A year ago, Microsoft announced that its Edge browser would get vertical tabs and here we are: Microsoft today announced that vertical tabs in Edge are now generally available.
In addition, the Edge team also announced a few under-the-hood changes that will allow the browser to startup significantly faster (up to 41% faster according to Microsoft’s preliminary tests, to be precise). Since Microsoft can’t speed up your hard drive or significantly shrink Edge, though, the way the team achieves this is by loading the browser in the background when you sign in and then it’ll continue running when you close all browser windows. If that’s not to your liking, you can always turn this feature off, too.
While vertical tabs are available for you to play with now, though, the startup improvements will roll out over the course of this month.
Image Credits: Microsoft
Vertical tabs, of course, are nothing new. Other browsers have long supported them, either as a built-in feature or through extensions. But it’s nice to see them finally becoming a reality in Edge, too.
“Most websites follow a conventional grid that leaves plenty of whitespace on either end of the page,” Microsoft’s Michele McDanel writes in today’s announcement. “As we began working with our users, we realized that this vertical real estate could be a better location for tabs, rather than the traditional horizontal list of tabs at the top. While vertical tabs may not be an entirely new concept, we saw an opportunity to improve the browser experience and tested several prototypes with our users.”
Image Credits: Microsoft
In its research, Microsoft discovered that users who like vertical tabs also like to switch between them and standard horizontal tabs, so it added an always-visible toggle to do so. And since users sometimes want to reclaim all of their screen estate, the team added the ability to collapse the sidebar, too.
For those of you who use Bing, Microsoft is also adding a few nifty new features to its search engine. There’s a new recipe view for when you’re once again out of ideas for what to make for dinner, improved visual search results, and the company has spruced up some of its rich sidebar snippets with a more infographic-like feel. But let’s face it: you’re not using Bing. If perchance you do, you can find more details about the udpates here.
Brave, the privacy-focused browser co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, is getting ready to launch an own-brand search engine for desktop and mobile.
Today it’s announced the acquisition of an open source search engine developed by the team behind the (now defunct) Cliqz anti-tracking search-browser combo. The tech will underpin the forthcoming Brave Search engine — meaning it will soon be pitching its millions of users on an entirely ‘big tech’-free search and browsing experience.
“Under the hood, nearly all of today’s search engines are either built by, or rely on, results from Big Tech companies. In contrast, the Tailcat search engine is built on top of a completely independent index, capable of delivering the quality people expect but without compromising their privacy,” Brave writes in a press release announcing the acquisition.
“Tailcat does not collect IP addresses or use personally identifiable information to improve search results.”
Cliqz, which was a privacy-focused European fork of Mozilla’s Firefox browser, got shuttered last May after its majority investor, Hubert Burda Media, called time on the multi-year effort to build momentum for an alternative to Google — blaming tougher trading conditions during the pandemic for forcing it to pull the plug sooner than it would have liked.
The former Cliqz dev team, who had subsequently been working on Tailcat, are moving to Brave as part of the acquisition. The engineering team is led by Dr Josep M Pujol — who is quoted in Brave’s PR saying it’s “excited to be working on the only real private search/browser alternative to Big Tech”.
“Tailcat is a fully independent search engine with its own search index built from scratch,” Eich told TechCrunch. “Tailcat as Brave Search will offer the same privacy guarantees that Brave has in its browser.
“Brave will provide the first private browser+search alternative to the Big Tech platforms, and will make it seamless for users to browse and search with guaranteed privacy. Also, owing to its transparent nature, Brave Search will address algorithmic biases and prevent outright censorship.”
Brave getting into the search business is a reflection of its confidence that privacy is becoming mainstream, per Eich. He points to “unprecedented” growth in usage of its browser over the past year — up from 11M monthly active users to 26M+ — which he says has mirrored the surge in usage earlier this year seen by the (not-for-profit) e2e encrypted messaging app Signal (after Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced a change to its privacy policies to allow for increased data-sharing with Facebook through WhatsApp business accounts).
“We expect to see even greater demand for Brave in 2021 as more and more users demand real privacy solutions to escape Big Tech’s invasive practices,” he added in a statement. “Brave’s mission is to put the user first, and integrating privacy-preserving search into our platform is a necessary step to ensure that user privacy is not plundered to fuel the surveillance economy.”
Brave Search will be offered as a choice to users alongside a roster of more established third parties (Google, Bing, Qwant, Ecosia etc) which they can select as their browser default.
It will also potentially become the default (i.e. if users don’t pick their own) in future, per Eich.
“We will continue to support ‘open search’ with multiple alternative engines,” he confirmed. “User choice is a permanent principle at Brave. Brave will continue to offer multiple alternative choices for the user’s default search engine, and we think our users will seek unmatched privacy with Brave Search. When ready, we hope to make Brave Search the default engine in Brave.”
Asked how the quality of Tailcat-powered results vs Google Eich described it as “quite good”, adding that it “will only get better with adoption”.
“Google’s ‘long tail’ is hard for any engine to beat but we have a plan to compete on that front too, once integrated into the Brave browser,” he told us in an email interview, arguing that Google’s massive size does offer some competitive opportunities for a search rival. “There are aspects where Google is falling behind. It is difficult for them to innovate in search when that’s the main source of their revenue.
“They are risk-averse against experimenting with new techniques and transparency, while under pressure from shareholders to tie their own businesses into scarce search engine results page (SERP) area, and pressure from search engine optimization (SEO).”
“On questions such as censorship, community feedback, and algorithmic transparency, we think we can do better from the get-go. Unlike other search engines, we believe that the only way to make big improvements is to build afresh, with the know-how that comes from building,” he added. “The option of using Bing (as other search offerings do) instead of building the index exists but it will get you only as far as Bing in terms of quality (and as with such offerings, you’ll be wholly dependent on Bing).”
Brave is aiming for general availability of Brave Search by the summer — if not late spring, per Eich. Users interested in testing an early iteration can sign up for a waitlist here. (A test version is slated as coming in “the next few weeks”.)
The name Tailcat is unlikely to be widely familiar as it was an internal project that Cliqz had not implemented into its browser before it was shut down.
Eich says development had been continuing at Burda — “in order to develop a full-fledged search engine”. (When the holding company announced the shuttering of Cliqz, last April, it stated that Cliqz’s browser and search technologies would be shut down but also said it would draw out a team of experts — to work on technical issues in areas like AI and search.)
“Cliqz offered the SERP-based search engine but had not implemented Tailcat in its browser yet,” said Eich. “After Cliqz shut down last April, a development team at Burda continued to work on the search technology under the new project name Tailcat in order to develop a full-fledged search engine. The team hoped to find a long-term home for their work to continue their mission, and are thrilled to be part of Brave.”
The financial terms of the acquisition are not being disclosed — but we’ve confirmed that Burda is becoming a Brave shareholder as part of the deal.
“We are very happy that our technology is being used at Brave and that, as a result, a genuine, privacy-friendly alternative to Google is being created in the core web functions of browsing and searching,” said Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Hubert Burda Media, in a supporting statement. “As a Brave stakeholder we will continue to be involved in this exciting project.”
While Brave started out focused on building an alternative browser — with the idea of rethinking the predominate ad-funded Internet business model by baking in a cryptocurrency rewards system to generate payments for content creators (and pay users for their attention) — it now talks about itself as a pro-privacy “super app”.
Google regularly tweaks its search results pages and tries out new designs. It’s not that often, though, that it adds new features to those results, so when it does, it’s worth paying attention to.
Today, Google is adding a new menu item to virtually all search results in English in the U.S. on mobile, desktop and its Android Google app. This new link will provide searchers with more information about the site they are about to visit — and before they click on the actual link.
Clicking the new hamburger-style menu icon will pop up a new info panel with additional information about the site. These include a short description of what the site is about — taken from Wikipedia when available– and some data about whether the connection to the site is secure.
Image Credits: Google
For sites without a Wikipedia entry, Google will show when it first indexed the site and other data if it’s available.
There’s also a full link and a short line about whether it’s a native search result or an ad (which seems like a tacit admission that it’s too hard to distinguish ads from regular search results on Google). At the bottom of the pane, there are also links to your privacy settings and to an explainer about ‘how search works.’
Image Credits: Google
“When you search for information on Google, you probably often come across results from sources that you’re familiar with: major retailer websites, national news sites and more,” Google product manager JK Kearns writes in today’s announcement. “But there’s also a ton of great information on and services available from sites that you may not have come across before. And while you can always use Google to do some additional research about those sites, we’re working on a new way for you to find helpful info without having to do another search.”
This new feature will start rolling out today and as usual, it may take a while before you see it in your own search results.
In June of 1999, Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins invested $25 million into an early stage company developing a new search engine called Google, paving the way for a revolution in how knowledge online was organized and shared.
Now, Sequoia Capital is placing another bet on a different kind of search engine, one for physical objects in three dimensions, just as the introduction of three dimensional sensing technologies on consumer phones are poised to create a revolution in spatial computing.
At least, that’s the bet that Sequoia Capital’s Shaun Maguire is making on the Cincinnati, Ohio-based startup Physna.
Maguire and Sequoia are leading a $20 million bet into the company alongside Drive Capital, the Columbus, Ohio-based venture firm founded by two former Sequoia partners, Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen.
“There’s been this open problem in mathematics, which is how you do three dimensional search. How do you define a metric that gives you other similar three dimensional objects. This has a long history in mathematics,” Maguire said. “When I first met [Physna founder] Paul Powers, he had already come up with a wildly novel distance metric to compare different three dimensional objects. If you have one distance metric, you can find other objects that are a distance away. His thinking underlying that is so unbelievably creative. If I were to put it in the language of modern mathematics… it just involves a lot of really advanced ideas that actually also works.”
Powers’ idea — and Physna’s technology — was a long time coming.
A lawyer by training and an entrepreneur at heart, Powers came to the problem of three dimensional search through his old day job as an intellectual property lawyer.
Powers chose IP law because he thought it was the most interesting way to operate at the intersection of technology and law — and would provide good grounding for whatever company the serial entrepreneur would eventually launch next. While practicing, Powers hit upon a big problem, while some intellectual property theft around software and services was easy to catch, it was harder to identify when actual products or parts were being stolen as trade secrets. “We were always able to find 2D intellectual property theft,” Powers said, but catching IP theft in three dimensions was elusive.
From its launch in 2015 through 2019, Powers worked with co-founder and chief technology officer Glenn Warner Jr. on developing the product, which was initially intended to protect product designs from theft. Tragically just as the company was getting ready to unveil its transformation into the three dimensional search engine it had become, Warner died.
Powers soldiered on, rebuilding the company and its executive team with the help of Dennis DeMeyere, who joined the company in 2020 after a stint in Google’s office of the chief technology officer and technical director for Google Cloud.
“When I moved, I jumped on a plane with two checked bags and moved into a hotel, until I could rent a fully furnished home,” DeMeyere told Protocol last year.
Other heavy hitters were also drawn to the Cincinnati-based company thanks in no small part to Olsen and Kvamme’s Silicon Valley connections. They include Github’s chief technology officer, Jason Warner, who has a seat on the company’s board of directors alongside Drive Capital’s co-founder Kvamme, who serves as the chairman.
In Physna, Kvamme, Maguire, and Warner see a combination of Github and Google — especially after the launch last year of the company’s consumer facing site, Thangs.
That site allows users to search for three dimensional objects by a description or by uploading a model or image. As Mike Murphy at Protocol noted, it’s a bit like Thingiverse, Yeggi or other sites used by 3D-printing hobbyists. What the site can also do is show users the collaborative history of each model and the model’s component parts — if it involves different objects.
Hence the GitHub and Google combination. And users can set up profiles to store their own models or collaborate and comment on public models.
What caught Maguire’s eye about the company was the way users were gravitating to the free site. “There were tens of thousands of people using it every day,” he said. It’s a replica of the way many successful companies try a freemium or professional consumer hybrid approach to selling products. “They have a free version and people are using it all the time and loving it. That is a foundation that they can build from,” said Maguire.
And Maguire thinks that the spatial computing wave is coming sooner than anyone may realize. “The new iPhone has LIDAR on it… This is the first consumer device that comes shipped with a 3D scanner with LIDAR and I think three dimensional is about to explode.”
Eventually, Physna could be a technology hub where users can scan three dimensional objects into their phones and have a representational model for reproduction either as a virtual object or as something that can be converted into a file for 3D printing.
Right now, hundreds of businesses have approached the company with different requests for how to apply its technology, according to Powers.
“One new feature will allow you to take a picture of something and not only show you what that is or where it goes. Even if that is into a part of the assembly. We shatter a vase and with the vase shards we can show you how the pieces fit back together,” Powers said.
Typical contracts for the company’s software range from $25,000 to $50,000 for enterprise customers, but the software that powers Physna’s product is more than just a single application, according to Powers.
“We’re not just a product. We’re a fundamental technology,” said Powers. “There is a gap between the physical and the digital.”
For Sequoia and Drive Capital, Physna’s software is the technology to bridge that gap.
As TC readers know, the tricky trade-off of the modern web is privacy for convenience. Online tracking is how this ‘great intimacy robbery’ is pulled off. Mass surveillance of what Internet users are looking at underpins Google’s dominant search engine and Facebook’s social empire, to name two of the highest profile ad-funded business models.
TechCrunch’s own corporate overlord, Verizon, also gathers data from a variety of end points — mobile devices, media properties like this one — to power its own ad targeting business.
Countless others rely on obtaining user data to extract some perceived value. Few if any of these businesses are wholly transparent about how much and what sort of private intelligence they’re amassing — or, indeed, exactly what they’re doing with it. But what if the web didn’t have to be like that?
Berlin-based Xayn wants to change this dynamic — starting with personalized but privacy-safe web search on smartphones.
Today it’s launching a search engine app (on Android and iOS) that offers the convenience of personalized results but without the ‘usual’ shoulder surfing. This is possible because the app runs on-device AI models that learn locally. The promise is no data is ever uploaded (though trained AI models themselves can be).
The team behind the app, which is comprised of 30% PhDs, has been working on the core privacy vs convenience problem for some six years (though the company was only founded in 2017); initially as an academic research project — going on to offer an open source framework for masked federated learning, called XayNet. The Xayn app is based on that framework.
They’ve raised some €9.5 million in early stage funding to date — with investment coming from European VC firm Earlybird; Dominik Schiener (Iota co-founder); and the Swedish authentication and payment services company, Thales AB.
Now they’re moving to commercialize their XayNet technology by applying it within a user-facing search app — aiming for what CEO and co-founder, Dr Leif-Nissen Lundbæk bills as a “Zoom”-style business model, in reference to the ubiquitous videoconferencing tool which has both free and paid users.
This means Xayn’s search is not ad-supported. That’s right; you get zero ads in search results.
Instead, the idea is for the consumer app to act as a showcase for a b2b product powered by the same core AI tech. The pitch to business/public sector customers is speedier corporate/internal search without compromising commercial data privacy.
Lundbæk argues businesses are sorely in need of better search tools to (safely) apply to their own data, saying studies have shown that search in general costs around 18% of working time globally. He also cites a study by one city authority that found staff spent 37% of their time at work searching for documents or other digital content.
“It’s a business model that Google has tried but failed to succeed,” he argues, adding: “We are solving not only a problem that normal people have but also that companies have… For them privacy is not a nice to have; it needs to be there otherwise there is no chance of using anything.”
On the consumer side there will also be some premium add-ons headed for the app — so the plan is for it to be a freemium download.
Swipe to nudge the algorithm
One key thing to note is Xayn’s newly launched web search app gives users a say in whether the content they’re seeing is useful to them (or not).
It does this via a Tinder-style swipe right (or left) mechanic that lets users nudge its personalization algorithm in the right direction — starting with a home screen populated with news content (localized by country) but also extending to the search result pages.
The news-focused homescreen is another notable feature. And it sounds like different types of homescreen feeds may be on the premium cards in future.
Another key feature of the app is the ability to toggle personalized search results on or off entirely — just tap the brain icon at the top right to switch the AI off (or back on). Results without the AI running can’t be swiped, except for bookmarking/sharing.
Elsewhere, the app includes a history page which lists searches from the past seven days (by default). The other options offered are: Today, 30 days, or all history (and a bin button to purge searches).
There’s also a ‘Collections’ feature that lets you create and access folders for bookmarks.
As you scroll through search results you can add an item to a Collection by swiping right and selecting the bookmark icon — which then opens a prompt to choose which one to add it to.
The swipe-y interface feels familiar and intuitive, if slightly laggy to load content in the TestFlight beta version TechCrunch checked out ahead of launch.
Swiping left on a piece of content opens a bright pink color-block stamped with a warning ‘x’. Keep going and you’ll send the item vanishing into the ether, presumably seeing fewer like it in future.
Whereas a swipe right affirms a piece of content is useful. This means it stays in the feed, outlined in Xayn green. (Swiping right also reveals the bookmark option and a share button.)
While there are pro-privacy/non-tracking search engines on the market already — such as US-based DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant — Xayn argues the user experience of such rivals tends to fall short of what you get with a tracking search engine like Google, i.e. in terms of the relevance of search results and thus time spent searching.
Simply put: You probably have to spend more time ‘DDGing’ or ‘Qwanting’ to get the specific answers you need vs Googling — hence the ‘convenience cost’ associated with safeguarding your privacy when web searching.
Xayn’s contention is there’s a third, smarter way of getting to keep your ‘virtual clothes’ on when searching online. This involves implementing AI models that learn on-device and can be combined in a privacy-safe way so that results can be personalized without putting people’s data at risk.
“Privacy is the very fundament… It means that quite like other privacy solutions we track nothing. Nothing is sent to our servers; we don’t store anything of course; we don’t track anything at all. And of course we make sure that any connection that is there is basically secured and doesn’t allow for any tracking at all,” says Lundbæk, explaining the team’s AI-fuelled, decentralized/edge-computing approach.
Xayn is drawing on a number of search index sources, including (but not solely) Microsoft’s Bing, per Lundbæk, who described this bit of what it’s doing as “relatively similar” to DuckDuckGo (which has its own web crawling bots).
The big difference is that it’s also applying its own reranking algorithms in order generate privacy-safe personalized search results (whereas DDG uses a contextual ads-based business model — looking at simple signals like location and keyword search to target ads without needing to profile users).
The downside to this sort of approach, according to Lundbæk, is users can get flooded with ads — as a consequence of the simpler targeting meaning the business serves more ads to try to increase chances of a click. And loads of ads in search results obviously doesn’t make for a great search experience.
“We get a lot of results on device level and we do some ad hoc indexing — so we build on the device level and on index — and with this ad hoc index we apply our search algorithms in order to filter them, and only present you what is more relevant and filter out everything else,” says Lundbæk, sketching how Xayn works. “Or basically downgrade it a bit… but we also try to keep it fresh and explore and also bump up things where they might not be super relevant for you but it gives you some guarantees that you won’t end up in some kind of bubble.”
Some of what Xayn’s doing is in the arena of federated learning (FL) — a technology Google has been dabbling in in recent years, including pushing a ‘privacy-safe’ proposal for replacing third party tracking cookies. But Xayn argues the tech giant’s interests, as a data business, simply aren’t aligned with cutting off its own access to the user data pipe (even if it were to switch to applying FL to search).
Whereas its interests — as a small, pro-privacy German startup — are markedly different. Ergo, the privacy-preserving technology it’s spent years building has a credible interest in safeguarding people’s data, is the claim.
“At Google there’s actually [fewer] people working on federate learning than in our team,” notes Lundbæk, adding: “We’ve been criticizing TFF [Google-designed TensorFlow Federated] at lot. It is federated learning but it’s not actually doing any encryption at all — and Google has a lot of backdoors in there.
“You have to understand what does Google actually want to do with that? Google wants to replace [tracking] cookies — but especially they want to replace this kind of bumpy thing of asking for user consent. But of course they still want your data. They don’t want to give you any more privacy here; they want to actually — at the end — get your data even easier. And with purely federated learning you actually don’t have a privacy solution.
“You have to do a lot in order to make it privacy preserving. And pure TFF is certainly not that privacy-preserving. So therefore they will use this kind of tech for all the things that are basically in the way of user experience — which is, for example, cookies but I would be extremely surprised if they used it for search directly. And even if they would do that there is a lot of backdoors in their system so it’s pretty easy to actually acquire the data using TFF. So I would say it’s just a nice workaround for them.”
“Data is basically the fundamental business model of Google,” he adds. “So I’m sure that whatever they do is of course a nice step in the right direction… but I think Google is playing a clever role here of kind of moving a bit but not too much.”
So how, then, does Xayn’s reranking algorithm work?
The app runs four AI models per device, combining encrypted AI models of respective devices asynchronously — with homomorphic encryption — into a collective model. A second step entails this collective model being fed back to individual devices to personalize served content, it says.
The four AI models running on the device are one for natural language processing; one for grouping interests; one for analyzing domain preferences; and one for computing context.
“The knowledge is kept but the data is basically always staying on your device level,” is how Lundbæk puts it.
“We can simply train a lot of different AI models on your phone and decide whether we, for example, combine some of this knowledge or whether it also stays on your device.”
“We have developed a quite complex solution of four different AI models that work in composition with each other,” he goes on, noting that they work to build up “centers of interest and centers of dislikes” per user — again, based on those swipes — which he says “have to be extremely efficient — they have to be moving, basically, also over time and with your interests”.
The more the user interacts with Xayn, the more precise its personalization engine gets as a result of on-device learning — plus the added layer of users being able to get actively involved by swiping to give like/dislike feedback.
The level of personalization is very individually focused — Lundbæk calls it “hyper personalization” — more so than a tracking search engine like Google, which he notes also compares cross-user patterns to determine which results to serve — something he says Xayn absolutely does not do.
Small data, not big data
“We have to focus entirely on one user so we have a ‘small data’ problem, rather than a big data problem,” says Lundbæk. “So we have to learn extremely fast — only from eight to 20 interactions we have to already understand a lot from you. And the crucial thing is of course if you do such a rapid learning then you have to take even more care about filter bubbles — or what is called filter bubbles. We have to prevent the engine going into some kind of biased direction.”
To avoid this echo chamber/filter bubble type effect, the Xayn team has designed the engine to function in two distinct phases which it switches between: Called ‘exploration’ and (more unfortunately) ‘exploitation’ (i.e. just in the sense that it already knows something about the user so can be pretty certain what it serves will be relevant).
“We have to keep fresh and we have to keep exploring things,” he notes — saying that’s why it developed one of the four AIs (a dynamic contextual multi-armed bandit reinforcement learning algorithm for computing context).
Aside from this app infrastructure being designed natively to protect user privacy, Xayn argues there are a bunch of other advantages — such as being able to derive potentially very clear interests signs from individuals; and avoiding the chilling effect that can result from tracking services creeping users out (to the point people they avoid making certain searches in order to prevent them from influencing future results).
“You as the user can decide whether you want the algorithm to learn — whether you want it to show more of this or less of this — by just simply swiping. So it’s extremely easy, so you can train your system very easily,” he argues.
There is potentially a slight downside to this approach, too, though — assuming the algorithm (when on) does some learning by default (i.e in the absence of any life/dislike signals from the user).
This is because it puts the burden on the user to interact (by swiping their feedback) in order to get the best search results out of Xayn. So that’s an active requirement on users, rather than the typical passive background data mining and profiling web users are used to from tech giants like Google (which is, however, horrible for their privacy).
It means there’s an ‘ongoing’ interaction cost to using the app — or at least getting the most relevant results out of it. You might not, for instance, be advised to let a bunch of organic results just scroll past if they’re really not useful but rather actively signal disinterest on each.
For the app to be the most useful it may ultimately pay to carefully weight each item and provide the AI with a utility verdict. (And in a competitive battle for online convenience every little bit of digital friction isn’t going to help.)
Asked about this specifically, Lundbæk told us: “Without swiping the AI only learns from very weak likes but not from dislikes. So the learning takes place (if you turn the AI on) but it’s very slight and does not have a big effect. These conditions are quite dynamic, so from the experience of liking something after having visited a website, patterns are learned. Also, only 1 of the 4 AI models (the domain learning one) learns from pure clicks; the others don’t.”
Xayn does seem alive to the risk of the swiping mechanic resulting in the app feeling arduous. Lundbæk says the team is looking to add “some kind of gamification aspect” in the future — to flip the mechanism from pure friction to “something fun to do”. Though it remains to be seen what they come up with on that front.
There is also inevitably a bit of lag involved in using Xayn vs Google — by merit of the former having to run on-device AI training (whereas Google merely hoovers your data into its cloud where it’s able to process it at super-speeds using dedicated compute hardware, including bespoke chipsets).
“We have been working for over a year on this and the core focus point was bringing it on the street, showing that it works — and of course it is slower than Google,” Lundbæk concedes.
“Google doesn’t need to do any of these [on-device] processes and Google has developed even its own hardware; they developed TPUs exactly for processing this kind of model,” he goes on. “If you compare this kind of hardware it’s pretty impressive that we were even able to bring [Xayn’s on-device AI processing] even on the phone. However of course it’s slower than Google.”
Lundbæk says the team is working on increasing the speed of Xayn. And anticipates further gains as it focuses more on that type of optimization — trailing a version that’s 40x faster than the current iteration.
“It won’t at the end be 40x faster because we will use this also to analyze even more content — to give you can even broader view — but it will be faster over time,” he adds.
On the accuracy of search results vs Google, he argues the latter’s ‘network effect’ competitive advantage — whereby its search reranking benefits from Google having more users — is not unassailable because of what edge AI can achieve working smartly atop ‘small data’.
Though, again, for now Google remains the search standard to beat.
“Right now we compare ourselves, mostly against Bing and DuckDuckGo and so on. Obviously there we get much better results [than compared to Google] but of course Google is the market leader and is using quite some heavy personalization,” he says, when we ask about benchmarking results vs other search engines.
“But the interesting thing is so far Google is not only using personalization but they also use kind of a network effect. PageRank is very much a network effect where the most users they have the better the results get, because they track how often people click on something and bump this also up.
“The interesting effect there is that right now, through AI technology — like for example what we use — the network effect becomes less and less important. So actually I would say that there isn’t really any network effect anymore if you really want to compete with pure AI technology. So therefore we can get almost as relevant results as Google right now and we surely can also, over time, get even better results or competing results. But we are different.”
In our (brief) tests of the beta app Xayn’s search results didn’t obviously disappoint for simple searches (and would presumably improve with use). Though, again, the slight load lag adds a modicum of friction which was instantly obvious compared to the usual search competition.
Not a deal breaker — just a reminder that performance expectations in search are no cake walk (even if you can promise a cookie-free experience).
“So far Google has so far had the advantage of a network effect — but this network effect gets less and less dominant and you see already more and more alternatives to Google popping up,” Lundbæk argues, suggesting privacy concerns are creating an opportunity for increased competition in the search space.
“It’s not anymore like Facebook or so where there’s one network where everyone has to be. And I think this is actually a nice situation because competition is always good for technical innovations and for also satisfying different customer needs.”
Of course the biggest challenge for any would-be competitor to Google search — which carves itself a marketshare in Europe in excess of 90% — is how to poach (some of) its users.
Lundbæk says the startup has no plans to splash millions on marketing at this point. Indeed, he says they want to grow usage sustainably, with the aim of evolving the product “step by step” with a “tight community” of early adopters — relying on cross-promotion from others in the pro-privacy tech space, as well as reaching out to relevant influencers.
He also reckons there’s enough mainstream media interest in the privacy topic to generate some uplift.
“I think we have such a relevant topic — especially now,” he says. “Because we want to show also not only for ourselves that you can do this for search but we think we show a real nice example that you can do this for any kind of case.
“You don’t always need the so-called ‘best’ big players from the US which are of course getting all of your data, building up profiles. And then you have these small, cute privacy-preserving solutions which don’t use any of this but then offer a bad user experience. So we want to show that this shouldn’t be the status quo anymore — and you should start to build alternatives that are really build on European values.”
And it’s certainly true EU lawmakers are big on tech sovereignty talk these days, even though European consumers mostly continue to embrace big (US) tech.
Perhaps more pertinently, regional data protection requirements are making it increasing challenging to rely on US-based services for processing data. Compliance with the GDPR data protection framework is another factor businesses need to consider. All of which is driving attention onto ‘privacy-preserving’ technologies.
Xayn’s team is hoping to be able spread its privacy-preserving gospel to general users by growing the b2b side of the business, according to Lundbæk — so it’s hoping some home use will follow once employees get used to convenient private search via their workplaces, in a small-scale reverse of the business consumerization trend that was powered by modern smartphones (and people bringing their own device to work).
“We these kind of strategies I think we can step by step build up in our communities and spread the word — so we think we don’t even need to really spend millions of euros in marketing campaigns to get more and more users,” he adds.
While Xayn’s initial go-to-market push has been focused on getting the mobile apps out, a desktop version is also planned for Q1 next year.
The challenge there is getting the app to work as a browser extension as the team obviously doesn’t want to build its own browser to house Xayn. tl;dr: Competing with Google search is mountain enough to climb, without trying to go after Chrome (and Firefox, and so on).
“We developed our entire AI in Rust which is a safe language. We are very much driven by security here and safety. The nice thing is it can work everywhere — from embedded systems towards mobile systems, and we can compile into web assembly so it runs also as a browser extension in any kind of browser,” he adds. “Except for Internet Explorer of course.”
Microsoft announced a few updates to its Edge browser today that are all about shopping. In addition to expanding the price comparison feature the team announced last month, Edge can now also automatically find coupons for you. In addition, the company is launching a new shopping hub in its Bing search engine. The timing here is undoubtedly driven by the holiday shopping season — though this year, it feels like Black Friday-style deals already started weeks ago.
Image Credits: Microsoft
The potential usefulness of the price comparison tools is pretty obvious. I’ve found this always worked reasonably well in Edge Collections — though at times it could also be a frustrating experience because it just wouldn’t pull any data for items you saved from some sites. Now, with this price comparison running in the background all the time, you’ll see a new badge pop up in the URL bar that lets you open up the price comparison. And when you already found the best price, it’ll tell you that right away, too.
At least in the Edge Canary where this has been available for a little bit already, this was also hit and miss. It seems to work just fine when you shop on Amazon, for example, as long as there’s only one SKU of an item. If there are different colors, sizes or other options available, it doesn’t really seem to kick in, which is a bit frustrating.
Image Credits: Microsoft
The coupons feature, too, is a bit of a disappointment. It works more consistently and seems to pull data from most of the standard coupon sites (think RetailMeNot and Slickdeals), but all it does is show sitewide coupons. Since most coupons only apply to a limited set of items, clicking on the coupon badge quickly feels like a waste of time. To be fair, the team implemented a nifty feature where at checkout, Bing will try to apply all of the coupons it found. That could be a potential time- and money-saver. Given the close cooperation with the Bing team in other areas, this feels like an area of improvement, though. I turned it off.
Microsoft is also using today’s announcement to launch a new URL shortener in Edge. “Now, when you paste a link that you copied from the address bar, it will automatically convert from a long, nonsensical URL address to a short hyperlink with the website title. If you prefer the full URL, you can convert to plain text using the context menu,” Microsoft explains. I guess that makes sense in some scenarios. Most of the time, though, I just want the link (and no third-party in-between), so I hope this can easily be turned off, too.
The world of enterprise software and cybersecurity has taken multiple body blows since COVID-19 demolished the in-person office, flinging employees across the world and forcing companies to adapt to an all-remote productivity model. The shift has required companies to rethink not only collaboration software, but also the infrastructure that powers it and the best way to protect assets once their security perimeters have been destroyed.
The pandemic has also dramatically increased the usage of digital services, forcing cloud providers to keep up with crushing demands for performance and reliability.
In short — it’s never been a better time to be an enterprise investor (or, possibly, a founder).
So I’m excited to announce our next guest in our Extra Crunch Live interview series: Asheem Chandna from Greylock, one of the top enterprise investors of the past two decades who has worked with multiple important founding teams from whiteboard to IPO. We’re scheduled for Thursday, November 5 at noon PST/3 p.m. EST/8 p.m. GMT (check that daylight savings time math!)
Login details are below the fold for EC members, and if you don’t have an Extra Crunch membership, click through to sign up.
For nearly two decades, Asheem Chandna has invested in enterprise and security startups at Greylock, with massive investment wins in Palo Alto Networks, AppDynamics and Sumo Logic. These days, he continues to invest in cybersecurity with companies like Awake Security and Abnormal Security, data platforms like Rubrik and Delphix, and the stealthy search engine company Neeva. As a leading early-stage investor and mentor in the space, he’s seen a multitude of companies transition from inception to product-market fit to IPO.
We’ll talk about what all the turbulence in enterprise means for the future of startups in the space, how cybersecurity is evolving given the new threat landscape and also discuss a bit about how the public markets and their aggressive multiples for Silicon Valley enterprise startups is changing the strategy of venture capitalists. Plus, we’ll talk about company building, developing founders as leaders and more.
Join us next week with Asheem on Thursday, November 5 at noon PST/3 p.m. EST/8 p.m. GMT. Login details and calendar invite are below.
True bills itself as the social networking app that will “protect your privacy.” But a security lapse left one of its servers exposed — and spilling private user data to the internet for anyone to find.
The app was launched in 2017 by Hello Mobile, a little-known virtual cell carrier that piggybacks off T-Mobile’s network. True’s website says it has raised $14 million in seed funding, and claimed more than half a million users shortly after its launch.
But a dashboard for one of the app’s databases was exposed to the internet without a password, allowing anyone to read, browse and search the database — including private user data.
Mossab Hussein, chief security officer at Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk, found the exposed dashboard and provided details to TechCrunch. Data provided by BinaryEdge, a search engine for exposed databases and devices, showed the dashboard was exposed since at least early September.
After we reached out, True pulled the dashboard offline.
Bret Cox, chief executive at True, confirmed the security lapse but did not answer our specific questions, including if the company planned to inform users of the security lapse or if it planned to disclose the incident to regulators under state data breach notification laws.
The dashboard contained daily server logs dating back to February, and included the user’s registered email address or phone number, the contents of private posts and messages between users, and the user’s last known geolocation, which could identify where a user was or had been. The dashboard also exposed the email and phone contacts uploaded by the user, which True uses to match with known friends in the app.
None of the data was encrypted.
TechCrunch confirmed the dashboard was returning real user data by creating a test account and asking Hussein to provide data that only we would know, such as the phone number used to register the account.
Hussein said that the dashboard was also leaking account access tokens, which could be used to hack into and hijack any user’s account. These account access tokens look like a line of random letters and numbers, but keep the user logged into the app without having to enter their login details every time. Using our test account, Hussein found our access token from the dashboard, and used it to access our account and post a message on our feed.
The dashboard also exposed one-time login codes, which True sends to an account’s associated email address or phone number instead of storing passwords.
True says deleting an account “will immediately remove all of your content from our servers,” but deleting our test account did not remove our private messages, posts and photos, and could still be searched from the dashboard.
“This is another example of how mistakes can happen at any organization, even those that are privacy-centric,” Hussein told TechCrunch. “It highlights the importance of not only building secure applications and websites, but also ensuring that proper data security measures are embedded within their internal procedures.”
A spokesperson for Hello Mobile could not be reached.
Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.
Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.
Image Credits: Google
Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.
The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.
In the suit, the Justice Department is expected to argue that Google used anticompetitive practices to safeguard its monopoly position as the dominant force in search and search-advertising, which sit at the foundation of the company’s extensive advertising, data mining, video distribution, and information services conglomerate.
It would be the first significant legal challenge that Google has faced from U.S. regulators despite years of investigations into the company’s practices.
A 2012 attempt to bring the company to the courts to answer for anti-competitive practices was ultimately scuttled because regulators at the time weren’t sure they could make the case stick. Since that time Alphabet’s value has skyrocketed to reach over $1 trillion (as of today’s share price).
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, holds a commanding lead in both search and video. The company dominates the search market — with roughly 90% of the world’s internet searches conducted on its platform — and roughly three quarters of American adults turn to YouTube for video, as the Journal reported.
In the lawsuit, the Department of Justice will say that Alphabet’s Google subsidiary uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors. The billions of dollars that the search giant collects wind up paying mobile phone companies, carriers and browsers to make the Google search engine a preset default. That blocks competitors from being able to access the kinds of queries and traffic they’d need to refine their own search engine.
It will be those relationships — alongside Google’s insistence that its search engine come pre-loaded (and un-deletable) on phones using the Android operating system and that other search engines specifically not be pre-loaded — that form part of the government’s case, according to Justice Department officials cited by the Journal.
The antitrust suit comes on the heels of a number of other regulatory actions involving Google, which is not only the dominant online search provider, but also a leader in online advertising and in mobile technology by way of Android, as well as a strong player in a web of other interconnected services like mapping, online productivity software, cloud computing and more.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/23: American multinational technology company Google logo seen at Google campus. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A report last Friday in Politico noted that Democrat Attorneys General would not be signing the suit. That report said those AGs have instead been working on a bipartisan, state-led approach covering a wider number of issues beyond search — the idea being also that more suits gives government potentially a stronger bargaining position against the tech giant.
While a number of tech leviathans are facing increasing scrutiny from Washington, with the US now just two weeks from Election Day, it’s unlikely that we are going to see many developments around this and other cases before then. And in the case of this specific Google suit, in the event that Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there will also be a larger personnel shift at the DoJ that could also change the profile and timescale of the case.
In any event, fighting these regulatory cases is always a long, drawn-out process. In Europe, Google has faced a series of fines over antitrust violations stretching back several years, including a $2.7 billion fine over Google shopping; a $5 billion fine over Android dominance; and a $1.7 billion fine over search ad brokering. While Goolge slowly works through appeals, there are also more cases ongoing against the company in Europe and elsewhere.
Google is not the only one catching the attention of Washington. Earlier in October, the House Judiciary Committee released a report of more than 400 pages in which it outlined how tech giants Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook were abusing their power, covering everything from the areas in which they dominate, through to suggestions for how to fix the situation (including curtailing their acquisitions strategy).
That seemed mainly to be an exercise in laying out the state of things, which could in turn be used to inform further actions, although in itself, unlike the DoJ suit, the House report lacks teeth in terms of enforcement or remedies.
Google today announced a number of improvements to its core search engine, with a strong focus on how the company is using AI to help its users. These include the ability to better answer questions with very specific answers, very broad questions and a new algorithm to better handle the typos in your queries. The company also announced updates to Google Lens and other Search-related tools. Most of these are meant to be useful but some are also just fun. You will now be able to hum a song and the Google Assistant will try to find the right song for you, for example.
As Google noted, 1 in 10 search queries is misspelled. The company already does a pretty good job dealing with those through its ‘did you mean’ feature. Now, the company is launching an improvement to this algorithm that uses a deep neural net with 680 million parameters to better understand the context of your search query.
Image Credits: Google
Another nifty new feature is an integration with various data sources, which were previously only available as part of Google’s Open Data Commons, into Search. Now, if you ask questions about something like “employment in Chicago,” Google’s Knowledge Graph will trigger and show you graphs with this data right on the Search results page.
Image Credits: Google
Another update the company announced today in its systems ability to index parts of pages to better answer niche queries like “how do I determine if my windows have UV glass?” The system can now point you right to a paragraph on a DIY forum. In total, this new system will improve about 7% of queries, Google said.
For broader questions, Google is now also using its AI system to better understand the nuances of what a page is about to better answer these queries.
Image Credits: Google
These days, a lot of content can be found in videos, too. Google is now using advanced computer recognition and speech recognition to tag key moments in videos — that’s something you can already find in Search these days, but this new algorithm should make that even easier, especially for videos where the creators haven’t already tagged the content.
Other updates include an update to Google Lens that lets you ask the app to read out a passage from a photo of a book — no matter the language. Lens can now also understand math formulas — and then show you step-by-step guides and videos to solve it. This doesn’t just work for math, but also chemistry, biology and physics.
Image Credits: Google
Given that the holiday shopping season is coming up, it’s maybe no surprise that Google also launched a number of updates to its shopping services. Specifically, the company is launching a new feature in Chrome and the Google App where you can now long-tap on any image and then find related products. And for the fashion-challenged, the service will also show you related items that tend to show up in related images.
If you’re shopping for a car, you will now also be able to get an AR view of them so you can see what they look like in your driveway.
Image Credits: Google
In Google Maps, you will now also be able to point at a restaurant or other local business when you are using the AR walking directions to see their opening hours, for example.
Another new Maps feature is that Google will now also show live busyness information right on the map, so you don’t have to specifically search for a place to see how busy it currently is. That’s a useful feature in 2020.
Image Credits: Google
During the event (or really, video premiere, because this is 2020), which was set to the most calming of music, Google’s head of search, Prabhakar Raghavan, also noted that its 2019 BERT update to the natural language understanding part of its Search system is now used for almost every query and available in more languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arabic, German and Amharic. That’s part of the more than 3,600 updates the company made to its search product in 2019.
All of these announcements are happening against the backdrop of various governments looking into Google’s business practices, so it’s probably no surprise that the event also put an emphasis on Google’s privacy practices and that Raghavan regularly talked about “open access” and that Google Search is free for everyone and everywhere, with ranking policies applied “fairly” to all websites. I’m sure Yelp and other Google competitors wouldn’t quite agree with this last assertion.
Every year hackers descend on Las Vegas in the sweltering August heat to break ground on security research and the most innovative hacks. This year was no different, even if it was virtual.
To name a few: Hackers tricked an ATM to spit out cash. A duo of security researchers figured out a way to detect the latest cell site simulators. Car researchers successfully hacked into a Mercedes-Benz. A Windows bug some two decades old can be used to plant malware. Cryptocurrency exchanges were extremely vulnerable to hackers for a time. Internet satellites are more insecure than we thought and their data streams can contain sensitive, unencrypted data. Two security researchers lived to tell the tale after they were arrested for an entirely legal physical penetration test. And, a former NSA hacker revealed how to plant malware on a Mac using a booby-trapped Word document.
But with less than three months until millions of Americans go to the polls, Black Hat sharpened its focus on election security and integrity more so than any previous year.
Here’s more from the week.
THE BIG PICTURE
A major voting machine maker is finally opening up to hackers
The relationship between hackers and election machine manufacturers has been nothing short of fraught. No company wants to see their products torn apart for weaknesses that could be exploited by foreign spies. But one company, once resistant to the security community, has started to show signs of compromise.
Election equipment maker ES&S is opening up its voting machines to hackers — willingly — under a new vulnerability disclosure program. That will see the company embrace hackers for the first time, recognizing that hackers have knowledge, insight and experience — rather than pushing them away and ignoring the problems altogether. Or, as the company’s security chief told Wired: “Hackers gonna hack, researchers gonna research.”
Internet device search engine Censys is one of the biggest search engines you’ve probably never heard of.
If Google is the search engine for finding information sitting on the web, Censys is the search engine for finding internet devices, like computers, servers, and smart devices, that hosts the data to begin with. By continually mapping the internet looking for connected devices, it’s possible to identify devices that are accessible outside a company’s firewall. The aim is to help companies keep track of which systems can be accessed from the web and know which devices have exploitable security vulnerabilities.
Now, Censys has raised $15.5 million in a Series A fundraise, led by GV and Decibel with participation from Greylock Partners.
David Corcoran, chief executive and co-founder of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based internet security startup, said the company plans to “aggressively” invest in top security talent and plans to double its headcount from about 50 to 100 in the next year, including expanding its sales, engineering, and leadership teams.
“We’re thrilled to have the support of world-class investors as we keep the momentum building and continue to revolutionize how businesses manage their security posture in an ever-changing environment,” said Corcoran.
The fundraise couldn’t come at a more critical time for the company. Censys is not the only internet device search engine, rivaling Binary Edge and Shodan. But Censys says it has spent two years on bettering its internet mapping technology, helping it see more of the internet than it did before.
The new scan engine, built by the same team that developed and maintains its original open-source ZMap scanner, claims to see 44% more devices on the internet than other security companies. That helps companies see new vulnerable systems as soon as the come online, said Censys’ chief scientist Zakir Durumeric.
Censys is one of a number of growing security companies in the Ann Arbor area, alongside NextHop Technologies, Interlink Networks, and Duo Security, co-founded by Dug Song, who also sits on Censys’ board.
“You can’t protect what you can’t see — but in today’s dynamic IT environment, many organizations struggle to find, much less keep track of, every system and application at risk before the attackers do,” said Song. “Censys empowers defenders with the automated visibility they need to truly understand and to get ahead of these risks, enabling even small security teams to have an outsized impact.”
In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.
This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.
The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.
Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”
Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.
“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.
The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.
Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.
Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.
Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.
To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)
Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.
It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”
In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.
In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.
If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade+ (and where data is concerned) it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.
Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital ‘robber barons’ at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting that EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.
It remains to be seen whether that record will change come December.
“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.
Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:
“the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”
“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.
“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”
The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.
All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)
The regulator has also said it will further look at:
the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
“whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”
The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.
Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.
“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.
Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”
“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.
Google alternative Ecosia is on a mission to turn search clicks into trees. The Berlin based not-for-profit reached a major milestone earlier this month, having used ad revenue generated by users of its privacy-sensitive search engine to plant more than 100 million trees across 25 countries worldwide — targeted at biodiversity hotspots.
However these good feels have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Ecosia has seen its monthly revenues slashed by half since COVID-19 arrived in Europe, with turnover falling from €2.6M in February to just €1.4M in June. It’s worried that its promise of planting a tree every 0.8 seconds is at risk.
It has also suffered a knock to regional visibility as a result of boycotting an auction process that Android OS maker Google has been running throughout this year, as a response to a 2018 Commission antitrust decision that found the tech giant had violated EU competition rules in how it operates the smartphone platform — including via conditions placed on phone makers to pre-load its own services (like Google search) as device defaults.
An auction process now determines which rival search engines appear on a search ‘choice screen’ Google began showing to Android users in Europe in the wake of the Commission decision. Currently, Google offers three paid slots via the auction to non-Google search engines. Android users setting up a new device always see Google’s own search engine as one of the four total options.
The tech giant’s rivals have consistently argued this ‘pay to play’ model is no remedy for its anti-competitive behavior with Android, the world’s dominant smartphone OS. Although most (including DuckDuckGo) felt forced to participate in its auction process from the get-go. Forgoing the most prominent route to the Android search market isn’t exactly a luxury most businesses could afford.
Ecosia, a not-for-profit, was the last major hold out. But now it says it’s been forced to end its boycott in a bid to remain competitive in the region. This means it will participate in the next auction round for the Android choice screen — scheduled for the beginning of Q4. If it wins any per country slots it will appear as a search choice option to those Android users in future, though likely not til next year given the length of the auction process.
It remains highly critical of Google’s pay-to-play model, arguing it’s no remedy for the antitrust violations identified by the Commission. It also laments that EU lawmakers are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to determining whether Google’s ‘remedy’ is actually restoring competition, given all the evidence to the contrary.
“The main reason why we boycotted the auction is because we think it’s highly unfair and anticompetitive,” says Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll, speaking to TechCrunch via video chat. “Not only do we think that fair competition shouldn’t be sold off in an auction but also the way the auction is designed basically makes sure that only the least interesting options can win.
“Since we have a business model where we use most of our revenues to plant trees we basically can’t really win in an auction model. If you’re already a search engine that’s quite well known… then you have a lot of cannibalization effects through this screen. So we’re basically paying for traffic that we would get for free anyway… So it’s just super unfair and anticompetitive.”
Kroll expresses emphatic surprise that the Commission didn’t immediately reject Google’s auction model for the choice screen — saying it seems as if they’ve learned nothing from the EU’s earlier intervention against Microsoft’s tying of its Internet Explorer browser with its dominant desktop OS, Windows. (In that case the saga ended after Microsoft agreed to implement a ballot screen offering a choice of up to 12 browsers, which paved the road for Google to later gain share with its own Chrome browser.)
For a brief initial period last year Google did offer a fee-less choice screen in Europe, pushing this out to existing Android devices — with search rivals selected based on their market popularity per country (which, in some markets, included Ecosia).
However the tech giant said then that it would be “evolving” its implementation over time. And a few months later an auction model was announced as incoming for new Android devices — with that ‘pay-to-play’ approach kicking off at the start of this year.
Search rivals including DuckDuckGo and Qwant immediately cried foul. Yet the response from the Commission has been to kick the can — with regulators offering platitudes that said they would “closely monitor”. They also claimed to be “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.
However the missing adjective in that statement is ‘fast’. Google rivals would argue that for a remedy to be effective it needs to happen really fast, like now — or, for some of them, the risk really is going out of business. After all, the Commission’s Android antitrust decision (which, yes, Google is appealing) already dates back two full years.
“I find it very surprising that the European Commission hasn’t rejected [Google’s auction model] from the start because some of the key principles from what made the choice screen successful in the Microsoft case have just been completely disregarded and been turned around by Google to turn the whole concept of a choice screen to their advantage,” says Kroll. “We’re not even calling it the ‘choice screen’ internally, we just call it the ‘auction screen’. And since we’re now stopping to boycott we call it the ‘no choice screen’.”
“It’s Google’s way to give the impression that there’s free choice but there is no free choice,” he adds. “If Google’s objective here would be to create choice for the user then they would present the most interesting options, which are the search engines with the highest marketshares — so definitely us, DuckDuckGo and maybe some other players as well. But that’s not what they’re trying to do.”
Kroll points out that another German search rival to Google, Cliqz, had to pull the plug on its anti-tracking alternative at the start of this year — meaning there’s now one less homegrown anti-tracking rival to Google in play. And while Ecosia feels it has no choice but to participate in Google’s auction game Kroll says it also can’t know whether or not participating will result in Ecosia overpaying Google for leads that then mean it generates less revenue and can’t plant as many trees… Or, well, any trees if the worst were to happen.
(NB: Kroll was speaking to TechCrunch ahead of signing an NDA that Google requires participants of the auction to sign which puts a legal limit on what they can say about the process once they’re involved — which, in turn, is a problematic element that another European search rival, Qwant, has also complained is unfair… )
“We don’t have any choice left, other than to participate,” adds Kroll. “Because we want to have access to the Android platform. So basically Google has successfully bullied everyone to play to its own rules — and it’s a game where Google is not only the referee but also they get a free ticket and they are also players…
“Somehow Google magically convinced the public but I think also the European Commission that they need to generate revenue in an auction because they have so many costs through the Android development and so on. It is of course true that they have costs… but they are also generating massive profit through the deals that they then make with the device makers and those profits are not at all shared.”
Kroll points out that Google shells out a (reported) $12BN per year to be the default search engine in Safari on Apple’s iOS platform — even as it pays nothing to get in front of the vast majority of mobile searchers’ eyeballs via Android (and does the same with Chrome).
“If they would pay the same amount of money for those platform they would soon be bankrupt,” he argues. “So they are getting all this for free and they are also getting other benefits for free — like having the Play Store preinstalled, like having Google Maps preinstalled, YouTube preinstalled and so on — which are all revenue sources. But they’re not sharing any of those revenue. They just try to outsource all of the costs that they have to their competitors, which is I think very unfair.”
While Alphabet, Google’s parent entity, doesn’t break out Google Play revenue specifically from within a generic “advertising” bucket when it reports its financials, data from SensorTower for the first half of 2020 suggests it generated $17.3BN in Play Store revenue alone over this six-month period, up 21% year-over-year. And Play is just one of the moneyspinners Google derives via ‘free’ Android.
Since the Commission’s antitrust 2018 decision against Android Kroll argues that nothing has changed for search competitors like Ecosia which are trying to offer consumers a more interesting value exchange for their clicks.
“What Google is doing very successfully is they’re just playing on time,” he suggests. “Our competitor, Cliqz, already went bankrupt because of that. So the strategy seems to work really well for Google. And we also can’t afford to lose access to those platforms… I really hope that the European Commission will actually do something about this because it has been done successfully in the Microsoft case and we just need exactly the same.”
Kroll also flags DuckDuckGo’s design suggestions for “a fair choice screen” — which we covered here last year but which Google (and the Commission) have so far simply ignored.
He suspects regulators are waiting to see how the market looks in another year or more. But of course by then it may be too late to save more alternative search engines from a Cliqz-style demise, thereby further strengthening Google’s position. Which would obviously be the opposite of an antitrust remedy.
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager already conceded last year that another of her interventions against the tech giant — the Google AdSense antitrust case — is an example of “enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition”. So if she’s not careful her record on failed remedies could dent her high profile reputation for being an antitrust chief who’s at least willing to take on tech giants. Where competition is concerned, it must be all about outcomes — or what are you even doing as claimed law ‘enforcers’?
“I always fear that the point might come when big corporates are more powerful than our public institutions and I’m wondering if this point isn’t already reached,” adds Kroll, positing that it’s not clear whether the EU — as an economic and political project now facing plenty of its own issues — will have enough resilience to be able to enforce its own competition law in the near future. So really his key point is: If not now, when? (Or, well, how?)
It’s certainly true that there’s a growing disconnect between what the Commission is saying around competition policy and digital markets — where it’s alive to the critique that regulatory interventions need to be able to move much faster if they’re to prevent monopoly power irreversibly tipping these markets (it’s currently consulting on whether to give itself greater powers of intervention) — and its hands-off approach to how to remedy market failure. tl;dr there’s no effective enforcement without effective remedies. So dropping the ball after the fact of a decision really defeats the whole operation.
Vestager clearly recognizes there’s a problem in the digital context — telling the EU parliament last year: “We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching”. (Albeit, still not committing to having much more far reaching remedies.) Yet in parallel she preaches ‘wait and see’ as her overarching philosophy — a policy ‘push-pull’ which seems to be preventing the unit from even entertaining taking on a more agile, active and iterative role in supporting markets towards actual restoration of competition. At least not before a lengthy consultation exercise which further kicks the can,
If EU lawmakers can’t learn the lessons from their own relatively recent digital antitrust history (Microsoft tying IE to Windows) to effectively enforce what is a pretty straightforwardly similar antitrust case (Google tying search & its other services to Android), you have to question why they think they need new antitrust tools to properly tackle digital monopolies now. Given they don’t seem able to effectively wield the tools they’ve already got.
“My feeling is, what has happened in the Microsoft case… there was just somebody in the Commission crazy enough to say this is what the decision is and you have to do it… And maybe it just takes those kind of guts. That’s then maybe a political question. Is Vestager willing to really pick those battles?” asks Kroll.
“My feeling is if people really understand the situation then they would care but you actually need to do a little bit of explaining that it’s not good to have a dominant player that is in such an important sector like search, and that is basically shutting down the market for everybody else.”
Asked what his message is for the US lawmakers now actively eyeing antitrust concerns around Google — and indeed much of big tech — Kroll says: “I’m a fan of competition and I also admire Google; I think Google is a very clever company but I think there is a point reached where there’s so much concentration of power that it gets dangerous for society… We’ve been suffering quite a lot from all the dominance that Google has in the various sectors. There are just things that Google are doing that are obviously anticompetitive.”
One specific thing he suggests regulators take a close look at is how much money Google pays Apple to be the default search option on Safari. “It’s paying more money than it can actually afford to win the Safari search volume — that I think is very anticompetitive,” he argues. “They already own two-thirds of the market and they basically buy whatever’s left over so that they can just cement their dominance.
“The regulators should have a very close look at that and disallow Google to participate in any of those bids for default positions in other browsers in the future. I think that would even be beneficial for browsers because in the long term there would finally be competition for those spots again. Currently Google’s just winning them because they’re running out of options and there are not many other search providers left to choose from.”
He also argues they need to make Google repair “some of the damage they’ve done” — i.e. as a result of unfairly gaining marketshare — by enforcing what he calls “a really fair choice screen”; non-paid and based on relevance for users. And by doing so on Android and Chrome devices.
“I think until a year ago if you visited Google.com with your Safari browser or Firefox browser then Google would recommend to install Chrome. And for me that’s a clear abuse of one dominant position to support another part of your company,” he argues. “Google needs to repair that and that needs to happen very quickly — because otherwise other companies might [go out of business].”
“We’re still doing okay but we have been hit heavily by corona and we have a huge loss in revenue. Other companies might be hit even worse, I don’t know. And we don’t have the same deep pockets that the big players have. So other companies might disappear if nothing’s done soon,” he adds.
We reached out to Google and the European Commission for comment.
A Google spokesperson pointed us to its FAQ about the auction. In further remarks which they specified could not be directly quoted they claimed an auction is a fair and objective method of determining how to fill available slots, adding that the revenue generated via the auction helps Google continue to invest in developing and maintaining Android.
While a spokeswoman for the Commission told us it has been “discussing” the choice screen mechanism with Google, following what she described as “relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.
The spokeswoman also reiterated earlier comments, that the Commission is continuing to monitor Google’s choice screen implementation and is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.
However a source familiar with the matter said EU lawmakers view paid premium placement for a few cents as far superior to what Google was offering rivals before — i.e. no visibility at all — and thus take the view that that something is better than nothing.
It’s been seven years since Tencent picked up a 36.5% stake in Sogou to fend off rival Baidu in the online search market. The social and gaming giant is now offering to buy out and take private its long-time ally.
NYSE-listed Sogou said this week it has received a preliminary non-binding proposal from Tencent to acquire its remaining shares for $9 each American depositary share (ADS) it doesn’t already own. That means Sohu, a leading web portal in the Chinese desktop era and the controlling shareholder in Sogou, will no longer hold an interest in the search firm.
Sohu’s board of directors has not yet had an opportunity to review the proposal or determine whether or not to take the offer, the company stated. Sogou’s shares leaped 48% on the news to $8.51 on Monday, yet still far below its all-time high at $13.85 at the time of its initial public offering.
Founded in 2005, Sogou went public in late 2017 billing itself as a challenger to China’s biggest search service Baidu, though it has long been a distant second. The company also operates the top Chinese input software, which is used by 482 million people every day to type and convert voice to text, according to its Q1 earnings report.
Ever since the strategic partnership with Tencent kicked off, Sogou, which means “Search Dog” in Chinese, has been the default search engine for WeChat and benefited immensely from the giant’s traffic, though WeChat has also developed its own search feature.
The potential buyout will add Sogou to a list of Chinese companies to delist from the U.S. as tensions between the countries heighten in recent times. It will also allay concerns amongst investors who worry WeChat Search would make Sogou redundant. So far WeChat’s proprietary search function appears to be gleaning data mainly within the app’s enclave, from users’ news feed, user-generated articles, e-commerce stores, through to lite apps integrated into WeChat.
That’s a whole lot of content and services targeted at WeChat’s 1.2 billion active users. Many people need not look beyond the chat app to consumer news, order food, play games, or purchase groceries. But there remains information outside the enormous ecosystem, and that’s Sogou’s turf — to bring what’s available on the open web (of course, subject to government censorship like all Chinese services) to WeChat users.
The arrangement reflects an endemic practice on the Chinese internet — giants blocking each other or making it hard for rivals to access their content. The goal is to lock in traffic and user insights. For instance, articles published on WeChat can’t be searched on Baidu. Consumers can’t open Alibaba shopping links without leaving WeChat.
Sogou is hardly WeChat’s sole search ally. To capture a full range of information needs, the messenger has also struck deals to co-opt fellow microblogging platform Weibo, Quora-like Zhihu, and social commerce service Xiaohongshu into its search pool.
As a result of the current economic volatility many startups and even established companies are proceeding with caution on paid marketing that is typically lower in the purchase funnel. Sales and funnel and buying behavior has changed and it is hard to have confidence in advertising models that used to work at the beginning of the year.
Therefore, this is an ideal time to develop or ramp up organic search engine optimization efforts. If you have not yet invested in SEO, these are the seven steps you can take immediately to get started.
1. Get your search data house in order
Tools to help you organize your search data include Google Search Console. These tools are geared toward helping you get the best type of search data possible by search traffic and performance for your website, as well as identifying issues that you can fix to improve your Google Search results.
Although there are beneficial tools available that show visibility, which helps you see who ranks on what, those work primarily for tracking competitors. To understand your own visibility as well as the keywords and pages that drive organic traffic to your site, Google Search Console delivers that data.
2. Conduct a technical SEO audit
The goal of a technical SEO audit is to find specific SEO issues that keep your website from ranking. These SEO issues could include things like a missing no-index tag, too many H1 tags, low value pages, 404 errors and duplicate content.
There are many SEO audit tools available that can help you catch these issues. With Google’s ongoing algorithm updates, a technical SEO audit can help ensure your website is optimized for these changes.
Facebook will acquire Giphy, the web-based animated gif search engine and platform provider, Facebook confirmed today, in a deal worth around $400 million, according to a report by Axios. Facebook said it isn’t disclosing terms of the deal. Giphy has grown to be a central source for shareable, high-engagement content, and its animated response gifs are available across Facebook’s platforms, as well as through other social apps and services on the web.
Most notably, Giphy provides built-in search and sticker functions for Facebook’s Instagram, and it will continue to operate in that capacity, as well as be available to its other apps through existing and additional integrations. People will still be able to upload their own GIFs, and Facebook intends to continue to operate Giphy under its own branding and offer integration to outside developers.
Facebook says it will invest in additional tech development for Giphy, as well as build out new relationships for it on both the content side, as well as the endpoint developer side. The company says that fully 50% of traffic that Giphy receives actually already comes from Facebook’s apps, including Instagram, Messenger, the FB app itself and WhatsApp .
Giphy was founded in 2013, and was originally simply a search engine for GIFs. The website’s first major product expansion was an extension that allowed sharing via Facebook, introduced later in its founding year, and it quickly added Twitter as a second integration. According to the most recent data from Crunchbase, Giphy had raised $150.9 million across five rounds, backed by funders including DFJ Growth, Lightspeed, Betaworks, GV, Lerer Hippeau and more.
Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay remains committed to building a multi-service super app in Nigeria as the foundation to expand on the continent.
OPay also continues to operate ORide for limited passenger service — though the company is shifting the motorcycle ride-hail operation toward logistics businesses.
These were some of the updates offered by Opera’s Derrick Nueman, a VP of Investor Relations and advisor to OPay.
He spoke to TechCrunch amid a flurry of recent reporting questioning OPay’s Nigeria strategy and speculating on its departure from certain verticals.
This is playing out in the context of fierce competition among fintech and mobility companies in the West African country. Nigeria is home to the continent’s largest economy, biggest population and is the top destination for VC to African startups, as of 2019.
Opera launched the OPay mobile money platform in Lagos in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine in Africa. A year later, the Norway-based, Chinese-owned company sent jitters through Nigeria’s startup world when it rallied investors to back OPay with $170 million in VC. The financing haul amounted to nearly one-fifth of all venture funding raised for African startups the previous year.
Image Credits: Opera
Opera tapped its capital to go work building a large suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria using OPay as the financial utility.
In a 2019 prospectus, Opera referred to this multi-product strategy as creating “Africa’s super app.” Pursuing that platform put OPay in competition with dozens of local startups — such as payment firm Paga and logistics venture Max.ng — without deep pocketed corporate parents.
Opera remains committed to the super app strategy, according to Derrick Nueman. He referred to OPay as “the glue that holds it all together and within there you can offer all sorts of products.”
Nueman compared the approach to other multi-service internet services models such as Grab or Gojek.
“It’s taking what has worked in Asia and and ascribing it to Africa and that to my knowledge is still the plan,” he said.
Opera has tested a number of services verticals in Nigeria. So many it’s been a bit difficult to keep track. A few — such as OBus — have already been jettisoned. Nueman confirmed a list of five current product offerings around Opay in Nigeria:
OMall, a B2C e-commerce app
OTrade, a B2B e-commerce platform
OExpress, a logistics delivery service
OFood, for restaurant delivery; and
ORide, a motorcycle ride-hail service
OPay — whose Nigerian country manager is Iniabasi Akpan — is also moving into device sales with Olla, a mobile phone line pre-loaded with its apps.
Image Credits: Opera
On ORide in particular, there’s been some speculation the motorcycle ride-hail service will continue, particularly after the Nigeria’s Lagos State severely restricted two wheeled, on-demand passenger services early this year. Nigerian outlet TechCabal reported this week ORide was selling off some of its fleet.
According to Opera’s Derrick Nueman, ORide still offers limited ride-hail taxi service. “On the passenger side, it continues to operate where it can.” Many of motorcycles are being transitioned to other functions within OPay. “What they’ve done is redirected a bunch of their drivers to do things like delivery and logistics,” said Nueman.
Several of ORide’s competitors — such as Max .ng and Gokada — have also shifted away from passenger transit and toward delivery logistics in response to regulatory restrictions on motorcycle taxis.
Opera still plans on taking its super app model on the road in Africa, according to Nueman. “OPay continues to look into other markets. The idea is to take what’s worked in Nigeria and export it,” he said.
In a 2019 release, Opera named Ghana, South Africa and Kenya as potential growth markets.
On timing for expansion, Nueman said it depends on obtaining proper licenses and then, gauging shifting variables related to COVID-19 in Africa.
The economic impact of the global pandemic has cast uncertainty over the continent’s largest economies and tech hubs — such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — where lockdown measures have restricted startup revenues and operations.
On OPay’s plans to weather a stormy economic environment in its primary market, Opera’s Nueman points to the company’s VC coffers.
“At a high level, if you don’t need capital, or your well funded, you’re ahead of the game,” he said.
Nueman also highlighted the growth of OPay’s payment volume. “Between January and April…the offline and online transaction volume increased by 44%. So even in the lockdown, it’s doing really well.”
Where does this put Opera’s Africa venture in Nigeria’s competitive startup landscape? Traction with payment volume is obviously a good sign for the company. Still, recession and restricted movement could make business as difficult for OPay in Nigeria as its competitors.
Having more capital — and ability to endure a higher burn-rate — places OPay in a strong position vis-a-vis other startups. But it will take more time to determine if OPay can align its super app products to local consumer preferences as well (or better) than offerings by local tech companies.
As has been proven in other markets, all the VC in the world won’t necessarily buy product market fit.
For a few years now, Microsoft has offered Azure Cache for Redis, a fully managed caching solution built on top of the open-source Redis project. Today, it is expanding this service by adding Redis Enterprise, Redis Lab’s commercial offering, to its platform. It’s doing so in partnership with Redis Labs and while Microsoft will offer some basic support for the service, Redis Labs will handle most of the software support itself.
Julia Liuson, Microsoft’s corporate VP of its developer tools division, told me that the company wants to be seen as a partner to open-source companies like Redis Labs, which was among the first companies to change its license to prevent cloud vendors from commercializing and repackaging their free code without contributing back to the community. Last year, Redis Labs partnered with Google Cloud to bring its own fully managed service to its platform and so maybe it’s no surprise that we are now seeing Microsoft make a similar move.
Liuson tells me that with this new tier for Azure Cache for Redis, users will get a single bill and native Azure management, as well as the option to deploy natively on SSD flash storage. The native Azure integration should also make it easier for developers on Azure to integrate Redis Enterprise into their applications.
It’s also worth noting that Microsoft will support Redis Labs’ own Redis modules, including RediSearch, a Redis-powered search engine, as well as RedisBloom and RedisTimeSeries, which provide support for new datatypes in Redis.
“For years, developers have utilized the speed and throughput of Redis to produce unbeatable responsiveness and scale in their applications,” says Liuson. “We’ve seen tremendous adoption of Azure Cache for Redis, our managed solution built on open source Redis, as Azure customers have leveraged Redis performance as a distributed cache, session store, and message broker. The incorporation of the Redis Labs Redis Enterprise technology extends the range of use cases in which developers can utilize Redis, while providing enhanced operational resiliency and security.”
The latest example comes from ExecuPharm, a little-known but major outsourced pharmaceutical company that confirmed it was hit by a new type of ransomware last month. The incursion not only encrypted the company’s network and files, hackers also exfiltrated vast amounts of data from the network. The company was handed a two-for-one threat: pay the ransom and get your files back or don’t pay and the hackers will post the files to the internet.
This new tactic is shifting how organizations think of ransomware attacks: it’s no longer just a data-recovery mission; it’s also now a data breach. Now companies are torn between taking the FBI’s advice of not paying the ransom or the fear their intellectual property (or other sensitive internal files) are published online.
Because millions are now working from home, the surface area for attackers to get in is far greater than it was, making the threat of ransomware higher than ever before.
That’s just one of the stories from the week. Here’s what else you need to know.
THE BIG PICTURE
Chegg hacked for the third time in three years
Education giant Chegg confirmed its third data breach in as many years. The latest break-in affected past and present staff after a hacker made off with 700 names and Social Security numbers. It’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the 40 million records stolen in 2018 and an undisclosed number of passwords taken in a breach at Thinkful, which Chegg had just acquired in 2019.
Those 700 names account for about half of its 1,400 full-time employees, per a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Chegg’s refusal to disclose further details about the breach — beyond a state-mandated notice to the California attorney general’s office — makes it tough to know exactly went wrong this time.
Cliqz, a Munch-based anti-tracking browser with private search baked in that has sought to offer a local alternative to Google powered by its own search index, is shutting down — claiming this arm of its business has been blindsided by the coronavirus crisis.
Today was not great. We closed parts of @cliqz & our dream of an independent, private search engine: https://t.co/S4XI0LhjVl If you're looking for tech folks: Ping me. Cliqzers are among the best, people that can do stuff & punch way above their weight. The @cliqz team is amazing
The bigger challenge is of course competing in a market so dominated by Google .
In Europe, where the tech giant’s search engine commands a marketshare approaching 95%, trying to lure users to an alternative ecosystem is difficult at the best of times, and a pandemic is certainly not that.
“We didn’t see a pandemic coming,” Cliqz wrote in a farewell blog post yesterday. “We didn’t expect that a virus could have impact on Cliqz. And even just one and a half months ago, we completely underestimated what this would do to the economy and even more so to the political priorities. It became clear to us in the last weeks, that all political initiatives to create an independent European digital infrastructure have been stalled or postponed for years. Covid-19 is overshadowing everything. This is not a climate where we will have any meaningful discussion about a public funding of a solution like Cliqz.”
It’s been a long road for Cliqz, which was founded back in 2008 — initially focused on German-speaking markets. The browser was a fork of Mozilla’s Firefox, and Cliq went on to take investment from Mozilla, in 2016, when it was eyeing expanding to more markets.
In 2017 it acquired the Ghostery anti-tracking tool, which had around 8 million users at the time, with the aim of combining algorithmic and blocklist anti-tracking approaches. But the wider challenge for Cliqz’s browser+search effort was not a lack of tech but the difficulty of building broad backing for its alternative approach.
The farewell blog post says the company failed to raise enough awareness among mainstream web users to convince them to step off Alphabet’s beaten path. But it’s also true that, in recent years, mainstream browsers have been baking in anti-tracking and steadily upping their own splashy privacy claims.
Even Google has said it will phase out third party cookie tracking in its Chrome browser — so the available space for ‘easy’ differentiation around privacy is shrinking. Unless you can clearly and powerfully articulate key technical nuance and complex wider market dynamics related to how user data is passed around in the background.
There is also ongoing regulatory failure in Europe around privacy, despite a recently updated data protection framework, with many national watchdogs failing to grasp the nettle of rampant unlawful online tracking.
“We failed to make people truly aware of the problem; we failed to reach a scale that would allow our search engine to be self-financing,” Cliqz writes. “We have reached several hundred thousand daily users. But — and this is the disadvantage of running our own technology — this is not enough to run a search engine, to cover our costs. And most of all, we failed to convince the political stakeholders, that Europe desperately needs an own independent digital infrastructure.”
While the Cliqz browser and search is being shuttered, the company is not closing down entirely — and a spokesman confirmed Ghostery will continue.
Cliqz investor, Hubert Burda Media, which holds a majority stake in the business, said Thursday that the resulting “restructuring” of the business will affect 45 employees — “for whom individual solutions are currently being sought”.
“The 100% Cliqz subsidiary Ghostery, headed by Jeremy Tillman, will continue to bundle Cliqz’s expertise in the area of anti-tracking,” it wrote. “In addition, a team of experts will be formed from Cliqz, which will take care of technical issues such as artificial intelligence, search and the influence of technology on media.”
Burda added that it’s looking at a possible integration of Cliqz’s MyOffrz unit — aka the division that had sought to monetize use of the anti-tracking browser via contextually targeted (and thus privacy sensitive) ads.
In a wider statement on the restructuring, Burda CEO Paul-Bernhard Kallen said: “We have invested in Cliqz for years because we believe that Europe needs its own digital infrastructure to stay fit for the future. Without the necessary political structures at European level for this, however, we will not be able to overcome the superiority of the tech giants from the USA and China. In addition, the Corona pandemic is unlikely to lead to a far-reaching innovation program in Europe in the foreseeable future, so that we can no longer drive this path alone. I very much regret this because the basic idea of establishing a counterweight to the USA and China in the European search sector is still the right one.”