Big tech has 2 elephants in the room: Privacy and competition

The question of how policymakers should respond to the power of big tech didn’t get a great deal of airtime at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, despite a number of investigations now underway in the United States (hi, Google).

It’s also clear that attention- and data-monopolizing platforms compel many startups to use their comparatively slender resources to find ways to compete with the giants — or hope to be acquired by them.

But there’s clearly a nervousness among even well-established tech firms to discuss this topic, given how much their profits rely on frictionless access to users of some of the gatekeepers in question.

Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston evinced this dilemma when TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino asked him if Apple’s control of the iOS App Store should be “reexamined” by regulators or whether it’s just legit competition.

“I think it’s an important conversation on a bunch of dimensions,” said Houston, before offering a circular and scrupulously balanced reply in which he mentioned the “ton of opportunity” app stores have unlocked for third-party developers, checking off some of Apple’s preferred talking points like “being able to trust your device” and the distribution the App Store affords startups.

“They also are a huge competitive advantage,” Houston added. “And so I think the question of … how do we make sure that there’s still a level playing field and so that owning an app store isn’t too much of an advantage? I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I do think it’s an important conversation to be had.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said the question of whether large tech companies are too powerful needs to be reframed.

“Big per se is not bad,” she told TC’s Zack Whittaker. “We need to focus on whether competitors and consumers are being harmed. And, if that’s the case, what are the remedies?”

In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have advanced their understanding of digital business models — making great strides since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg answered a question two years ago about how his platform makes money: “Senator, we sell ads.”

A House antitrust subcommittee hearing in July 2020 that saw the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple answer awkward questions and achieved a higher dimension of detail than the big tech hearings of 2018.

Nonetheless, there still seems to be a lack of consensus among lawmakers over how exactly to grapple with big tech, even though the issue elicits bipartisan support, as was in plain view during a Senate Judiciary Committee interrogation of Google’s ad business earlier this month.

On stage, Lofgren demonstrated some of this tension by discouraging what she called “bulky” and “lengthy” antitrust investigations, making a general statement in favor of “innovation” and suggesting a harder push for overarching privacy legislation. She also advocated at length for inalienable rights for U.S. citizens so platform manipulators can’t circumvent rules with their own big data holdings and some dark pattern design.

#antitrust, #big-tech, #data-protection, #digital-regulation, #disrupt-2020, #europe, #gdpr, #government, #platforms, #policy, #privacy

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Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

#ecommerce, #enterprise, #france-newsletter, #fundings-exits, #marketplace, #mirakl, #startups

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Amazon adds support for Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in local Indian languages push ahead of Diwali

More than seven years after Amazon began its e-commerce operations in India, and two years after its shopping service added support for Hindi, the most popular language in the country, the American giant is embracing more local languages to court hundreds of millions of new users.

Amazon announced on Tuesday its website and apps now support Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu in a move that it said would help it reach an additional 200-300 million users in the country.

Localization is one of the most crucial — and popular — steps for companies to expand their potential reach in India. Netflix added support for Hindi last month, and Amazon’s Alexa started conversing in the Indian language last year. (Amazon’s on-demand video streaming service, Prime Video, also supports Hindi, in addition to Tamil and Telugu.)

The company said the usage of Hindi, which it rolled out on its website and apps in India in 2018, has grown by three times in the past five months, and “hundreds of thousands” of Amazon customers have switched to Hindi shopping experience.

Amazon’s further language push comes months after its chief rival in India, Walmart -owned Flipkart, added support for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Like Flipkart, Amazon worked with expert linguists to develop an accurate and comprehensible experience in each of the languages, the American e-commerce firm said.

But simple translation is not enough to make inroads with users in India. YouTube and YouTube Music, for instance, understand when Bollywood fans in India search for music by the name of the movie character or actor who played the part instead of the actual musician or song title — a phenomenon unique among Indian users.

Amazon appears to have incorporated similar learnings into its shopping experience. The company said for translations it preferred using commonly used terms from daily life over perfectly translated words.

Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, termed the availability of Amazon India shopping experience in four new languages a “major milestone.”

The move comes weeks ahead of Diwali, the biggest festival in India that sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly. “We are super excited to do this ahead of the upcoming festive season,” said Thota.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #flipkart, #walmart

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Introducing the Expo Pass for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Don’t let budget woes keep you from participating in TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. We’re dedicated to making this event accessible to as many members of the mobility community as possible. Case in point: today we’re announcing the new Expo Ticket for just $25.

Pro tip: Get your Expo ticket today. The price jumps to $50 once the conference begins on October 6.

What can you do with an Expo ticket? The short answer is plenty. You’ll have access to all the Mobility 2020 breakout sessions, which take a deeper dive into specific topics. We’ll be announcing those breakout sessions soon. Watch for our announcement, and be sure to check out the Mobility 2020 agenda.

“I learned a lot from the breakout sessions. An official from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spoke about the city’s plan to build pathways for micro mobility vehicles. Access to experts sharing that kind of information is essential for anyone launching a micro mobility startup.” — Parug Demircioglu, CEO at Invemo and partner at Nito Bikes.

Plus, you can explore 40+ startups — both early stage and more established companies — exhibiting during the conference. Think of “Expo” as an alternative way to spell “opportunity.” Connect with the exhibiting founders, hear their product stories and watch their demos. You might find your next customer, partner, investment or employer.

We’ve got your back in the networking department with CrunchMatch. Our AI-powered platform helps you find and connect with the people who align with your business goals. Answer a few simple questions when you register and CrunchMatch will be ready to do the heavy lifting for you. Peruse the offerings and schedule 1:1 video calls with the folks who can help you take your startup dream to the next level. It’s the perfect tool to help organize and simplify your expo exploration.

“CrunchMatch, which is basically speed-dating for techies, was very helpful. I scheduled at least 10 short, precise meetings. I learned about startups in stealth mode, what big corporations were up to — things not yet picked up by the press. It was great, and I followed up on three or four of those connections.” — Jens Lehmann, technical lead and product manager, SAP.

Join mobility’s brightest minds, makers and investors at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. Set aside your budget concerns and buy an opportunity-packed Expo Pass — before October 6 — for just $25. We can’t wait to “see” you there!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#startups, #tc-sessions-mobility-2020

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HMD is bringing a 5G smartphone and wireless earbuds to the US

Over the past four years or so, HMD has carved out a nice little niche for itself with its Nokia-branded handsets. The instant name recognition of a legacy brand was a nice little perch on which to gain some footing in an overcrowded market.

Pricing has long been a key to its appeal, as well, and that’s on display with the arrival of the company’s first 5G-enabled handset. The Nokia 8.5 5G runs $699 and goes up for pre-order today in the U.S. It will also be hitting Amazon in the coming weeks. It’s not cheap by the company’s standards, but it’s definitely among the more competitively priced 5G handsets around.

The phone is also set to make an appearance in the upcoming Bond film. It features four rear-facing cameras, including a 64-megapixel lens and a macro — an uncommon but increasingly popular alternative on the latest batch of smartphones. The screen is a massive 6.81 inches, and the device is — unsurprisingly — powered by Qualcomm’s mid-tier Snapdragon 765G.

Today’s announcement also finds Nokia bringing its fully wireless earbuds stateside. No specific time frame was given for the Power Earbuds, but they’ll be priced at a reasonable $99. There’s stiff competition in the market, these days — especially in the low end of the market — but the buds have been getting a pretty positive reaction for their price point, thanks to a comfortable design and a ridiculous 150 hours of battery courtesy of their massive charging case.

#5g, #earbuds, #hardware, #hmd, #nokia, #smartphones

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Event discovery network IRL raises $16M Series B after refocusing on virtual events

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way a number of companies have had to do business. For the event discovery startup, IRL, it meant pivoting into the virtual events space. This April, the startup quickly reacted to government lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gatherings to focus on helping people find their online counterparts and other virtual events, like live-streamed concerts, Zoom parties, esports tournaments, and more. Today, those efforts are paying off as IRL announces $16 million in Series B funding and the expansion of its social calendaring app to colleges.

The new round was led by Goodwater Capital with participation from Founders Fund, Floodgate, and Raine, and comes on top of the $11 million IRL had previously raised, including its $8 million Series A last year.

The coronavirus pandemic, surprisingly, may have made IRL relevant to a wider audience. Before, IRL was mostly useful to those who lived in areas where there were a lot of events to attend, or who could afford to travel. But with the refocusing on “remote life” instead of “real life,” more people could launch the app to find something interesting to do — even if it was only online.

In fitting with its new focus, IRL redesigned its app earlier this year to create a new homescreen experience where users could discover events they could attend remotely. This design continues to be tweaked, and now features a colorful “discover” tab in the app where you can tap into various event categories, like gaming, music, tv, wellness, sports, podcasts, lifestyle, and more, including those sourced from partners like TikTok, Meetup, Twitch, Spotify, SoundCloud, HBO, Ticketmaster, Eventbrite, and others.

There are also dedicated sections for events you’re following and a curated Top Picks. The IRL in-app calendar, meanwhile, lets you easily see what’s happening today and in the weeks and months ahead.

Since its refocusing on virtual events, IRL has brought people together for online happenings like Burning Man’s Multiverse and TikTok Live’s The Weekend Experience, for example.

According to TikTok, IRL had helped it gauge early interest in its The Weekend Experience event, with some 52,000 IRL RSVPs and 1.1 million followers on its IRL profile.

Image Credits: IRL screenshot via TechCrunch

“IRL has been an amazing platform for us to engage with more of our audience and meet new potential users,” said Jenny Zhu, Head of Integrated Marketing U.S. at TikTok. She also added that TikTok sees “major traffic coming from IRL” and is “excited to continue our partnership.”

In terms of growth, IRL claims its users are now tracking over 1 million hours per spent daily in “Time Together” — a metric that tabulates the number of hours users are spending together at the events they RSVP’d to, virtual or otherwise. In addition, IRL says it has seen 10x growth in daily active users and a total of 300 million “Time Together” hours since last June. It also claims 5.5 million MAUs.

While IRL doesn’t share its download figures, app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower estimates the app has seen a total of 7.7 million installs across iOS and Android.

With the additional capital, IRL is expanding with the launch of a college network.

Its goal is to improve upon the Facebook experience for the younger, student demographic by helping college users find, share, and attend academic and social events, both physical and virtual. However, just this month Facebook launched its own college network, Facebook Campus, which allows students to privately network and track student events on the Facebook platform, outside of their main Facebook profile.

IRL says it’s starting its college network with 100 colleges and universities across the North America, including Harvard, Columbia and NYU. Facebook Campus, meanwhile, launched with 30 schools.

“IRL is the only social platform that helps users find the best ways to spend their time and actually encourages them to get off the platform,” said IRL founder and CEO Abraham Shafi, Founder, about the launch of the new network. “Colleges and universities, in particular, need a way to build and foster a sense of community, whether their students are away from campus remote learning or on campus practicing hybrid learning,” he explained.

For IRL’s investor, Chi-Hua Chien, a Managing Partner at Goodwater Capital, the potential in IRL is its focus on real connections and community-building.

“We believe IRL will grow to become one of the major social networks powering communities on the Internet and in the real world,” Chien said. “IRL delivers on the promise to make social media less isolating, by helping drive authentic connection between friends and family around events they care about,” he added.

 

#apps, #funding, #social, #startups

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Bose introduces a new pair of sleep-focused earbuds

Sleep is tough to come by even when there isn’t a pandemic raging. Even when it doesn’t feel like the world is coming apart at the seams every damn day. Bose’s original Sleepbuds pre-date the current desperate moment of “coronasomnia” (not my turn of phrase, mind) by a couple of years, but the timing of the Sleepbuds II could hardly be better.

The new version follows the same principle as its predecessor: comfortable buds that you can wear to sleep. And once again, they rely on Bose’s proprietary content. That was one of my bigger issues with the original buds, and that seems to still be the case here. Bose continues to update its content, but you can’t listen to your own calming music on these $250 headphones.

Image Credits: Bose

Per Bose, “They aren’t active noise cancelling headphones or in-ear headphones with an added feature, and they don’t stream music or let you take and make calls — because every last detail was optimized for one thing — better sleep, all night, every night.” That understandably may be a dealbreaker for some — particularly at that price point. That said, there are a number of other sleep-focused earbuds that do let you customize content if you’re like me and enjoy falling asleep to weird ambient albums.

The content library is still a bit limited, but expanding. There are 35 free tracks, including,

When that’s caused by noise, 14 noise-masking tracks mirror the frequencies of night-time disruptions, hiding them under soothing layers of audio. When it’s caused by how you feel, new relaxation options are now available: 15 Naturescapes help calm racing thoughts with walks down a Country Road, Shore Line, Boardwalk, and beyond; 10 Tranquilities help lower stress and tension with tones to Lift, Drift, Dream, and more.

The buds themselves are lighter than before, and the noise canceling has been improved. There are also new, proprietary ear tips for added comfort. All welcome additions, no doubt. The battery should give you 10 hours of playback on a charge — more than enough for most nights. The new charging case provides an extra 30 hours — that will be nice for when we travel again. There’s also a tiny bit of storage for up to 10 sound files on the bud.

The Sleepbuds II go up for preorder today and will start shipping in early October.

#bose, #hardware, #sleepbuds, #sleepbuds-2, #wearables

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HubSpot’s new end-to-end sales hub aims to simplify CRM for mid-market customers

HubSpot, the Boston firm that made its name by helping to define the in-bound marketing concept, sees a pandemic landscape that’s changing the way companies sell, forcing more inside sales. Today, the company announced the HubSpot Sales Hub Enterprise at Inbound, their annual conference being held virtually this year.

While the company has been offering a CRM tool for five years now, where they feel they have addressed ease of use issues for sales people, the new tool is about bringing a new end-to-end approach addressing the needs of sales people, as well as management and system admins, says Lou Orfanos, GM and VP of Sales Hub at HubSpot.

“So, this is about [providing customers with a more powerful set of tools] and also just making sure that you can run your sales process end to end in our platform. We feel really good about being able to offer that out of the box natively and being able to do everything you need to do [in one tool], which is I think pretty unique given the state of the market and having to [cobble] a bunch of things together yourself,” Orfanos explained.

While the previous product was aimed more at smaller businesses, CMO Yamini Rangan, who previously worked at Dropbox, Workday and SAP, says this product is aimed more at mid-market companies with more complex sales workflows.

“What we find is that the customer experience for a 500 person company or for a 1000 person company is quite different and their expectations are quite different than a 10 person small business. What the Sales Hub Enterprise specifically brings is the ease of use, as well as the powerful features […] to a larger mid-market organization,” Rangan said.

HubSpot specifically sees larger companies in this space like Adobe, Salesforce and SAP acquiring different pieces of the stack, and then incorporating them into a solution, or customers pulling together different pieces of the stack themselves. The company believes that by building a single integrated solution themselves, it’s going to be naturally easier to use.

“We also find that that’s the size of the company where the tech stack, the sales stack and the marketing stack gets super complex, and they’re spending a lot of time trying to integrate a lot of different point solutions and what we find is having all of this — marketing, CMS, sales underlined by a CRM platform — that gives them visibility that they need to run their entire go to market operations,” she said.

While the lower end of the market where HubSpot is aiming for probably won’t interest larger competitors, especially Salesforce, as they move up in that market to larger companies, they expect to compete with those companies. Rangan says that she believes by providing this new offering, they are giving customers options they didn’t have before.

But she also sees this as a way into companies as they grow, and if HubSpot can catch them earlier in their evolution, they can grow with them and become their vendor of choice, rather than the usual suspects.

“What we find is that companies will start as 100 person company and grow to become a 500 or a 1000 person company, and as they grow up on HubSpot we become their growth suite and we become the core platform of record for them to continue to grow,” she said.

#cloud, #crm, #digital-marketing, #enterprise, #hubspot, #saas

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Mailchimp launches new AI tools as it continues its transformation to marketing platform

Mailchimp may have started out as an easy to use newsletter tool, but that was almost 20 years ago. Today’s company still does email, but at its core, it is now a marketing automation platform for small businesses that also offers a website builder, basic online stores, digital ad support and analytics to make sense of it all. Like before, though, the company’s main goal is to make all these features easy to use for small business users.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

Today, Mailchimp, which has never taken outside funding, is taking the next step in its own transformation with the launch of a set of AI-based tools that give small businesses easy access to the same kind of capabilities that their larger competitors now use. That includes personalized product recommendations for shoppers and forecasting tools for behavioral targeting to see which users are most likely to buy something, for example. But there’s now also a new AI-backed tool to help business owners design their own visual asset (based in part on its acquisition of Sawa), as well as a tool to help them write better email subject lines.

There’s also a new tool that helps businesses choose the next best action. It looks at all of the data the service aggregates and gives users actionable recommendations for how to improve their email campaign performance.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“The journey to get here started about four years ago,” Mailchimp’s founding CEO Ben Chestnut told me. “We were riding high. Email was doing amazing for us. And things look so good. And I had a choice, I felt I could sell the business and make a lot of money. I had some offers. Or I could just coast, honestly. I could just be a hero in email and keep it simple and just keep raking in the money. Or I could take on another really tough challenge, which would be act two of  Mailchimp. And I honestly didn’t know what that would be. To be honest with you, that was four years ago, it could have been anything really.”

But after talking to the team, including John Foreman, the head of data analytics at the time and now Mailchimp’s CPO, Chestnut put the company on this new path to go after the marketing automation space. In part, he told me, he did so because he noted that the email space was getting increasingly crowded. “You know how that ends. I mean, you can’t stay there forever with this many competitors. So I knew that we had to up our game,” he said.

And that meant going well beyond email and building numerous new products.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“It was a huge transformation for us,” Chestnut acknowledged. “We had to get good at building for other customer segments at the time, like e-commerce customers and others. And that was new for us, too. It’s all kinds of new disciplines for us. To inflict that kind of change on your employees is very, very rough. I just can’t help but look back with gratitude that my employees were willing to go on this journey with me. And they actually had faith in me and this release — this fall release — is really the culmination of everything we’ve been working on for four years to me.”

One thing that helped was that Mailchimp already had e-commerce customers — and as Chestnut noted, they were pushing the system to its limit. Only a few years ago, the culture at Mailchimp looked at them as somewhat annoying, though, Chestnut admitted, because they were quite demanding. They didn’t even make the company a lot of money either. At the time, non-profits were Mailchimp’s best customers, but they weren’t pushing the technology to its limits.

Despite this transformation, Mailchimp hasn’t made a lot of acquisitions to accelerate this process. Chestnut argues that a lot of what it is doing — say adding direct mail — is something that was more or less and extension of what it was already good at. But it did make some small AI and ML acquisitions to bring the right expertise in-house, as well as two e-commerce acquisitions, including Lemonstand. Most recently, Mailchimp acquired Courier, a British magazine, newsletter and podcast, marking its first move into the print business.

With this new set of products and services, Mailchimp is now aiming to give small businesses access to the same capabilities the larger e-commerce players have long had, but without the complexity.

To build tools based on machine learning, one needs data — and that’s something Mailchimp already had.

“We’ve been doing marketing for decades,” Mailchimp CPO Foreman said. “And we have millions of small businesses on the platform. And so not only do we build all these tools ourselves, which allows us to integrate them from a visual design perspective — they’re not necessarily acquisitions — but we have this common data set from years and years of doing marketing across millions of businesses, billions of customers we’re talking to, and so we thought, how can we use intelligence — artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. — to also sand down how all of these tools connect.”

Chestnut says he isn’t likely to put the company on a similar transformation anytime soon. “I really believe you can only take on one major transformation per decade,” he said. “And so you better pick the right one and you better invest it. We’re all in on this all-in-one marketing platform that’s e-commerce enabled. That is unique enough. And now what I’m trying to get my company to do is go deep.”

#advertising-tech, #analytics, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #ben-chestnut, #business, #cloud-applications, #computing, #email, #mailchimp, #marketing-automation, #startups, #tc, #website-builder

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Microsoft challenges Twilio with the launch of Azure Communication Services

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Communication Services, a new set of features in its cloud that enable developers to add voice and video calling, chat, text messages to their apps, as well as old-school telephony.

The company describes the new set of services as the ” first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider” and that seems right, given that Google and AWS offer some of these features, including the AWS notification service, for example, but not as part of a cohesive communication service. Indeed, it seems Azure Communication Service is more of a competitor to the core features of Twilio or up-and-coming MessageBird.

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft has built up a lot of experience in this area, in large parts things to the success of its Teams service. Unsurprisingly, that’s something Microsoft is also playing up in its announcement.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure. Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support 5B+ meeting minutes daily,” writes Scott Van Vliet, Corporate Vice President for Intelligent Communication at the company.

Microsoft also stresses that it offers a set of additional smart services that developers can tap into to build out their communication services, including its translation tools, for example. The company also notes that its services are encrypted to meet HIPPA and GDPR standards.

Like similar services, developer access the various capabilities through a set of new APIs and SDKs.

As for the core services, the capabilities here are pretty much what you’d expect. There’s voice and video calling (and the ability to shift between them). There’s support for chat and starting in October, users will also be able to send text messages. Microsoft says developers will be able to send these to users anywhere, with Microsoft positioning it as a global service.

Provisioning phone numbers, too, is part of the services and developers will be able to provision those for in-bound and out-bound calls, port existing numbers, request new ones and — most importantly for contact-center users — integrated them with existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks.

“Our goal is to meet businesses where they are and provide solutions to help them be resilient and move their business forward in today’s market,” writes Van Vliet. “We see rich communication experiences – enabled by voice, video, chat, and SMS – continuing to be an integral part in how businesses connect with their customers across devices and platforms.”

#amazon-web-services, #aws, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #google, #microsoft, #microsoft-azure, #tc, #telephony, #twilio

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Microsoft Azure launches new availability zones in Canada and Australia

Microsoft Azure offers developers access to more data center regions than its competitors, but it was late to the game of offering different availability zones in those regions for high-availability use cases. After a few high-profile issues a couple of years ago, it accelerated its roadmap for building availability zones. Currently, 12 of Microsoft’s regions feature availability zones and as the company announced at its Ignite conference, both the Canada Central and Australia region will feature availability zones now.

In addition, the company today promised that it would launch availability zones in each country it operates data centers in within the next 24 months.

The idea of an availability zone is to offer users access to data centers that in the same geographic region but are physically separate and each feature their own power, networking and connectivity infrastructure. That way, in case one of those data centers goes offline for whatever reason, there is still another one in the same area that can take over.

In its early days, Microsoft Azure took a slightly different approach and focus on regions without availability zones, arguing that geographic expansion was more important than offering zones. Google took a somewhat similar approach, but it now offers three availability zones for virtually all of its regions (and four in Iowa). The general idea here was that developers could always choose multiple regions for high-availability applications, but that still introduces additional latencies, for example.

#australia, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #cloud-storage, #computing, #data-center, #data-management, #google, #iowa, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #microsoft-azure

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Microsoft brings data services to its Arc multi-cloud management service

Microsoft today launched a major update to its Arc multi-cloud service that allows Azure customers to run and manage workloads across clouds — including those of Microsoft’s competitors — and their on on-premises data centers. First announced at Microsoft Ignite in 2019, Arc was always meant to not just help users manage their servers but to also allow them to run data services like Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL close to where their data sits.

Today, the company is making good on this promise with the preview launch of Azure Arc enabled data services with support for, as expected, Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL.

In addition, Microsoft is making the core feature of Arc, Arc enabled servers, generally available. These are the tools at the core of the service that allow enterprises can use the standard Azure Portal to manage and monitor their Windows and Linux servers across their multi-cloud and edge environments.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“We’ve always known that enterprises are looking to unlock the agility of the cloud — they love the app model, they love the business model — while balancing a need to maintain certain applications and workloads on premises,” Rohan Kumar, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure Data said. “A lot of customers actually have a multi-cloud strategy. In some cases, they need to keep the data specifically for regulatory compliance. And in many cases, they want to maximize their existing investments. They’ve spent a lot of CapEx.”

As Kumar stressed, Microsoft wants to meet customers where they are, without forcing them to adopt a container architecture, for example, or replace their specialized engineered appliances to use Arc.

“Hybrid is really [about] providing that flexible choice to our customers, meeting them where they are, and not prescribing a solution,” he said.

He admitted that this approach makes engineering the solution more difficult, but the team decided that the baseline should be a container endpoint and nothing more. And for the most part, Microsoft packaged up the tools its own engineers were already using to run Azure services on the company’s own infrastructure to manage these services in a multi-cloud environment.

“In hindsight, it was a little challenging at the beginning, because, you can imagine, when we initially built them, we didn’t imagine that we’ll be packaging them like this. But it’s a very modern design point,” Kumar said. But the result is that supporting customers is now relatively easy because it’s so similar to what the team does in Azure, too.

Kumar noted that one of the selling points for the Azure Data Services is also that the version of Azure SQL is essentially evergreen, allowing them to stop worrying about SQL Server licensing and end-of-life support questions.

#arc, #azure-arc, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #database, #enterprise, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #microsoft-azure, #serverless-computing, #sql, #tc

0

Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a ‘personal productivity assistant’ as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android is coming to n Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise users. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, an integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now let you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.

#android, #artificial-intelligence, #australia, #bing-mobile, #canada, #cortana, #enterprise, #google, #india, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #microsoft-office, #operating-systems, #smartphones, #software, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #virtual-assistant, #voice-assistant, #windows-10, #windows-phone

0

Microsoft Teams gets breakout rooms, custom layouts and virtual commutes

Unsurprisingly, Teams has become a major focus for Microsoft during the COVID-19 pandemic and so it’s no surprise that the company is using its annual Ignite IT conference to announce a number of new features for the services.

Today’s announcements follow the launch of features like Together Mode and dynamic view earlier this summer.

Together Mode, which puts cutouts of meeting participants in different settings, is getting a bit of an update today with the launch of new scenes: auditoriums, coffee shops and conference rooms. Like before, the presenter chooses the scene, but what’s new now is that Microsoft is also now using machine learning to ensure that participants are automatically centered in their virtual chairs, making the whole scene look just a little bit more natural (and despite what Microsoft’s research shows, I can never help but think that this all looks a bit goofy, maybe because it reminds me of the opening credits of the Muppet Show).

Image Credits: Microsoft

Also new in Teams is custom layouts, which allow presenters to customize how their presentations — and their own video feeds — appear. With this, a presenter can superimpose her own video image over the presentation, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Breakout rooms, a feature that is getting a lot of use in Zoom these days, is now also coming to Teams. Microsoft calls it the most requested feature in Teams and like in similar products, it also meeting organizers to split participants into smaller groups — and the meeting organizer can then go from room to room. Unsurprisingly, this feature is especially popular with teachers, though companies, too, often use it to facilitate brainstorming sessions, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

After exhausting all your brainstorming power in those breakout rooms and finishing up your meeting, Teams can now also send you an automatic recap of a meeting that includes a recording, transcript, shared files and more. These recaps will automatically appear on your Outlook calendar. In the future, Microsoft will also enable the ability to automatically store these recordings on SharePoint.

For companies that regularly host large meetings, Microsoft will launch support for up to 1,000 participants in the near future. Attendees in these meetings will get the full Teams experience, Microsoft promises. Later, Microsoft will also enable view-only meetings for up to 20,000 participants. Both of these features will become available as part of a new ‘Advanced Communications’ plan, which is probably no surprise, given how much bandwidth and compute power it will likely take to manage a 1,000-person meetings.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft also made two hardware announcements related to Team today. The first is the launch of what it calls ‘Microsoft Teams panels,’ which are essentially small tablets that businesses can put outside of their meeting rooms for wayfinding. One cool feature here — especially as business start planning their post-pandemic office strategy — is that these devices will be able to use information from the cameras in the room to count how many people are attending a meeting in person and then show remaining room capacity, for example.

The company also today announced that the giant Surface Hub 2S 85-inch model will be available in January 2021.

And there is more. Microsoft is also launching new Teams features for front-line workers to help schedule shifts, alert workers when they are using Teams off-shift and praise badges that enable organizations to recognize workers (though those workers would probably prefer hard cash over a digital badge).

Also new is an integration between Teams and RealWear head-mounted devices for remote collaboration and a new Walkie Talkie app for Android.

And since digital badges aren’t usually enough to improve employee wellbeing, Microsoft is also adding a new set of wellbeing features to Teams. These provide users with personalized recommendations to help change habits and improve wellbeing and productivity.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That includes a new ‘virtual commute’ feature that includes an integration with Headspace and an emotional check-in experience.

I’ve always been a fan of short and manageable commutes for getting some distance between work and home, but that’s not exactly a thing right now. Maybe Headspace works as an example, but there’s only so much Andy Puddicombe I can take. Still, I think I’ll keep my emotional check-ins to myself, though Microsoft obviously notes that it will keep all of that information private.

And while businesses now care about your emotional wellbeing (because it’s closely related to your productivity), managers mostly care about the wor you get done. For them, Workplace Analytics is coming to Teams, giving “managers line of sight into teamwork norms like after-hours collaboration, focus time, meeting effectiveness, and cross-company connections. These will then be compared to averages among similar teams to provide managers with actionable insights.”

If that doesn’t make your manager happy, what will? Maybe a digital praise badge?

#computing, #enterprise, #industries, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #tc

0

Microsoft launches Premonition, its hardware and software platform for detecting biological threats

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced that Premonition, a robotics and sensor platform for monitoring and sampling disease carriers like mosquitos and a cloud-based software stack for analyzing samples, will soon be in private preview.

The idea here, as Microsoft describes it, is to set up a system that can essentially function as a weather monitoring system, but for disease outbreaks. The company first demonstrated the project in 2015, but it has come quite a long way since.

Premonition sounds like a pretty wild project, but Microsoft says it’s based on five years of R&D in this area. The company says it is partnering with the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Program and academic partners like Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to test the tools it’s developing here. In addition, it is also working with pharmaceutical giant Bayer to “develop a deeper understanding of vector-borne diseases and the role of autonomous sensor networks for biothreat detection.”

Currently, it seems, focus is on diseases transmitted by mosquitos and Microsoft actually set up a ‘Premonition Proving Ground’ on its Redmon campus to help researchers test their robots, train their machine learning models and analyze the data they collect. In this Arthropod Containment Level 2 facility, the company can raise and analyze mosquitos. But the idea is to go well beyond this and monitor the entire biome.

So far, Microsoft says, the Premonition system has scanned more than 80 trillion base-pairs of genomic material for biological threats.

“About five years ago, we saw that robotics, AI and cloud computing were reaching a tipping point where we could monitor the biome in entirely new ways, at entirely new scales,” Ethan Jackson, the senior director of Premonition, said in a video the company released today. “It was really the 2014 Ebola outbreak that led to this realization. How did one of the rarest viruses on the planet jump from animal to people to cause this outbreak? What signals are we missing that might have allowed us to predict it?”

Image Credits: Mirosoft

Two years later, in 2016, when Zika emerged, the team had already built a small fleet of smart robotic traps that could autonomously identify and capture mosquito. The system identifies the mosquito and can then make a split-second decision whether to capture it or let it fly. In a single night, Jackson said, the trap has already been able to identify up to 10,000 mosquitos.

In the U.S., the first place where Microsoft deployed these systems was Harris County, Texas.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Everything we do now in terms of mosquito treatment is reactive – we see a lot of mosquitoes, we go spray a lot of mosquitoes,” said Douglas E. Norris, an entomologist and Johns Hopkins University professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, who was part of this project. “Imagine if you had a forecasting system that shows, in a few days you’re going to have a lot of mosquitoes based on all this data and these models – then you could go out and treat them earlier before they’re biting, spray, hit them early so you don’t get those big mosquito blooms which then might result in disease transmission.”

This is, by all means, a very ambitious project. Why is Microsoft announcing it now, at its Ignite conference? Unsurprisingly, the whole system relies on the Microsoft Azure cloud to provide the storage and compute power to run — and it’s a nice way for Microsoft to show off its AI systems, too.

#artificial-intelligence, #bayer, #cloud-computing, #computing, #internet-of-things, #johns-hopkins-university, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #mosquito, #national-science-foundation, #science, #tc, #texas, #united-states, #vanderbilt-university, #zika

0

Microsoft launches Azure Orbital to connect satellites to its cloud

At its (virtual) Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Orbital, a new service that is meant to give satellite operators a complete platform to communicate with their satellites and process data from them — including the ground stations to receive those signals.

The company is specifically positioning the services as a solution for working with geospatial data and itis already partnering with Amergint, Kratos, KSAT, KubOS, Viasat, US Electrodynamics and Viasat to bring the service to market.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Microsoft is well-positioned to support customer needs in gathering, transporting, and processing of geospatial data,” Yves Pitsch, Principal Product Manager, Azure Networking, writes in today’s blog post. “With our intelligent cloud and edge strategy currently extending over sixty announced cloud regions, advanced analytics, and AI capabilities coupled with one of the fastest and most resilient networks in the world – security and innovation are at the core of everything we do.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

The promise here is that satellite operators will be able to run not just the data analysis on Microsoft’s cloud but all of their digital ground operations. That includes the ability to schedule contacts with their spacecraft over Microsoft’s owned and operated ground stations (using X, S and UHF frequencies). That data can then immediately flow into Azure’s various solutions for storage, analysis and machine learning.

With AWS Ground Stations, Amazon already offers a similar ground station-as-a-service product that also includes a global network of antennas and direct access to the AWS cloud. AWS went one step further, though, and recently launched a dedicated business unit for aerospace and satellite solutions.

#aerospace, #amazon, #amazon-web-services, #artificial-intelligence, #aws, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #viasat

0

Microsoft brings new robotic process automation features to its Power Platform

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Softomotive, a player in the low-code robotic process automation space with a focus on Windows. Today, at its Ignite conference, the company is launching Power Automate Desktop, a new application based on Softomotive’s technology that lets anyone automate desktop workflows without needing to program.

“The big idea of Power Platform is that we want to go make it so development is accessible to everybody,” Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate VP for its low-code platform, told me. “And development includes understanding and reporting on your data with Power BI, building web and mobile applications with Power Apps, automating your tasks — whether it’s through robotic process automation or workflow automation — with Power Automate, or building chatbots and chat-based experiences with Power Virtual Agent.”

Power Automate already allowed users to connect web-based applications, similar to Zapier and IFTTT, but the company also launched a browser extension earlier late last year to help users connect native system components to Power Automate. Now, with the integration of the Softomotive technology and the launch of this new low-code Windows application, it’s taking this integration into the native Windows user interface one step further.

“Everything still runs in the cloud and still connects to the cloud, but you now have a rich desktop application to author and record your UI automations,” Lamanna explained. He likened it to an ‘ultimate connector,’ noting that the “ultimate API is just the UI.”

He also stressed that the new app feels like any other modern Office app like Outlook (which is getting a new Mac version today, by the way) or Word. And like the modern versions of those apps, Power Automate Desktop derives a lot of its power from being connected to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Power Automate isn’t just a platform for automating simple two- or three-step processes (like sending you a text message when your boss emails you), but also for multistep, business-critical workflows. T-Mobile, for example, is using the platform to automate some of the integration processes between its systems and Sprint.

Lamanna noted that for some large enterprises, adopting these kinds of low-code services necessitates a bit of a culture shift. IT still needs to have some insights into how these tools are used, after all, to ensure that data is kept safe, for example.

Another new feature the company announced today is an integration between the Power Platform and GitHub, which is now in public preview. The idea here is to give developers the ability to create their own software lifecycle workflows. “One of the core ideas of Power Platform is that it’s low code,” Lamanna said. “So it’s built first for business users, business analysts, not the classical developers. But pro devs are welcome. The saying I have is: we’re throwing a party for business users, but pro devs are also invited to the party.” But to get them onto the platform, the team wants to meet them where they are and let them use the tools they already use — and that’s GitHub (and Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code).

#articles, #author, #automation, #business, #business-process-automation, #business-process-management, #business-software, #economy, #ifttt, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #player, #softomotive, #tc, #windows, #zapier

0

Microsoft updates its Endpoint Manager with improved macOS support and more

At its Ignite conference today, Microsoft announced a number of new features for the Microsoft Endpoint Manager, the company’s unified platform for managing and securing devices in an enterprise environment. The service, which combines the features of the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager with the cloud-based tools of Intune, launched just under a year ago. Today’s updates build on the foundation the team created at the time and add improved macOS and iPad support, as well as new tools for connecting mobile devices to on-premises apps and additional productivity tools based on the date the company gathers from the service. The company is also making it easier for corporate IT departments to provision devices for employees remotely.

If anything, the pandemic has only accelerated both the growth of this business for Microsoft and the need for companies to manage their remote devices.

“It really is about bringing this cloud and all the intelligence that we had in Intune together with Config Manager and making it act as one,” Brad Anderson, Microsoft corporate VP for the Commercial Management Experiences team, told me. “And it’s been so fascinated to see how the pandemic accelerated people wanting and needing to use that. When the pandemic first hit – and as I go back to March 8th or 10th, in the US, the calls that I was having almost every day with CIOs centered around, ‘my VPN is overwhelmed. How am I going to patch on keep all my systems updated?’”

Today’s announcements build on the work Microsoft has done on this service over the course of the last year. After launching support for scripting on macOS earlier this year, for example, the company today announced a new “first-class management experience on macOS” that brings deploy scripts, but also improved enrollment experiences and app lifecycle management feature to the platform.

Endpoint Manager now also supports Apple’s Shared iPad for Business functionality and will help businesses deploy iPads to their users and allow them to log in with Azure Active Directory accounts. This gives users two separate portions on the device: one for work and one for everything else.

Another new feature is Microsoft Tunnel. This gives businesses a VPN that can cover the entire device or single apps to ensure that their employees’ devices are secure and compliant with their internal policy to access their networks.

“The key thing [with Microsoft Tunnel] is that this is all integrated into our conditional access,” Anderson explained. “And so when that VPN comes up, before access is granted to the data or to the apps, the conditional access engine that we’ve built inside of Microsoft 365 has that point of view on the trust of the identity and the trust of the device. That really is the key differentiator on that. I’ll tell you, between you and I, that one feature is probably the single feature that customers who are running another MDM and then the Microsoft Endpoint Manager — that’s the one they’re waiting for.”

Endpoint Manager now also supports the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) environment. That’s been a massive growth area for the company — one that has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Anderson told me, the company saw 10x growth for WVD through the pandemic. “Now, Windows Virtual Desktop is that first-class citizen inside Microsoft Endpoint Manager. So you can manage your virtual endpoints just like you manage your physical endpoints. All your policies are applicable, all your apps are clickable. And it just makes it easier to be able to use that as one of the tools you have to empower your users,” he said.

Another area of Endpoint Manager, which may only seem tangentially related at first, is Microsoft’s Productivity Score. There are two aspects to this service, though: employee experience and technology experience. Productivity Score is meant to help businesses better understand how their employees are working — and identify areas where companies can improve. On the technology side, that also means understanding which apps crash, for example, or why laptops slow down.

“Here’s one of the key scenarios,” said Anderson. “We’ll get a call every once in a while that says, like, ‘hey, my users are all having a great experience with Office 365 but I’ve got a handful of users for whom it’s slow.’ More often than not, that’s a networking issue. And so every time a user, for example, opens a file or saves a file, opens an attachment, we get telemetry back that helps us understand the operations of that. We probably know when an ISP in the south of France sneezes, because Office 365 is so ubiquitous now.”

The other new feature here is what Microsoft calls Endpoint Analytics. With this, Microsoft can now provide businesses with details information about when apps on their employees’ devices crash – no matter whether that’s an internal app, a third-party service — or a Microsoft app.

In addition to these technology scores, Productivity Score is also getting new categories like meetings, so managers can see how many meetings their employees have, as well as a new teamwork category.

#chrome-os, #computing, #enterprise, #ipad, #microsoft, #microsoft-365, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #mobile-devices, #network-management, #software, #system-administration, #tc

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Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux in October

Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux, starting with the Dev channel. The first of these previews will go live in October.

When Microsoft announced that it would switch its Edge browser to the Chromium engine, it vowed to bring it to every popular platform. At the time, Linux wasn’t part of that list, but by late last year, it became clear that Microsoft was indeed working on a Linux version. Later, at this year’s Build, a Microsoft presenter even used it during a presentation.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Starting in October, Linux users will be able to either download the browser from the Edge Insider website or through their native package managers. Linux users will get the same Edge experience as users on Windows and macOS, as well as access to its built-in privacy and security features. For the most part, I would expect the Linux experience to be on par with that on the other platforms.

Microsoft also today announced that its developers have made over 3,700 commits to the Chromium project so far. Some of this work has been on support for touchscreens, but the team also contributed to areas like accessibility features and developer tools, on top of core browser fundamentals.

Currently, Microsoft Edge is available on Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as
macOS, iOS and Android.

#chromium, #computing, #edge, #freeware, #google-chrome, #linux, #microsoft, #microsoft-edge, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #software, #tc, #web-browsers

0

How to watch Tesla’s double hitter shareholder meeting and battery day event

Tesla’s battery day is here after months of tweets and teasers from the company’s CEO Elon Musk. And while the battery day portion will certainly provide plenty of news and insights into Tesla, there is another company-related activity that promises the same.

The Tesla event, which begins at 1:30 p.m. PT September 22, kicks off with its annual shareholder meeting followed by the battery day activities. That’s today. Readers can watch the live stream here.

Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting — like its earnings call — tend to be packed with announcements and updates and general ruminating and forecasting from Musk. Expect questions and hopefully answers about Tesla’s various construction projects around the world, including new factories in Austin, Texas and Berlin as well as the expansion in Shanghai.

Whether Musk provides an update on the Roadster and Tesla Semi is unclear. However, at least one tweet from Musk hints that the two products will come up during the Battery Day section of activities today. Musk noted that what is revealed today during Battery Day will affects long-term production, especially its Class 8 truck the Tesla Semi as well as its Roadster sports car and Cybertruck. “What we announce will not reach serious high-volume production until 2022,” he wrote.

What many in the industry expect Tesla to announce is that it’s manufacturing its own battery cells, likely setting up production within the confines of its new factories as it continues to vertically integrate.

Tesla’s $218 million acquisition of Maxwell Technologies in 2018 triggered speculation that the company was interested in developing and even manufacturing its own battery cells. Actions taken by the company in the past two years seem to support this. However, Tesla’s interest in developing better batteries was piqued long before it acquired Maxwell. In 2015, Tesla signed a 5-year exclusive partnership  with Jeff Dahn, a leading lithium-ion battery researcher and professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. The exclusive partnership with Tesla began in June 2016, after Dahn completed a project funded by 3M and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to develop longer lasting, lower cost lithium-ion battery cells.

Expect the fruits of that partnership — which has produced a steady stream of patent applications — to be described in more detail today.

Panasonic is Tesla’s primary battery cell supplier. The company has a joint venture with Tesla, manufacturing cells at the so-called Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada. The initial plan was for the gigafactory to produce 35 gigawatt hours of battery capacity, a goal it has reached. Now, Panasonic is adding another production line, an expansion that will increase battery cell capacity by 10%.

The Gigafactory has been the centerpiece of Tesla’s plan to expand global battery capacity and reduce the cost of electric vehicles. Panasonic has been its most important partner in that project, which, based on a recent agreement, should last until at least 2023.

That doesn’t mean Tesla hasn’t been dedicated to developing its own battery technology. Musk tweeted Monday that the company intends to increase, not reduce battery cell purchases from Panasonic, LG and CATL (possibly other partners too) “However, even with our cell suppliers going at maximum speed, we still foresee significant shortages in 2022 and beyond unless we also take action ourselves.”

And there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that the company has been working in earnest on its own batteries. In August 2019, Tesla received a permit from the Bay Area Air Quality District to operate a pilot battery manufacturing line at a facility in Fremont, Calif, near its vehicle assembly factory. The facility on Kato Road also had an application for what appears to be a more permanent permit, but it remains incomplete for data, which means the company never submitted all the necessary data for regulators to review. However, the air quality district has since issued two new permits, one for cathode coating and another simply described as “trade secret,” for the same Kato facility that has been tied to Tesla’s battery development in the past.

#automotive, #elon-musk, #tesla, #transportation

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Join Accel’s Andrew Braccia and Sonali De Rycker for a live Q&A today at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT

Disrupt was just days ago, but the TechCrunch crew is continuing our regular series of public chats with leading founders and venture capitalists under the Extra Crunch Live banner.

Today, we’re excited to host Andrew Braccia and Sonali De Rycker from Accel. The pair of investors will join us for a live Q&A at 2 p.m. Eastern time today (11 a.m. Pacific, 8 p.m. CET). Links and details are down below.

As discussed last week when we announced the session, there’s a lot to get to. Braccia led Slack’s Series A, which means we’ll need to discuss remote work, the direct listing debate and modern SaaS stuff. And with De Rycker we’ll dig into what she’s seeing in Europe and how the two startup markets compare in today’s evolving markets.

(If you are just catching up to Extra Crunch Live, we’ve been hosting live discussions since the early COVID-19 days here in the United States with folks like Mark CubanPlaid founder Zach Perret and Sequoia’s Roelof Botha taking part.)

I’ve also been thinking about India (Accel raised a fifth India fund in 2019), which will be worth talking about a little bit even if neither of our guests primarily focuses on the country. And if we have time, it would even be good to get their feelings and reactions to the TikTok mess.

But, before we get into the more exotic areas of conversation we’ll power through the nuts-and-bolts stuff that founders want to know: How active Accel is today, what size checks it is currently writing, its sector focuses and the like. Given that we have a full hour if we want it, we’ll be able to cover a lot of ground.

Be sure to bring your own questions, and I’ll do my best to get to them as we chat.

It should prove to be a good, and, I hope, useful conversation that I am looking forward to hosting. Login details follow for Extra Crunch folks, and you can snag a cheap trial here if you need access.

(If you want to pre-submit a question, you can tweet it at me, but after the actual livestream kicks off I will no longer be checking Twitter. Get them in now, in other words.)

Details

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Amazon taps Echelon for the Prime Bike, a $500 Peloton knock-off

Amazon teamed up with Echelon to build and sell the Prime Bike. The $500 exercise bike is a virtual clone of the $1900 Peloton bike minus the screen — even the color scheme and design are the same. The bike is available now from Amazon (and Walmart with slightly different branding).

Echelon builds several fitness products, including a smart mirror that’s eerily similar to Mirror. The Prime Bike is Echelon’s third smart bike with the other two feature video screens, and are available for $999 and $1,199.

The Prime Bike has nearly every feature found on a Peloton bike from multiple adjustments to front-mounted wheels for easy movement. Instead of toe clips, the Prime Bike uses straps to lock riders’ feet to the pedals. However, the Prime Bike weighs 80 lbs instead of the Peloton’s 135 lbs, which suggests it’s not as well built and lacks the solid feel of a Peloton.

A screen is the notable missing feature, but that’s quickly resolved with a tablet. And since Peloton offers its classes through an app, Prime Bike buyers can even use Peloton’s service or Echelon’s service that’s very similar to Peloton’s offering.

“We were built on the idea of attainable fitness for everyone. The Prime Bike was developed in collaboration with Amazon, aiming to create an amazing, connected bike for less than $500, and it’s proven to be a phenomenal match,” said Lou Lentine, President, and CEO of Echelon Fitness. “Amazon looking to us to partner on their first-ever connected fitness product is recognition of our commitment to deliver quality at a reasonable price-point as reflected in our explosive growth over the last year.”

There are countless spinning bikes available for less than the Peloton cost, and many are available on Amazon. Few are as blatant of a knock-off as the Prime Bike, though. Amazon has a long, well-documented history of producing and selling products that draw heavy influence from popular products.

With this partnership with Echelon, Amazon is taking a big step towards Peloton, and Peloton’s stock responded in kind, dropping nearly 5% to $90 a share.

It’s worth noting the same exercise bike is available at Walmart for $500, where it sells under Echelon’s branding of the Connect Sport Bike.

#amazon, #echelon, #peloton, #tc

0

How has Corsair Gaming posted such impressive pre-IPO numbers?

After the last few weeks of IPOs, you’d be forgiven if you missed Corsair Gaming’s own public offering.

The company is not our usual fare. Here at TechCrunch, we care a lot of about startups, usually technology startups, which often collect capital from private sources on their way to either the bin, an IPO, or a buyout.

Corsair is some of those things. It is a private company that builds technology products and it has raised some money while private. But from there it’s a slim list. The company was founded in 1994, making it more a mature business than a startup. And it sold a majority of itself to a private equity group in 2017, valued at $525 million at the time.


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


Fair enough. But flipping through the company’s S-1 filings this morning over coffee, I was impressed all the same and want to walk you through a few of the company’s numbers.

If you care about the impending public debuts of Asana (more here) and Palantir (more here) that we expect next week, Corsair will not provide much directional guidance. But its IPO will be a fascinating debut all the same.

Corsair has managed to stay in the gaming hardware world since I was in short pants, and, even better, has managed to turn the streaming boom into material profit. Its S-1 is an interesting document to read. So let’s get into it, because Corsair Gaming is expected to price later today and trade tomorrow morning.

A gaming giant

As with any private-equity-backed IPO, the company’s SEC filings are a mess of predecessor and successor companies, along with long sections that, once you boil them down, ensure that the private equity firm will retain control.

But once you parse the firm’s numbers, here’s the gist from the first six months of 2020:

#corsair-gaming, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #saas, #startups, #tc, #the-exchange

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Blue Origin targets this Thursday for New Shepard reusable rocket launch with NASA landing system test

Blue Origin just announced the timing of its next rocket launch – and it’s surprisingly soon, in just two days on Thursday, September 24. The launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle will be its 13th overall for that category of launch craft, and the 7th in a row for this particular rocket. The payload will include an even dozen commercial cargo items, including a Deorbit, Descent and Landing Sensor Demonstration done in partnership with NASA – basically a highly-precise automated landing system that will help NASA land on the Moon and eventually Mars.

That payload is unique not just because of the technology involved in the landing system, but also because it’ll actually be mounted to the exterior of the New Shephard’s booster stage, rather than in the capsule that rides atop it. This is the first time that Blue Origin has carried a payload that way, and the company expects it could pave the way for similar future missions, enabling sensing at high altitudes, and experiments made possible through use of equipment exposed to the external environment.

Other payloads on this flight will include postcards from the Blue Origin-founded nonprofit Club for the Future, which are collected by students at schools across the world. There are also additional experiments from Johsn Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, Space Lab Technologies, mu Space Corp, other NASA experiments,and more.

Blue Origin plans a second test flight for the landing technologies on board, and overall these are emanated to help de-risk use of the sensors for later operational viability.

The company has set the launch for 10 AM CDT (11 AM EDT), and it’ll take off from its launch facility in West Texas. The launch will bore broadcast live, and a stream will start 30 minutes prior to liftoff time, and include a special message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about the agency’s collaboration with Blue Origin. The last New Shepard launch took place last December, so it’s been nearly a year since the company has flown one of its spacecraft.

#aerospace, #artemis-program, #blue-origin, #jim-bridenstine, #nasa, #new-shepard, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #science, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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Royole returns with another foldable

I first spent time with the Royole Flexpai at a TechCrunch event in China back in 2018. The devices was exciting. It was the first commercially released foldable, after all, before Samsung and Huawei offered their respective takes on the form factor. But ultimately it felt like, at best, a proof of concept. It was a shot across the bow from a little known Shenzhen-based hardware maker and ultimately little else.

The last two years have been — let’s say “complicated” for the category. I don’t think anyone was anticipating that $2,000 foldable phones were going to disrupt the industry right out of the gate or anything — especially in a time where more people are spending less money on their mobile devices. But to say foldables got off to a rocky start is something of an understatement. Royole has announced a few more products here and there, but the the Flexpai continues to be the company’s most engaging from a consumer perspective.

At an event in Beijing this morning, the company announced the the Flexpai 2. The device in similar in design the the first model, which is to say it folds with the screen facing outward. The design makes sense from the stand point of offering up notifications while closed (there’s a reason the Galaxy Fold 2 got a larger front-facing screen), but now you’ve got two screens to scuff up when the big old device is in your pocket.

The device itself got a bit of screen time during the press conference, though not a ton. For now we mostly have press shots to rely on, which is going to continue to be one of the pain points of covering hardware in the COVID-19 era. Fittingly, the company spent a lot of time talking hinges here — that, after all, was a high profile point of failure for Samsung’s first-ten device.

Here’s how Royole describes it in the press material,

The structure of the hinge is stable and shockproof, providing the great protection for the screen. It has more than 200 precision components with 0.01 mm processing accuracy. The hinge technology holds around 200 patents and solved many issues seen in other foldable smartphones.

Image Credits: Royole

Having had limited time with the Flexpai, I’ll say that robustness didn’t seem like one of the primary issues with a product that had some other first-gen bugs. The thing was pretty massively thick, though — which Royole has address with a design here that’s around 40% thinner than the first gen. The display is a generous 7.8 inches — though no mention of whether there’s glass reinforcement, which could be an issue.

There’s 5G support, a healthy 4450mAh battery and a Snapdragon 865 processor. The company updated its waterOS, which is built on top of Android 10 to offer a more seamless foldable experience. It arrives in China this week priced at around $1,427, which is wildly expensive for a standard smartphone but actually pretty good for a foldable.

U.S. availability is, once again, a big question mark.

#flexpai, #foldable, #hardware, #mobile, #royole

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Latch, a smart lock company, looks to become a platform with the launch of LatchOS

Tech that powers physical spaces is in the midst of a growth spurt. One company in the mix, Latch, is today announcing the next phase of the company with the launch of LatchOS.

Latch was founded back in 2014 with the mission of creating a vertically integrated hardware/software solution for door access in apartment buildings. Unlike some smart home locks that replace the lock on the door, Latch looked at the different locks that exist in apartment buildings and created solutions that work with each.

This allows building managers and apartment renters/owners to manage their doors and who has access, including the maintenance staff, deliveries, etc.

With the launch of LatchOS, the company is getting even deeper into the buildings, giving users the ability to manage more than just the door but integrate the app with other devices in a building. These integrations include Sonos speakers, Honeywell and ecobee thermostats, and Jaso and Leviton light switches all from their Latch app.

This is just the start. LatchOS was built to become the backbone of the platform, allowing more integrations to be implemented or built out based on the needs of the buildings and users.

Though the company has flown somewhat under the radar, it’s raised more than $150 million and says it did more than $100 million in sales in 2019, with one of every ten buildings in the United States being built with Latch products.

Latch makes money by selling hardware to building owners and then charging a monthly software fee, allowing the service to be free to renters and apartment owners. With the launch of LatchOS, the company can now build out integrations to earn revenue off of end users, as well, should they choose to upgrade to new features or purchase services through the platform.

The company, helmed by former Apple employees Luke Schoenfelder and Thomas Meyerhoffer, as well as full stack hardware engineer Brian Jones, has more than 230 employees and declined to share any information around the diversity of its staff.

“People have always seen us as a lock company and they wonder why a lock company is doing this other stuff,” said Schoenfelder. The reality is that we’ve never wanted to be a lock company. We just needed to build the locks to make the rest of the system work. That’s why we built our own hardware. We’ve always been focused on building the system that makes the building better for everybody.”

#hardware, #latch, #startups, #tc

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Google launches a work-tracking tool and Airtable rival, Tables

Google’s in-house incubator Area 120 is today introducing a new work-tracking tool, Tables, which aims to make tracking projects more efficient by investing in automation. Instead of simply tracking notes and tasks associated with a project in various documents that have to manually updated by team members, Tables’ bots help do things like scheduling recurring email reminders when tasks are overdue, messaging a chat room when new form submissions are received, moving tasks to other people’s work queues, or updating tasks when statuses are changed.

The solution is designed to be useful across a number of use cases, including project management, I.T. operations, customer tracking and CRM, recruiting, product development, and more.

“I’ve been in the technology industry for a long time, including 10 years at Google,” explains Tables’ GM, Tim Gleason, in an announcement about the new service. “And during my years in the workforce, I’ve always had a difficult time tracking projects. Our teams stored notes and related tasks in different documents. Those documents always got out of date. We’d have to manually sync data between them. And I’d spend a lot of time coordinating between team members to prioritize and update statuses. I spent more time keeping track of work than actually working,” he says.

Image Credits: Google

Tables, instead, aims to take on some of those extra manual processes — like collecting data from different sources, collating it together, pasting into another document, then handing it off, for example. The tool, however, is made to work with existing Google technology. That makes it a better choice for those who are already invested in using Google’s ecosystem, like Google’s online documents, contacts and more.

To get started with Tables, you can import data from Google Sheets (or a .CSV), share data with your Google Groups, and assign tasks to people found in your Google Contacts. You can also get started with one of the included templates, if you prefer.

The bots handle automated actions, while the data itself can be presented in different ways, like grid views, record lists, kanban boards and maps. Forms allow you to collect data on the fly, without having to give people access to your tables directly.

Ahead of its public debut, Tables has been in testing with thousands of active users who are tracking work and collaborating with team members, Google says.

Image Credits: Google

Tables is also one of a handful Area 120 projects to launch with a paid business model. Today, other Area 120 projects like ticket seller Fundo, conversational ads platform AdLingo, and Google’s recently launched Orion WiFi also have paid models. In Tables’ case, an individual can use Tables for free, with support for up to 100 tables and 1,000 rows. The paid plan, meanwhile, costs $10 per user per month, and support up to 1,000 tables and 10,000 rows. This plan also includes support for larger attachments, more actions, and advanced history, sharing, forms, automation, and views.

The project is clearly meant to tap into the growing interest in no-code, spreadsheet-powered database platforms. A leader in this space, Airtable, recently closed on $185 million in Series D funding, valuing its business at $2.585 billion, post-money. Google’s advantage is that it’s not a standalone solution that has to work to integrate with other data sources and communications tools. It has the ability to tie into other tools the team is already using to manage their work, like Google Sheets, for example. However, the Tables’ website does indicate the product can work with Slack.

Tables is available now to the public, with both free and paid plans.

#tc

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Willow, the startup making the wearable breast pump, raises $55 million

Willow, the startup company making a new, wearable, breast pump for women, is capping off a frenetic 2020 with $55 million in fresh funding as it looks to expand its product line to more offerings for new mothers.

The company is coming off a year which saw sales increase, and Laura Chambers, the former eBay and Airbnb manager, take over as chief executive and now, with the new capital, it expects to be bringing new products to market beyond the breast pump in 2021.

A March 2020 report from Frost & Sullivan put the total size of the femtech market, including technologies for mothers, at just over $1 billion with growth rates of 12.9%. So the category is small, but growing quickly as more tools come in to provide services in what is a woefully underinvested sector. Indeed, the $155 million that Willow has raised to date puts the company among the upper echelon of women’s health investments.

Contrast that figure with Ro, the storied health brand that launched its subscription medication service for erectile dysfunction with an $88 million investment round.

For women who breast feed, the problems associated with pumping can be legion.

“A lot of women talk about how it’s almost like the pump runs their life,” Naomi Kelman, the founder and former CEO of Willow, told TechCrunch. “Everyone is told, if you don’t breastfeed or pump on a regular basis, your [breastmilk] supply goes down and then breastfeeding is finished for you.”

That’s why startup companies like Willow and Naya Health, as well as established companies like Medela and Lansinoh are developing technologies to not only make pumping breast milk more efficient, but also provide more comfort and dignity to users.

“Through our longstanding relationship with Willow, we’ve been able to see the true impact they have had in helping mom’s balance motherhood in a modern world,” said Josh Makower, Willow’s co-founder and chairman of the company’s board, as well as a General Partner at Willow investor, NEA, in a statement. “Willow is thriving and growing to meet the needs of all moms during these unique times, and we are proud to be a partner in advancing innovation in the femtech field.”

With Chambers at the helm, and the $55 million in new financing in hand from investors led by NEA, Meritech Capital Partners, and including Lightstone Ventures along with new investor Perceptive Advisors, Willow will be doing far more than just making breast pumps and will be looking to expand its footprint to international markets.

“The first problem we wanted solve was pumping and the wonderful wearable mobile pump. That was always product number one. There’s more innovation we can do around pumping. Moms would love us to support them with more hardware and more software,” Chambers said. We’re also working with moms to figure out where else they need support. Mothers are remarkably unsupported in their motherhood journey. We are working with moms to figure out what’s important for them and we’re building that.”

#airbnb, #breast-pump, #ebay, #femtech, #health, #laura-chambers, #meritech-capital-partners, #naya-health, #nea, #perceptive-advisors, #tc, #willow

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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

“Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #easysend, #enterprise, #forms, #insurance, #insurtech, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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TikTok, WeChat and the growing digital divide between the U.S. and China

Over the past decade, the dynamic between Chinese and United States tech companies has undergone dramatic shifts. Once seen as a promising market for American companies, that narrative flipped as China’s tech innovation and investment power became increasingly evident, and the expanding reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s cybersecurity regulations fueled concerns about data privacy. For years, however, there still seemed to be room for a flow of ideas between the two countries. But that promise has eroded, against the backdrop of the tariff wars and, most recently, the Trump administration’s executive orders against TikTok and WeChat.

The U.S. Commerce Department was set to enforce the shutdown of TikTok and WeChat in the United States last weekend, but both apps got reprieves. In WeChat’s case, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary stay against the ban, while TikTok owner ByteDance is in the process of finalizing a complicated deal with Oracle.

The TikTok and WeChat imbroglios underline how much America’s perception of Chinese tech has evolved. Not only is TikTok the first consumer app by a Chinese company to gain a major foothold in the United States, but it’s also had a significant impact on popular culture there. This would have been almost unimaginable just ten, or even five, years ago.

China as a target for expansion

For a long time, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, was seen as a lucrative market by many foreign tech companies, even as government censorship began to expand. In 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the apparatus that controls what overseas sites and apps Chinese internet users have access to. At first the Great Firewall mainly targeted access to Chinese-language sites with anti-Chinese Communist Party content. Then it began blocking more services.

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

Even as the Communist Party’s online censorship became more stringent, many American internet companies were still keen to expand into China. Perhaps the most prominent example from that era is Google, which added Chinese support to Google.com in 2000.

Though access to the search engine was spotty (according to a 2010 timeline from the Financial Times, this may have been because of “extensive filtering” by China’s licensed internet service providers) and it was briefly blocked in 2002, Google continued launching new services targeted to users in China, including a simplified Chinese language version of Google News.

Then in 2005, the company announced plans to set up a research and development center in China. The next year, it officially launched Google.cn. In order to do so, Google agreed to exclude search results on sensitive political topics, causing controversy.

Despite its concessions to the Chinese government, Google’s relationship with China began deteriorating, foreshadowing what other foreign tech companies, particularly those offering online services, would deal with when they tried to enter China. After being blocked on and off, access to YouTube was completely cut off in 2009 after footage was uploaded that appeared to show the brutal beatings of Tibetan protestors in Lhasa. That year, China also blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.

In January 2010, Google announced it was no longer willing to censor searches in China and would withdraw from the country if necessary. It also began redirecting all search queries on Google.cn to Google.com.hk.

But the company continued its R&D operations there and maintained a sales team. (In 2018, an investigation by The Intercept found that Google had started to work on a censored search engine for China again, code-named “Project Dragonfly”). Other big U.S. tech companies also continued courting China, even though their services were blocked there.

For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made several trips to China in the mid-2010s, including a 2015 visit to Tsinghua University, a leading research university. Zuckerberg had joined the university’s board the previous year, and delivered several public talks in Mandarin. Speculation mostly focused on Facebook’s efforts to get a version of its service into China, but China-based companies were, and continue to be, one of Facebook’s most important sources of advertising revenue.

Chinese government policies designed to help domestic companies become more competitive also began to have an impact and by 2015, many American tech firms needed to find a local partner to enter China. The narrative that China needed American tech innovation began to turn on its head.

A shifting dynamic

Since Google Play was also blocked in China, that led the way for the rise of third-party Android app stores, including Chinese internet giant Tencent’s My App.

But Tencent’s most influential product is WeChat, the messenger that launched in 2011. Two years later, Tencent added mobile payments by integrating it with TenPay. In less than five years, WeChat became a vital part of daily life for hundreds of millions of users in China. WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, its main competitor, have revolutionized payments in China, where about one-third of consumer payments are now cashless, according to research by think tank CGAP.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

BEIJING, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In 2017, Wechat launched “mini-programs,” that allows developers to create “apps within an app” that run on WeChat. The program took off quickly, and within less than two years, Tencent said it had reached one million mini-programs and 200 million daily users. Even Google quietly launched its own mini-program in 2018.

Despite its ubiquity in China, WeChat’s international presence is relatively small, especially when compared to other messengers like WhatsApp. WeChat claims more than one billion monthly active users in total, but only an estimated 100 million to 200 million are international users. Many are members of the Chinese diaspora who use it to keep in touch with family and associates in mainland China since many other popular messengers, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Line, are blocked there.

In the meantime, another company was gaining ascendancy, and would eventually succeed where Tencent hadn’t.

Founded in 2012 by Microsoft veteran Zhang Yiming, ByteDance had its own early run-ins with the Chinese government. The first app it launched, a social media platform called Neihan Duanzi that reached 200 million users by 2017, was shut down the next year after the National Radio and Television Administration accused it of hosting inappropriate content. Despite that early setback, ByteDance continued to grow, releasing apps like Toutiao, one of China’s top news aggregators.

But the product it is best known for launched in 2016. Called Douyin in China, ByteDance always planned to expand the short video-sharing app overseas. In an interview with Chinese tech news site 36Kr, Zhang said, “China is home to only one-fifth of the world’s internet users. If we don’t expand globally, we are bound to lose to our peers eyeing the rest of the world” — both echoing and contravening the viewpoint of U.S. internet companies that had seen China as a crucial market.

TikTok, the international version of Douyin, was launched in 2017. That year, ByteDance also bought Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app popular with teens, in a deal worth between $800 million to $1 billion. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok, consolidating their audiences.

By early 2019, TikTok had become popular among teens and people in their early 20s, though many older people still struggled to understand its appeal. But as TikTok was turning into a mainstay of Gen Z culture, it also began to face scrutiny by the U.S. government. In February 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy laws.

Then a few months later, the U.S. government reportedly began a national security review of TikTok, marking the first in a chain of events that led to Trump’s August executive order against the company, and ByteDance’s new, but confusing, agreement with “trusted technology partner” Oracle.

The impact of China’s 2017 cybersecurity law

The United States is not the only country where TikTok has been deemed a national security threat. In June, it was among 59 apps developed by Chinese companies banned in India for threatening the country’s “national security and defence.” It’s also under investigation by French data security watchdog CNIL over how it handles user data.

While some cybersecurity experts believe that TikTok’s data collection practices are similar to other social media apps that depend on targeted ads for revenue, the heart of the issue is a Chinese law, implemented in June 2017, that requires companies to comply with government requests for data stored in China. ByteDance has insisted repeatedly it would resist attempts by the Chinese government to access U.S. users’ data, which it says is stored in the United States and Singapore.

“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok wrote in a October 2019 statement. “Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”

In the same post, TikTok also addressed concerns that it censors content, including videos about the Hong Kong protests and China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim groups. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the company said.

WeChat and TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S.

But as a Chinese company, ByteDance is ultimately still beholden to Chinese laws. Earlier this week, ByteDance said it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok, after selling a total of 20% to Oracle and Walmart. Then Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck said that Oracle and Walmart would make their investment upon the creation of a new entity called TikTok Global. He added that ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.

This creates more questions, but doesn’t answer the most pressing one: how close will the U.S. version of TikTok remain to ByteDance, and will it still be subject to the Chinese cybersecurity regulations that cause so much concern?

Around the same time that ByteDance’s proposed deal with Oracle and Walmart was announced, a U.S. district court judge temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat, as part of a case brought against the U.S. government by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in America. In her opinion, Judge Laurel Beeler wrote, “while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national-security concerns—it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

On its site, the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said it believes Trump’s August 6 executive order against WeChat “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.” Furthermore, the group argued that a WeChat ban would “severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S.” who use WeChat to talk to family, friends and business associates in China.

While WeChat is heavily censored, users have often found ingenious ways to bypass bans on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. For example, people used emojis, PDFs and fictional languages like Klingon to share an interview with Ai Fen, the director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department and one of the first whistleblowers to sound the alarm about COVID-19 even as the government attempted to stifle information about the disease.

The growing divide

The U.S. government’s actions against TikTok and WeChat are taking place against an increasingly fraught political landscape. Huawei and ZTE were first identified as potential threats to U.S. national security in a 2012 bipartisan House committee report, but legal actions against Huawei, one of the world’s biggest telecom equipment suppliers, escalated under the Trump administration. These include criminal charges brought against Huawei by the Department of Justice, and the arrest and indictment of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The U.S. government’s actions in the name of national security doesn’t just affect the Chinese government or China’s biggest companies. It also impacts individuals, as in the case of increasingly stringent visa restrictions for Chinese students.

At the same time, the Great Firewall has become more restrictive under President Xi Jinping’s regime and China’s cybersecurity laws are becoming increasingly invasive, granting the government even more access to citizens’ data. Increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has been used to monitor Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, and a crackdown on VPN services that began escalating in 2017 is making it harder for people in China to circumvent the Great Firewall.

When compared to these social issues, the future of a video-sharing app might seem relatively minor. But it underscores one of the most unsettling developments in the relationship between U.S. and China over the past ten years.

In a prescient 2016 Washington Post article titled “America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story,” Emily Rauhala wrote “China’s tech scene is flourishing in a parallel universe.” TikTok’s deep cultural impact gave a glimpse of what is possible when two parallel universes connect. Along with geopolitical tensions, the furore over TikTok and WeChat uncovers something else: that the exchange of ideas and information between people in two of the world’s most powerful countries is becoming increasingly restricted due to circumstances beyond their control.

#apps, #bytedance, #china, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #united-states, #wechat

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Made In Space is sending the first ceramic manufacturing facility in space to the ISS next week

In-space manufacturing company Made In Space is pushing the envelope on what can, well, be made in space with its next mission – which is set to launch aboard a Northrop Grumman International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission set for next Tuesday. Aboard that launch will be Made In Space’s Turbine Ceramic Manufacturing Module (aka CMM), a commercial ceramic turbine blisk manufacturing device that uses 3D-printing technology to produce detailed parts the require a high degree of production accuracy.

A turbine blisk is a combo rotor disk/blade array that is used primarily in engines used in the aerospace industry. Making them involves using additive manufacturing to craft them as a single component, and the purpose of this mission is to provide a proof-of-concept about the viability of doing that in a microgravity environment. Gravity can actually introduce defects into ceramic blisks manufactured on Earth, because of the way that material can settle, leading to sedimentation, for instance. Producing them in microgravity could mean lower error rates overall, and a higher possible degree of precision for making finely detailed designs.

Made In Space, which was acquired earlier this year by new commercial space supply parent co. Redwire, has been at the forefront of creating and deploying 3D printing technologies in space, particularly through its partnership with the International Space Station. The goal of the company is to demonstrate the commercial benefits of in-space manufacturing, and to commercialize the technology in order to create tangible benefits for a number of industries right here on Earth.

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