Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

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

The GoPro-ification of the iPhone

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, we talked about some sunglasses from a company that many people do not like very much. This week, we’re talking about Apple and the company 1,600 times smaller than it that’s facing similar product problems.

Thanks for joining in — follow my tweets @lucasmtny for more.


(Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

the big thing

When you get deep enough into the tech industry, it’s harder to look at things with a consumer’s set of eyes. I’ve felt that way more and more after six years watching Apple events as a TechCrunch reporter, but sometimes memes from random Twitter accounts help me find the consumer truth I’m looking for.

As that dumb little tweet indicates, Apple is charging toward a future where it’s becoming a little harder to distinguish new from old. The off-year “S” period of old is no more for the iPhone, which has seen tweaks and new size variations since 2017’s radical iPhone X redesign. Apple is stretching the periods between major upgrades for its entire product line and it’s also taking longer to roll out those changes.

Apple debuted the current bezel-lite iPad Pro design back in late 2018 and it’s taken three years for the design to work its way down to the iPad mini while the entry-level iPad is still lying in wait. The shift from M1 Macs will likely take years as the company has already detailed. Most of Apple’s substantial updates rely on upgrades to the chipsets that they build, something that increasingly makes them look and feel like a consumer chipset company.

This isn’t a new trend, or even a new take, it’s been written lots of times, but it’s particularly interesting as the company bulks up the number of employees dedicated to future efforts like augmented reality, which will one day soon likely replace the iPhone.

It’s an evolution that’s pushing them into a similar design territory as action camera darling GoPro, which has struggled again and again with getting their core loyalists to upgrade their hardware frequently. These are on laughably different scales, with Apple now worth some $2.41 trillion and GoPro still fighting for a $1.5 billion market cap. The situations are obviously different, and yet they are both facing similar end-of-life innovation questions for categories that they both have mastered.

This week GoPro debuted its HERO10 Black camera, which brings higher frame rates and a better performing processor as it looks to push more of its user audience to subscription services. Sound familiar? This week, Apple debuted its new flagship, the iPhone 13 Pro, with a faster processor and better frame rates (for the display not the camera here, though). They also spent a healthy amount of time pushing users to embrace new services ecosystems.

Apple’s devices are getting so good that they’re starting to reach a critical feature plateau. The company has still managed to churn out device after device and expand their audience to billions while greatly expanding their average revenue per user. Things are clearly going pretty well for the most valuable company on earth, but while the stock has nearly quadrupled since the iPhone X launch, the consumer iPhone experience feels pretty consistent. That’s clearly not a bad thing, but it is — for lack of a better term — boring.

The clear difference, among 2.4 trillion others, is that GoPro doesn’t seem to have a clear escape route from its action camera vertical.

But Apple has been pushing thousands of employees toward an escape route in augmented reality, even if the technology is clearly not ready for consumers and they’re forced to lead with what has been rumored to be a several-thousand-dollar AR/VR headset with plenty of limitations. One of the questions I’m most interested in is what the iPhone device category looks likes once its unwieldy successor has reared its head. Most likely is that the AR-centric devices will be shipped as wildly expensive iPhone accessories and a way to piggy back off the accessibility of the mobile category while providing access to new — and more exciting — experiences. In short, AR is the future of the iPhone until AR doesn’t need the iPhone anymore. 


Image Credits: Tesla

other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Everything Apple announced this week
Was it the most exciting event Apple has ever had? Nah. Are you still going to click that link to read about their new stuff? Yah.

GoPro launches the HERO10 Black
I have a very soft spot in my heart for GoPro, which has taken a niche corner of hardware and made a device and ecosystem that’s really quite good. As I mentioned above, the company has some issues making significant updates every year, but they made a fairly sizable upgrade this year with the second-generation of their customer processor and some performance bumps across the board.

Tesla will open FSD beta to drivers with good driving record
Elon Musk is pressing ahead with expanding its “Full Self-Driving” software to more Tesla drivers, saying that users who paid for the FSD system can apply to use the beta and will be analyzed by the company’s insurance calculator bot. After 7 days of good driving behavior, Musk says users will be approved.

OpenSea exec resigns after ‘insider trading’ scandal
NFTs are a curious business; there’s an intense amount of money pulsating through these markets — and little oversight. This week OpenSea, the so-called “eBay of NFTs,” detailed that its own VP of Product had been trading on insider information. He was later pushed to resign.

Apple and Google bow to the Kremlin
Apple and Google are trying to keep happy the governments of most every market in which they operate. That leads to some uncomfortable situations in markets like Russia, where both tech giants were forced by the Kremlin to remove a political app from the country’s major opposition party.


Gitlab logo

Image Credits: Gitlab

extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

What could stop the startup boom?
“…We’ve seen record results from citiescountries and regions. There’s so much money sloshing around the venture capital and startup worlds that it’s hard to recall what they were like in leaner times. We’ve been in a bull market for tech upstarts for so long that it feels like the only possible state of affairs. It’s not…”

The value of software revenue may have finally stopped rising
“…I’ve held back from covering the value of software (SaaS, largely) revenues for a few months after spending a bit too much time on it in preceding quarters — when VCs begin to point out that you could just swap out numbers quarter to quarter and write the same post, it’s time for a break. But the value of software revenues posted a simply incredible run, and I can’t say “no” to a chart…

Inside GitLab’s IPO filing
“…The company’s IPO has therefore been long expected. In its last primary transaction, GitLab raised $286 million at a post-money valuation of $2.75 billion, per PitchbBook data. The same information source also notes that GitLab executed a secondary transaction earlier this year worth $195 million, which gave the company a $6 billion valuation…”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

#apple, #apple-inc, #apple-silicon, #ebay, #extra-crunch, #google, #gopro, #ios, #ipad, #iphone, #iphone-12-pro, #iphone-5s, #major, #mobile-phones, #musk, #reporter, #russia, #tablet-computers, #tc, #technology, #venture-capital, #week-in-review

Google is getting caught in the antitrust net

Google is getting caught in the antitrust net

Enlarge (credit: NurPhoto | Getty)

Being a global company has its perks. There’s a lot of money to be made overseas. But the biggest US tech companies are finding out that there’s also a downside: Every country where you make money is a country that could try to regulate you.

It’s hard to keep track of all the tech-related antitrust action happening around the world, in part because it doesn’t always seem to be worth paying close attention to. In Europe, which has long been home to the world’s most aggressive regulators, Google alone was hit with a $2.7 billion fine in 2017, a $5 billion fine in 2018, and a $1.7 billion fine in 2019. These sums would be devastating for most companies, but they are little more than rounding errors for a corporation that reported $61.9 billion in revenue last quarter.

Increasingly, however, foreign countries are going beyond slap-on-the-wrist fines. Instead, they’re forcing tech companies to change how they do business. In February, Australia passed a law giving news publishers the right to negotiate payments from dominant internet platforms—effectively, Facebook and Google. In August, South Korea became the first country to pass a law forcing Apple and Google to open their mobile app stores to alternate payment systems, threatening their grip on the 30 percent commission they charge developers. And in a case with potentially huge ramifications, Google will soon have to respond to the Turkish competition authority’s demand to stop favoring its own properties in local search results.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#antitrust, #apple, #eu, #google, #policy, #regulation, #tech, #turkey

Google abused dominant position of Android in India, antitrust probe finds

Google has abused the dominant position of Android in India to illegally hurt competitors in the world’s second largest internet market, a two-year antitrust probe by the nation’s watchdog has found.

The Android-maker reduced device manufacturing firms’ ability and incentive to develop — and sell — devices running alternative versions of Android (more popularly known as forks), the probe found, according to two people have have been briefed on the findings.

Additionally, the report found Google’s requirement to make it mandatory for device manufacturers to pre-install its apps to be in violation of India’s competition law.

More than five dozen firms including Amazon and Apple responded to queries from the Indian watchdog — the Competition Commission of India — during the course of the investigation, the report said.

The Indian watchdog also found issues with the way Google has enforced policies on Play Store, saying those are “one-sided, ambiguous, vague, biased and arbitrary.”

Google said it looks forward to engage with the CCI to demonstrate how “Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The report’s findings — which are yet to be formally published by the CCI — is the latest setback for Google in India, where it has faced strong criticism from local entrepreneurs in recent quarters and several other antitrust probes.

The Alliance of Digital India Foundation, a group of 350 startups, founders and investors, lauded the CCI report’s findings and said the watchdog’s step “is in line with the Indian digital ecosystem’s needs.”

#android, #asia, #google, #google-india, #government, #india

Apple and Google cave to Putin’s censors, block Navalny app as election begins

At an Anti-Putin protest in Berlin, a giant sculpture depicts Alexei Navalny kicking Vladimir Putin in the groin.

Enlarge / A sculpture of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny in front of the Brandenburg Gate at an anti-Putin demonstration on May 9, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (credit: Getty Images | Adam Berry )

Apple and Google gave a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party by removing a strategic voting app developed by activists who support the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The app, called “Navalny,” was kicked off the mobile app stores ahead of this weekend’s legislative election as Apple and Google caved to pressure from the Russian government.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship. Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled,” Ivan Zhdanov, who is director of the Navalny-founded Anti-Corruption Foundation and a politician in the Russia of the Future opposition party, wrote on Twitter. While candidates associated with Navalny are banned from the election, the Navalny app was designed to help voters coalesce around opposition candidates who are on the ballot.

As noted by NBC News, the now-removed “tactical voting app allows voters who do not want President [Vladimir] Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia, to win the election to organize around a single opposition candidate in each of the 225 electoral districts in an effort to boost the number of non-Kremlin-approved politicians in power.” Since mid-August, the Russian government has “threatened Apple and Google with fines if they didn’t remove Navalny’s tactical voting app from the App Store and Google Play store,” NBC News wrote.

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#apple, #google, #navalny, #policy, #putin, #russia

Google reportedly plans to add free channels to its smart TV platform

Chromecasts and other devices powered by Google TV might give users access to free television channels in the future. According to Protocol, Google has been in talks with free, ad-supported streaming television providers about the possibility of adding their channels to its smart TV platform. Those channels typically have a similar feel to traditional TV, and its shows will be interrupted by commercial breaks.

Protocol says Chromecast users might be able to browse live channels available to them through a dedicated menu similar to YouTube TV’s. Meanwhile, smart TVs powered by the platform might show the free channels alongside other over-the-air programming that can be accessed with an antenna. The publication says that’s similar to how companies like Samsung present free TV offerings on their own platforms. Samsung’s free TV service has become so popular, other companies (including Roku and Amazon) started giving their customers access to hundreds of free channels, as well.

The addition of linear programming to Google TV could help make Chromecasts and smart TVs powered by the operating system a more enticing option for cord-cutters. Google could officially launch free streaming channels as soon as this fall, though it could also wait to announce the feature until its smart TV partners are also ready to do so next year. Protocol also says that while it’s unclear what channels are making their way to the platform at this point, Google will likely strike deals that will give it access to “dozens of free channels” all at once.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

#chromecast, #column, #google, #google-tv, #smart-tv, #tc, #tceng

Apple and Google bow to pressure in Russia to remove Kremlin critic’s tactical voting app

Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app created by the organization of jailed Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, from their respective mobile app stores in Russia.

Earlier this week Reuters reported that the Russian state had been amping up the pressure on foreign tech giants ahead of federal elections — appropriating the language of “election interference” to push US companies to censor the high profile political opponent to president Putin.

On Twitter today, a key Navalny ally, Ivan Zhdanov, tweeted that his organization is considering suing Apple and Google over removal of the apps — dubbing the act of censorship a “huge mistake”.

Zhdanov has also published what he says is Apple’s response to Team Navalny — in which the tech giant cites the Kremlin’s classification of a number of pro-Navalny organizations as “extremist” groups to justify its removal of the software.

(Image credit: Screengrab of detail from Apple’s notification to the developer, via Zhdanov’s tweet)

Apple and Google routinely say they comply with ‘all local laws’ in the countries where they operate.

However in Russia that stance means they have become complicit in acts of political censorship.

“We note that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Prosecutor’s Office of the City of Moscow have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections,” Apple writes in the notification of takedown it sent to the developer of the tactical voting app.

“While your app has been removed from the Russia App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in App Store Connect,” Apple adds.

Apple and Google have been contacted for comment on the removal of Navalny’s app.

 

Also via Twitter, Zhdanov urged supporters to focus on the tactical voting mission — tweeting a link to a video hosted on Google-owned YouTube which contains recommendations to Russians on how to cast an anti-Putin vote in the parliamentary elections taking place today until Sunday.

Navalny’s supporters are hoping to mobilize voters across Russia to cast tactical ballots in a bid to unseat Putin by voting for whatever candidate has the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party.

Their tactical voting strategy has faced some criticism — given that many of the suggested alternatives are, at best, only very weakly opposed to Putin’s regime.

However Navalny’s supporters would surely point out they are having to operate within a flawed system.

After Apple and Google initially refused to remove Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ app, last month, the Russian state has been attempting to block access to his organization’s website.

It has even reportedly targeted Google docs — which supporters of Navalny have also been using to organize tactical voting efforts.

Screengrab of the Smart Voting app on the UK iOS app store (Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Earlier this month Reuters reported that Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had threatened Apple and Google with fines if they did not remove the Smart Voting app — warning that failure to comply could be interpreted as election meddling.

Russian press has also reported that Apple and Google were summoned to a meeting at the Federation Council on the eve of the election — as Putin’s regime sought to force them to do his anti-democratic bidding.

According to a report by Kommersant, the tech giants were warned the Russian Federation was preparing to tighten regulations on their businesses — and told to “come to their senses”, facing another warning that they were at a “red line”.

The last ditch effort to force the platforms to remove Navalny’s app did then pay off.

In recent weeks, Roskomnadzor has also been targeting VPN apps in the country for removal — making it hard for Russians to circumvent the local ban on Navalny’s app by accessing the software through the stores of other countries.

Local search giant, Yandex, has also reportedly been ordered not to display search results for the Smart Voting app.

Earlier this year, Putin’s regime also targeted Twitter — throttling the service for failing to remove content it wanted banned, although Roskomnadzor claimed the action was related to non-political content such as minors committing suicide, child sexual exploitation and drug use.

#activism, #alexei-navalny, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #europe, #google, #politics, #president, #putin, #russia, #search-results, #tc, #united-states, #vpn, #yandex

Confluent CEO Jay Kreps is coming to TC Sessions: SaaS for a fireside chat

As companies process ever-increasing amounts of data, moving it in real time is a huge challenge for organizations. Confluent is a streaming data platform built on top of the open source Apache Kafka project that’s been designed to process massive numbers of events. To discuss this, and more, Confluent CEO and co-founder Jay Kreps will be joining us at TC Sessions: SaaS on Oct 27th for a fireside chat.

Data is a big part of the story we are telling at the SaaS event, as it has such a critical role in every business. Kreps has said in the past the data streams are at the core of every business, from sales to orders to customer experiences. As he wrote in a company blog post announcing the company’s $250 million Series E in April 2020, Confluent is working to process all of this data in real time — and that was a big reason why investors were willing to pour so much money into the company.

“The reason is simple: though new data technologies come and go, event streaming is emerging as a major new category that is on a path to be as important and foundational in the architecture of a modern digital company as databases have been,” Kreps wrote at the time.

The company’s streaming data platform takes a multi-faceted approach to streaming and builds on the open source Kafka project. While anyone can download and use Kafka, as with many open source projects, companies may lack the resources or expertise to deal with the raw open source code. Many a startup have been built on open source to help simplify whatever the project does, and Confluent and Kafka are no different.

Kreps told us in 2017 that companies using Kafka as a core technology include Netflix, Uber, Cisco and Goldman Sachs. But those companies have the resources to manage complex software like this. Mere mortal companies can pay Confluent to access a managed cloud version or they can manage it themselves and install it in the cloud infrastructure provider of choice.

The project was actually born at LinkedIn in 2011 when their engineers were tasked with building a tool to process the enormous number of events flowing through the platform. The company eventually open sourced the technology it had created and Apache Kafka was born.

Confluent launched in 2014 and raised over $450 million along the way. In its last private round in April 2020, the company scored a $4.5 billion valuation on a $250 million investment. As of today, it has a market cap of over $17 billion.

In addition to our discussion with Kreps, the conference will also include Google’s Javier Soltero, Amplitude’s Olivia Rose, as well as investors Kobie Fuller and Casey Aylward, among others. We hope you’ll join us. It’s going to be a thought-provoking lineup.

Buy your pass now to save up to $100 when you book by October 1. We can’t wait to see you in October!

#apache-kafka, #casey-aylward, #cisco, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #computing, #confluent, #developer, #enterprise, #event-streaming, #free-software, #goldman-sachs, #google, #javier-soltero, #jay-kreps, #kobie-fuller, #linkedin, #microsoft, #netflix, #open-source, #saas, #software, #software-as-a-service, #tc, #tc-sessions-saas-2021, #uber

Tyk raises $35M for its open-source, open-ended approach to enterprise API management

APIs are the grease turning the gears and wheels for many organizations’ IT systems today, but as APIs grow in number and use, tracking how they work (or don’t work) together can become complex and potentially critical if something goes awry. Now, a startup that has built an innovative way to help with this is announcing some funding after getting traction with big enterprises adopting its approach.

Tyk, which has built a way for users to access and manage multiple internal enterprise APIs through a universal interface by way of GraphQL, has picked up $35 million, an investment that it will be using both for hiring and to continue enhancing and expanding the tools that it provides to users. Tyk has coined a term describing its approach to managing APIs and the data they produce — “universal data graph” — and today its tools are being used to manage APIs by some 10,000 businesses, including large enterprises like Starbucks, Societe Generale, and Domino’s.

Scottish Equity Partners led the round, with participation also from MMC Ventures — its sole previous investor from a round in 2019 after boostrapping for its first five years. The startup is based out of London but works in a very distributed way — one of the co-founders is living in New Zealand currently — and it will be hiring and growing based on that principle, too. It has raised just over $40 million to date.

Tyk (pronounced like “tyke”, meaning small/lively child) got its start as an open source side project first for co-founder Martin Buhr, who is now the company’s CEO, while he was working elsewhere, as a “load testing thing,” in his words.

The shifts in IT towards service-oriented architectures, and building and using APIs to connect internal apps, led him to rethink the code and consider how it could be used to control APIs. Added to that was the fact that as far as Buhr could see, the API management platforms that were in the market at the time — some of the big names today include Kong, Apigee (now a part of Google), 3scale (now a part of RedHat and thus IBM), MuleSoft (now a part of Salesforce) — were not as flexible as his needs were. “So I built my own,” he said.

It was built as an open source tool, and some engineers at other companies started to use it. As it got more attention, some of the bigger companies interested in using it started to ask why he wasn’t charging for anything — a sure sign as any that there was probably a business to be built here, and more credibility to come if he charged for the it.

“So we made the gateway open source, and the management part went into a licensing model,” he said. And Tyk was born as a startup co-founded with James Hirst, who is now the COO, who worked with Buhr at a digital agency some years before.

The key motivation behind building Tyk has stayed as its unique selling point for customers working in increasingly complex environments.

“What sparked interest in Tyk was that companies were unhappy with API management as it exists today,” Buhr noted, citing architectures using multiple clouds and multiple containers, creating more complexity that needed better management. “It was just the right time when containerization, Kubernetes and microservices were on the rise… The way we approach the multi-data and multi-vendor cloud model is super flexible and resilient to partitions, in a way that others have not been able to do.”

“You engage developers and deliver real value and it’s up to them to make the choice,” added Hirst. “We are responding to a clear shift in the market.”

One of the next frontiers that Tyk will tackle will be what happens within the management layer, specifically when there are potential conflicts with APIs.

“When a team using a microservice makes a breaking change, we want to bring that up and report that to the system,” Buhr said. “The plan is to flag the issue and test against it, and be able to say that a schema won’t work, and to identify why.”

Even before that is rolled out, though, Tyk’s customer list and its grow speak to a business on the cusp of a lot more.

“Martin and James have built a world-class team and the addition of this new capital will enable Tyk to accelerate the growth of its API management platform, particularly around the GraphQL focused Universal Data Graph product that launched earlier this year,” said Martin Brennan, a director at SEP, in a statement. “We are pleased to be supporting the team to achieve their global ambitions.”

Keith Davidson, a partner at SEP, is joining the Tyk board as a non-executive director with this round.

#api, #api-gateway, #api-management, #apigee, #apis, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #co-founder, #computing, #coo, #developer, #enterprise, #europe, #funding, #google, #graphql, #ibm, #london, #microservices, #mmc-ventures, #mulesoft, #new-zealand, #salesforce, #scottish-equity-partners, #societe-generale, #starbucks, #technology, #tyk

Google’s R&D division experiments with newsletters powered by Google Drive

Following entries into the newsletter market from tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, Google is now experimenting with newsletters, too. The company’s internal R&D division, Area 120, has a new project called Museletter, which allows anyone to publish a Google Drive file as a blog or newsletter to their Museletter public profile or to an email list.

The effort would essentially repurpose Google’s existing document-creation tools as a means of competing with other newsletter platforms, like Substack, Ghost, Revue, and others, which are today attracting a growing audience.

Google’s experiment was spotted this week by sites including 9to5Google and Android Police.

Reached for comment, an Area 120 spokesperson declined to share further details about Museletter, saying only that it was “one of the many experiments” within the R&D group and that “it’s still very early.”

From the Museletter website, however, there is already much that can be learned about the project. The site explains how Google Drive could be monetized by creators in a way that would allow Google’s newsletter project to differentiate itself from the competition. Not only could newsletters be written in a Google Doc, other productivity apps could also be used to share information with readers. For example, a newsletter creator could offer a paid subscription plan that would allow readers to access their Google Slides. A creator who writes about finance could publish helpful spreadsheets to Google Sheets, which would be available to their subscribers.

Image Credits: Google

To make this possible, Museletter publishers would create a public profile on their Google Drive, then publish any Google Drive file directly to it. This provides them with a landing page where they can market their subscriptions and showcase how many different Drive files they’ve made publically available across Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Creators can also optionally publish to an email list — including a list brought in from other platforms. The newsletter subscriptions can be free or paid, depending on the creator’s preferences, but using Museletter itself will be free. Instead, the project aims to monetize with premium features like custom domains, welcome emails, and more.

The platform also promises tools and analytics to engage audiences and track the newsletter’s performance.

While the site doesn’t mention any plans for advertising, a success in this space could provide Google with a new ad revenue stream — and one that arrives at a time when the tech giant’s multi-billion dollar advertising market has a new challenger in the form of Amazon, whose own ad business could eventually challenge the Facebook-Google duopoly.

Google didn’t say when it plans to launch Museletter, but the website is offering a link to a form where users can request early access.

#amazon, #android, #area-120, #computing, #creators, #finance, #google, #google-sheeets, #google-slides, #google-docs, #google-drive, #media, #news, #newsletter, #newsletters, #publish, #publishers, #rd, #substack, #world-wide-web

Shocking Pixel 6 rumor lists Google SoC with two ARM X1 CPU cores

What in the world is going on?

Google is building the Pixel 6, and with it, the company is dumping Qualcomm and introducing its first in-house main SoC (with help from Samsung): the “Google Tensor SoC,” aka “Whitechapel.” Other than some talk about Google’s special AI sauce, there’s hasn’t been much info about the core parts of Tensor like, say, the CPU. A reasonable expectation for a company building its first SoC is that it won’t be too ambitious—we would expect Google to play within the guardrails set up by ARM, and after shipping a modest, cookie-cutter SoC, the company would learn from its first design and iterate. But a new report from XDA Developers’ Mishaal Rahman claims that even with its first design, Google isn’t afraid to blaze its own trail in SoC design.

Recall how ARM SoCs generally come with three tiers of CPU cores: a big CPU for bursty processing tasks like app-launching, medium cores for sustained performance, and small cores for background duty and low-power processing. Rahman says he has a source with a real-life Pixel 6 Pro and offers the following CPU specs: two 2.8GHz Cortex-X1 cores, two 2.25GHz Cortex-A76 cores, and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A55 cores.

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#google, #pixel, #soc, #tech, #tensor

News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion

SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

#aca-investments, #aggregation, #ai, #android, #apple-news, #apps, #funding, #google, #google-news, #japan, #machine-learning, #media, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #mobile-software, #new-aggregator, #news, #news-aggregation, #news-reading, #recent-funding, #smartnews, #software, #startups, #tokyo, #united-states

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented-background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned first-hand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 1997 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are however others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

#algolia, #artificial-intelligence, #better-com, #board-member, #bonobos, #carl-sparks, #ceo, #co-founder, #constructor, #cto, #david-fraga, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #founder, #funding, #google, #google-search, #invision, #jason-finger, #kevin-weil, #marketing, #merchandising, #online-shopping, #partner, #president, #retail, #seamless, #sephora, #shopping, #silversmith-capital-partners, #social-media, #sprout-social, #technology-development, #travelocity, #yext, #zonos

South Korean antitrust regulator fines Google $177M for abusing market dominance

The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said on Tuesday it fined Google $177 million for abusing its market dominance in the Android operating system (OS) market.

The U.S. tech company has restricted market competition by prohibiting local smartphone makers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics from customizing their Android OS, through Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements (AFA), according to the antitrust regulator statement.

Under the AFA, smartphone developers are not allowed to install or develop “Android forks”, modified versions of Android.

The KFTC banned Google LLC, Google Asia Pacific and Google Korea from imposing local smartphone developers to sign the AFA and make changes on details about the existing version. The new measure in South Korea will be applied to not only mobiles devices but also other Android-powered smart devices including watches and TVs.

Android has spurred innovation among Korean mobile operator owners and software developers and that has led to a better user experience for Korean consumers, Google said in its statement. “The KFTC’s decision released today ignores these benefits, and will undermine the advantages enjoyed by consumers. Google intends to appeal the KFTC’s decision,” a spokesperson at Google said.

The commission has been investigating Google over the anti-competition practice in OS market since July 2016, a spokesperson at KFTC said.

Google’s global mobile OS market share excluding China has been increased to 97.7% in 2019 from 38% in 2010, as per KFTC’s announcement.

Google’s AFA has also limited to launch tech companies’ new devices like smart watches and TVs using the operating system (OS) including Samsung’s smart watch in 2013, LG Electronics’ LTE smart speaker in 2018 as well as Amazon’s smart TV in 2018.

South Korea’s watchdog is probing into three other cases including the Play Store app market, billing system and the advertisement market.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s “anti-Google law”, takes effect on 14 September, based on Korea Communications Commission’s press release.

In late August, South Korea passed a bill to curb global tech companies including Google and Apple from imposing their own proprietary in-app payment service and commissions on app developers.

#antitrust, #apps, #asia, #gadgets, #google, #government, #hardware, #mobile, #south-korea, #tc

Rezilion raises $30M help security operations teams with tools to automate their busywork

Security operations teams face a daunting task these days, fending off malicious hackers and their increasingly sophisticated approaches to cracking into networks. That also represents a gap in the market: building tools to help those security teams do their jobs. Today, an Israeli startup called Rezilion that is doing just that — building automation tools for DevSecOps, the area of IT that addresses the needs of security teams and the technical work that they need to do in their jobs — is announcing $30 million in funding.

Guggenheim Investments is leading the round with JVP and Kindred Capital also contributing. Rezilion said that unnamed executives from Google, Microsoft, CrowdStrike, IBM, Cisco, PayPal, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, eBay, Symantec, RedHat, RSA and Tenable are also in the round. Previously, the company had raised $8 million.

Rezilion’s funding is coming on the back of strong initial growth for the startup in its first two years of operations.

Its customer base is made up of some of the world’s biggest companies, including two of the “Fortune 10” (the top 10 of the Fortune 500). CEO Liran Tancman, who co-founded Rezilion with CTO Shlomi Boutnaru, said that one of those two is one of the world’s biggest software companies, and the other is a major connected device vendor, but he declined to say which. (For the record, the top 10 includes Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Walmart and CVS.)

Tancman and Boutnaru had previously co-founded another security startup, CyActive, which was acquired by PayPal in 2015; the pair worked there together until leaving to start Rezilion.

There are a lot of tools out in the market now to help automate different aspects of developer and security operations. Rezilion focuses on a specific part of DevSecOps: large businesses have over the years put in place a lot of processes that they need to follow to try to triage and make the most thorough efforts possible to detect security threats. Today, that might involve inspecting every single suspicious piece of activity to determine what the implications might be.

The problem is that with the volume of information coming in, taking the time to inspect and understand each piece of suspicious activity can put enormous strain on an organization: it’s time-consuming, and as it turns out, not the best use of that time because of the signal to noise ratio involved. Typically, each vulnerability can take 6-9 hours to properly investigate, Tancman said. “But usually about 70-80% of them are not exploitable,” meaning they may be bad for some, but not for this particular organization and the code it’s using today. That represents a very inefficient use of the security team’s time and energy.

“Eight of out ten patches tend to be a waste of time,” Tancman said of the approach that is typically made today. He believes that as its AI continues to grow and its knowledge and solution becomes more sophisticated, “it might soon be 9 out of 10.”

Rezilion has built a taxonomy and an AI-based system that essentially does that inspection work as a human would do: it spots any new, or suspicious, code, figures out what it is trying to do, and runs it against a company’s existing code and systems to see how and if it might actually be a threat to it or create further problems down the line. If it’s all good, it essentially whitelists the code. If not, it flags it to the team.

The stickiness of the product has come out of how Tancman and Boutnaru understand large enterprises, especially those heavy with technology stacks, operate these days in what has become a very challenging environment for cybersecurity teams.

“They are using us to accelerate their delivery processes while staying safe,” Tancman said. “They have strict compliance departments and have to adhere to certain standards,” in terms of the protocols they take around security work, he added. “They want to leverage DevOps to release that.”

He said Rezilion has generally won over customers in large part for simply understanding that culture and process and helping them work better within that: “Companies become users of our product because we showed them that, at a fraction of the effort, they can be more secure.” This has special resonance in the world of tech, although financial services, and other verticals that essentially leverage technology as a significant foundation for how they operate, are also among the startup’s user base.

Down the line, Rezilion plans to add remediation and mitigation into the mix to further extend what it can do with its automation tools, which is part of where the funding will be going, too, Boutnaru said. But he doesn’t believe it will ever replace the human in the equation altogether.

“It will just focus them on the places where you need more human thinking,” he said. “We’re just removing the need for tedious work.”

In that grand tradition of enterprise automation, then, it will be interesting to watch which other automation-centric platforms might make a move into security alongside the other automation they are building. For now, Rezilion is forging out an interesting enough area for itself to get investors interested.

“Rezilion’s product suite is a game changer for security teams,” said Rusty Parks, senior MD of Guggenheim Investments, in a statement. “It creates a win-win, allowing companies to speed innovative products and features to market while enhancing their security posture. We believe Rezilion has created a truly compelling value proposition for security teams, one that greatly increases return on time while thoroughly protecting one’s core infrastructure.”

#agile-software-development, #alphabet, #amazon, #apple, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #ceo, #cisco, #computer-security, #crowdstrike, #cto, #cyactive, #devops, #ebay, #energy, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #financial-services, #funding, #google, #ibm, #jp-morgan-chase, #kindred-capital, #maryland, #microsoft, #paypal, #security, #software, #software-development, #startup-company, #symantec, #technology

Billogram, provider of a payments platform specifically for recurring billing, raises $45M

Payments made a huge shift to digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic — purchasing moved online for many consumers and businesses; and a large proportion of those continuing to buy and sell in-person went cash-free. Today a startup that has been focusing on one specific aspect of payments — recurring billing — is announcing a round of funding to capitalize on that growth with expansion of its own. Billogram, which has built a platform for third parties to build and handle any kind of recurring payments (not one-off purchases), has closed a round of $45 million.

The funding is coming from a single investor, Partech, and will be used to help the Stockholm-based startup expand from its current base in Sweden to six more markets, Jonas Suijkerbuijk, Billogram’s CEO and founder, said in an interview, to cover more of Germany (where it’s already active now), Norway, Finland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.

The company got its start working with SMBs in 2011 but pivoted some years later to working with larger enterprises, which make up the majority of its business today. Suijkerbuijk said that in 2020, signed deals went up by 300%, and the first half of 2021 grew 50% more on top of that. Its users include utilities like Skanska Energi and broadband company Ownit, and others like remote healthcare company Kry, businesses that take invoice and take monthly payments from their customers.

While there has been a lot of attention around how companies like Apple and Google are handling subscriptions and payments in apps, what Billogram focuses on is a different beast, and much more complex: it’s more integrated into the business providing services, and it may involve different services, and the fees can vary over every billing period. It’s for this reason that, in fact, even big companies in the realm of digital payments, like Stripe, which might even already have products that can help manage subscriptions on their platforms, partner with companies like Billogram to build the experiences to manage their more involved kinds of payment services.

I should point out here that Suijkerbuijk told me that Stripe recently became a partner of Billograms, which is very interesting… but he also added that a number of the big payments companies have talked to Billogram. He also confirmed that currently Stripe is not an investor in the company. “We have a very good relationship,” he said.

It’s not surprising to see Stripe and others wanting to more in the area of more complex, recurring billing services. Researchers estimate that the market size (revenues and services) for subscription and recurring billing will be close to $6 billion this year, with that number ballooning to well over $10 billion by 2025. And indeed, the effort to make a payment or any kind of transaction will continue to be a point of friction in the world of commerce, so any kinds of systems that bring technology to bear to make that easier and something that consumers or businesses will do without thinking about it, will be valuable, and will likely grow in dominance. (It’s why the more basic subscription services, such as Prime membership or a Netflix subscription, or a cloud storage account, are such winners.)

Within that very big pie, Suijkerbuijk noted that rather than the Apples and Googles of the world, the kinds of businesses that Billogram currently competes against are those that are addressing the same thornier end of the payments spectrum that Billogram is. These include a wide swathe of incumbent companies that do a lot of their business in areas like debt collection, and other specialists like Scaleworks-backed Chargify — which itself got a big investment injection earlier this year from Battery Ventures, which put $150 million into both it and another billing provider, SaaSOptics, in April.

The former group of competitors are not currently a threat to Billogram, he added.

“Debt collecting agencies are big on invoicing, but no one — not their customers, nor their customers’ customers — loves them, so they are great competitors to have,” Suijkerbuijk joked.

This also means that Billogram is not likely to move into debt collection itself as it continues to expand. Instead, he said, the focus will be on building out more tools to make the invoicing and payments experience better and less painful to customers. That will likely include more moves into customer service and generally improving the overall billing experience — something we have seen become a bigger area also during the pandemic, as companies realized that they needed to address non-payments in a different way from how their used to, given world events and the impact they were having on individuals.

“We are excited to partner with Jonas and the team at Billogram.” says Omri Benayoun, General Partner at Partech, in a statement. “Having spotted a gap in the market, they have quietly built the most advanced platform for large B2C enterprises looking to integrate billing, payment, and collection in one single solution. In our discussion with leading utilities, telecom, e-health, and all other clients across Europe, we realized how valuable Billogram was for them in order to engage with their end-users through a top-notch billing and payment experience. The outstanding commercial traction demonstrated by Billogram has further cemented our conviction, and we can’t wait to support the team in bringing their solution to many more customers in Europe and beyond!”

#apple, #battery-ventures, #billing, #billogram, #broadband, #business-software, #ceo, #e-health, #economy, #europe, #finance, #financial-technology, #finland, #france, #funding, #general-partner, #germany, #google, #ireland, #italy, #kry, #merchant-services, #money, #netflix, #norway, #online-payments, #partner, #spain, #stockholm, #stripe, #sweden, #web-applications

WhatsApp will finally let users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud

WhatsApp said on Friday it will give its two billion users the option to encrypt their chat backups to the cloud, taking a significant step to put a lid on one of the tricky ways private communication between individuals on the app can be compromised.

The Facebook-owned service has end-to-end encrypted chats between users for more than a decade. But users have had no option but to store their chat backup to their cloud — iCloud on iPhones and Google Drive on Android — in an unencrypted format.

Tapping these unencrypted WhatsApp chat backups on Google and Apple servers is one of the widely known ways law enforcement agencies across the globe have been able to access WhatsApp chats of suspect individuals for years.

Now WhatsApp says it is patching this weak link in the system.

“WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups, and getting there was a really hard technical challenge that required an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage across operating systems,” said Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post announcing the new feature.

Store your own encryption keys

The company said it has devised a system to enable WhatsApp users on Android and iOS to lock their chat backups with encryption keys. WhatsApp says it will offer users two ways to encrypt their cloud backups, and the feature is optional.

In the “coming weeks,” users on WhatsApp will see an option to generate a 64-digit encryption key to lock their chat backups in the cloud. Users can store the encryption key offline or in a password manager of their choice, or they can create a password that backs up their encryption key in a cloud-based “backup key vault” that WhatsApp has developed. The cloud-stored encryption key can’t be used without the user’s password, which isn’t known by WhatsApp.

(Image: WhatsApp/supplied)

“We know that some will prefer the 64-digit encryption key whereas others want something they can easily remember, so we will be including both options. Once a user sets their backup password, it is not known to us. They can reset it on their original device if they forget it,” WhatsApp said.

“For the 64-digit key, we will notify users multiple times when they sign up for end-to-end encrypted backups that if they lose their 64-digit key, we will not be able to restore their backup and that they should write it down. Before the setup is complete, we’ll ask users to affirm that they’ve saved their password or 64-digit encryption key.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson told TechCrunch that once an encrypted backup is created, previous copies of the backup will be deleted. “This will happen automatically and there is no action that a user will need to take,” the spokesperson added.

Potential regulatory pushback?

The move to introduce this added layer of privacy is significant and one that could have far-reaching implications.

End-to-end encryption remains a thorny topic of discussion as governments continue to lobby for backdoors. Apple was reportedly pressured to not add encryption to iCloud Backups after the FBI complained, and while Google has offered users the ability to encrypt their data stored in Google Drive, the company allegedly didn’t tell governments before it rolled out the feature.

When asked by TechCrunch whether WhatsApp, or its parent firm Facebook, had consulted with government bodies — or if it had received their support — during the development process of this feature, the company declined to discuss any such conversations.

“People’s messages are deeply personal and as we live more of our lives online, we believe companies should enhance the security they provide their users. By releasing this feature, we are providing our users with the option to add this additional layer of security for their backups if they’d like to, and we’re excited to give our users a meaningful advancement in the safety of their personal messages,” the company told TechCrunch.

WhatsApp also confirmed that it will be rolling out this optional feature in every market where its app is operational.  It’s not uncommon for companies to withhold privacy features for legal and regulatory reasons. Apple’s upcoming encrypted browsing feature, for instance, won’t be made available to users in certain authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the Philippines.

At any rate, Friday’s announcement comes days after ProPublica reported that private end-to-end encrypted conversations between two users can be read by human contractors when messages are reported by users.

“Making backups fully encrypted is really hard and it’s particularly hard to make it reliable and simple enough for people to use. No other messaging service at this scale has done this and provided this level of security for people’s messages,” Uzma Barlaskar, product lead for privacy at WhatsApp, told TechCrunch.

“We’ve been working on this problem for many years, and to build this, we had to develop an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage that can be used across the world’s largest operating systems and that took time.”

#apple, #apps, #facebook, #google, #google-drive, #icloud, #mark-zuckerberg, #privacy, #signal, #social, #tc, #telegram, #whatsapp

Microsoft acquires TakeLessons, an online and in-person tutoring platform, to ramp up its edtech play

Microsoft said in January this year that Teams, its online collaboration platform, was being used by over 100 million students — boosted in no small part by the Covid-19 pandemic and many schools going partly or fully remote. Now, it’s made another acquisition to continue expanding its position in the education market.

The company has acquired TakeLessons, a platform for students to connect with individual tutors in areas like music lessons, language learning, academic subjects and professional training or hobbies, and for tutors to book and organize the lessons they give, both online and in person.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed but we are trying to find out. San Diego-based TakeLessons had raised at least $20 million from a range of VCs and individuals that included LightBank, Uncork Capital, Crosslink Capital and others. TakeLessons posted a short note in the form of a Q&A confirming the deal on its site. The note said that it will continue operating business as usual for the time being, with the intention of taking its platform to a wider global audience.

It’s not clear how many active students and tutors TakeLessons had on its platform at the time of acquisition, but for some context, another big player in the area of online one-to-one tutoring, GoStudent out of Europe, raised $244 million in funding earlier this year that valued it at $1.7 billion. Others in online tutoring like Brainly are also seeing valuations in the hundreds of millions.

Given the relatively modest amount raised by TakeLessons, it’s likely this was a much lower valuation. Yet the acquisition is still one that gives Microsoft the infrastructure and beginnings of setting up a much more aggressive play in mass-market online education, potentially to go head-to-head with these and other big platforms.

TakeLessons today offers instruction in a wide variety of areas, including music lessons (which was where it had gotten its start) through to languages, academic subjects and test prep, computer skills, crafts and more. It has been around since 2006 and got its start first as a platform for people to connect with tutors local to them for in-person lessons, before progressing into online lessons to complement that business.

The pandemic has precipitated a shift to a much bigger wave of the latter, with online tutoring apparently the majority of what is offered on TakeLessons platform today. These lessons continue to be offered on a one-on-one basis, but additionally students can take part in group lessons online via the startup’s Live platform.

The shift to online education that we’ve seen take hold around the world is likely why Microsoft sees a big opportunity here.

On the heels of many schools around the world scrambling for better online learning platforms to manage remote learning during lockdowns and quarantines, educators, families and students have been using (and paying for) a variety of different tools. Within that, Microsoft has been pushing hard to make Teams a leader in that area.

That was built on years of traction already in the market (and a number of other investments and acquisitions that Microsoft has made over the years).

But it also comes amid a new insurgence of competition arising from the current state of affairs. That includes adoption of Google Classroom, as well as a wide variety of more targeted point solutions for specific purposes like video lessons (Zoom figures big here); apps for lesson planning and homework planning; online on-demand tutorials in specific areas like math or languages or science to bolster in-class learning experiences; and more.

The Microsoft way is to bring as many features into a platform as possible to make it more sticky and less likely that users will turn to other apps, providing more value for money around the Microsoft offer. In other words, I’d expect to see Microsoft do more deals and launch more features to cover all of the services that it doesn’t already provide through its educational tools.

(Case in point: my children’s school uses Teams for online lessons, in part because it already uses Outlook for its email system. Now, the school has announced that it will no longer be using a different third-party app for homework planning; instead, teachers will be assigning homework and managing it via Teams. For a cash-strapped state school like ours, it makes sense that it would opt out of paying for two apps when it can get the same features in just one of them. The kids are not happy about this! This is what Microsoft leverages with its platform play.)

NextLessons is somewhat adjacent to that school-focused education strategy. Yes, there will be a big audience of students and their families who might represent a good cross-selling opportunity for tutoring, but NextLessons represents also a more mass-market offering, open to anyone who might want to learn something, not just those already using Microsoft Education products.

So the interest here is likely not just students who want to supplement their online learning — there is a big audience for online tutoring — but any lifelong learner, as well as the many consumers or professionals out there who have gotten interested in learning something new, especially in the last 1.5 years of spending more time alone and/or at home.

And with that, there are other potential opportunities for NextLessons in the Microsoft universe.

Just yesterday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, held an online presentation about what work will look like in the future. Education — specifically professional development — figured strongly in that discussion, with the conversation coinciding with LinkedIn launching a new Learning Hub.

LinkedIn has not only been working for years on building out its education business, but it has also long been looking for a more sticky inroad into doing more with video on its platform.

Something like NextLessons could, interestingly, kill those two birds with one stone. While LinkedIn’s education content up to now has not been something specifically tied to “live” online lessons, you could imagine a bridge between Microsoft’s latest acquisition and what LinkedIn might consider next, too.

#articles, #ceo, #crosslink-capital, #e-learning, #education, #europe, #google, #leader, #learning, #lightbank, #linkedin, #ma, #microsoft, #online-education, #online-learning, #online-tutoring, #ryan-roslansky, #san-diego, #satya-nadella, #takelessons, #teaching, #tutoring, #uncork-capital

The 2022 Chevrolet Silverado gets a tech upgrade, hands-free trailering and a new ZR2 off-road flagship

GM unveiled Thursday the 2022 Chevrolet Silverado, a full-sized pickup truck that received a major technology upgrade, including its hands-free Super Cruise advanced driver assistance system and an infotainment system with embedded Google services as well as an overhauled interior. A new flagship trim, the off-road factory-installed lifted ZR2 truck, has also joined the Silverado lineup.

The Silverado refresh comes ahead of GM’s electric vehicle offensive, which will include Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks. GM aims to deliver 30 new electric vehicles to the global market by 2025 and to transition to all-zero-emission by 2035. GM said the new Silverado trims will arrive to dealerships in spring 2022.

The exterior of the Chevy Silverado also received a refresh, including new front fascia and daytime running lights that animate when the driver walks up or away from the vehicle. But the real change can be found in the cabin — and the hardware and software guts — of the truck.

 2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2

The 2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 and new headlights. Image credit: GM

Chevy offers the Silverado in the LT, RST, LT Trail Boss, ZR2, LTZ and High Country trims, all of which come standard with a 2.7-liter turbocharged engine that improves the torque by 20 percent to 420-pound feet and has a maximum trailering rating of 9,500 pounds in a two-wheel drive configuration. GM also made changes to smooth out shifting and give drivers more power on demand.

The automaker also improved its 3.0L Duramax turbocharged diesel engine to enable a max tow rating of 13,300 pounds in a two-wheel drive configuration. Two other powertrains, the 5.3-liter V8 and the 6.2-liter V8 are also offered.

The interior cabin has been revamped to make it feel more spacious and includes 13.4-inch touchscreen and a new 12.3-inch configurable digital instrument cluster standard. Owners will also be able to add a rear camera mirror and a head up display.

Chevrolet Silverado

The First-Ever 2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2. Image credit: GM

Finally, the Silverado interior will be offered in new colors, seat designs and premium materials. For model trims with bucket seats, the new center console incorporates an electronic shift controller.

Alexandre Scartezini, Chevrolet Truck’s lead interior designer, has described it as more contemporary and refined “with a hint of Corvette influence in its design DNA.”

Everything Google

Moving in deeper inside the vehicle, aka the infotainment, users will find Google, or more specifically Android Automotive, at the heart of the operating system. This means that Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Play are all integrated into the the infotainment screen.

Android Automotive OS shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android Auto is an app that runs on the user’s phone and wirelessly communicates with the vehicle’s infotainment system. Both Android Auto and its Apple CarPlay counterpart will be offered in the new Silverado. GM said the system also works with Amazon Alexa.

Meanwhile, Android Automotive OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so automakers could use it in their cars. Google has offered an open-source version of this OS to automakers for sometime. In recent years, automakers have worked with the tech company to natively build in an Android OS that is embedded with all the Google apps and services.

Hands-free driving

All of the Silverado trims come standard with six active safety features, including automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and forward collision alerts, a warning if the vehicle leaves its lane, a following distance indicator, automatic high beams and front pedestrian braking.

The big change is the addition of the automaker’s Super Cruise hands-free driver-assistance technology, which will be an available option on the High Country trim. Importantly, the system can be used even while trailering. Certain features of Super Cruise like automatic lane changing and lane change on demand will be restricted if the truck is towing.

Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

While GM has steadily improved Super Cruise since its introduction in 2017, for years it was limited to its luxury Cadillac brand and restricted to certain divided highways. That began to change in 2019 when GM announced plans to expand it to more models and use cases. The system can be activated on more than 200,000 miles of roads in the United States and Canada.

The Silverado will offer other trailer assistance features including one that will alert drivers to vehicles in their blind spot.

#amazon-alexa, #android-auto, #apple-carplay, #automotive, #chevrolet, #chevrolet-silverado, #gm, #google, #tc, #transportation

UK dials up the spin on data reform, claiming ‘simplified’ rules will drive ‘responsible’ data sharing

The U.K. government has announced a consultation on plans to shake up the national data protection regime, as it looks at how to diverge from European Union rules following Brexit.

It’s also a year since the U.K. published a national data strategy in which said it wanted pandemic levels of data sharing to become Britain’s new normal.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCPS) has today trailed an incoming reform of the information commissioner’s office — saying it wants to broaden the ICO’s remit to “champion sectors and businesses that are using personal data in new, innovative and responsible ways to benefit people’s lives”; and promising “simplified” rules to encourage the use of data for research which “benefit’s people’s lives”, such as in the field of healthcare.

It also wants a new structure for the regulator — including the creation of an independent board and chief executive for the ICO, to mirror the governance structures of other regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority, Financial Conduct Authority and Ofcom.

Additionally, it said the data reform consultation will consider how the new regime can help mitigate the risks around algorithmic bias — something the EU is already moving to legislate on, setting out a risk-based proposal for regulating applications of AI back in April.

Which means the U.K. risks being left lagging if it’s only going to concern itself with a narrow focus on “bias mitigation”, rather than considering the wider sweep of how AI is intersecting with and influencing its citizens’ lives.

In a press release announcing the consultation, DCMS highlights an artificial intelligence partnership involving Moorfields Eye Hospital and the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, which kicked off back in 2016, as an example of the kinds of beneficial data sharing it wants to encourage. Last year the researchers reported that their AI had been able to predict the development of wet age-related macular degeneration more accurately than clinicians.

The partnership also involved (Google-owned) DeepMind and now Google Health — although the government’s PR doesn’t make mention of the tech giant’s involvement. It’s an interesting omission, given that DeepMind’s name is also attached to a notorious U.K. patient data-sharing scandal, which saw another London-based NHS Trust (the Royal Free) sanctioned by the ICO, in 2017, for improperly sharing patient data with the Google-owned company during the development phase of a clinician support app (which Google is now in the process of discontinuing).

DCMS may be keen to avoid spelling out that its goal for the data reforms — aka to “remove unnecessary barriers to responsible data use” — could end up making it easier for commercial entities like Google to get their hands on U.K. citizens’ medical records.

The sizeable public backlash over the most recent government attempt to requisition NHS users’ medical records — for vaguely defined “research” purposes (aka the “General Practice Data for Planning and Research”, or GPDPR, scheme) — suggests that a government-enabled big-health-data-free-for-all might not be so popular with U.K. voters.

“The government’s data reforms will provide clarity around the rules for the use of personal data for research purposes, laying the groundwork for more scientific and medical breakthroughs,” is how DCMS’ PR skirts the sensitive health data sharing topic.

Elsewhere there’s talk of “reinforc[ing] the responsibility of businesses to keep personal information safe, while empowering them to grow and innovate” — so that sounds like a yes to data security but what about individual privacy and control over what happens to your information?

The government seems to be saying that will depend on other aims — principally economic interests attached to the U.K.’s ability to conduct data-driven research or secure trade deals with other countries that don’t have the same (current) high U.K. standards of data protection.

There are some purely populist flourishes here too — with DCMS couching its ambition for a data regime “based on common sense, not box ticking” — and flagging up plans to beef up penalties for nuisance calls and text messages. Because, sure, who doesn’t like the sound of a crackdown on spam?

Except spam text messages and nuisance calls are a pretty quaint concern to zero in on in an era of apps and data-driven, democracy-disrupting mass surveillance — which was something the outgoing information commissioner raised as a major issue of concern during her tenure at the ICO.

The same populist anti-spam messaging has already been deployed by ministers to attack the need to obtain internet users’ consent for dropping tracking cookies — which the digital minister Oliver Dowden recently suggested he wants to do away with — for all but “high risk” purposes.

Having a system of rights wrapping people’s data that gives them a say over (and a stake in) how it can be used appears to be being reframed in the government’s messaging as irresponsible or even non-patriotic — with DCMS pushing the notion that such rights stand in the way of more important economic or highly generalized “social” goals.

Not that it has presented any evidence for that — or even that the U.K.’s current data protection regime got in the way of (the very ample) data sharing during COVID-19… While negative uses of people’s information are being condensed in DCMS’ messaging to the narrowest possible definition — of spam that’s visible to an individual — never mind how that person got targeted with the nuisance calls/spam texts in the first place.

The government is taking its customary “cake and eat it” approach to spinning its reform plan — claiming it will both “protect” people’s data while also trumpeting the importance of making it really easy for citizens’ information to be handed off to anyone who wants it, so long as they can claim they’re doing some kind of “innovation”, while also larding its PR with canned quotes dubbing the plan “bold” and “ambitious”.

So while DCMS’ announcement says the reform will “maintain” the U.K.’s (currently) world-leading data protection standards, it directly rows back — saying the new regime will (merely) “build on” a few broad-brush “key elements” of the current rules (specifically it says it will keep “principles around data processing, people’s data rights and mechanisms for supervision and enforcement”).

Clearly the devil will be in the detail of the proposals which are due to be published tomorrow morning. So expect more analysis to debunk the spin soon.

But in one specific trailed change DCMS says it wants to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to data protection compliance — and “allow organisations to demonstrate compliance in ways more appropriate to their circumstances, while still protecting citizens’ personal data to a high standard”.

That implies that smaller data-mining operations — DCMS’s PR uses the example of a hairdresser’s but plenty of startups can employ fewer staff than the average barber’s shop — may be able to expect to get a pass to ignore those ‘high standards’ in the future.

Which suggests the U.K.’s “high standards” may, under Dowden’s watch, end up resembling more of a Swiss Cheese…

Data protection is a “how to, not a don’t do”…

The man who is likely to become the U.K.’s next information commissioner, New Zealand’s privacy commissioner John Edwards, was taking questions from a parliamentary committee earlier today, as MPs considered whether to support his appointment to the role.

If he’s confirmed in the job, Edwards will be responsible for implementing whatever new data regime the government cooks up.

Under questioning, he rejected the notion that the U.K.’s current data protection regime presents a barrier to data sharing — arguing that laws like GDPR should rather be seen as a “how to” and an “enabler” for innovation.

“I would take issue with the dichotomy that you presented [about privacy vs data-sharing],” he told the committee chair. “I don’t believe that policymakers and businesses and governments are faced with a choice of share or keep faith with data protection. Data protection laws and privacy laws would not be necessary if it wasn’t necessary to share information. These are two sides of the same coin.

“The UK DPA [data protection act] and UK GDPR they are a ‘how to’ — not a ‘don’t do’. And I think the UK and many jurisdictions have really finally learned that lesson through the COVID-19 crisis. It has been absolutely necessary to have good quality information available, minute by minute. And to move across different organizations where it needs to go, without friction. And there are times when data protection laws and privacy laws introduce friction and I think that what you’ve seen in the UK is that when it needs to things can happen quickly.”

He also suggested that plenty of economic gains could be achieved for the U.K. with some minor tweaks to current rules, rather than a more radical reboot being necessary. (Though clearly setting the rules won’t be up to him; his job will be enforcing whatever new regime is decided.)

“If we can, in the administration of a law which at the moment looks very much like the UK GDPR, that gives great latitude for different regulatory approaches — if I can turn that dial just a couple of points that can make the difference of billions of pounds to the UK economy and thousands of jobs so we don’t need to be throwing out the statute book and starting again — there is plenty of scope to be making improvements under the current regime,” he told MPs. “Let alone when we start with a fresh sheet of paper if that’s what the government chooses to do.”

TechCrunch asked another Edwards (no relation) — Newcastle University’s Lilian Edwards, professor of law, innovation and society — for her thoughts on the government’s direction of travel, as signalled by DCMS’ pre-proposal-publication spin, and she expressed similar concerns about the logic driving the government to argue it needs to rip up the existing standards.

“The entire scheme of data protection is to balance fundamental rights with the free flow of data. Economic concerns have never been ignored, and the current scheme, which we’ve had in essence since 1998, has struck a good balance. The great things we did with data during COVID-19 were done completely legally — and with no great difficulty under the existing rules — so that isn’t a reason to change them,” she told us.

She also took issue with the plan to reshape the ICO “as a quango whose primary job is to ‘drive economic growth’ ” — pointing out that DCMS’ PR fails to include any mention of privacy or fundamental rights, and arguing that “creating an entirely new regulator isn’t likely to do much for the ‘public trust’ that’s seen as declining in almost every poll.”

She also suggested the government is glossing over the real economic damage that would hit the U.K. if the EU decides its “reformed” standards are no longer essentially equivalent to the bloc’s. “[It’s] hard to see much concern for adequacy here; which will, for sure, be reviewed, to our detriment — prejudicing 43% of our trade for a few low value trade deals and some hopeful sell offs of NHS data (again, likely to take a wrecking ball to trust judging by the GPDPR scandal).”

She described the goal of regulating algorithmic bias as “applaudable” — but also flagged the risk of the U.K. falling behind other jurisdictions which are taking a broader look at how to regulate artificial intelligence.

Per DCMS’ press release, the government seems to be intending for an existing advisory body, called the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), to have a key role in supporting its policymaking in this area — saying that the body will focus on “enabling trustworthy use of data and AI in the real-world”. However it has still not appointed a new CDEI chair to replace Roger Taylor — with only an interim chair appointment (and some new advisors) announced today.

“The world has moved on since CDEI’s work in this area,” argued Edwards. “We realise now that regulating the harmful effects of AI has to be considered in the round with other regulatory tools not just data protection. The proposed EU AI Regulation is not without flaw but goes far further than data protection in mandating better quality training sets, and more transparent systems to be built from scratch. If the UK is serious about regulating it has to look at the global models being floated but right now it looks like its main concerns are insular, short-sighted and populist.”

Patient data privacy advocacy group MedConfidential, which has frequently locked horns with the government over its approach to data protection, also queried DCMS’ continued attachment to the CDEI for shaping policymaking in such a crucial area — pointing to last year’s biased algorithm exam grading scandal, which happened under Taylor’s watch.

(NB: Taylor was also the Ofqual chair, and his resignation from that post in December cited a “difficult summer”, even as his departure from the CDEI leaves an awkward hole now… )

“The culture and leadership of CDEI led to the A-Levels algorithm, why should anyone in government have any confidence in what they say next?” said MedConfidential’s Sam Smith.

#artificial-intelligence, #data-processing, #dcms, #deep-learning, #deepmind, #europe, #google, #google-health, #healthcare, #information-commissioners-office, #john-edwards, #moorfields-eye-hospital, #nhs, #oliver-dowden, #policy, #privacy, #uk-gdpr, #uk-government, #united-kingdom

Investors are doubling down on Southeast Asia’s digital economy

Southeast Asian tech companies are drawing the attention of investors around the world. In 2020, startups in the region raised over $8.2 billion, about four times more than they did in 2015. This trend continued in 2021, with regional M&A hitting a record high of $124.8 billion in the first half of 2021, up 83% from a year earlier.

This begs the question: Who exactly is investing in Southeast Asia?

Let’s explore the three key types of investors pouring money into and driving the growth of Southeast Asia’s tech ecosystem.

Over 229 family offices have been registered in Singapore since 2020, with total assets under management of an estimated $20 billion.

Big tech

Southeast Asia has become an attractive market for U.S. and Chinese tech firms. Internet penetration here stands at 70%, higher than the global average, and digital adoption in the region remains nascent — it wasn’t until the pandemic that adoption of digital services such as e-wallets and online shopping took off.

China’s tech giants Tencent and Alibaba were among the first to support early e-commerce growth in Southeast Asia with investments in Sea Limited and Lazada, and have since expanded their footprint into other internet verticals. Alibaba has backed Akulaku, M-Pay (eMonkey), DANA, Wave Money and Mynt (GCash), while Tencent has invested in Voyager Innovations (PayMaya), SHAREit, iflix, Ookbee and Sanook.

U.S. tech firms have also recently entered the scene. In June 2020, Gojek closed a $3 billion Series F round from Google, Facebook, Tencent and Visa. Google, together with Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, invested some $350 million in Tokopedia in October. Meanwhile, Microsoft invested an undisclosed amount in Grab in 2018 and has invested $100 million in Indonesian e-commerce firm Bukalapak.

Venture capitalists

In Q1 2021, Southeast Asian startups raised $6 billion, according to DealStreetAsia, positioning 2021 as another record year for VC investment in the region.

The region is also rising in prominence as a destination for investment capital relative to the rest of Asia. Regional VC investment grew 5.2 times to $8.2 billion in 2020 from $1.6 billion in 2015, as we can see in the table below.

Venture capital investment by region 2015-2020

Image Credits: Jungle VC

Southeast Asia also has many opportunities for VC investment relative to its market size. From 2015 to 2020, China saw VC investment of nearly $300 per person; for Southeast Asia — despite a recent investment boom — this metric sits at just $47.50 per person, or just a sixth of that in China. This implies a substantial opportunity for investments to develop the region’s digital economy.

The region’s rising population and growth prospects are higher due to China’s population growth challenges, alongside the latter’s higher digital economy market saturation and maturity.

#alibaba, #asia, #asia-pacific, #bridgewater-associates, #china, #column, #e-commerce, #ec-column, #ec-southeast-asia-oceania, #facebook, #ggv-capital, #google, #internet-penetration, #james-dyson, #joseph-phua, #lazada, #lazada-group, #microsoft, #online-shopping, #paul-allen, #private-equity, #ray-dalio, #sergey-brin, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #temasek-holdings, #tencent, #tokopedia, #united-states, #venture-capital

Facebook’s first smart glasses make the case for face-worn wearables

Facebook’s first pair of smart glasses doesn’t feel like much of a Facebook product.

You won’t find the Facebook logo emblazoned on them or even its name in small print by the serial code. They aren’t Facebook Stories or Ray-Ban’s Facebook Stories or even Ray-Ban Stories in collaboration with Facebook. Unlike other Facebook-designed hardware like the Quest 2 or Portal, the Ray-Ban Stories feel more self-aware and restrained as though the company knew exactly what use cases they needed to hit, and stopped themselves from trying to do much more than that.

The glasses made in partnership with eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica are certainly the most basic device Facebook has shipped. They only do a few things, you can take photos and videos, you can take phone calls and you can listen to music. That’s it. But bringing audio into the mix via near-ear speakers embedded in the arms of the frames makes these a much more realized device than Snap’s Spectacles which shipped five years ago.


Ray-Ban’s classic dumb Wayfarers (left) next to the smart Ray-Ban Stories Wayfarers (right)

Let’s dig a bit into what this device does and how it feels to use it in daily life.

One thing to note about the $299 Ray-Ban Stories is that they can be worn pretty inconspicuously. People are probably more likely to notice the cameras than their slightly inflated dimensions. That’s already a revolutionary advance, which pushes these past the level of “toy” which Spectacles never really seemed to eclipse. The Ray-Ban partnership was particularly savvy given the thicker-than-average frames on their standard Wayfarer design.

What onlookers are more likely to notice is you tapping the frame of your glasses to control them. Pressing the  button on the right arm will take a 30-second video, a long-press will snap a photo. You can also use the voice command, “Hey Facebook, take a video” and do the same for photos — for the record, I’m not sure whether this is a sentence I’d feel great about hearing a stranger nearby me in public say. A small LED light sparks up when the camera is capturing footage though it’s a pretty low-key indicator.

The photo and video quality of the glasses is pretty middling, but plenty of forgiveness can be levied given the size of the device. The twin 5 MP cameras can shoot 2592 x 1944 pixel photos and 1184 x 1184 pixel square format videos. The quality seems to be about on-par with where smartphone cameras were about ten years ago, so it’s clear there’s plenty of room for improvement. Post-processing on the phone during upload enhances the photos and hides some of their struggles with low-lighting while making the photos pop a bit more with saturation.

The twin camera setup is used to add 3D effects to your photos, but at the moment the filters aren’t great and there’s honestly not much there. Hopefully, Facebook invests a bit more in the software over time but with fairly low quality photos, I don’t completely see the reasoning in having two cameras to begin with.

Also worth noting, is that using the glasses requires linking them to a new Facebook app called View, which is basically a simple media viewer app which gets around limitations in how media from external devices can be uploaded to your phone. This is where you can also make quick edits to your photos and videos before dumping them to your photo roll or sharing them to Facebook or Instagram.

Audio is probably the most interesting bit of these glasses. The near-ear speakers will surprise you with their quality in a quiet spaces and leave you dissatisfied once you find yourself in a noisier environment. Unfortunately for Facebook, most outdoor spaces are a bit louder and sunglasses are mostly being used outdoors. The audio will work in a pinch outdoors for listening to tunes, but I honestly can’t see them replacing my AirPods anytime soon. The audio is much better suited for low-fidelity activities like phone calls, but I also had some issues with the three-microphone array picking up too much background noise while I was walking outdoors.

Battery life is surprisingly solid, but they also have the benefit of a charging battery case which is incidentally the best place to store them. The case is a little bulky but they also include a microfiber pouch to protect the lenses. Facebook says you can get 6 hours of straight audio and “all-day” usage otherwise.

One of their weirder quirks is their lack of water-proofing or even splash-proofing, something that doesn’t seem like a great quality for a pair of sunglasses. It’s just one more thing indicating that while the thicker frame aesthetic of sunglasses makes more sense for a smart glasses design, this product really thrives more indoors.


This isn’t first rodeo when it comes to hardware and you can see the company’s maturation.

They aren’t an AR/VR device, but you can also see generations of Oculus products in the Ray-Ban Stories‘ design. On-ear audio born from the Oculus Go, a touchpad interface reminiscent of the Gear VR, simple and restrained audio controls first launched on the Quest. The hardware is a distillation of features and lessons learned from selling VR to a generally indifferent public that has seemed to warm up to it a bit over the years.

Meanwhile, you can also see years of Facebook screwing up its messaging and torching its brand name in the process, making itself the boogeyman of both political parties, courting enemies in the press and earning an outsized amount of distrust from the average internet user, something that probably led to these carrying so little Facebook branding. The Ray-Ban Stories will certainly have their detractors, but Facebook choosing to be conservative in their functionality and not toss in too many future-flung passive sensors will likely do them a favor. The Facebook View app is bare bones and Facebook details that photos and videos captured using the Stories won’t be used to serve ads. All that said, while we’ve certainly come a long way since the Google Glass debut in 2013, face-mounted cameras still feel icky when it comes to privacy in public and this device will undoubtedly reignite that conversation in a major way.

Baggage aside, my broadest takeaway is that the Ray-Ban Stories feel like a very important product — one that actually sells the idea of face-worn wearables.

The glasses are smartly designed and can be worn discreetly. That said, it’s clear Facebook made plenty of sacrifices to achieve such an aggressive form factor; the glasses honestly don’t do anything particularly well — photo and video quality is pretty lackluster, the in-frame speakers perform poorly outdoors and calls aren’t the most pleasant experience. All that said, I think Facebook mostly made the right compromises for a product that they’ve repeatedly indicated is meant to be a stepping stone on the road towards augmented reality glasses.

Facebook’s smart Ray-Ban Stories alongside my pair of classic Ray-Ban 2140 Wayfarers

#augmented-reality, #computing, #display-technology, #eyewear, #facebook, #glasses, #google, #hardware, #mixed-reality, #oculus, #smartphone, #sunglasses, #tc, #technology, #wearable-devices

AI-driven voice assistant PolyAI raises $14M round led by Khosla Ventures

“Conversational AI” startup PolyAI, based out of London, has raised $14 million in a funding round led by Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures, with participation from existing investors (Point72 Ventures, Amadeus Capital, Sands Capital Ventures, Passion Capital and Entrepreneur First). This follows their $12m Series A, and will provide resources for further US expansion beyond its existing US team. The startup has now raised $28m to date.

PolyAI builds and deploys voice assistants for automating customer services, which, claims the startup, sound like real humans. This helps companies get an infinite and cheaper supply of their best human voice operators, which reduces customer waiting times, and increases customer satisfaction and retention, says the company.

Co-founder Dr Nikola Mrkšić said: “The technical term for our technology is ‘multi-turn conversational AI’, but all the caller has to do is talk to it, like they would to a human. Compared to existing call centers, our assistants can boost customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores by up to 40% and reduce handling times by up to five minutes.”

“We build these systems very quickly (relative to the competition) — we get experiences like these up and running in 2-4 weeks thanks to our transformer-based language understanding models and the underlying dialog management platform,” he added.

In a statement, Vinod Khosla said: “PolyAI is one of the first AI companies using the newest generation of large pre-trained deep learning models (akin to BERT and GPT-3) in a real-world enterprise product. This means they can deploy automated AI agents in as little as two weeks, where incumbent providers of voice assistants would take up to six months to deploy an older version of this technology.”

A spinout from the University of Cambridge, PolyAI says it is is effectively ’pushing at an open door’ as the pandemic has led to staffing shortages in call centers, driving more companies to deploy smart voice assistants, which appear not to have been replaced chatbots at all, as consumer generally prefer to speak than type.

“We were expecting the system to handle 40% of calls, but at launch it handled 80%, and within two weeks it was up to 87%,” said Brian Jeppesen of Landry’s Golden Nugget Hotels & Casinos. “Callers think the AI agent is human”, Jeppesen continued, “which is great because the voice assistant never has a bad day, and is on 24/7. I wish I could hire more agents like that!”

Competitors include Nuance (recently acquired by Microsoft), IPSoft, Interactions, SmartAction, and Replicant. But PolyAI says its voice assistant can be turned live more quickly, in more languages, and charges on a per-minute basis.

Founded by Nikola Mrkšić (CEO), Tsung-Hsien Wen (CTO), Pei-Hao Su (Engineering Director), the three met while doing PhDs with Professor Steve Young, a leader in spoken dialog systems who pioneered many technologies that underpin voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa.

Recent PolyAI clients include Landry’s Entertainment, Greene King, Starling Bank, and Viasat. 

#alexa, #artificial-intelligence, #cambridge, #ceo, #chatbots, #co-founder, #computing, #cto, #customer-satisfaction, #entrepreneur, #europe, #google, #instant-messaging, #interactions, #khosla-ventures, #leader, #london, #microsoft, #nikola, #nuance, #passion-capital, #point72-ventures, #polyai, #replicant, #sands-capital-ventures, #software, #starling-bank, #tc, #united-states, #university-of-cambridge, #user-interfaces, #viasat, #vinod-khosla, #virtual-assistant, #voice-assistant

Google Workspace opens up spaces for all users

Employee location has become a bit more complicated as some return to the office, while others work remotely. To embrace those hybrid working conditions, Google is making more changes to its Google Workspace offering by going live with spaces — its tool for small group sharing — in Google Chat for all users.

Spaces integrates with Workspace tools, like the calendar, Drive and documents, to provide a more hybrid work experience where users can see the full history, content and context of conversations regardless of their location.

Google’s senior director of product management Sanaz Ahari wrote in a blog post that customers wanted spaces to be more like a “central hub for collaboration, both in real time and asynchronously. Instead of starting an email chain or scheduling a video meeting, teams can come together directly in a space to move projects and topics along.”

Here are some new features users can see in spaces:

  • One interface for everything — inbox, chats, spaces and meetings.
  • Spaces, and content therein, can be made discoverable for people to find and join in the conversation.
  • Better search ability within a team’s knowledge base.
  • Ability to reply to any message within a space.
  • Enhanced security and admin tools to monitor communication.

Employees can now indicate if they will be virtual or in-person on certain days in Calendar for collaboration expectations. As a complement, users can call colleagues on both mobile and desktop devices in Google Meet.

Calendar work location

In November, all customers will be able to use Google Meet’s Companion Mode to join a meeting from a personal device while tapping into in-room audio and video. Also later this year, live-translated captions will be available in English to French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, with more languages being added in the future.

In addition, Google is also expanding its Google Meet hardware portfolio to include two new all-in-one video conferencing devices, third-party devices — Logitech’s video bar and Appcessori’s mobile device speaker dock — and interoperability with Webex by Cisco.

Google is tying everything together with a handbook for navigating hybrid work, which includes best practice blueprints for five common hybrid meetings.

 

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Check out who’s coming to TC Sessions: SaaS 2021

On October 27, less than two fast-moving months away, we’re hosting TC Sessions: SaaS 2021, our first event focused exclusively on the software-as-a-service ecosystem. SaaS — the de facto business model for B2B and B2C startups and enterprises alike — shows no sign of slowing down.

This is a prime opportunity to hear and learn from the industry’s major players, thought leaders and, frankly, some of the coolest creators around the globe. It’s more than just listening — it’s engaging with speakers during Q&As and networking with founders, CEOs and investors from major companies.

Pro Ka-ching Tip: Want to save $100 on the price of admission? Yeah, you do. Simply buy an early-bird SaaS pass before the prices go up on October 1 at 11:59 pm (PT).

So, let’s get to it. here are just some of the leading voices and companies coming to TC Sessions: SaaS to share their insight, actionable tips and hard-won advice.

Kathy Baxter is the principal architect for the ethical AI practice at Salesforce. She also has more than 20 years under her belt as a software architect. We’re going to tap into her deep expertise for a panel discussion on AI’s growing role in software today, as well as the implications of using AI in your software service as it becomes a mainstream part of the SaaS development process.

Javier Soltero is the VP and GM in charge of Google Workspace, which has significantly more than 2 billion users. Productivity apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive are a big part of SaaS, and Soltero joins us for an interview about the role Google Workspace plays in the Google cloud strategy.

Jared Spataro is the corporate VP in charge of Microsoft 365 — arguably one of the most successful SaaS products ever. He was part of the great shift from on prem to the cloud, and he’ll join us to talk about how Microsoft made that move and what it’s done for the company.

Casey Aylward, a principal at Costanoa Ventures, concentrates on early-stage enterprise startups. Kobie Fuller, a partner at Upfront Ventures, focuses on SaaS, AR and VR. Sarah Guo, a partner at Greylock, concentrates on AI, cybersecurity, infrastructure and the future of work. This group of prestigious VCs will panel-up to discuss what they look for when they invest in SaaS startups.

Be sure to check out the TC Sessions: SaaS 2021 agenda — we’ll add more exciting panels, interviews, speaker Q&As and breakout sessions over the next few weeks. Register here to receive updates with the latest additions to the day’s events.

TC Sessions: SaaS is a ripe networking opportunity. Consider this list of just some of the major companies that will be in the house. Whether you’re looking for potential customers, investors, partnerships or some other creative collaboration, you’ll have ample time to network with leaders from the foremost SaaS players.

  • Adobe
  • CBRE
  • FedEx
  • McKinsey & Company
  • Moody’s Analytics
  • SAP
  • Shell Ventures
  • SONY
  • Verizon Ventures

TC Sessions: SaaS 2021, takes place on October 27, and this is your chance to learn from and network with the seriously successful movers, shakers and unicorn makers of the SaaS world. Grab your early bird pass before October 1 at 11:59 pm (PT), and you’ll save $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: SaaS 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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