Developers try to overcome a multitude of technical challenges before vehicles drive on their own
— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!
Last week, we talked about some sunglasses from a company that many people do not like very much. This week, we’re talking about Apple and the company 1,600 times smaller than it that’s facing similar product problems.
Thanks for joining in — follow my tweets @lucasmtny for more.
When you get deep enough into the tech industry, it’s harder to look at things with a consumer’s set of eyes. I’ve felt that way more and more after six years watching Apple events as a TechCrunch reporter, but sometimes memes from random Twitter accounts help me find the consumer truth I’m looking for.
As that dumb little tweet indicates, Apple is charging toward a future where it’s becoming a little harder to distinguish new from old. The off-year “S” period of old is no more for the iPhone, which has seen tweaks and new size variations since 2017’s radical iPhone X redesign. Apple is stretching the periods between major upgrades for its entire product line and it’s also taking longer to roll out those changes.
Apple debuted the current bezel-lite iPad Pro design back in late 2018 and it’s taken three years for the design to work its way down to the iPad mini while the entry-level iPad is still lying in wait. The shift from M1 Macs will likely take years as the company has already detailed. Most of Apple’s substantial updates rely on upgrades to the chipsets that they build, something that increasingly makes them look and feel like a consumer chipset company.
This isn’t a new trend, or even a new take, it’s been written lots of times, but it’s particularly interesting as the company bulks up the number of employees dedicated to future efforts like augmented reality, which will one day soon likely replace the iPhone.
It’s an evolution that’s pushing them into a similar design territory as action camera darling GoPro, which has struggled again and again with getting their core loyalists to upgrade their hardware frequently. These are on laughably different scales, with Apple now worth some $2.41 trillion and GoPro still fighting for a $1.5 billion market cap. The situations are obviously different, and yet they are both facing similar end-of-life innovation questions for categories that they both have mastered.
This week GoPro debuted its HERO10 Black camera, which brings higher frame rates and a better performing processor as it looks to push more of its user audience to subscription services. Sound familiar? This week, Apple debuted its new flagship, the iPhone 13 Pro, with a faster processor and better frame rates (for the display not the camera here, though). They also spent a healthy amount of time pushing users to embrace new services ecosystems.
Apple’s devices are getting so good that they’re starting to reach a critical feature plateau. The company has still managed to churn out device after device and expand their audience to billions while greatly expanding their average revenue per user. Things are clearly going pretty well for the most valuable company on earth, but while the stock has nearly quadrupled since the iPhone X launch, the consumer iPhone experience feels pretty consistent. That’s clearly not a bad thing, but it is — for lack of a better term — boring.
The clear difference, among 2.4 trillion others, is that GoPro doesn’t seem to have a clear escape route from its action camera vertical.
But Apple has been pushing thousands of employees toward an escape route in augmented reality, even if the technology is clearly not ready for consumers and they’re forced to lead with what has been rumored to be a several-thousand-dollar AR/VR headset with plenty of limitations. One of the questions I’m most interested in is what the iPhone device category looks likes once its unwieldy successor has reared its head. Most likely is that the AR-centric devices will be shipped as wildly expensive iPhone accessories and a way to piggy back off the accessibility of the mobile category while providing access to new — and more exciting — experiences. In short, AR is the future of the iPhone until AR doesn’t need the iPhone anymore.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
Everything Apple announced this week
Was it the most exciting event Apple has ever had? Nah. Are you still going to click that link to read about their new stuff? Yah.
GoPro launches the HERO10 Black
I have a very soft spot in my heart for GoPro, which has taken a niche corner of hardware and made a device and ecosystem that’s really quite good. As I mentioned above, the company has some issues making significant updates every year, but they made a fairly sizable upgrade this year with the second-generation of their customer processor and some performance bumps across the board.
Tesla will open FSD beta to drivers with good driving record
Elon Musk is pressing ahead with expanding its “Full Self-Driving” software to more Tesla drivers, saying that users who paid for the FSD system can apply to use the beta and will be analyzed by the company’s insurance calculator bot. After 7 days of good driving behavior, Musk says users will be approved.
OpenSea exec resigns after ‘insider trading’ scandal
NFTs are a curious business; there’s an intense amount of money pulsating through these markets — and little oversight. This week OpenSea, the so-called “eBay of NFTs,” detailed that its own VP of Product had been trading on insider information. He was later pushed to resign.
Apple and Google bow to the Kremlin
Apple and Google are trying to keep happy the governments of most every market in which they operate. That leads to some uncomfortable situations in markets like Russia, where both tech giants were forced by the Kremlin to remove a political app from the country’s major opposition party.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
What could stop the startup boom?
“…We’ve seen record results from cities, countries and regions. There’s so much money sloshing around the venture capital and startup worlds that it’s hard to recall what they were like in leaner times. We’ve been in a bull market for tech upstarts for so long that it feels like the only possible state of affairs. It’s not…”
The value of software revenue may have finally stopped rising
“…I’ve held back from covering the value of software (SaaS, largely) revenues for a few months after spending a bit too much time on it in preceding quarters — when VCs begin to point out that you could just swap out numbers quarter to quarter and write the same post, it’s time for a break. But the value of software revenues posted a simply incredible run, and I can’t say “no” to a chart…“
Inside GitLab’s IPO filing
“…The company’s IPO has therefore been long expected. In its last primary transaction, GitLab raised $286 million at a post-money valuation of $2.75 billion, per PitchbBook data. The same information source also notes that GitLab executed a secondary transaction earlier this year worth $195 million, which gave the company a $6 billion valuation…”
APIs are the grease turning the gears and wheels for many organizations’ IT systems today, but as APIs grow in number and use, tracking how they work (or don’t work) together can become complex and potentially critical if something goes awry. Now, a startup that has built an innovative way to help with this is announcing some funding after getting traction with big enterprises adopting its approach.
Tyk, which has built a way for users to access and manage multiple internal enterprise APIs through a universal interface by way of GraphQL, has picked up $35 million, an investment that it will be using both for hiring and to continue enhancing and expanding the tools that it provides to users. Tyk has coined a term describing its approach to managing APIs and the data they produce — “universal data graph” — and today its tools are being used to manage APIs by some 10,000 businesses, including large enterprises like Starbucks, Societe Generale, and Domino’s.
Scottish Equity Partners led the round, with participation also from MMC Ventures — its sole previous investor from a round in 2019 after boostrapping for its first five years. The startup is based out of London but works in a very distributed way — one of the co-founders is living in New Zealand currently — and it will be hiring and growing based on that principle, too. It has raised just over $40 million to date.
Tyk (pronounced like “tyke”, meaning small/lively child) got its start as an open source side project first for co-founder Martin Buhr, who is now the company’s CEO, while he was working elsewhere, as a “load testing thing,” in his words.
The shifts in IT towards service-oriented architectures, and building and using APIs to connect internal apps, led him to rethink the code and consider how it could be used to control APIs. Added to that was the fact that as far as Buhr could see, the API management platforms that were in the market at the time — some of the big names today include Kong, Apigee (now a part of Google), 3scale (now a part of RedHat and thus IBM), MuleSoft (now a part of Salesforce) — were not as flexible as his needs were. “So I built my own,” he said.
It was built as an open source tool, and some engineers at other companies started to use it. As it got more attention, some of the bigger companies interested in using it started to ask why he wasn’t charging for anything — a sure sign as any that there was probably a business to be built here, and more credibility to come if he charged for the it.
“So we made the gateway open source, and the management part went into a licensing model,” he said. And Tyk was born as a startup co-founded with James Hirst, who is now the COO, who worked with Buhr at a digital agency some years before.
The key motivation behind building Tyk has stayed as its unique selling point for customers working in increasingly complex environments.
“What sparked interest in Tyk was that companies were unhappy with API management as it exists today,” Buhr noted, citing architectures using multiple clouds and multiple containers, creating more complexity that needed better management. “It was just the right time when containerization, Kubernetes and microservices were on the rise… The way we approach the multi-data and multi-vendor cloud model is super flexible and resilient to partitions, in a way that others have not been able to do.”
“You engage developers and deliver real value and it’s up to them to make the choice,” added Hirst. “We are responding to a clear shift in the market.”
One of the next frontiers that Tyk will tackle will be what happens within the management layer, specifically when there are potential conflicts with APIs.
“When a team using a microservice makes a breaking change, we want to bring that up and report that to the system,” Buhr said. “The plan is to flag the issue and test against it, and be able to say that a schema won’t work, and to identify why.”
Even before that is rolled out, though, Tyk’s customer list and its grow speak to a business on the cusp of a lot more.
“Martin and James have built a world-class team and the addition of this new capital will enable Tyk to accelerate the growth of its API management platform, particularly around the GraphQL focused Universal Data Graph product that launched earlier this year,” said Martin Brennan, a director at SEP, in a statement. “We are pleased to be supporting the team to achieve their global ambitions.”
Keith Davidson, a partner at SEP, is joining the Tyk board as a non-executive director with this round.
In less than a year after raising $25 million in Series B funding, technical assessment company CodeSignal announced a $50 million in Series C funding to offer new features for its platform that helps companies make data-driven hiring decisions to find and test engineering talent.
Similar to attracting a big investor lead for its B round — Menlo Ventures — it has partnered with Index Ventures to lead the C round. Menlo participated again and was joined by Headline and A Capital. This round brings CodeSignal’s total fundraising to $87.5 million.
Co-founder and CEO Tigran Sloyan got the idea for the company from an experience his co-founder and friend Aram Shatakhtsyan had while trying to find an engineering job. Both from Armenia, the two went in different paths for college, with Shatakhtsyan staying in Armenia and Sloyan coming to the U.S. to study at MIT. He then went on to work at Google.
“As companies were recruiting myself and my classmates, Aram was trying to get his resume picked up, but wasn’t getting attention because of where he went to college, even though he was the greatest programmer I had ever known,” Sloyan told TechCrunch. “Hiring talent is the No. 1 problem companies say they have, but here was the best engineer, and no one would bring him in.”
They, along with Sophia Baik, started CodeSignal in 2015 to act as a self-driving interview platform that directly measures skills regardless of a person’s background. Like people needing to take a driver’s test in order to get a license, Sloyan calls the company’s technical assessment technology a “flight simulator for developers,” that gives candidates a simulated evaluation of their skills and comes back with a score and highlighted strengths.
The need by companies to hire engineers has led to CodeSignal growing 3.5 times in revenue year over year and to gather a customer list that includes Brex, Databricks, Facebook, Instacart, Robinhood, Upwork and Zoom.
Sloyan said the company has not yet touched the money it received in its Series B, but wanted to jump at the opportunity to work with Nina Achadjian, partner at Index Ventures, whom he had known for many years since their time together at Google. To work together and for Achadjian to join the company’s board was something “I couldn’t pass up,” Sloyan said.
When Achadjian moved over to venture capital, she helped Sloyan connect to mentors and angel investors while keeping an eye on the company. Hiring engineers is “mission critical” for technology companies, but what became more obvious to her was that engineering functions have become necessary for all companies, Achadjian explained.
While performing due diligence on the space, she saw traditional engineering cultures utilizing CodeSignal, but then would also see nontraditional companies like banks and insurance companies.
“Their traction was undeniable, and many of our portfolio companies were using CodeSignal,” she added. “It is rare to see a company accelerate growth at the stage they are at.”
U.S. Department of Labor statistics estimate there is already a global talent labor shortage of 40 million workers, and that number will grow to over 85 million by 2030. Achadjian says engineering jobs are also expected to increase during that time, and with all of those roles and applicants, vetting candidates will be more important than ever, as will the ability for candidates to apply from wherever they are.
The new funding enabled the company to launch its Integrated Development Environment for candidates to interact with relevant assessment experiences like codes, files and a terminal on a machine that is familiar with them, so that they can showcase their skills, while also being able to preview their application. At the same time, employers are able to assign each candidate the same coding task based on the open position.
In addition, Sloyan intends to triple the company’s headcount over the next couple of months and expand into other use cases for skills assessment.
Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.
The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.
Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.
To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.
While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.
The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.
When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)
Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.
But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)
Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.
However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.
“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”
“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.
Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.
Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.
“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”
The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.
“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.
Alongside the introduction of the new iPhone 13, Apple introduced a few new accessories to complement its upgraded flagship devices. One of the more interesting additions in the accessories in the lineup is a new MagSafe wallet that works with Apple “Find My” service. That means if you accidentally lose your wallet when it becomes unattached from your iPhone, you can launch the Find My app to locate it as you can with other Apple devices or items attached to your Apple AirTags.
In this case, the MagSafe leather wallet will notify users the last known location where the wallet was separated from the phone.
This is a small, but clever addition for those who use Apple’s MagSafe products. The technology was first introduced last fall to allow iPhone users to attach all sorts of products to the back of their iPhone, like cases, wallets, tripods and car mounts, as well as Apple’s own accessories for charging, like the MagSafe battery pack — which is coming to iPhone 13. MagSafe works by layering on a magnetometer, a copper-graphite shield, two shields, multiple layers of magnets, an NFC antenna, and more on the back of the iPhone, to make the accessories attach.
But it had not yet combined the power of MagSafe with the capabilities of “Find My” until now.
Along with the launch of the “Find My”-connected wallet, aka the iPhone Leather Wallet with MagSafe, the company is also introducing a range of new cases and colors for iPhone, designed to work with MagSafe. This includes MagSafe cases in leather and silicone, as well as a clear case with MagSafe. All are available to order today.
Amazon’s biometric scanner for retail, the Amazon One palm reader, is expanding beyond the e-commerce giant’s own stores. The company announced today it has acquired its initial third-party customer with ticketing company AXS, which will implement the Amazon One system at Denver, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre as an option for contactless entry for event-goers.
This is the first time the Amazon One system will be used outside an Amazon-owned retail store, and the first time it’s used for entry into an entertainment venue. Amazon says it expects AXS to roll out the system to more venues in the future, but didn’t offer any specifics as to which ones or when.
At Red Rocks, guests will be able to associate their AXS Mobile ID with Amazon One at dedicated stations before they enter the amphitheatre, or they can enroll at a second station once inside in order to use the reader at future AXS events. The enrollment process takes about a minute and customers can choose to enroll either one or both palms. Once set up, ticketholders can use a dedicated entry line for Amazon One users.
“We are proud to work with Amazon to continue shaping the future of ticketing through cutting-edge innovation,” said Bryan Perez, CEO of AXS, in a statement. “We are also excited to bring Amazon One to our clients and the industry at a time when there is a need for fast, convenient, and contactless ticketing solutions. At AXS, we are continually deploying new technologies to develop secure and smarter ticketing offerings that improve the fan experience before, during, and after events,” he added.
Amazon’s palm reader was first introduced amid the pandemic in September 2020, as a way for shoppers to pay at Amazon Go convenience stores using their palm. To use the system, customers would first insert their credit card then hover their palm over the device to associate their unique palm print with their payment mechanism. After setup, customers could enter the store just by holding their palm above the biometric scanner for a second or so. Amazon touted the system as a safer, “contactless” means of payment, as customers aren’t supposed to actually touch the reader. (Hopefully, that’s the case, considering the pandemic rages on.)
On the tech side, Amazon One uses computer vision technology to create the palm signatures, it said.
In the months that followed, Amazon expanded the biometric system to several more stores, including other Amazon Go convenience stores, Amazon Go Grocery stores, and its Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star stores. This April, it brought the system to select Whole Foods locations. To encourage more sign-ups, Amazon even introduced a $10 promotional credit to enroll your palm prints at its supported stores.
When palm prints are linked to Amazon accounts, the company is able to collect data from customers’ offline activity to target ads, offers, and recommendations over time. And the data remains with Amazon until a customer explicitly deletes it, or if the customer doesn’t use the feature for at least two years.
While the system offers an interesting take on contactless payments, Amazon’s track record in this area has raised privacy concerns. The company had in the past sold biometric facial recognition services to law enforcement in the U.S. Its facial recognition technology was the subject of a data privacy lawsuit. And it was found to be still storing Alexa voice data even after users deleted their audio files.
Amazon has responded by noting its palm print images are encrypted and sent to a secure area built for Amazon One in the cloud where Amazon creates the customers’ palm signatures. It also has noted it allows customers to unenroll from either a device or from its website, one.amazon.com once all transactions have been processed.
Fortnite maker Epic Games is appealing last week’s ruling in its court battle with Apple, where a federal judge said Apple would no longer be allowed to block developers from adding links to alternative payment mechanisms, but stopped short of dubbing Apple a monopolist. The latter would have allowed Epic Games to argue for alternative means of serving its iOS user base, including perhaps, through third-party app stores or even sideloading capabilities built into Apple’s mobile operating system, similar to those on Google’s Android OS.
Apple immediately declared the court battle a victory, as the judge had agreed with its position that the company was “not in violation of antitrust law” and had also deemed Apple’s success in the app and gaming ecosystem as “not illegal.” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, meanwhile, said the ruling was not a win for either developers or consumers. On Twitter, he hinted that the company may appeal the decision when he said, “We will fight on.”
In a court filing published on Sunday (see below), Epic Games officially stated its attention to appeal U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ final judgment and “all orders leading to or producing that judgment.”
As part of the judge’s decision, Epic Games had been ordered to pay Apple the 30% of the $12 million it earned when it introduced its alternative payment system in Fortnite on iOS, which was then in breach of its legal contract with Apple.
The appellate court will revisit how Judge Gonzalez Rogers defined the market where Epic Games had argued Apple was acting as a monopolist. Contrary to both parties’ wishes, Gonzalez Rogers defined it as the market for “digital mobile gaming transactions” specifically. Though an appeal may or may not see the court shifting its opinion in Epic Games’ favor, a new ruling could potentially help to clarify the vague language used in the injunction to describe how Apple must now accommodate developers who want to point their customers to other payment mechanisms.
So far, the expectation floating around the developer community is that Apple will simply extend the “reader app” category exception to all non-reader apps (apps that provide access to purchased content). Apple recently settled with a Japanese regulator by agreeing to allow reader apps to point users to their own website where users could sign up and manage their accounts, which could include customers paying for subscriptions — like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, for instance. Apple said this change would be global.
In briefings with reporters, Apple said the details of the injunction issued with the Epic Games ruling, however, would still need to be worked out. Given the recency of the decision, the company has not yet communicated with developers on how this change will impact them directly nor has it updated its App Store guidelines with new language.
Reached for comment, Epic Games said it does not have any further statements on its decision to appeal at this time.
Security operations teams face a daunting task these days, fending off malicious hackers and their increasingly sophisticated approaches to cracking into networks. That also represents a gap in the market: building tools to help those security teams do their jobs. Today, an Israeli startup called Rezilion that is doing just that — building automation tools for DevSecOps, the area of IT that addresses the needs of security teams and the technical work that they need to do in their jobs — is announcing $30 million in funding.
Guggenheim Investments is leading the round with JVP and Kindred Capital also contributing. Rezilion said that unnamed executives from Google, Microsoft, CrowdStrike, IBM, Cisco, PayPal, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, eBay, Symantec, RedHat, RSA and Tenable are also in the round. Previously, the company had raised $8 million.
Rezilion’s funding is coming on the back of strong initial growth for the startup in its first two years of operations.
Its customer base is made up of some of the world’s biggest companies, including two of the “Fortune 10” (the top 10 of the Fortune 500). CEO Liran Tancman, who co-founded Rezilion with CTO Shlomi Boutnaru, said that one of those two is one of the world’s biggest software companies, and the other is a major connected device vendor, but he declined to say which. (For the record, the top 10 includes Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Walmart and CVS.)
Tancman and Boutnaru had previously co-founded another security startup, CyActive, which was acquired by PayPal in 2015; the pair worked there together until leaving to start Rezilion.
There are a lot of tools out in the market now to help automate different aspects of developer and security operations. Rezilion focuses on a specific part of DevSecOps: large businesses have over the years put in place a lot of processes that they need to follow to try to triage and make the most thorough efforts possible to detect security threats. Today, that might involve inspecting every single suspicious piece of activity to determine what the implications might be.
The problem is that with the volume of information coming in, taking the time to inspect and understand each piece of suspicious activity can put enormous strain on an organization: it’s time-consuming, and as it turns out, not the best use of that time because of the signal to noise ratio involved. Typically, each vulnerability can take 6-9 hours to properly investigate, Tancman said. “But usually about 70-80% of them are not exploitable,” meaning they may be bad for some, but not for this particular organization and the code it’s using today. That represents a very inefficient use of the security team’s time and energy.
“Eight of out ten patches tend to be a waste of time,” Tancman said of the approach that is typically made today. He believes that as its AI continues to grow and its knowledge and solution becomes more sophisticated, “it might soon be 9 out of 10.”
Rezilion has built a taxonomy and an AI-based system that essentially does that inspection work as a human would do: it spots any new, or suspicious, code, figures out what it is trying to do, and runs it against a company’s existing code and systems to see how and if it might actually be a threat to it or create further problems down the line. If it’s all good, it essentially whitelists the code. If not, it flags it to the team.
The stickiness of the product has come out of how Tancman and Boutnaru understand large enterprises, especially those heavy with technology stacks, operate these days in what has become a very challenging environment for cybersecurity teams.
“They are using us to accelerate their delivery processes while staying safe,” Tancman said. “They have strict compliance departments and have to adhere to certain standards,” in terms of the protocols they take around security work, he added. “They want to leverage DevOps to release that.”
He said Rezilion has generally won over customers in large part for simply understanding that culture and process and helping them work better within that: “Companies become users of our product because we showed them that, at a fraction of the effort, they can be more secure.” This has special resonance in the world of tech, although financial services, and other verticals that essentially leverage technology as a significant foundation for how they operate, are also among the startup’s user base.
Down the line, Rezilion plans to add remediation and mitigation into the mix to further extend what it can do with its automation tools, which is part of where the funding will be going, too, Boutnaru said. But he doesn’t believe it will ever replace the human in the equation altogether.
“It will just focus them on the places where you need more human thinking,” he said. “We’re just removing the need for tedious work.”
In that grand tradition of enterprise automation, then, it will be interesting to watch which other automation-centric platforms might make a move into security alongside the other automation they are building. For now, Rezilion is forging out an interesting enough area for itself to get investors interested.
“Rezilion’s product suite is a game changer for security teams,” said Rusty Parks, senior MD of Guggenheim Investments, in a statement. “It creates a win-win, allowing companies to speed innovative products and features to market while enhancing their security posture. We believe Rezilion has created a truly compelling value proposition for security teams, one that greatly increases return on time while thoroughly protecting one’s core infrastructure.”
Apple Music announced today that it’s created a process to properly identify and compensate all of the individual creators involved in making a DJ mix. Using technology from the audio-recognition app Shazam, which Apple acquired in 2018 for $400 million, Apple Music is working with major and independent labels to devise a fair way to divide streaming royalties among DJs, labels, and artists who appear in the mixes. This is intended to help DJ mixes retain long-term monetary value for all creators involved, making sure that musicians get paid for their work even when other artists iterate on it. And, as one of Apple’s first major integrations of Shazam’s technology, it appears that the company saw value in
Historically, it’s been difficult for DJs to stream mixes online, since live streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch might flag the use of other artists’ songs as copyright infringement. Artists are entitled to royalties when their song is played by a DJ during a live set, but dance music further complicates this, since small samples from various songs can be edited and mixed together into something unrecognizable.
Apple Music already hosts thousands of mixes, including sets from Tomorrowland’s digital festivals from 2020 and 2021, but only now is it formally announcing the tech that enables it to do this, even though Billboard noted it in June. As part of this announcement, Studio K7!’s DJ Kicks archive of mixes will begin to roll out on the service, giving fans access to mixes that haven’t been on the market in over 15 years.
“Apple Music is the first platform that offers continuous mixes where there’s a fair fee involved for the artists whose tracks are included in the mixes and for the artist making those mixes. It’s a step in the right direction where everyone gets treated fairly,” DJ Charlotte de Witte said in a statement on behalf of Apple. “I’m beyond excited to have the chance to provide online mixes again.”
For dance music fans, the ability to stream DJ mixes is groundbreaking, and it can help Apple Music compete with Spotify, which leads the industry in paid subscribers as it surpasses Apple’s hold on podcasting. Even as Apple Music has introduced lossless audio, spatial audio, and classical music acquisitions, the company hasn’t yet outpaced Spotify, though the addition of DJ mixes adds yet another unique music feature.
Still, Apple Music’s dive into the DJ royalties conundrum doesn’t necessarily address the broader crises at play among live musicians and DJs surviving through a pandemic.
Though platforms like Mixcloud allow DJs to stream sets and monetize using pre-licensed music, Apple Music’s DJ mixes will not include user-generated content. MIDiA Research, in partnership with Audible Magic, found that user-generated content (UGC) — online content that uses music, whether it’s a lipsync TikTok or a Soundcloud DJ mix — could be a music industry goldmine worth over $6 billion in the next two years. But Apple is not yet investing in UGC, as individuals cannot yet upload their personal mixes to stream on the platform like they might on Soundcloud. According to a Billboard report from June, Apple Music will only host mixes after the streamer has identified 70% of the combined tracks.
Apple Music didn’t respond to questions about how exactly royalties will be divided, but this is only a small step in reimagining how musicians will make a living in a digital landscape.
While these innovations help get artists compensated, streaming royalties only account for a small percentage of how musicians make money — Apple pays musicians one cent per stream, while competitors like Spotify pay only fractions of cents. This led the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) to launch a campaign in March called Justice at Spotify, which demands a one-cent-per-stream payout that matches Apple’s. But live events remain a musician’s bread and butter, especially given platforms’ paltry streaming payouts — of course, the pandemic hasn’t been conducive to touring. To add insult to injury, the Association for Electronic Music estimated in 2016 that dance music producers missed out on $120 million in royalties from their work being used without attribution in live performances.
Twitter today is introducing a new feature that will allow accounts to self-identify as bots by adding a label to their profile. This feature is designed to help people better differentiate between automated accounts — like bots that retweet the news, public service announcements, or other updates — from those operated by humans. It’s not, however, designed to help users identify the “bad bots” which are those that pose as people, often to spread misinformation or spam.
The company has been contemplating labeling bots for years.
In 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing whether he believed users had a “right to know” if they were speaking to a bot or a human on Twitter’s platform. He agreed that Twitter should add more context to tweets and was considering identifying bots, to the extent that it could. However, Dorsey also pointed out it would be more difficult to identify bots that were using scripting to give the appearance of being a human, compared with those that were leveraging Twitter’s API.
Last year, the company finally solidified those plans, saying it would later introduce new features that would allow users to be able to distinguish between human-run accounts and those that were automated. When Twitter launched its account verification system in May, it reminded users that it would soon offer other ways to identify different types of accounts beyond the long-coveted blue badge — such as labels for bots.
Today, Twitter says its new “Automated Account” label that identifies “good bots” will be made available to over 500 Developer Accounts. This group will test the feature and provide feedback before it’s opened up more broadly to all Twitter developers. As it’s still a test for the time being, the label won’t be required.
However, when Twitter updated its Developer Policy last year, it did ask developers to indicate in their account profile or bio whether the account was a bot, what the account is, and who’s behind it. These account labels would allow developers an easier way to comply with that policy rather than having to handwrite this information in their bio.
Twitter tells TechCrunch that based on what it learns during this experiment, it may decide to make adopting the label a requirement for all developers who run automated accounts in the future, once it becomes broadly available.
To be clear, Twitter doesn’t have any problem with those who run good bots, as it understands how automation can allow accounts to update people with helpful, relevant, or, sometimes, just fun information. The company even celebrated a few of its favorite bots when announcing today’s developer news, including the public service account @earthquakesSF; a bot offering COVID-19 updates, @vax_progress; a bot that offers an ongoing breakdown of the last 100 bills introduced in Congress, @last100bills; an accessibility-focused bot, @AltTxtReminder; and others that just add value in their own way, like @met_drawings, which shares public domain works from The Met’s Drawings & Prints department, or the goofy @EmojiMashupBot, among others.
All these will be a part of the initial test group.
Twitter is also less concerned with how consumers may use automation to update their own accounts, perhaps by using third-party tools like IFTTT to post links or other content.
“You are ultimately responsible for the actions taken with your account, or by applications associated with your account,” Twitter’s policy advises Twitter users. “Before authorizing a third-party application to access or use your account, make sure you’ve thoroughly investigated the application and understand what it will do.” It also adds that Twitter users that adopt automation will still need to adhere to Twitter’s guidelines.
The company has been on a tear lately in terms of rolling out new features. Just this week, it has launched Communities, tests of emoji reactions, support for full-width photos and videos, and a way to “soft block” followers, among other things.
Twitter has not said how long the test would run before the Automated Account labels are rolled out more broadly.
Facebook’s first pair of smart glasses doesn’t feel like much of a Facebook product.
You won’t find the Facebook logo emblazoned on them or even its name in small print by the serial code. They aren’t Facebook Stories or Ray-Ban’s Facebook Stories or even Ray-Ban Stories in collaboration with Facebook. Unlike other Facebook-designed hardware like the Quest 2 or Portal, the Ray-Ban Stories feel more self-aware and restrained as though the company knew exactly what use cases they needed to hit, and stopped themselves from trying to do much more than that.
The glasses made in partnership with eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica are certainly the most basic device Facebook has shipped. They only do a few things, you can take photos and videos, you can take phone calls and you can listen to music. That’s it. But bringing audio into the mix via near-ear speakers embedded in the arms of the frames makes these a much more realized device than Snap’s Spectacles which shipped five years ago.
Let’s dig a bit into what this device does and how it feels to use it in daily life.
One thing to note about the $299 Ray-Ban Stories is that they can be worn pretty inconspicuously. People are probably more likely to notice the cameras than their slightly inflated dimensions. That’s already a revolutionary advance, which pushes these past the level of “toy” which Spectacles never really seemed to eclipse. The Ray-Ban partnership was particularly savvy given the thicker-than-average frames on their standard Wayfarer design.
What onlookers are more likely to notice is you tapping the frame of your glasses to control them. Pressing the button on the right arm will take a 30-second video, a long-press will snap a photo. You can also use the voice command, “Hey Facebook, take a video” and do the same for photos — for the record, I’m not sure whether this is a sentence I’d feel great about hearing a stranger nearby me in public say. A small LED light sparks up when the camera is capturing footage though it’s a pretty low-key indicator.
The photo and video quality of the glasses is pretty middling, but plenty of forgiveness can be levied given the size of the device. The twin 5 MP cameras can shoot 2592 x 1944 pixel photos and 1184 x 1184 pixel square format videos. The quality seems to be about on-par with where smartphone cameras were about ten years ago, so it’s clear there’s plenty of room for improvement. Post-processing on the phone during upload enhances the photos and hides some of their struggles with low-lighting while making the photos pop a bit more with saturation.
The twin camera setup is used to add 3D effects to your photos, but at the moment the filters aren’t great and there’s honestly not much there. Hopefully, Facebook invests a bit more in the software over time but with fairly low quality photos, I don’t completely see the reasoning in having two cameras to begin with.
Also worth noting, is that using the glasses requires linking them to a new Facebook app called View, which is basically a simple media viewer app which gets around limitations in how media from external devices can be uploaded to your phone. This is where you can also make quick edits to your photos and videos before dumping them to your photo roll or sharing them to Facebook or Instagram.
Audio is probably the most interesting bit of these glasses. The near-ear speakers will surprise you with their quality in a quiet spaces and leave you dissatisfied once you find yourself in a noisier environment. Unfortunately for Facebook, most outdoor spaces are a bit louder and sunglasses are mostly being used outdoors. The audio will work in a pinch outdoors for listening to tunes, but I honestly can’t see them replacing my AirPods anytime soon. The audio is much better suited for low-fidelity activities like phone calls, but I also had some issues with the three-microphone array picking up too much background noise while I was walking outdoors.
Battery life is surprisingly solid, but they also have the benefit of a charging battery case which is incidentally the best place to store them. The case is a little bulky but they also include a microfiber pouch to protect the lenses. Facebook says you can get 6 hours of straight audio and “all-day” usage otherwise.
One of their weirder quirks is their lack of water-proofing or even splash-proofing, something that doesn’t seem like a great quality for a pair of sunglasses. It’s just one more thing indicating that while the thicker frame aesthetic of sunglasses makes more sense for a smart glasses design, this product really thrives more indoors.
This isn’t first rodeo when it comes to hardware and you can see the company’s maturation.
They aren’t an AR/VR device, but you can also see generations of Oculus products in the Ray-Ban Stories‘ design. On-ear audio born from the Oculus Go, a touchpad interface reminiscent of the Gear VR, simple and restrained audio controls first launched on the Quest. The hardware is a distillation of features and lessons learned from selling VR to a generally indifferent public that has seemed to warm up to it a bit over the years.
Meanwhile, you can also see years of Facebook screwing up its messaging and torching its brand name in the process, making itself the boogeyman of both political parties, courting enemies in the press and earning an outsized amount of distrust from the average internet user, something that probably led to these carrying so little Facebook branding. The Ray-Ban Stories will certainly have their detractors, but Facebook choosing to be conservative in their functionality and not toss in too many future-flung passive sensors will likely do them a favor. The Facebook View app is bare bones and Facebook details that photos and videos captured using the Stories won’t be used to serve ads. All that said, while we’ve certainly come a long way since the Google Glass debut in 2013, face-mounted cameras still feel icky when it comes to privacy in public and this device will undoubtedly reignite that conversation in a major way.
Baggage aside, my broadest takeaway is that the Ray-Ban Stories feel like a very important product — one that actually sells the idea of face-worn wearables.
The glasses are smartly designed and can be worn discreetly. That said, it’s clear Facebook made plenty of sacrifices to achieve such an aggressive form factor; the glasses honestly don’t do anything particularly well — photo and video quality is pretty lackluster, the in-frame speakers perform poorly outdoors and calls aren’t the most pleasant experience. All that said, I think Facebook mostly made the right compromises for a product that they’ve repeatedly indicated is meant to be a stepping stone on the road towards augmented reality glasses.
The strategic growth investment, which comes as organizations double-down on cybersecurity amid a pandemic-fueled rise in cyber threats, will enable Intel 471 to evolve its product suite, broaden its go-to-market strategy and continue to “aggressively pursue innovation,” according to Thoma Bravo. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Intel 471, a Texas-based firm founded in 2014, takes a preventative approach to cybersecurity. It leverages its access to forums and dark web marketplaces to equip organizations with intelligence and monitoring on threat actors and malware attacks. Using the company’s platform, businesses can track threat actor activity and vulnerability exploits, analyze near-real-time monitoring of malware activity, trace threats that could cause security breaches, and receive alerts on compromised credentials.
“As cybercriminals and their tactics become increasingly sophisticated, our monitoring and intelligence solutions have become mission-critical, with organizations of all sizes looking to us to help them protect against attacks,” said Mark Arena, CEO of Intel 471.
Arena, along with fellow co-founder Jason Passwaters, will continue to lead Intel 471 and will retain a “significant” ownership position
Thoma Bravo’s investment in Intel 471 sees the private equity firm continue its cybersecurity investing spending-spree. Its recent $12.3 billion purchase of Proofpoint, for example, said to be the largest acquisition in cybersecurity history, trumps Broadcom’s $10.7 billion purchase of Symantec, Intel’s $7.6 billion acquisition of McAfee, and Okta’s proposed $6.5 billion acquisition of Auth0.
Video editing software may become the next big addition to Microsoft’s suite of productivity tools. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it’s acquiring Clipchamp, a company offering web-based video creation and editing software that allows anyone to put together video presentations, promos or videos meant for social media destinations like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. According to Microsoft, Clipchamp is a “natural fit” to extend its exiting productivity experiences in Microsoft 365 for families, schools, and businesses.
The acquisition appealed to Microsoft for a few reasons. Today, more people are creating and using video, thanks to a growing set of new tools that allow anyone — even non-professionals — to quickly and easily perform advanced edits and produce quality video content. This, explains Microsoft, has allowed video to establish itself as a new type of “document” for businesses to do things like pitch an idea, explain a process, or communicate with team members.
The company also saw Clipchamp as an interesting acquisition target due to how it combined “the simplicity of a web app with the full computing power of a PC with graphics processing unit (GPU) acceleration,” it said. That makes the software a good fit for the Microsoft Windows customer base, as well.
Clipchamp itself had built a number of online tools in the video creation and editing space, including its video maker Clipchamp Create, which offers features for trimming, cutting, cropping, rotating, speed control, and adding text, audio, images, colors, and filters. It also provides other tools that make video creation easier, like templates, free stock video and audio libraries, screen recorders, text-to-speech tools, and others for simplifying a brand’s fonts, colors and logos for use in video. A discontinued set of utilities called Clipchamp Utilities had once included a video compressor and converters, as well as an in-browser webcam recorder. Some of this functionality was migrated over to the new Clipchamp app, however.
After producing the videos with Clipchamp, creators can choose between different output styles and aspect ratios for popular social media networks, making it a popular tool for online marketers.
Since its founding in 2013, Clipchamp grew to attract over 17 million registered users and has served over 390,000 companies, growing at a rate of 54% year-over-year. As the pandemic forced more organizations towards remote work, the use of video has grown as companies adopted the medium for training, communication, reports, and more. During the first half of 2021, Clipchamp saw a 186% increase in video exports. Videos using the 16:9 aspect ratio grew by 189% while the 9:16 aspect ratio for sharing to places like Instagram Stories and TikTok grew by 140% and the 1:1 aspect ratio for Instagram grew 72%. Screen recording also grew 57% and webcam recording grew 65%.
In July, Clipchamp CEO Alexander Dreiling commented on this growth, noting the company had nearly tripled its team over the past year.
“We are acquiring two times more users on average than we did at the same time a year ago while also doubling the usage rate, meaning more users are creating video content than ever before. While social media videos have always been at the forefront of business needs, during the past year we’ve also witnessed the rapid adoption of internal communication use cases where there is a lot of screen and webcam recording taking place in our platform,” he said.
Microsoft didn’t disclose the acquisition price, but Clipchamp had raised over $15 million in funding according to Crunchbase.
This is not Microsoft’s first attempt at entering the video market.
The company was recently one of the suitors pursuing TikTok when the Trump administration was working to force a sale of the China-owned video social network which Trump had dubbed a national security threat. (In order to keep TikTok running in the U.S., ByteDance would have needed to have divested TikTok’s U.S. operations. But that sale never came to be as the Biden administration paused the effort.) Several years ago, Microsoft also launched a business video service called Stream, that aimed to allow enterprises to use video as easily as consumers use YouTube. In 2018, it acquired social learning platform Flipgrid, which used short video clips for collaboration. And as remote work became the norm, Microsoft has been adding more video capabilities to its team collaboration software, Microsoft Teams, too.
Microsoft’s deal follows Adobe’s recent $1.28 acquisition of the video review and collaboration platform Frame.io, which has been used by over a million people since its founding in 2014. However, unlike Clipchamp, whose tools are meant for anyone to use at work, school, or home, Frame.io is aimed more directly at creative professionals.
Dreiling said Clipchamp will continue to grow at Microsoft, with a focus on making video editing accessible to more people.
“Few companies in tech have the legacy and reach that Microsoft has. We all grew up with iconic Microsoft products and have been using them ever since,” he explained. “Becoming part of Microsoft allows us to become part of a future legacy. Under no other scenario could our future look more exciting than what’s ahead of us now. At Clipchamp we have always said that we’re not suffering from a lack of opportunity, there absolutely is an abundance of opportunity in video. We just need to figure out how to seize it. Inside Microsoft we can approach seizing our opportunity in entirely new ways,” Dreiling added.
Microsoft did not say when it expected to integrate Clipchamp into its existing software suite, saying it would share more at a later date.
Employee location has become a bit more complicated as some return to the office, while others work remotely. To embrace those hybrid working conditions, Google is making more changes to its Google Workspace offering by going live with spaces — its tool for small group sharing — in Google Chat for all users.
Spaces integrates with Workspace tools, like the calendar, Drive and documents, to provide a more hybrid work experience where users can see the full history, content and context of conversations regardless of their location.
Google’s senior director of product management Sanaz Ahari wrote in a blog post that customers wanted spaces to be more like a “central hub for collaboration, both in real time and asynchronously. Instead of starting an email chain or scheduling a video meeting, teams can come together directly in a space to move projects and topics along.”
Here are some new features users can see in spaces:
Employees can now indicate if they will be virtual or in-person on certain days in Calendar for collaboration expectations. As a complement, users can call colleagues on both mobile and desktop devices in Google Meet.
In November, all customers will be able to use Google Meet’s Companion Mode to join a meeting from a personal device while tapping into in-room audio and video. Also later this year, live-translated captions will be available in English to French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, with more languages being added in the future.
In addition, Google is also expanding its Google Meet hardware portfolio to include two new all-in-one video conferencing devices, third-party devices — Logitech’s video bar and Appcessori’s mobile device speaker dock — and interoperability with Webex by Cisco.
Google is tying everything together with a handbook for navigating hybrid work, which includes best practice blueprints for five common hybrid meetings.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.
Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.
In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.
In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.
This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.
Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”
(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)
The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.
A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.
Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.
You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.
Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.
** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.
Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.
FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.
Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.
TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.
Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’
All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”
Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.
The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.
The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.
And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.
It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.
In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.
Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.
South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.
And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)
Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.
One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.
As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.
The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:
“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”