on a marketplace and sell stuff themselves — raise competition-related questions about what is done with third parties’ data, she said then.

Based on its preliminary fact-finding the Commission said today that Amazon “appears to use competitively sensitive information — about marketplace sellers, their products and transactions on the marketplace”. Although it’s worth emphasizing that this is a preliminary finding and does not prejudice the outcome of the formal probe.

The Commission said its in-depth investigation of Amazon’s practices will focus on:

The Buy Box — an example of which can be seen in the below screengrab — refers to a coveted section of the Amazon website where consumers who are viewing a product can click to add it to their shopping cart.

Seller/s who win placement in the box likely gain an advantage over competing sellers of the product.

 

Responding to the Commission’s announcement of a formal probe, an Amazon spokesperson sent us this statement: “We will cooperate fully with the European Commission and continue working hard to support businesses of all sizes and help them grow.”

Yesterday the ecommerce behemoth was among a number of tech giants being questioned by US lawmakers about antitrust concerns.

On both sides of the Atlantic regulators are fast dialling up their scrutiny of the tech sector. Although Europe has led the charge — with Vestager spearheading a number of investigations into tech giants during her tenure as competition chief, including probes of Google, Apple and now Amazon.

Earlier this year EU institutions also reached agreement over new regulations designed to boost transparency around online platform businesses and curb unfair practices to support traders and other businesses that rely on digital intermediaries for discovery and sales.

The new fairness and transparency rules online platforms are likely to come into force in the EU next year.

July 17th 2019, 6:57 am

Ford unveils its latest pickup truck built for a smartphone

TechCrunch

Ford’s F-Series line of pickup trucks has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades, which should make the automaker an expert of sorts in the truck-building business.

Ford unveiled Wednesday the latest addition to its pickup truck portfolio. This particular one, isn’t meant for driving. The automaker created a pickup truck emoji, which is debuted to celebrate World Emoji Day.

There currently is not a pickup truck emoji available. Although there are emojis for nearly every other kind of transport including airplanes, boats, cars and scooters.

Ford submitted a proposal in 2018 for a truck emoji to the Unicode Consortium, the organization that reviews
and approves proposals for new emojis. The truck emoji has been short-listed as a candidate for inclusion in a future version of Unicode. The final list of approved emoji won’t be revealed until early 2020.

 

Ford staff sifted through message boards, investigated texting influencers and watched social media feeds
to understand customers’ needs, according to Craig Metros, Ford North America design
director.

“People want a truck emoji that’s fresh, stylish, carries their ideas, and ‘tows’ the line on
what a truck means,” Metros said. “The end result is a modern icon that should give all truck fans a smiley face
emoji.”

July 17th 2019, 6:57 am

AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

TechCrunch

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

Today, the company today counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko he had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorted a good part of the information gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information an updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business focused search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”

July 17th 2019, 6:57 am

Contract management startup Icertis becomes unicorn with $115M new round

TechCrunch

Icertis, a Washington-headquartered startup that develops cloud-based software to help large companies manage contracts, has raised $115 million at more than a billion dollar valuation to become the latest SaaS unicorn as it looks to further expand its footprints across the globe.

The Series E round for the 10-year-old firm was led by Greycroft and PremjiInvest, and saw participation from existing investors B Capital Group, Cross Creek Advisors, Eight Roads, Ignition Partners, Meritech Capital Partners, and PSP Growth. The startup, which also has offices in Seattle, Pune, Singapore, London, Paris, Sydney, has raised $211 million to date.

Icertis said it would use the fresh capital to expand its technology platform to address wider use cases. It said it would also expand its blockchain framework that integrates with enterprise contract management platforms to solve challenges such as transparency in supply chain and certification compliance. Its revenue are at about $100 million currently — another key area it intends to scale.

The firm, which claims that five of the world’s most valuable companies are its clients (one of which is Microsoft), said it would also scale its sales and marketing efforts to reach “every leading company in the world” and expand its partner ecosystem. It is also looking to acquire startups that are a good fit to its contracting business.

Icertis lets users manage almost all kinds of contracts. Companies use Icertis’ products to handle procurement, sales, and corporate contracts, including non-disclosure agreements. In addition to helping users create contracts, Icertis’ software also tracks when terms are met, ensures regulatory compliance, and automates administrative tasks like sending renewal reminders.

Icertis, which was founded originally in India, says it has more than 2,000 high profile customers and it helps them manage more than 5.7 million contracts with an aggregate value of more than $1 trillion. In a statement, Mark Terbeek, a partner at Greycroft, said Icertis’ ability to win “a huge stable of blue-chip customers” was among the factors that attracted them to invest in the company.

“Nothing is more foundational than contract management as every dollar in and every dollar out of a company is governed by a contract. As the CLM market takes off, we are thrilled to have Premji Invest join the Icertis family, Greycroft double down by co-leading this round, and all investors re-up their commitment as we execute on our mission to become the contract management platform of the world,” said Icertis’ cofounder and CEO Samir Bodas, in a statement.

Icertis competes with a number of firms including Apttus — which has raised north of $400 million, Springcm — which was acquired by DocuSign, Conga — which has raised over $100 million, Ariba, and Concord.

July 17th 2019, 6:07 am

ContractPodAi scores $55M for its ‘AI-powered’ contract management software

TechCrunch

ContractPodAi, a London-based startup that has developed what it describes as AI-powered contract lifecycle management software, is disclosing $55 million in Series B funding. The round is led by U.S.-based Insight Partners, with participation from earlier backer Eagle Investment.

Founded in 2012, ContractPodAi offers an “end-to-end” solution spanning the three main aspects of contract management: contract generation, contract repository, and third-party review. Its AI offering, which uses IBM’s Watson, claims to streamline the contract management process and reduce the burden on corporate in-house legal teams.

“The legal profession has been historically behind the curve in technology adoption and our objective here is to support to digital transformation of legal departments via our contract management platform,” ContractPodAi co-founder and CEO Sarvarth Misra tells TechCrunch.

“Our business focusses on providing in-house counsel of corporations across the world with an easy to use, out of the box and scalable end to end contract management platform at a fixed fee SaaS licence model”.

With regards to ContractPodAi’s target customer, Misra says its solution is industry agnostic but is typically sold to large international businesses, including FTSE 500 and Fortune 2000 corporations. Customers include Bosch Siemens, Braskem, EDF Energy, Total Petroleum, Benjamin Moore and Freeview.

Armed with new capital, ContractPodAi says it plans to “significantly” scale up its product development, sales, and customer success teams globally. The company already has offices in San Francisco, New York, Glasgow and Mumbai, in addition to its London HQ.

Adds Misra: “We believe that market for contract management solutions is fragmented with providers focussing one or two aspects of contract management functionality. ContractPodAi’s objective has been to provide one contract management ecosystem which covers all aspects of contract management functionality… This, along with our fixed, transparent pricing and ability to provide full implementation as part of the annual SaaS, differentiates us the from the rest of the providers”.

July 17th 2019, 5:37 am

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting n

TechCrunch

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

July 17th 2019, 12:18 am

Apple reportedly planning to fund creation of exclusive original podcasts

TechCrunch

Apple is said to be planning to bankroll the creation of original podcasts from third-parties that it will offer exclusively on its own streaming services, Bloomberg reports. The report says that Apple’s plans to land podcast exclusives will help the company compete with similar offerings from streaming rivals including Spotify and Sticher, both of which are funding exclusive podcast content, and in some cases, wholly original shows to run on their own streaming audio offerings.

The report says that Apple execs have been reaching out to media companies that produce audio content to talk about the possibility of buying exclusive rights to some podcasts, albeit in a “preliminary” way, which suggests that this plan may be in the very early stages. It seems unlikely, then, that we would see any kind of Apple exclusive original podcast content ahead of other media efforts soon to launch from the company, including its Apple TV+ subscription video service coming this fall.

Apple has recently made a number of improvements to its podcast product offerings, both on the consumer and the creator side, including more detailed analytics for podcasters, and a full-fledged standalone Podcasts app for its macOS computers, which is launching alongside macOS Catalina this fall. Still, it’s largely been hands-off when it comes to content, aside from informally meeting with podcasters on occasion and sharing best practices.

Meanwhile, Spotify in particular has been especially aggressive about acquiring its own podcast media companies, including Gimlet, which makes popular podcast ‘Reply All”; Anchor, which creates podcast making tools for publishing and monetization; and Parcast, another podcast creation network with a deep library of true-life and other content.

Apple still enjoys a strong majority of audience when it comes to overall podcast listenership by all accounts, but Spotify is definitely chipping away by focusing effort and investment both on the product and on the content side. Apple considering funding content of its own definitely makes sense given its tactics in video, and the changed landscape of the podcast business.

July 16th 2019, 11:15 pm

AI photo editor FaceApp goes viral again on iOS, raises questions about photo library access

TechCrunch

FaceApp. So. The app has gone viral again after first doing so two years ago or so. The effect has gotten better but these apps, like many other one off viral apps, tend to come and go in waves driven by influencer networks or paid promotion. We first covered this particular AI photo editor  from a team of Russian developers about two years ago.

It has gone viral again now due to some features that allow you to edit a person’s face to make it appear older or younger. You may remember at one point it had an issue because it enabled what amounted to digital blackface by changing a person from one ethnicity to another.

In this current wave of virality, some new rumors are floating about FaceApp. The first is that it uploads your camera roll in the background. We found no evidence of this and neither did security researcher and Guardian App CEO Will Strafach or researcher Baptiste Robert.

The second is that it somehow allows you to pick photos without giving photo access to the app. You can see a video of this behavior here:

While the app does indeed let you pick a single photo without giving it access to your photo library, this is actually 100% allowed by an Apple API introduced in iOS 11. It allows a developer to let a user pick one single photo from a system dialog to let the app work on. You can view documentation here and here.

Because the user has to tap on one photo, this provides something Apple holds dear: user intent. You have explicitly tapped it, so it’s ok to send that one photo. This behavior is actually a net good in my opinion. It allows you to give an app one photo instead of your entire library. It can’t see any of your photos until you tap one. This is far better than committing your entire library to a jokey meme app.

Unfortunately, there is still some cognitive dissonance here, because Apple allows an app to call this API even if a user has set the Photo Access setting to Never in settings. In my opinion, if you have it set to Never, you should have to change that before any photo can enter the app from your library, no matter what inconvenience that causes. Never is not a default, it is an explicit choice and that permanent user intent overrules the one-off user intent of the new photo picker.

I believe that Apple should find a way to rectify this in the future by making it more clear or disallowing if people have explicitly opted out of sharing photos in an app.

One good idea might be the equivalent of the ‘only once’ location option added to the upcoming iOS 13 might be appropriate.

One thing that FaceApp does do, however, is it uploads your photo to the cloud for processing. It does not do on-device processing like Apple’s first party app does and like it enables for third parties through its ML libraries and routines. This is not made clear to the user.

I have asked FaceApp why they don’t alert the user that the photo is processed in the cloud. I’ve also asked them whether they retain the photos.

Given how many screenshots people take of sensitive information like banking and whatnot, photo access is a bigger security risk than ever these days. With a scraper and optical character recognition tech you could automatically turn up a huge amount of info way beyond ‘photos of people’.

So, overall, I think it is important that we think carefully about the safeguards put in place to protect photo archives and the motives and methods of the apps we give access to.

July 16th 2019, 11:03 pm

iOS and Android are about to get a bunch of new emoji

TechCrunch

Tomorrow is World Emoji Day. Why is there a World Emoji Day? No idea! But it’s tomorrow!

To recognize the day, Apple and Google have both shed some light on their plans regarding new emoji coming to their operating systems in the coming months. Both companies are adding around 60 new emoji in all, from cutesie stuff like sloths and otters to important icons of representation.

First up, both companies are overhauling their handholding couple emojis so that your emoji people can hold hands with whomever you please, regardless of gender or skin tone.

Google also notes that, as of Android Q, any Emoji that doesn’t have a gender specified in its Unicode documentation — emoji like ‘police officer’ or ‘person getting haircut’ and 51 others — will now default to a “gender ambiguous design”. You’ll be able to press-and-hold an emoji to select a “male” or “female” presentation, if you’d prefer.

Both platforms will also be getting a ton of new accessibility-focused emoji. Apple proposed these early last year, with the Unicode Consortium (the group that determines the official emoji set) giving its stamp of approval in February of this year.

There’s a service dog:

People using two different kinds of wheelchairs:

A prosthetic arm and prosthetic leg:

Ear with hearing aid, and the ASL sign for ‘deaf’:

And a person with a white cane:

There’s also a ton of other new stuff being added in, from animals to axes. There’s sloths:

And flamingos:

And orangutans, otters, and skunks:

There’s a bunch of new clothing, including saris, swim shorts, and safety vests.

And, finally, an emoji that I am honestly kinda shocked wasn’t already in there: the yawning smiley.

I fully expect to see that last one used sarcastically across Slack and Twitter at least 43x a day.

Apple says the new emoji will hit iOS “this fall”, while Google says they’ll arrive with the release of Android Q later this year. If you want to see the full list of things coming in 2019, you can find it over on Emojipedia.

 

July 16th 2019, 7:45 pm

CES will allow sex tech on a one-year trial bias, and finally bans booth babes

TechCrunch

The Consumer Technology Association, the organization behind the annual Consumer Electronics Show, is slowly getting up to speed with the modern-day. Today, CTA announced it will allow sex tech startups to participate and compete for awards as part of the health and wellness category on a one-year trial basis.

This comes after the CTA royally messed up with sex tech company Lora DiCarlo last year. The CTA revoked an innovation award from the company, which is developing a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help women achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneously stimulating the G-spot and the clitoris. In May, CTA re-awarded the company and apologized.

“CTA is committed to evolving and continuing to create an experience at CES that is inclusive and welcoming for everyone,” CES EVP Karen Chupka said in a statement. “We worked with a number of external advisors and partners to update and improve our existing CES policies.”

Additionally, CTA has banned booth babes, or, booth people, as it’s applicable to everyone, regardless of gender.

“Booth personnel may not wear clothing that is sexually revealing or that could be interpreted as undergarments,” the new policy states. “Clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin, or body-conforming clothing that hugs genitalia must not be worn.”

July 16th 2019, 5:12 pm

Retail role play

TechCrunch

Retailers and brands have both seen a tremendous shift in traditional retail dynamics, with merchants and marketplaces increasingly ceding control of the online and in-store shopping experience to the brands themselves. Democratizing access to data through new verticalized tools, however, represents a unique opportunity for retailers to leverage this trend by further transforming the retail dynamic and changing their role in the process.

Marketplaces and third-party sellers have always represented a kind of data “blind spot” for brands. Both provided little visibility on customers and even less control over customer experience or satisfaction.

Verticalized tools that provide new levels of data access are changing all that. For example, b8ta is offering a Retail-as-a-Service model and software platform to brands and retailers to better manage and analyze their in-store experience. Companies like Chatter Research are capturing real-time customer feedback that can be integrated side-by-side with POS data to further improve store performance. Solutions like these enable both parties to collaborate and give brands a unified omnichannel strategy. It also provides retailers with a unique opportunity to rethink their purpose and elevate their value proposition within the retail ecosystem, while also expanding margins and driving potential new revenue streams.

Brands already own the entire customer experience through their O&O stores and e-commerce sites. Amazon has also started providing access to more robust customer and sales information through their API. This has encouraged brands to build internal expertise while increasing their desire to have greater insight into — and control over — the sales process. The impetus now is on third-party retailers and marketplaces to provide similar (or better) opportunities and insight to match what O&O and e-commerce sites now provide.

The democratization of data access is a rare bit of good news.

Retailers are already shifting their focus to product discovery, search and transaction. They are more focused on ensuring a positive, in-store user experience — from processing a transaction (the global retail automation industry is expected to reach $21 billion by 2024) to finding and purchasing the product and accelerating conversions. These shifts, coupled with increased data visibility and analysis, fundamentally alter the value proposition for the retailer.

Platforms — like the above-mentioned b8ta and Chatter Research — allow retailers to capture data and provide it to brands so that they can ultimately be smarter about marketing and promoting through tracking customer visits, interactions and transactions. Soon, smart retailers will leverage this data access to an even greater degree, as brands increasingly rely on third-party retailers/marketplaces to grow their sales and market share. Retailers will sell it directly to brands using data marketplaces or use it to negotiate more favorable terms with product supply.

There are derivative benefits for retailers, as well. As more verticalized tools are deployed and adopted by both brands and retailers, they will continue to marry transactional data with user behavioral data while mapping consumer identification to brand marketing activity. Once the data is properly analyzed it will increase not only revenue per square foot but product margins in physical stores, as well, by helping retailers identify and recover lost sales. It also will lead to incremental investment by brands in shopper marketing, transforming advertising into selling.

The data holistically makes retailers stronger.

As merchants and third-party sellers struggle to reverse years of decline, the democratization of data access is a rare bit of good news. It changes the economics for all stakeholders involved, alters the roles of brands and merchants and creates new, much-needed monetization opportunities for retailers. Unlocking the value of data and empowering brands with it allows retailers to focus on where they can make the highest impact. While roles will change, data connectivity will ultimately strengthen partnerships and improve outcomes for all.

Revel Partners has published a white paper on retail, the brand-direct economy and the impact of data on retail efficacy and consumer satisfaction. To view it in its entirety click here.

July 16th 2019, 4:12 pm

Final tickets to our 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party

TechCrunch

One of Silicon Valley’s most fun and enduring traditions — the 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party — takes place on July 25. If you don’t have a ticket yet, know this: We just released the last batch of tickets. Once they’re gone, that’s it. No party for you. Don’t miss out on a night of fun and opportunity — buy your ticket today.

The Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden, provides a picturesque setting (ocean views anyone?) for a casual evening celebrating the early-startup spirit. Hang out and enjoy local craft beer, cocktails, delicious food and great conversation with other fearless tech entrepreneurs.

TechCrunch parties provide a relaxed way to connect and network, and they’re known as a place where startup magic happens. Who knows? You might meet your future co-founder or funder. Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith, founders of Box, met one of their first investors at a TechCrunch party.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to chat up an investor since our lead VC partner, Merus Capital, will be in the house, along with August Capital, Battery Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, Data Collective, General Catalyst and Uncork Capital.

No TechCrunch event would be complete without exciting startups showcasing their tech and talent.

Here’s the when, where and how:

As always, you have a chance to win great door prizes, including TechCrunch swag, Amazon Echos and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

The 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party takes place on July 25, and this is the last ticket release. Don’t miss out on a convivial evening of food, drink, connection and possibility in the company of your entrepreneurial peers. Buy your ticket right here.


Want a free ticket to Disrupt SF?

Volunteer for the Summer Party and work with the TechCrunch team for a few hours. Sign up to volunteer here.

July 16th 2019, 4:12 pm

Amazon Prime Day sees competition from more than expected number of retailers

TechCrunch

Amazon’s Prime Day continues to gain competition from rival retailers piggybacking on the annual event with their own sales. Ahead of this year’s Prime Day, RetailMeNot had forecast that this year’s sale would see competition from 250 retailers. Today, the firm upped this figure to over 300, saying it found that more retailers than earlier estimated have decided to run their own counter-sales.

As of 9 AM on the second day of Prime Day — Tuesday, July 16, 2019 — RetailMeNot says it has counted over 300 unique retailers running Prime Day-related offers. This is up from the 275 retailers it had uncovered yesterday afternoon, and up from the 250 it had forecast.

For comparison’s sake, Prime Day 2018 saw competition from 194 retailers; the year before that, just 119. And only 27 retailers ran counter sales back in 2016.

The rival sales come from retailers both large and small and are targeting online shoppers with aggressive deals, flash sales, free shipping offers, and other promotions. These sales extend across all categories and retailer segments, the report also notes.

Free shipping — which is one of Amazon Prime’s biggest draws — is a common offer from the Prime Day rival sales. Retailers are either lowering their free shipping minimums or touting free shipping “with no membership” needed, to counter Amazon’s plan to woo subscribers to join its free shipping service and perks program, Amazon Prime.

Many retailers are also using messaging that includes words and phrases that appeal to e-commerce deal hounds, like “Cyber” (13% of retailers used) or “Black Friday” — e.g. “Black Friday in July” — which 32% of retailers used. But even more are directly copying from Amazon, as 38% used the word “Prime” in their messages to consumers.

Some retailers even went for clever variations on the word “Prime” itself — like Joann Fabric’s “Primo Days,” for example. Meanwhile, ULTA’s deals on beauty primers were referenced as “up to 50% Off Primer Days” while West Elm noted several “Reasons to Love West Elm, (Primarily) Today.”

Already, the e-commerce market in the U.S. is feeling the impact from Amazon’s sale. According to Adobe, large retailers have already seen a 64% increase in their e-commerce revenue, compared with a typical Monday. It also predicts Prime Day 2019 will push total U.S. e-commerce sales to over $2 billion, when it all wraps.

Whether or not the sale is still paying off for Amazon as expected with all this new competition remains to be seen, however.

July 16th 2019, 3:42 pm

Peter Thiel says Elizabeth Warren is ‘dangerous,’ Warren responds: ‘Good’

TechCrunch

Senator Elizabeth Warren doesn’t seem too unhappy about being labeled “dangerous” by investor Peter Thiel .

Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, Palantir and Founders Fund, made the comments in an interview on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, where he described most of the Democratic presidential field as “equally unimpressive” and called Warren “the dangerous one.”

“I’m most scared by Elizabeth Warren,” he said. “I think she’s the one who’s actually talking about the economy, which is the only thing — the thing that I think matters by far the most.”

Warren tweeted a link to a Bloomberg story about Thiel’s remarks with a succinct response of her own: “Good.”

Thiel is a high-profile backer of libertarian causes and a Trump supporter — a fact that’s made him a controversial figure in Silicon Valley — so it’s hard to imagine that many Democratic primary voters will be following his recommendations. Indeed, to some, Thiel’s criticism could be seen as an endorsement.

During the same interview, Thiel — who sits on Facebook’s board — repeated points made in an earlier speech where he accused Google of “seemingly treasonous” conduct and said the government should investigate the search giant’s ties with China. (China being the main target in Trump’s trade war.)

Warren, who’s been gaining in some recent polls, has some thoughts on tech policy as well, having called for the breakup of Google, Amazon and Facebook and also proposed an equity fund for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

July 16th 2019, 3:11 pm

Minecraft Earth starts rolling out in beta in Seattle and London

TechCrunch

If you’ve been waiting to check out Minecraft Earth (Mojang’s Pokemon GO-style augmented reality reimagining of its hugely popular game Minecraft) good news: it’s starting to roll out to some people now.

The catch? It’s only available to a slice-of-a-slice of the world, at first.

After opening up a registration system for its closed beta just a few days ago, the company says that it sent out the first batch of beta invites this afternoon.

The beta is being rolled out on a region-by-region basis, with randomly picked players in Seattle and London getting access at first. Mojang says more cities should go live in “the next few days,” but doesn’t get any more specific than that.

It’s also worth noting that the beta is iOS only for now; Android support is on the way, but it won’t land until later this summer.

Our own Devin Coldewey went hands on with an early build of Minecraft Earth a few months ago – check out his first impressions here.

July 16th 2019, 3:11 pm

Facebook reportedly hasn’t contacted the regulator it says will oversee Libra’s privacy and data sec

TechCrunch

A Swiss regulatory agency that Facebook executive David Marcus said in Congressional testimony would be responsible for overseeing data and privacy protections for the company’s newly launched cryptocurrency, Libra, has not been contacted by Facebook, according to a report.

CNBC is reporting that the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner, who Marcus said would oversee data protections for its cryptocurrency in his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, has yet to hear from the company which is depending on it for oversight.

In a statement provided to CNBC, Hugo Wyler, who’s the head of communication at the FDPIC said:

“We have taken note of the statements made by David Marcus, Chief of Calibra, on our potential role as data protection supervisory authority in the Libra context. Until today we have not been contacted by the promoters of Libra… We expect Facebook or its promoters to provide us with concrete information when the time comes. Only then will we be able to examine the extent to which our legal advisory and supervisory competence is given. In any case, we are following the development of the project in the public debate.”

Facebook’s attempted end-run around national monetary policy already has been criticized by lawmakers in the U.S. and around the world.

“With the announcement that it plans to create a cryptocurrency, Facebook is continuing its unchecked expansion and extending its reach into the lives of its users… Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congres and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action,” said Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who heads the House Financial Services Committee, in a statement on the day Facebook announced its cryptocurrency.

Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, also had harsh words for Facebook and its planned cryptocurrency. “Libra raises many serious concerns regarding privacy, money laundering, consumer protection, and financial stability,” Powell said last week.

Even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, normally a proponent of laissez faire approaches to private enterprise, voiced concerns about Libra that seemed to echo Powell’s.

“Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin have been exploited to support billions of dollars of illicit activity like cyber crime, tax evasion, extortion, ransomware, illicit drugs and human trafficking,” Mnuchin said in a press conference yesterday.

 

July 16th 2019, 3:11 pm

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Toyota sign 3-year deal to develop a fuel cell Moon rover

TechCrunch

Toyota will work with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a fuel cell Moon rover vehicle, with a target launch date of a Moon mission currently set for 2029. The two previously announced their collaboration, but on Tuesday they signed a formal agreement which defines a three-year joint research agreement to co-develop pressurized lunar rover prototypes.

Each year will see the partnership focus on a different phase of the prototype’s development, with 2019 all about identifying technical requirements and drawing up spec docs; next year, the goal will be to build test parts and then actually putting together a rover prototype; finally, in fiscal 2021, the partners will test both the rover parts and rover prototype in order to evaluate the results for potential full production.

The pressurized rover will be able to transport astronauts over 10,000 km using its onboard fuel cells and solar recharging mechanism, according to a press release detailing the concept from March, prior to today’s development partnership agreement. It would have a total seating capacity of two people, with the option to carry as many as four if there’s an emergency need to do so.

It’s about the size of two microbuses, according to Toyota, which means about 20 feet long, by 17 feet wide and 12.5 feet tall. The six-wheeled concept also features deployable solar panels for recharging, ample communications equipment and a front winch for getting itself out of jams another potential applications.

[gallery ids="1856416,1856417,1856418,1856420,1856421,1856422,1856423"]

JAXA intends to launch a series of lunar missions, including 2007’s Selene (or ‘Kayuga’), which sent an orbiter and a pair of communication satellites to lunar orbit. Ultimately, JAXA’s goal is to host a series of uncrewed and human missions under a broader Lunar Exploration Program with the ultimate aim of establishing a presence for Japanese astronauts in a combined international lunar outpost program.

July 16th 2019, 2:41 pm

What seed-stage dilution tells us about changing investor expectations

TechCrunch

Round sizes are up. Valuations are up. There are more investors than ever hunting unicorns around the globe. But for all the talk about the abundance of venture funding, there is a lot less being said about what it all means for entrepreneurs raising their early funding rounds.

Take for instance Seed-stage dilution. Since 2014, enterprise-focused tech companies have given up significantly more ownership during Seed rounds. What gives?

Scale is an investor in early-in-revenue enterprise technology companies, so we wanted to better understand how this trend in Seed-stage dilution impacts companies raising Series A and Series B rounds.

Using our Scale Studio dataset of performance metrics on nearly 800 cloud and SaaS companies as well as Pitchbook fundraising records covering B2B software startups, we started connecting the dots between trends in valuations, round sizes, and winner-take-all markets.

Bottom line for founders: Don’t let all the capital in venture mislead you. There’s an important connection between higher Seed-stage dilution and increased investor expectations during Series A and Series B rounds.

These days, successful startups are growing up faster than ever.

Founders face an important trade-off decision

July 16th 2019, 2:09 pm

Social chat app Capture launches to take a shot at less viral success

TechCrunch

At first glance launching a new social app may seem as sensible a startup idea as plunging headfirst into shark-infested waters. But with even infamous curtain-ripper Facebook now making grand claims about a ‘pivot to privacy’ it’s clear something is shifting in the commercial shipping channels that contain our digital chatter.

Whisper it: Feeds are tiring. Follows are tedious. Attention is expiring. There’s also, of course, the damage that personal digital baggage left out in the open can wreak long after the fact of a blown fuse or fleeting snap.

Public feeds have become vehicles of self-promotion; carefully and heavily curated — which of course brings its own peer pressures to keep up with friends’ lux exploits and the influencer ‘gram aesthetic that pretends life looks like a magazine spread.

Yet for a brief time, in the gritty early years of social media, there was something akin to spontaneous, confessional reality on show online. People do like to share. That’s mostly been swapped for the polish of aspirational faking it on apps like Facebook-owned Instagram. While genuine friend chatter has moved behind the quasi-closed doors of group messaging apps, like Facebook-owned WhatsApp (or rival Telegram).

If you want to chat more freely online without being defined by your existing social graph the options are less mainstream friendly to say the least.

Twitter is genuinely great if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to find interesting strangers. But its user growth problem shows most consumers just aren’t willing (or able) to do that. Telegram groups also require time and effort to track down.

Also relevant in interest-based chat: Veteran forum Reddit, and game chat platform Disqus — both pretty popular, though not in a way that really cuts across the mainstream, tending to cater to more niche and/or focused interests. Neither is designed for mobile first either.

This is why Capture’s founders are convinced there’s a timely opportunity for a new social app to slot in — one which leverages smartphone sensors and AI smarts to make chatting about anything as easy as pointing a camera to take a shot.

They’re not new to the social app game, either. As we reported last year, two of Capture’s founders were part of the team behind the style transfer app Prisma, which racked up tens of millions of downloads over a few viral months of 2016.

And with such a bright feather in their cap, a number of investors — led by General Catalyst — were unsurprisingly eager to chip into Capture’s $1M seed, setting them on the road to today’s launch.

Point and chat

“The main idea behind the app is during the day you’ve got different experiences — working, watching some TV series etc, you’re sitting in an arena watching some sports, or something like that. So we imagine that you should open the app during any type of experience you have during the day,” says Capture co-founder and CEO Alexey Moiseenkov fleshing out the overarching vision for the app.

“It’s not for your friends; it’s the moment when you should share something or just ask something or discuss something with other people. Like news, for example… I want to discuss news with the people who are relevant, who want to discuss it. And so on and on. So I imagine it is about small groups with the same goal, discussing the same experience, or something like that. It’s all about your everyday life.”

“Basically you can imagine our app as like real-time forum,” he adds. “Real-time social things like Reddit. So it’s more about live discussion, not postponing something.”

Chat(room) recommendations are based on contextual inferences that Capture can glean from the mobile hardware. Namely where you are (so the app needs access to your location) and even whether you’re on the move or lounging around (it also accesses the accelerometer so can tell the angle of the phone).

The primary sensory input comes from the camera of course. So like Snap it’s a camera-first app, opening straight into the rear lens’ live view.

By default chats in Capture are public so it also knows what topics users are discussing — which in turn further feeds and hones its recommendations for chats (and indeed matching users).

Co-founder and CMO Aram Hardy (also formerly at Prisma) gives the example of the free-flowing discussion you can see unrolling in YouTube comments when a movie trailer gets its first release — as the sort of energetic, expressive discussion Capture wants to channel inside its app.

“It’s exploding,” he says. “People are throwing those comments, discussing it on YouTube, on web, and that’s a real pain because there is no tool where you can simply discuss it with people, maybe with people around you, who are just interested in this particular trailer live on a mobile device — that’s a real pain.”

“Everything which is happening around the person should be taken into consideration to be suggested in Capture — that’s our simple vision,” he adds.

Everything will mean pop culture, news, local events and interest-based communities.

Though some of the relevant sources of pop/events content aren’t yet live in the app. But the plan is to keep bulking out the suggestive mix to expand what can be discovered via chat suggestions. (There’s also a discovery tab to surface public chats.)

Hardy even envisages Capture being able to point users to an unfolding accident in their area — which could generate a spontaneous need for locals or passers by to share information.

The aim for the app — which is launching on iOS today (Android will come later; maybe by fall) — is to provide an ever ready, almost no-barrier-to-entry chat channel that offers mobile users no-strings-attached socializing free from the pressures (and limits) of existing social graphs/friend networks; as well as being a context-savvy aid for content and event discovery, which means helping people dive into relevant discussion communities based on shared interests and/or proximity.

Of course location-based chatting is hardly a new idea. (And messaging giant Telegram just added a location-based chats feature to its platform.)

But the team’s premise is that mobile users are now looking for smart ways to supplement their social graph — and it’s betting on a savvy interface unlocking and (re)channelling underserved demand.

“People are really tired of something really follower based,” argues Moiseenkov. “All this stuff with a following, liking and so on. I feel there is a huge opportunity for all the companies around the world to make something based on real-time communication. It’s more like you will be heard in this chat so you can’t miss a thing. And I think that’s a powerful shot.

“We want to create a smaller room for every community in the Internet… So you can always join any group and just start talking in a free way. So you never shared your real identity — or it’s under your control. You can share or not, it’s up to you. And I think we need that.

“It’s what we miss during this Facebook age where everybody is ‘real’. Imagine that it’s like a game. In a game you’re really free — you can express yourself what way you want. I think that’s a great idea.”

“The entry threshold [for Twitter] is enormous,” adds Hardy. “You can’t have an account on Twitter and get famous within a week if you’re not an influencer. If you’re a simple person who wants to discuss something it’s impossible. But you can just create a chat or enter any chat within Capture and instantly be heard.

“You can create a chat manually. We have an add button — you can add any chat. It will be automatically recognized and suggested to other users who are interested in these sort of things. So we want every user to be heard within Capture.”

How it works

Capture’s AI-powered chatroom recommendations are designed to work as an onboarding engine for meeting relevant strangers online — using neural networks and machine learning to do the legwork of surfacing relevant people and chats.

Here’s how the mobile app works: Open the app, point the camera at something you view as a conversational jumping off point — and watch as it processes the data using computer vision technology to figure out what you’re looking at and recommend related chats for you to join.

For example, you might point the camera around your front room and be suggested a chatroom for ‘interior design trends and ideas’ , or at a pot plant and get ‘gardeners’ chat, or at your cat and get ‘pet chat’ or ‘funny pets’.

Point the camera at yourself and you might see suggestions like ‘Meet new friends’, ‘Hot or not?’, ‘Dating’, ‘Beautiful people’ — or be nudged to start a ‘Selfie chat’, which is where the app will randomly connect you with another Capture user for a one-to-one private chat.

Chat suggestions are based on an individual user’s inferred interests and local context (pulled via the phone) and also on matching users across the app based on respective usage of the app.

At the same time the user data being gathered is not used to pervasively profile uses, as is the case with ad-supported social networks. Rather Capture’s founders say personal data pulled from the phone — such as location — is only retained for a short time and used to power the next set of recommendations.

Capture users are also not required to provide any personal data (beyond creating a nickname) to start chatting. If they want to use Capture’s web platform they can provide an email to link their app and web accounts — but again that email address does not have to include anything linked to their real identity.

“The key tech we want to develop is a machine learning system that can suggest you the most relevant stuff and topics for you right now — based on data we have from your phone,” continues Moiseenkov. “This is like a magical moment. We do not know who you are — but we can suggest something relevant.

“This is like a smart system because we’ve got some half graph of connection between people. It’s not like the entire graph like your friends and family but it’s a graph on what chat you are in, so where are you discussing something. So we know this connection between people [based on the chats you’re participating in]… so we can use this information.

“Imagine this is somehow sort of a graph. That’s a really key part of our system. We know these intersections, we know the queries, and the intersection of queries from different people. And that’s the key here — the key machine learning system then want to match this between people and interests, between people and topics, and so on.

“On top of that we’ve got recognition stuff for images — like six or seven neural networks that are working to recognize the stuff, what are you seeing, how, what position and so on. We’ve got some quite slick computer vision filters that can do some magic and do not miss.

“Basically we want to perform like Google in terms of query we’ve got — it’s really big system, lots of tabs — to suggest relevant chats.”

Image recognition processing is all done locally on the user’s device so Capture is not accessing any actual image data from the camera view — just mathematical models of what the AI believes it’s seen (and again they claim they don’t hold that data for long).

“Mostly the real-time stuff comes from machine learning, analyzing the data we have from your phone — everybody has location. We do not store this location… we never store your data for a long time. We’re trying to move into more private world where we do not know who you are,” says Moiseenkov.

“When you log into our app you just enter the nickname. It’s not about your phone number, it’s not about your social networks. We sometimes — when you just want to log in from other device — we ask you an email. But that’s all. Email and nickname it’s nothing. We do not know nothing about you. About your person, like where you work, who’s your friends, so on and so on. We do not know anything.

“I think that’s the true way for now. That’s why gaming is so fast in terms of growing. People just really want to share, really want to log in and sign up [in a way] that’s easy. And there is no real barriers for that — I think that’s what we want to explore more.”

Chatroulette

Having tested Capture’s app prior to launch I can report that the first wave chat suggestions are pretty rudimentary and/or random.

Plus its image recognition often misfires (for instance my cat was identified as, among other things, a dog, hamster, mouse and even a polar bear (!) — as well as a cat — so clearly the AI’s eye isn’t flawless, and variable environmental conditions around the user can produce some odd and funny results).

 

The promise from the founders is that recommendations will get better as the app ingests more data and the AI (and indeed Capture staff performing manual curation of chat suggestions) get a better handle on what people are clicking on and therefore wanting to talk with other users about.

They also say they’re intending to make better linkage leaps in chat suggestions — so rather than being offered a chatroom called ‘Pen’ (as I was),  if you point the Capture camera at a pen, the app might instead nudge you towards more interesting-sounding chats — like ‘office talk’ or ‘writing room’ and so on.

Equally, if a bunch of users point their Capture cameras at the same pen the app might in future be smart enough to infer that they all want to join the same chatroom — and suggest creating a private group chat just for them.

On that front you could imagine members of the same club, say, being able to hop into the same discussion channel — summoning it by scanning a mutual object or design they all own or have access to. And you could also imagine people being delighted by a scanner-based interface linked to custom stuff in their vicinity — as a lower friction entry point vs typing in their directions. (Though — to be clear — the app isn’t hitting those levels of savvy right now.)

“Internally we imagine that we’re like Google but without direct query typing,” Moiseenkov tells TechCrunch. “So basically you do the query — like scanning the world around you. Like you are in some location, like some venue, imagine all this data is like a query — so then step by step we know what people are clicking, then improving the results and this step by step, month by month, so after three month or four month we will be better. So we know what people are clicking, we know what people are discussing and that’s it.”

“It’s tricky stuff,” he adds. “It’s really really hard. So we need lots of machine learning, we need lots of like our hands working on this moderating stuff, replacing some stuff, renaming, suggest different things. But I think that’s the way — that’s the way for onboarding people.

“So when people will know that they will open the app in the arena and they will receive the right results the most relevant stuff for this arena — for the concert, for the match, or something like that, it will be the game. That’s what we want to achieve. So every time during the day you open the app you receive relevant community to join. That’s the key.”

Right now the founders say they’re experimenting with various chat forms and features so they can figure out how people want to use the app and ensure they adapt to meet demand.

Hence, for example, the chatroulette-style random ‘selfie chat’ feature. Which does what it says on the tin — connecting you to another random user for a one-to-one chat. (If selfie chats do end up getting struck out of the app I hope they’ll find somewhere else to house the cute slide-puzzle animation that’s displayed as the algorithms crunch data to connect you to a serendipitous interlocutor.)

They’re also not yet decided on whether public chat content in Capture will persist indefinitely — thereby potentially creating ongoing, topics-based resources — or be ephemeral by default, with a rolling delete which kicks in after a set time to wipe the chat slate clean.

“We actually do not know what will be in the next one to three months. We need to figure out — will it be consistent or ephemeral,” admits Moiseenkov. “We need to figure out certain areas, like usage patterns. We should watch how people behave in our app and then decide what will be the feed.”

Capture does support private group chats as well as public channels — so there’s certainly overlap with the messaging platform Telegram, which also supports both. Though one nuance between them is Capture Channels let everyone comment but only admins post vs Telegram channels being a pure one-way broadcast.

But it’s on interface and user experience where Capture’s approach really diverges from the more standard mobile messaging playbook.

If you imagine it as a mash-up of existing social apps Capture could be thought of as something like a Snap-style front end atop a Telegram-esque body yet altogether sleeker, with none of the usual social baggage and clutter. (Some of that may creep in of course, if users demand it, and they do have a reactions style feature linked up to add in so… )

“With our tool you can find people not from your graph,” says Moiseenkov. “That’s the key here. So with WhatsApp it’s really hard to invite people not from your graph — or like friends of friends. And that’s a really tough question — where I can find the relevant people whom I chat about football? So now we add the tool for you in our app to just find these people and invite them to your [chat].”

“It’s really really hard not to like your friend’s post on Instagram because it’s social capital,” he adds. “You are always liking these posts. And we are not in this space. We do not want to move in this direction of followers, likers, and all this stuff — scrolling and endless communication.

“Time is changing, my life is changing, my friends and family somehow is changing because life is changing… We’re mobile like your everyday life… the app is suggesting you something relevant for this life [now]. And you can just find people also doing the same things, studying, discussing the same things.”

Community building

Why include private chats at all in Capture? Given the main premise (and promise) of the app is its ability to combine strangers with similar interests in the same virtual spaces — thereby expanding interest communities and helping mobile users escape the bubbles of closed chat groups.

On that Moiseenkov says they envisage communities will still want to be able to create their own closed groups — to maintain “a persistent, consistent community”.

So Capture has been designed to contain backchannels as well as open multiple windows into worlds anyone can join. “It’s one of opportunities to make this and I think that we should add it because we do not know exact scenarios right from the launch,” he says of including private conduits alongside public chats.

Given the multiple chat channels in the first release Capture does risk being a bit confusing. And during our interview the founders joke about having created a “maximal viable product” rather than the usual MVP.

But they say they’re also armed to be able to respond quickly to usage patterns — with bits and pieces lined up in the background so they can move quickly to add/remove features based on the usage feedback they get. So, basically, watch this space.

All the feature creep and experimentation has delayed their launch a little though. The app had been slated to arrive in Q4 last year. Albeit, a later-than-expected launch is hardly an unusual story for a startup.

Capture also of course suffers from a lack of users for people to chat to at the point of release — aka, the classic network effect problem (which also makes testing it prior to launch pretty tricky; safe to say, it was a very minimalist messaging experience).

Not having many users also means Capture’s chat suggestions aren’t as intelligent and savvy as the founders imply they’ll be.

So again the MVP will need some time to mature before it’s safe to pass judgement on the underlying idea. It does feel a bit laggy right now — and chat suggestions definitely hit and miss but it will be interesting to see how that evolves as/if users pile in.

Part of their plan is to encourage and nurture movie/TV/entertainment discussion communities specifically — with Hardy arguing there’s “no such tool” that easily supports that. So in future they want Capture users to be notified about new series coming up on Netflix, or Disney’s latest release. Then, as users watch that third party content, their idea is they’ll be encouraged to discuss it live on their mobiles via Capture.

But movie content is only partially launched at this stage. So again that’s all just a nice idea at this stage.

Testing pre-launch on various celebrity visages also drew a suggestive blank — and Hardy confirmed they’ve got more pop culture adds planned for the future.

Such gaps will likely translate into a low stickiness rate at first. But when the team’s ambition is to support a Google-esque level of content queries the scale of the routing and pattern matching task ahead of them is really both massive and unending.

To get usage off the ground they’re aiming to break the content recommendation problem down into more bite-size chunks — starting by seeding links to local events and news (sourced from parsing the public Internet); and also by focusing on serving specific communities (say around sports), and also linked to particular locations, such as cities — the latter two areas likely informed by in what and where the app gets traction.

They’ve also hired a content manager to help with content recommendations. This person is also in charge of “banning some bad things and all that stuff”, as they put it. (From the get go they’re running a filter to ban nudity; and don’t yet support video uploads/streams to reduce their moderation risk. Clearly they will need to be very ‘on it’ to avoid problem usage mushrooming into view and discouraging positive interactions and community growth within the app. But again they say they’re drawing on their Prisma experience.)

They also say they want this social app to be more a slow burn on the growth front — having seen the flip side of burn out viral success at Prisma — which, soon after flooding the social web with painterly selfies, had to watch as tech giants ruthlessly cloned the style transfer effect, reducing their novelty factor and pushing users to move on to their next selfie lens fix.

“As data-driven guys we’re mostly looking for some numbers,” says Moiseenkov when asked where they hope to be with Capture in 12 months’ time. “So I think achieving something like 1M or 2M MAU with a good retention and engagement loop by then is our goal.

“We want to keep this growth under control. So we could release the features step by step, more about engagement not more about viral growth. So our focus is doing something that can keep engagement loop, that can increase our spend time in the app, increase the usage and so on, not driving this into the peak and like acquiring all the trends.”

“Conclusions are drawn from Prisma!” adds Hardy with investor-winning levels of chutzpah.

While it’s of course super early to talk business model, the question is a valid one given Capture’s claims of zero user profiling. Free apps backed by VC will need to monetize the hoped for scale and usage at some point. So how does Capture plan to do that?

The founders say they envisage the app acting as a distribution tool. And for that use case their knowing (only) the timing, location and subject of chats is plenty enough data to carry out contextual targeting of whatever stuff they can get paid to distribute to their users.  

They are also toying with models in a Patreon style — such as users being able to donate to content authors who are in turn distributing stuff to them via Capture. But again plans aren’t fully formed at this nascent stage.

“Our focus right now is more like going into partnerships with different companies that have lots of content and lots of events going on,” says Hardy. “We also are going to ask for permission to get access to music apps like Spotify or Apple Music to be aware of those artists and songs a person is interested in and is listening to. So this will give us an opportunity to suggest relevant new albums, maybe music events, concerts and so on and so forth.

“For example if a band is coming to your city and we know we have access to Apple Music we know you’re listening to it we’ll suggest a concert — we’ll say ‘hey maybe you can win a free ticket’ if we can partner… with someone, so yeah we’re moving into this in the near future I think.”

July 16th 2019, 2:09 pm

One of Uber’s flying taxi partners just raised a $25 million Series A round

TechCrunch

Uber Air, the transportation company’s upcoming flying taxi service, needs vehicle partners in order to make it a reality. Karem Aircraft, which Uber partnered with last year, has just raised a $25 million Series A round for its new air taxi spinoff. The round was led by Korean industrial conglomerate Hanwha Systems.

“Karem’s technology for making safe, quiet, and efficient air taxi vehicles excites all of us,” Uber Elevate Head Eric Allison said in a statement. “Hanwha’s Series A investment in Karem’s new air taxi entity accelerates efforts to bring the Butterfly to market, and we look forward to flying riders in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne in the near future.”

Uber is aiming to start testing these aircrafts next year, and wants to commercially deploy Uber Air in Los Angeles, Calif., Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco, Texas and Melbourne, Australia in 2023.

Karem’s new venture is designed to focus solely on electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, specifically its Butterfly air taxi vehicle.

The Butterfly (rendered above) is a quad tiltrotor with four large rotors mounted on the wings and tail. The idea is to combine the vertical lift capability of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft. The Butterfly is also designed to be more efficient as a result of its rotors with variable RPM.

“The new company will be able to focus exclusively on bringing Butterfly to market, leveraging Karem’s optimum speed rotor technology, Hanwha’s industrial scale, and Uber’s ridesharing network,” Ben Tigner, CEO of the new venture, said in a statement. “We look forward to the day when riders will be able to commute to work by flying above the traffic in one of our vehicles. Karem Aircraft will continue to serve the needs of its military customers; we are confident that each company is on a path for long-term success so that our technology can be applied in two distinct but important use cases.”

July 16th 2019, 2:09 pm

Daily Crunch: Facebook and Libra go to Washington

TechCrunch

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

1. Highlights from Facebook’s Libra Senate hearing

David Marcus, the head of Facebook’s blockchain subsidiary Calibra, testified before the Senate Banking Committee today. He said Calibra will be interoperable, so users can send money back and forth with other wallets, and he committed to data portability, so users can switch entirely to a competitor.

At the same time, Marcus said Facebook will embed only its own wallet into its messaging apps Messenger and WhatsApp, which could give the company a sizable advantage.

2. Twitter.com launches its big redesign with simpler navigation and more features

The company has been testing a new version of its desktop website since the beginning of the year, and yesterday, the final product started rolling out to the public.

3. Blackstone is acquiring mobile ad company Vungle

Multiple sources with knowledge of the deal said that the acquisition price was north of $750 million. As part of the transaction, Vungle has also reached a settlement with founder Zain Jaffer, who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company earlier this year.

4. Curve, the ‘over-the-top’ banking platform, raises $55M at a $250M valuation

The startup lets you consolidate all of your bank cards into a single Curve card and app to make it easier to manage your spending and access other benefits.

5. Meredith Whittaker, AI researcher and an organizer of last year’s Google walkout, is leaving the company

Whittaker and another one of the walkout’s organizers, Claire Stapleton, previously said they had faced retaliation from Google after the protest. Other employees also claimed they had experienced fallout as a result of their participation, which Google denied.

6. Newsletter platform Substack raises $15.3M round led by a16z

Although Substack started out two years ago as a way to turn newsletters into a paid subscription business, it’s since added support for podcasts and discussion threads. As CEO Chris Best put it, the goal is to allow writers and creators to run their own “personal media empire.”

7. Why commerce companies are the advertising players to watch in a privacy-centric world

We’re witnessing the beginning of a sweeping upheaval in how companies are allowed to obtain, process, manage, use and sell consumer data, and the implications for the digital ad competitive landscape are massive. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

July 16th 2019, 1:59 pm
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