Google Meet will automatically adjust webcam brightness in your browser

Google Meet will soon make it easier for you to see all of your co-workers or friends properly on video calls. The web version of the app can detect when someone is underexposed due to bad lighting. Meet will then increase the brightness so it’s easier to see your cohorts and perhaps make your feed clearer if you have a terrible webcam.

The low-light mode hit the Google Meet iOS and Android mobile apps last year. It uses AI to examine light levels and tweak the brightness. There’s no admin control for the feature, though users will be able to switch it off — Google says having it enabled might slow down your device.

The feature is coming to all Workspace and G Suite basic and business users. Google is rolling it out to Rapid Release domains starting today and Scheduled Release domains on October 4th. The rollout will take up to 15 days in both cases, so by mid-October, bad webcam feeds could be a thing of the past on Meet calls.

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

#column, #google, #google-meet, #tc, #tceng, #video-conferencing

Zoom looks beyond video conferencing as triple-digit 2020 growth begins to slow

It’s been a heady 12-18 months for Zoom, the decade-old company that experienced monster 2020 growth and more recently, a mega acquisition with the $14.7 billion Five9 deal in July. That addition is part of a broader strategy the company has been undertaking the last couple of years to move beyond its core video conferencing market into adjacencies like phone, meeting management and messaging, among other things. Here’s a closer look at how the plan is unfolding.

As the pandemic took hold in March 2020, everyone from businesses to schools to doctors and and places of worship moved online. As they did, Zoom video conferencing became central to this cultural shift and the revenue began pouring in, ushering in a period of sustained triple-digit growth for the company that only recently abated.

#cloud, #enterprise, #saas, #software-platform, #tc, #video-conferencing, #zoom

Defy Partners leads $3M round into sales intelligence platform Aircover

Aircover raised $3 million in seed funding to continue developing its real-time sales intelligence platform.

Defy Partners led the round with participation from Firebolt Ventures, Flex Capital, Ridge Ventures and a group of angel investors.

The company, headquartered in the Bay Area, aims to give sales teams insights relevant to closing the sale as they are meeting with customers. Aircover’s conversational AI software integrates with Zoom and automates parts of the sales process to lead to more effective conversations.

Aircover’s founding team of Andrew Levy, Alex Young and Andrew’s brother David Levy worked together at Apteligent, a company co-founded and led by Andrew Levy, that was sold to VMware in 2017.

Chatting about pain points on the sales process over the years, Levy said it felt like the solution was always training the sales team more. However, by the time everyone was trained, that information would largely be out-of-date.

Instead, they created Aircover to be a software tool on top of video conferencing that performs real-time transcription of the conversation and then analysis to put the right content in front of the sales person at the right time based on customer issues and questions. This means that another sales expert doesn’t need to be pulled in or an additional call scheduled to provide answers to questions.

“We are anticipating that knowledge and parsing it out at key moments to provide more leverage to subject matter experts,” Andrew Levy told TechCrunch. “It’s like a sales assistant coming in to handle any issue.”

He considers Aircover in a similar realm with other sales team solutions, like Chorus.ai, which was recently scooped up by ZoomInfo, and Gong, but sees his company carving out space in real-time meeting experiences. Other tools also record the meetings, but to be reviewed after the call is completed.

“That can’t change the outcome of the sale, which is what we are trying to do,” Levy added.

The new funding will be used for product development. Levy intends to double his small engineering team by the end of the month.

He calls what Aircover is doing a “large interesting problem we are solving that requires some difficult technology because it is real time,” which is why the company was eager to partner with Bob Rosin, partner at Defy Partners, who joins Aircover’s board of directors as part of the investment.

Rosin joined Defy in 2020 after working on the leadership teams of Stripe, LinkedIn and Skype. He said sales and customer teams need tools in the moment, and while some are useful in retrospect, people want them to be live, in front of the customer.

“In the early days, tools helped before and after, but in the moment when they need the most help, we are not seeing many doing it,” Rosin added. “Aircover has come up with the complete solution.”

 

#aircover, #andrew-levy, #apteligent, #artificial-intelligence, #bob-rosin, #customer-experience, #defy-partners, #enterprise, #firebolt-ventures, #funding, #recent-funding, #ridge-ventures, #saas, #sales, #startups, #tc, #video-conferencing, #vmware

Google Workspace opens up spaces for all users

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

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

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

Here are some new features users can see in spaces:

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

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

Calendar work location

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

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

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

 

#apps, #cloud, #computing, #enterprise, #google, #google-meet, #google-workspace, #groupware, #mobile-device, #mobile-software, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #webex

Virtual meeting platform Vowel raises $13.5M, aims to cure meeting fatigue

Meetings are an inevitable part of the work day, but as workplaces became more distributed over the past 18 months, Vowel CEO Andy Berman says we are steadily moving toward “death by meeting.”

His virtual meeting platform is the latest to receive venture capital funding — $13.5 million — with the goal of making meetings more useful before, during and after.

Vowel is launching a meeting operating system with tools like real-time transcription; integrated agendas, notes and action items; meeting analytics; and searchable, on-demand recordings of meetings. The company has a freemium business model and will also be rolling out a business plan this fall for $16 per user per month. Extra features will include advanced integrations, security and admin controls.

The Series A was led by David Hornik of Lobby Capital, who was joined by existing investors Amity Ventures and Box Group and a group of individual investors, including Calendly CEO Tope Awotona, Intercom co-founder Des Traynor, Slack VP Ethan Eismann, former Yammer executive Viviana Faga, former InVision president David Fraga and Okta co-founder Frederic Kerrest.

Prior to starting Vowel, Berman was one of the founders of baby monitor company Nanit. The company had teams spread out around the world, and communication was tough as a result. In 2018, the company went looking for a tool that would work for synchronous and asynchronous meetings, but there were still a lot of time zones to manage, he said.

Taking a cue from Nanit’s own baby monitors that were streaming video over 17 hours a day, the idea for Vowel was born, and the company began to focus on the hypothesis that distributed work would be prevalent.

“People initially thought we were crazy, but then the pandemic hit, and everyone was learning how to work remotely,” Berman told TechCrunch. “As we now go back to hybrid work, we see this as an opportunity.”

In 2017, Harvard Business Review reported that executives spent 23 hours in meetings each week. Berman now estimates that the average worker spends half of their time each week in meetings.

Vowel is out to bring Slack, Figma and GitHub components to meetings by recording audio and video that can be paused at any time. Users can add notes and see where those notes fall within a real-time transcription that enables people who arrive late or could not make the meeting to catch up easily. After meetings are over, they can be shared, and Vowel has a search function so that users can go back and see where a particular person or topic was discussed.

The new funding will enable the company to grow its team in product, design and engineering. Vowel plans to hire up to 30 new people over the next year. The company recently closed its beta test and has amassed a 10,000-person waitlist. The public launch will happen in the fall, Berman said.

Workplace productivity and office communication tools are not new concepts, but as Berman explained, became increasingly important when homes became offices over the past 18 months.

Competitors took different approaches to solving these problems: focusing on video conferencing or audio or meeting management with plugins. Berman says an area where many have not succeeded yet is integrating meetings into the typical workflow. That’s where Vowel comes in with its “meeting OS,” he added.

“Our goal is to make meetings more inclusive and worthwhile, which includes the prep, the meeting and the follow-up,” Berman said. “We see the future will be about knowledge management, so the difference between what we are doing is ensuring you can catch up quickly and keep that knowledge base. A Garner report said that 75% of workplace meetings will be recorded by 2025, and that is a trend we are reinventing from the ground up.”

David Hornick, founding partner at Lobby Capital, said he became acquainted with Vowel from its existing investor Amity Ventures. Hornick, who sits on the GitLab board, said GitLab was one of the largest distributed companies in the tech space, prior to the pandemic, and saw first-hand the challenge of making distributed teams functionable.

When Hornick heard about Vowell, he said he “jumped quickly” on the opportunity. His firm typically invests in platform businesses that have the capacity to transform business spaces. Many are pure software, like Splunk or GitLab, while others are akin to Bill.com, which transformed how small businesses manage financial operations, he added.

All of those combine into a company, like Vowel, especially given the company’s vision for a meeting OS to transform a meeting space that hadn’t moved forward in decades, he said.

“This was quickly obvious to me because my day is meetings — an eight-Zoom day is a normal day — I just wish I could remember everything,” Hornick said. “Speaking with early customers using the product, when I asked them what they would do if this ever went away, the first thing they said was ‘cry,’ and, because there was no alternative, would return to Zoom or other tools, but it would be a big setback.”

#amity-ventures, #andy-berman, #artificial-intelligence, #box-group, #cloud, #david-hornik, #enterprise, #funding, #knowledge-management, #lobby-capital, #meetings, #operating-system, #recent-funding, #saas, #software, #startups, #streaming-video, #tc, #video-conferencing, #vowel, #web-conferencing, #zoom

Zoom announces first startups receiving funding from $100M investment fund

For more than year now, Zoom has been on a mission to transform from an application into a platform. To that end it made three announcements last year: Zoom Apps development tools, the Zoom Apps marketplace and a $100 million development fund to invest in some of the more promising startups building tools on top of their platform. Today, at the closing bell, the company announced it has made its first round of investments.

Ross Mayfield, product lead for Zoom Apps and integrations spoke to TechCrunch about the round of investments. “We’re in the process of creating this ecosystem. We felt it important, particularly to focus on the seed stage and A stage of partnering with entrepreneurs to create great things on this platform. And I think what you see in the first batch of more than a dozen investments is representative of something that’s going to be a significant ongoing undertaking,” he explained.

He said while they aren’t announcing exact investment amounts, they are writing checks for between $250,000 and $2.5 million. They are teaming with other investment partners, rather than leading the rounds, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working with these startups using internal resources for advice and executive backing, beyond the money.

“Every one of these investments has an executive or senior sponsor within the company. So there’s another person inside that knows the lay of the land, can help them advance and spend more personal time with them,” Mayfield said.

The company is also running several Zoom chat channels for the startups receiving investments to learn from one another and the Zoom Apps team. “We have a shared chat channel between the startup and my team. We have a channel called Announcements and a channel called Help, and another one that the startups created called Community,” he said.

Every week they use these channels to hold a developer office hour, business office hour which Mayfield runs, and then there’s a community hour where the startups can gather and talk amongst themselves about whatever they want.

Among the specific categories receiving funding are collaboration and productivity, community and charity, DE&I and PeopleOps, and gaming and entertainment. In the collaboration and productivity category, Warmly is a sales tool that provides background and information about each person participating in the meeting ahead of time, while allowing the meeting organizer to create customized Zoom backgrounds for each event.

Another is Fathom, which alleviates the need to take notes during a meeting, but it’s more than recording and transcription. “It gives you this really simple interface where you can just tag moments. And then, as a result you have this transcript of the video recording, and you can click on those tagged moments as highlights, and then share a clip of the meeting highlights to Salesforce, Slack and other tools,” Mayfield said.

Pledge enables individuals or organizations to request and collect donations inside a Zoom meeting instantly, and Canvas is a hiring and interview tool that helps companies build diverse teams with data that helps them set and meet DEI goals.

These and the other companies represent the first tranche of investments from this fund, and Mayfield says the company intends to continue looking for startups using the Zoom platform to build their startup or integrate with Zoom.

He says that every company starts as a feature, then becomes a product and then aspires to be a line of products. The trick is getting there.  The goal of the investment program and the entire set of Zoom Apps tools is about helping these companies take the first step.

“The art of being an entrepreneur is working with that risk in the absence of resources and pushing at the frontier of what you know.” Zoom is trying to be a role model, a mentor and an investor on that journey.

#apps, #corporate-investment-arms, #developer, #enterprise, #saas, #startups, #video-conferencing, #zoom, #zoom-apps

Stop using Zoom, Hamburg’s DPA warns state government

Hamburg’s state government has been formally warned against using Zoom over data protection concerns.

The German state’s data protection agency (DPA) took the step of issuing a public warning yesterday, writing in a press release that the Senate Chancellory’s use of the popular videoconferencing tool violates the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since user data is transferred to the US for processing.

The DPA’s concern follows a landmark ruling (Schrems II) by Europe’s top court last summer which invalidated a flagship data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US (Privacy Shield), finding US surveillance law to be incompatible with EU privacy rights.

The fallout from Schrems II has been slow to manifest — beyond an instant blanket of legal uncertainty. However a number of European DPAs are now investigating the use of US-based digital services because of the data transfer issue, and in some instances publicly warning against the use of mainstream US tools like Facebook and Zoom because user data cannot be adequately safeguarded when it’s taken over the pond.

German agencies are among the most proactive in this respect. But the EU’s data protection supervisor is also investigating the bloc’s use of cloud services from US giants Amazon and Microsoft over the same data transfer concern.

At the same time, negotiations between the European Commission and the Biden administration to seek a replacement data transfer deal remain ongoing. However EU lawmakers have repeatedly warned against any quick fix — saying reform of US surveillance law is likely required before there can be a revived Privacy Shield. And as the legal limbo continues a growing number of public bodies in Europe are facing pressure to ditch US-based services in favor of compliant local alternatives.

In the Hamburg case, the DPA says it took the step of issuing the Senate Chancellory with a public warning after the body did not provide an adequate response to concerns raised earlier.

The agency asserts that use of Zoom by the public body does not comply with the GDPR’s requirement for a valid legal basis for processing personal data, writing: “The documents submitted by the Senate Chancellery on the use of Zoom show that [GDPR] standards are not being adhered to.”

The DPA initiated a formal procedure earlier, via a hearing, on June 17, 2021 but says the Senate Chancellory failed to stop using the videoconferencing tool. Nor did it provide any additional documents or arguments to demonstrate compliance usage. Hence the DPA taking the step of a formal warning, under Article 58 (2) (a) of the GDPR.

In a statement, Ulrich Kühn, the acting Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, dubbed it “incomprehensible” that the regional body was continuing to flout EU law in order to use Zoom — pointing out that a local alternative, provided by the German company Dataport (which supplies software to a number of state, regional and local government bodies) is readily available.

In the statement [translated with Google Translate], Kühn said: “Public bodies are particularly bound to comply with the law. It is therefore more than regrettable that such a formal step had to be taken. At the [Senate Chancellery of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg], all employees have access to a tried and tested video conference tool that is unproblematic with regard to third-country transmission. As the central service provider, Dataport also provides additional video conference systems in its own data centers. These are used successfully in other regions such as Schleswig-Holstein. It is therefore incomprehensible why the Senate Chancellery insists on an additional and legally highly problematic system.”

We’ve reached out to the Hamburg DPA and Senate Chancellory with questions.

Zoom has also been contacted for comment.

#data-protection, #data-security, #dataport, #digital-rights, #eu-us-privacy-shield, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #general-data-protection-regulation, #government, #hamburg, #personal-data, #privacy, #schrems-ii, #surveillance-law, #united-states, #video-conferencing, #zoom

Zoom reaches $85M settlement in ‘Zoombombing’ lawsuit

Zoom has agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the video conferencing giant of violating users’ privacy by sharing their data with third parties without permission and enabling “Zoombombing” incidents.

Zoombombing, a term coined by TechCrunch last year as its usage exploded because of the pandemic, describes unapproved attendees entering and disrupting Zoom calls by sharing offensive imagery, using backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or spouting slurs and profanities.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2020 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, also accused the firm of sharing personal user data with third parties, including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn.

In addition to agreeing to an $85 million settlement, which could see customers receive a refund of either 15% of their subscription of $25 if the lawsuit achieves class-action status, Zoom has said it will take additional steps to prevent intruders from gatecrashing meetings. This will include alerting users when meeting hosts or other participants use third-party apps in meetings and offering specialized training to employees on privacy and data handling.

“The privacy and security of our users are top priorities for Zoom, and we take seriously the trust our users place in us,” Zoom said in a statement. “We are proud of the advancements we have made to our platform, and look forward to continuing to innovate with privacy and security at the forefront.”

The settlement requires approval from US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, to be finalized.

#apps, #articles, #california, #computing, #facebook, #google, #linkedin, #privacy, #san-jose, #security, #software, #united-states, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #zoom, #zoombombing

The Zoom-Five9 deal is a big bet for the video conferencing company

Zoom, a well-known video conferencing company, will buy Five9, a company that sells software allowing users to reach customers across platforms, and record notes on their interactions. As TechCrunch noted this morning, the deal is merely “Zoom’s latest attempt to expand its offerings,” having “added several office collaboration products, a cloud phone system, and an all-in-one home communications appliance” to its larger software stack in recent quarters. Both companies are publicly traded.

But the Five9 deal is in a different league than its previous purchases. Indeed, the $14.7 billion transaction represents a material percentage of Zoom’s own value. That tells us that the company is not simply making a purchase in Five9, but is instead making a large bet that the combination of its business and that of the smaller company will prove rather accretive.

Zoom is worth $101.8 billion as of the time of writing, with the company’s shares slipping just over 4% today; the stock market is largely off this morning, making Zoom’s share price movements less indicative of investor reaction to the deal that we might think. Still, it doesn’t appear that the street is excessively thrilled by news of Zoom’s purchase.

That perspective may be reasonable, given that the Five9 transaction is worth nearly 15% of Zoom’s total market cap; the company is betting a little less than a sixth of its value on a single wager.

Not that Five9 doesn’t bring a lot to the table. In its most recent quarter, Five9 posted $138 million in total revenue, growth of 45% on a year-over-year basis.

Still, as Zoom reported in an investor deck concerning the transaction, the smaller company’s growth rate pales compared to its own:

Image Credits: Zoom investor deck

This is where the deal gets interesting. Note that Five9’s revenue growth rate is a fraction of Zoom’s. The larger company, then, is buying a piece of revenue that is growing slower than its core business. That’s a bit of a flip from many transactions that we see, in which the smaller company being acquired is growing faster than the acquiring entity’s own operations.

Why would Zoom buy slower growth for so very much money? One thing to consider is that Five9’s most recent quarterly growth rate is quicker than the growth rate that it posted over the last 12 months. That implies that Five9 has room to accelerate growth compared to its historical pace, bringing its total pace of top-line expansion closer to what Zoom itself manages.

#ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #five9, #fundings-exits, #video-conferencing, #zoom

Mmhmm raises $100M, which is a fun thing to say to people who don’t follow tech

If you’re a frequent TechCrunch reader, you probably already know about mmhmm, the startup with the name you likely either love or hate. It’s Phil Libin’s second act after Evernote, and it’s a startup born of the pandemic maybe more so than any other, providing improved video chat tools including automatic background removal and advanced presentation features. The company, which is just over a year old, has now raised a total of around $140 million thanks to a fresh injection of $100 million first reported by Bloomberg on Tuesday, which is somewhat astounding if you remember using the first early beta versions like me.

Startups with silly names raising lots of money is hardly an exceptional occurrence in tech, but Libin’s startup earns extra credit for barely having a name at all (it’s really just a sound). The company was built on the idea that current video tools really fail to provide users with access to all the potential that modern technology offers, particularly when it comes to presentations. Mmhmm’s core presenter tools help your meetings look more like professional newscasts than warmed over digital versions of transparency slideshows and whiteboard scrawls, and the company has steadily been adding features and improving its performance through frequent iterations since its founding.

As it stands, mmhmm works in tandem with the existing video services that people use for virtual meetings, including Zoom. But Bloomberg says it’s going to go standalone as well, and introduce a mobile app version. That sounds like a good use of the new funds, which come from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital and more.

Even projecting forward to a post-pandemic world where virtual meetings are less important, they’re probably still a permanent part of the working world. But mmhmm’s feature set also seems to almost define the concept of ‘feature, not product’ that is presented as a cautionary tale to startups crafting wings of wax and soaring as high as they can in terms of raises and valuation.

#evernote, #mmhmm, #phil-libin, #presentation-software, #sequoia-capital, #softbank, #softbank-group, #startups, #tc, #video-conferencing, #video-services

Months later, we’re still making sense of the Supreme Court’s API copyright ruling

APIs, or application programming interfaces, make the digital world go round. Working behind the scenes to define the parameters by which software applications communicate with each other, APIs underpin every kind of app — social media, news and weather, financial, maps, video conferencing, you name it. They are critically important to virtually every enterprise organization and industry worldwide.

Given APIs’ ubiquity and importance, it’s understandable that all industry eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 5 ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., an 11-year-old case that addressed two core questions: Whether copyright protection extends to an API, and whether use of an API in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use. Google lawyers had called it “the copyright case of the decade.”

I was one of 83 computer scientists — including five Turing Award winners and four National Medal of Technology honorees — who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief stating their opposition to the assertion that APIs are copyrightable, while also supporting Google’s right to fair use under the current legal definition.

We explained that the freedom to re-implement and extend existing APIs has been critical to technological innovation by ensuring competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art. “Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet,” the brief said.

The Supreme Court ruling was a mixed bag that many observers are still parsing. In a 6-2 decision, justices sided with Google and its argument that the company’s copying of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java in the Android operating system was fair use. Great! At the same time, though, the court appeared to be operating under the assumption that APIs are copyrightable.

“Given the rapidly changing technological, economic and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that (the code) “falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted.”

While it may take years to fully understand the ruling’s impact, it’s important to keep dissecting the issue now, as APIs only continue to become more essential as the pipes behind every internet-connected device and application.

The legal saga began when Google used Java APIs in developing Android. Google wrote its own implementation of the Java APIs, but in order to allow developers to write their own programs for Android, Google’s implementation used the same names, organization, and functionality as the Java APIs.

Oracle sued Google in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in August 2010, seven months after it closed its acquisition of Java creator Sun Microsystems, contending that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyright.

In May 2012, Judge William Alsup ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright because that would hamper innovation. Oracle appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Alsup in May 2014, finding that the Java APIs are copyrightable. However, he also sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether Google has a fair use defense.

A new District Court trial began in May 2016 on the fair use question. A jury found that Google’s implementation of the Java API was fair use. Oracle appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2018 again reversed the lower court. Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court in January 2019, receiving a hearing date in early 2020. However, lengthening the case’s torturous path through the courts even further, COVID-19 forced oral arguments to be postponed to last October. Finally, on April 5, the Supreme Court settled the matter.

Or did it?

“Supreme Court Leaves as Many Questions as It Answers in Google v. Oracle,” read a headline on law.com. The National Law Review said: “The Supreme Court sidestepped the fundamental IP issue — whether or not Oracle’s software code at the heart of the case is copyrightable.”

On one hand, I’m disappointed that the court’s ruling left even a hint of ambiguity about whether APIs are copyrightable. To be clear: APIs should be free of copyright, no ifs, ands or buts.

APIs provide structure, sequence, and organization for digital resources in the same way that a restaurant menu does for food. Imagine if Restaurant A, which serves burgers, fries, and shakes, couldn’t use the same words, as well as the ordering and organization of the words, on their menu as Restaurant B. A menu doesn’t represent a novel expression; rather, it is the ingredients, processes, and service that define a restaurant. Both burger places benefit from the shared concept of a menu and the shared knowledge among their consumers of what burgers, fries and shakes are. It is the execution of the menu that ultimately will set one restaurant apart from another.

Likewise, APIs are not intellectual property; they are the simply operational elements that are common, reusable, remixable, and able to be put into use in as many applications by as many developers as possible.

This pattern plays out over and over across many different sectors of our economy where APIs are being used, reused, and remixed to generate new kinds of applications, integrations or entirely new companies and products or services. Immense value is generated by the free, collective, collaborative and open evolution of APIs.

On the other hand, I’m pleased by the part of the Supreme Court ruling that widens the definition of fair use. I think that provides the scope needed to take the industry into its API future without too much friction.

I also believe the case will chill future attempts by other companies to engage in litigation over API copyright. In the end, the decade-long Google vs. Oracle case negatively affected Oracle’s image when it comes to the fast-growing API sector, and I suspect other companies will think twice before going to court.

Nevertheless, companies may want to be extra cautious about licensing their APIs using the widest possible license, applying a Creative Commons CC0 or CCY-BY to APIs built with tolls and specifications, such as Swagger, OpenAPI, and AsyncAPI.

Now that Google vs. Oracle is finally history, I feel that the API sector will remain as vibrant as ever. That’s excellent news for everybody.

#android, #apis, #column, #creative-commons, #java, #lawsuit, #operating-system, #opinion, #oracle-corporation, #programming-languages, #software-developers, #sun-microsystems, #tc, #video-conferencing

Could Claap, an asynchronous video meetings platform, end the tyranny of Zoom calls?

Because of the pandemic, we’re all a lot more familiar with remote working than we used to be, whether we like it or not. But the remote tools of the pre-pandemic era – Slack, Trello, Zoom, Asana, etc, etc, etc – are, if we admit it to ourselves, barely scratching the surface of what we really need to be productive. Luckily a new era of remote-working tools is fast emerging. As I recently tweeted, we need to think far more in asynchronous terms if remote working is to be productive (and healthy!), long term.

Older tools can offer asynchronous collaboration, but a new wave of tools is coming. Loom, for instance, is one-way video for ’show and tell’. It’s raised $203.6M – however, it has a drawback: it doesn’t have many collaboration features.

Now a new European startup hopes to address this.

Claap, an asynchronous meeting platform with video and collaboration, thinks it might have part of the solution and a private beta launch is planned for this month.

It’s now raised $3 million in pre-seed funding from LocalGlobe, Headline, E.Ventures, Kima Ventures and angels including Front co-founder Mathilde Collin, Oyster co-founder Tony Jamous, Nest and GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and Automattic’s head of product Aadil Mamujee. It also includes a group of 30 angels such as Ian Hogarth (Songkick), Olivier Godement (Stripe), Roxanne Varza (Station F), Chris Herd (FirstBase), and Xavier Niel (Kima), Shane Mac (investor in Remote).

We all now know that what were previously small catch-ups are now 30-minute Zoom calls, which are pointless. ‘Asynchronous meetings’ could be the way forward.

Claap says its product allows employees to record a short video update on a topic, allow others to comment on the relevant part, and set a due date for team members to respond. Colleagues then view the video and respond in their own time. Claap bulls itself as the remote working equivalent of the ‘quick hallway catch-up’. It integrates with other workplace tools such as Trello or Jira so that when a decision is made on a project, it’s recorded for everyone on the team to see and refer back to. A subscription model is planned which will have a sliding scale depending on team size.

Because it doesn’t require real-time interaction, you don’t need t find a time that suits everyone for a meeting, so in fact the ‘meeting’ sort of disappears. . Instead, the platform creates a space for feedback and iterations.

Founders Robin Bonduelle and Pierre Touzeau looked at solutions already adopted by companies such as Automattic, and GitLab. Touzeau was previously at 360Learning which employed a strict limiting policy for meetings. Bonduelle has 10 years of product management experience, working at various startups and scaleups including Ogury where he was VP of Product, and Rocket Internet. He developed asynchronous communication habits while managing 50 people across 4 different countries and time zones. Touzeau has worked for businesses including L’Oreal and 360Learning, where he was most recently VP of Marketing.

However, asynchronous communication is not always perfect. As we know, Emails and Slack messages can go unread. Video MIGHT be the solution.

Robin Bonduelle, co-founder and CEO at Claap, said: “After a year of working remotely, people are realizing the benefits of not working in an office but at the same time grappling with one of its worst consequences: back-to-back video meetings. A query that in the office would take five minutes to solve now takes at least 30, leaving everyone more exhausted in the process. Claap is designed to solve this issue, allowing colleagues the tools to keep them engaged and connected but without taking up all their time. It’s a new meeting format that allows people to make quick decisions.”

Touzeau said: “Meetings are a necessary part of working, but it doesn’t need to be your entire day. Asynchronous meetings are the key to freeing up our calendars but making sure work still gets done and deadlines are met. We’re excited by the potential Claap has to empower people to work from anywhere.”

George Henry, General Partner at LocalGlobe, said: “We were impressed with Robin and Pierre’s vision and the potential for Claap to allow employees to connect on a project when they need to and facilitate the ability to work from anywhere.”

Jonathan Userovici, Partner at Headline, said: “Zoom may have been the go-to enterprise app over the past 12 months but for the thousands of businesses that are now going to be remote-first, video conferencing alone won’t be enough to keep teams connected and get work done. Claap is the challenger tool to end video-calling fatigue.”

#articles, #asana, #automattic, #chris-herd, #e-ventures, #europe, #general-partner, #gitlab, #gocardless, #groupware, #ian-hogarth, #jonathan-userovici, #kima-ventures, #localglobe, #matt-robinson, #rocket-internet, #songkick, #station-f, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #telecommuting, #trello, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #zoom

Productivity startup Time is Ltd raises $5.6M to be the ‘Google Analytics for company time’

Productivity analytics startup Time is Ltd wants to be the Google Analytics for company time. Or perhaps a sort of “Apple Screen Time” for companies. Whatever the case, the founders reckon that if you can map how time is spent in a company enormous productivity gains can be unlocked and, money better spent.

It’s now raised a $5.6 million late seed funding round led by Mike Chalfen, of London-based Chalfen Ventures, with participation from Illuminate Financial Management and existing investor Accel. Acequia Capital and former Seal Software chairman Paul Sallaberry are also contributing to the new round, as is former Seal board member Clark Golestani. Furthermore, Ulf Zetterberg, founder and former CEO of contract discovery and analytics company Seal Software, is joining as President and co-founder.

The venture is the latest from serial entrepreneur Jan Rezab, better known for founding SocialBakers, which was acquired last year.

We are all familiar with inefficient meetings, pestering notifications chat, video conferencing tools and the deluge of emails. Time is Ltd. says it plans to address this by acquiring insights and data platforms such as Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Zoom, Webex, MS Teams, Slack, and more. The data and insights gathered would then help managers to understand and take a new approach to measure productivity, engagement, and collaboration, the startup says.

The startup says it has now gathered 400 indicators that companies can choose from. For example, a task set by The Wall Street Journal for Time is Ltd. found the average response time for Slack users vs. email was 16.3 minutes, comparing to emails which was 72 minutes.

Chalfen commented: “Measuring hybrid and distributed work patterns is critical for every business. Time Is Ltd.’s platform makes such measurement easily available and actionable for so many different types of organizations that I believe it could make work better for every business in the world.”

Rezab said: “The opportunity to analyze these kinds of collaboration and communication data in a privacy-compliant way alongside existing business metrics is the future of understanding the heartbeat of every company – I believe in 10 years time we will be looking at how we could have ignored insights from these platforms.”

Tomas Cupr, Founder and Group CEO of Rohlik Group, the European leader of e-grocery, said: “Alongside our traditional BI approaches using performance data, we use Time is Ltd. to help improve the way we collaborate in our teams and improve the way we work both internally and with our vendors – data that Time is Ltd. provides is a must-have for business leaders.”

#accel, #analytics, #apple, #articles, #board-member, #business-intelligence, #ceo, #chairman, #computing, #digital-marketing, #e-grocery, #europe, #google, #leader, #london, #microsoft, #mike-chalfen, #seal-software, #serial-entrepreneur, #slack, #socialbakers, #software, #tc, #the-wall-street-journal, #time-is-ltd, #video-conferencing, #webex

Zoom fatigue no more: Rewatch raises $20M to index, transcribe and store enterprise video content

We don’t hear as much these days about “Zoom fatigue” as we did in the first months after the Covid-19 pandemic kicked off last year, but what’s less clear is whether people became more tolerant to the medium, or if they’d found ways of coping with it better, or if they were hopeful that tools for coping would soon be around the corner.

Today, a startup that has come up with a solution to handling all that video is announcing some funding to grow, on the understanding that whatever people are doing with video today, there will be a lot more video to handle in the future, and they will need more than just a good internet connection, microphone and video camera to deal with it.

Rewatch, which has built a set of tools for organizations to create a “system of record” for their internal video archives — not just a place to “rewatch” all of their older live video calls, but to search and organise information arising from those calls — has closed a $20 million round of funding.

Along with this, Rewatch from today is opening up its platform from invite-only to general availability.

This latest round is a Series A and is being led by Andreessen Horowitz, with Semil Shah at Haystack and Kent Goldman at Upside Partners, as well as a number of individuals, also participating.

It comes on the heels of Rewatch announcing a $2 million seed round only in January of this year. But it’s had some buzz in the intervening months: customers that have started using Rewatch include GitHub (where co-founders Connor Sears and Scott Goldman previously worked together), Brex, Envoy, and The Athletic.

The issue that Rewatch is tackling is the fact that a lot more of our work communications are happening over video. But while video calling has been hailed as a great boost to productivity — you can work wherever you are now, as long as you have a video connection — in fact, it’s not.

Yes, we are talking to each other a lot, but we are also losing information from those calls because they’re not being tracked as well as they could be. And, by spending all of our time talking, many of us are working on other things less, or are confined into more rigid times when we can.

Rewatch has built a system that plugs into Zoom and Google Meet, two of the most-used video tools in the workplace, and automatically imports all of your office’s or team’s video chats into a system. This lets you browse libraries of video-based conversations or meetings to watch them on-demand, on your time. It also provides transcripts and search tools for finding information in those calls.

You can turn off the automatic imports, or further customize how meetings are filed or accessibility. Sears said that Rewatch can be used for any video created on any platform, for now those require manually importing the videos into the Rewatch system.

Sears also said that over time it will also be adding in ways to automatically turn items from meetings into, say, work tickets to follow them up.

While there are a number of transcription services available on tap these days, as well as any number of cloud-based storage providers where you can keep video archives, what is notable about Rewatch’s is that it’s identified the pain point of managing and indexing those archives and keeping them in a single place for many to use.

In this way, Rewatch is highlighting and addressing what I think of as the crux of the productivity paradox.

Essentially, it is this: the tech industry has given us a lot of tools to help us work better, but actually, the work required to use those tools can outweigh the utility of the tools themselves.

(And I have to admit, this is one of the reasons why I’ve grown to dislike Slack. Yes, we all get to communicate on it, and it’s great to have something to connect all of us, but it just takes up so much damn time to read through everything and figure out what’s useful and what is just watercooler chat.)

“We go to where companies already are, and we automate, pull in video so that you don’t have to think about it,” Sears said. “The effort around a lot of this takes a lot of diligence to make sure people are recording and transcribing and distributing and removing. We are making this seamless and effortless.”

It sometimes feels like we are on the cusp, technologically, of leaning on tools by way of AI and other innovations that might finally cross that chasm and give us actual productivity out of our productivity apps. Dooly, which raised funding last week, is looking to do the same in the world of sales software (automatically populating various sales software with data from your phone, video and text chats, and other sources), is another example of how this is playing out.

Similarly, we’re starting to see an interesting wave of companies emerge that are looking for better ways to manage and tap into all that video content that we now have swimming around us. AnyClip, which announced funding yesterday, is also applying better analytics and search to internal company video libraries, but also has its sights on a wider opportunity: organizing any video trove. That points, too, to the bigger opportunity for Rewatch.

For now, though, enterprises and businesses are an opportunity enough.

“As investors we get excited about founders first and foremost, and Connor and Scott immediately impressed us with their experience, clear articulation of the problem, and their vision for how Rewatch could be the end-all solution for video and knowledge management in an organization,” noted David Ulevitch, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a blog post. “They both worked at GitHub in senior roles from the early days, as a Senior Director of Product Design and a Principal Engineer, respectively, and have first-hand experience scaling a product. Since founding Rewatch in early 2020, they have very quickly built a great product, sold it to large-scale customers, and hired top-tier talent, demonstrating rapid founder and company velocity that is key to building an enduring company.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #enterprise, #funding, #rewatch, #video, #video-calls, #video-conferencing

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform, grabs $30M after seeing 12x growth during COVID-19

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.

The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform which its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty party software like Zoom, Webex etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)

Interactio’s interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)

It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting — and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform — or else it will provide training to a customer’s interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.

At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting “strong relations with interpretation agencies” — claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.

It offers its customers interpretation in any language — and in an unlimited number of languages per event. And last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.

Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multi-lingual online meetings — as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.

“When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us,” a spokeswoman told us.

“This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms — by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable.”

“Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we compliment it by offering professional interpretation solutions,” she added.

A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out — and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it’s had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)

While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the  Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it’s seen during the remote work boom.

Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI — with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have “the best working conditions from their chosen place of work”).

It will also be spending to expand its client base — and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. (“Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g. European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation,” it told us.)

The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.

While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology — which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.

Google, for example, offers a real-time translator mode that’s accessible to users of its smartphone platform via the Google voice assistant AI. Hardware startups are also trying to target real-time translation. The dream of a real-life AI-powered ‘Babel Fish’ remains strong.

Nonetheless, such efforts aren’t well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale — where having a centralized delivery service that’s also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues which may arise looks essential.

And while machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.

“AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality,” says Interactio when we ask about this. “Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.

“We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine.”

#android, #artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #covid-19, #eight-roads-ventures, #europe, #european-commission, #european-parliament, #fundings-exits, #interactio, #jaan-tallinn, #jp-morgan, #lithuania, #machine-translation, #microsoft, #notion-capital, #online-meetings, #practica-capital, #remote-work, #saas, #samsung, #silicon-valley, #skype, #storm-ventures, #translation, #translator, #united-nations, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #webex, #young-sohn, #zoom

Telemedicine startups are positioning themselves for a post-pandemic world

Telemedicine, in its original form of the phone call, has been around for decades. For people in remote or rural areas without easy access to in-person care, consulting a doctor over the phone has often been the go-to approach. But for a large swath of the world used to taking half a day off work just for a 15-30 minute doctor’s appointment, it may seem like telemedicine was invented only last year. That’s mostly because it wasn’t until 2020 that telemedicine, in its myriad forms, debuted into the mainstream consciousness.

It’s impossible to predict how healthcare institutions will operate post-pandemic, but with so many people now accustomed to telemedicine, startups that provide services around virtual care continue to be poised for success.

Telemedicine has faced an uphill battle to become more relevant in the U.S., with challenges such as meeting HIPPA compliance requirements and insurance companies unwilling to pay for virtual visits. But when COVID-19 began raging across the globe and people had to stay home, both the insurance and healthcare industries were forced to adapt.

“It’s been said that there are decades where nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen,” said StartUp Health co-founders Steven Krein and Unity Stoakes in the company’s 2020 year-end report. That statement couldn’t be truer for telemedicine: Around $3.1 billion in funding flowed into the sector in 2020 — about three times what we saw in 2019, according to the report. A health tech fund and insights company, StartUp Health counts Alphabet, Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz as some of its co-investors.

Now that people see the benefits and conveniences of “dialing a doc” from the kitchen table, healthcare has changed forever. It’s impossible to predict how healthcare institutions will operate post-pandemic, but with so many people now accustomed to telemedicine, startups that provide services around virtual care continue to be poised for success.

The state of telemedicine

Major players in the field now look at the state of healthcare as, “before COVID and after COVID,” Stoakes told Extra Crunch. “In the post-pandemic world, there’s a significant transformation that’s occurred,” he said. “It’s all accelerated; the customers have shown up. There’s more capital than ever and consumers and physicians have adapted quickly,” he added.

In the U.S., healthcare is first and foremost a business, so while there are treatment approaches that have long been proven to improve patient outcomes, if they didn’t make sense financially, they weren’t instituted at scale. Telemedicine is a great example of this.

A 2017 study by the American Journal of Accountable Care showed that telemedicine can be quite useful for managing healthcare. “The use of telemedicine has been shown to allow for better long-term care management and patient satisfaction; it also offers a new means to locate health information and communicate with practitioners (e.g., via e-mail and interactive chats or video conferences), thereby increasing convenience for the patient and reducing the amount of potential travel required for both physician and patient,” the study reads.

But as we’ve seen, it took a global healthcare emergency to drive widespread adoption of virtual healthcare in the U.S. Now that investors recognize the potential, they are increasingly pouring money into startups that promise to take telemedicine to the next level. Some of the investors backing these newer companies include StartUp Health, Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia, Alphabet, Kaiser Permanente Ventures, U.S. Venture Partners, Maveron, First Round Capital, DreamIt Ventures, Human Ventures and Tusk Venture Partners.

#ec-enterprise-health, #ec-healthtech, #ec-market-map, #health, #healthcare, #insurance, #startups, #tc, #telemedicine, #video-conferencing

TravelPerk raises $160M in equity and debt after a year of derailed business trips

The pandemic has hammered the travel sector over the past 12 months so you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit of pre-COVID-19 déjà vu at this news: Business trip booking platform TravelPerk is announcing a $160M Series D.

The round, which is a mix of equity and debt funding, is led by London-based growth equity firm Greyhound Capital. Existing investors also participated (specifically: DST, Kinnevik, Target Global, Felix Capital, Spark Capital, Heartcore, LocalGlobe and Amplo).

No valuation is being disclosed, nor is the split between equity and debt. So it’s a bit more of a convoluted ‘vote of confidence’ vs TravelPerk’s pre-pandemic raises — as you’d expect given the locked down year we’ve all had.

The Series D means the 2015-founded Barcelona-based startup has pulled in a total of $294M to-date for its user-friendly retooling of business trip booking geared toward ‘global SMEs’, following a top-up of $60M (in 2019) to its 2018 $44M Series C — which itself fast-followed a $21M Series B that same year.

TravelPerk’s approach is akin to a consumerization play for the (non-enterprise end of) business trip booking, combining what it bills as “the world’s largest bookable travel inventory” — letting users compare, book and invoice trains, cars, flights, hotels and apartments from a range of providers including Kayak, Skyscanner, Expedia, Booking.com, and Airbnb — with tools for businesses to manage and report trips.

There’s the obligatory freemium tier for the smallest teams. It also offers 24/7 traveler support, a flexible booking option and an open API for custom integrations.

There was no funding announcement for TravelPerk in 2020, as investors took a break from the pandemic-struck sector. But earlier this year it told TechCrunch it had been starting to see interest picking up again, as of fall 2020. The closing of a Series D now — albeit debt and equity — suggests VCs are getting over the worst of their travel wobbles.

(Another sign on that front is the $155M Series E raise for U.S.-based TripActions, which closed in January on a $5BN valuation, as U.S. corporate travel lifted off from 2020’s lows.)

TravelPerk’s PR talks bullishly about momentum and using the funds to accelerate ‘global growth’, even as the coronavirus continues to hit parts of Europe and the U.S. — its two main markets — despite what are relatively advanced vaccination rollouts (especially the US) vs other parts of the world.

At the time of writing, COVID-19 is taking a particularly heavy toll on India, where the health system looks to be careening out of control in the face of a massive wave of infections. Parts of Latin America are also struggling. A third of the way through 2021 the pandemic looks far from done. And that makes for a still uncertain outlook for business travel over the coming months.

The typical pre-pandemic business trip is now a Zoom call, while former conference calls may have morphed into emails or group chatter in Slack. And there’s no immediate reason for that to change, given remote-working professionals have had a year to adjust to a richer mix of digital comms tools.

In 2021 it’s hard to imagine an overwhelming return for business travel — not least as plenty of offices remain shuttered. The contagion risk vs hard-to-quantify in-person networking rewards associated with non-essential business trips will surely see work trips remaining a hard sell for a lot of companies.

Still, TravelPerk and its investors are willing to bet that work trips will rebound — in time.

The plan is to be ready to meet what it expects will be a far more ‘moveable feast’ of business travel demand in the future.

“Travel is definitely coming back,” says CEO and co-founder, Avi Meir. “We can see that already with the numbers. In the US for instance, we can see a 70-75% recovery in domestic flights compared to the baseline before COVID-19.

“In Europe it’s a little less certain right now, as vaccine rollout isn’t as fast, but you can look to other parts of the world and with some degree of certainty predict what the European recovery will eventually look like by looking at those examples.”

“We expect the overall global recovery in travel to be uneven over the next year, with different countries reopening at different times, meaning constantly changing guidelines and restrictions,” he goes on. “We’ll continue living in a stage of uncertainty probably for the next 12 months or longer.

“We’ve realised from speaking to our customers that the demand for travel is there, people are eager to do these trips, but this period of uncertainty makes it difficult for them so we’re focused on finding solutions that can address that.”

TravelPerk didn’t sit on its hands last year as global business travel cratered. Instead, it focused on investing in product development, making bets on how it needs to tool up for the new climate of increased uncertainty — including by taking a number of steps toward making its business more resilient to the ravages of COVID-19.

Last October it launched an API — saying it wanted to help the wider travel industry access up to date info on coronavirus restrictions. It also picked up a risk management startup, called Albatross, back in July, to feed its own resilience efforts.

Another more recent acquisition was geared toward scaling its business in the U.S. — where domestic travel looks to be recovering faster than Europe. In January it announced it was buying YC-backed rival NexTravel — gaining a base in Chicago.

At the same time, it inked a partnership with Southwest Airlines to plug a key gap in its U.S. offering.

Meir avoids breaking out any revenue growth projections for the U.S. or Europe for this year or next, when we ask, which suggests he’s preparing for lean growth in the short term.

What he does say is that investors were impressed TravelPerk managed to grow its customer base 2x in 2020 (it now has 3,000+ businesses using its platform, including a bunch of familiar startup names) — and that it avoided making layoffs (when other travel businesses swung the axe).

“Last year we doubled the size of our customer-base and we now have over 3,000 businesses using the platform, including the likes of Wise, Farfetch, GetYourGuide and Monzo. The travel budget under management also increased by almost 100% over the last 12 months,” he tells TechCrunch.

“The reason we had such interest from investors with this round is because we had, given the context, a really good 2020. We doubled our customer base, avoided making layoffs, and most importantly we were there for our customers when they needed us, constantly investing in the product to enable safe travel during Covid.”

The thesis TravelPerk is now working to is that “flexibility, safety and sustainability” will be more important than ever for business travellers, per Meir.

“Flexibility, because travel still has a lot of friction due to the different restrictions and travel lockdowns mean that a trip could be cancelled at really short notice,” says Meir. “Safety, so that every traveler knows not only what specific health requirements are in place at their destination, but also that they will get updates in real time if anything changes. Sustainability, because in this period businesses have been taking stock and realising that we all have to do more in terms of our environmental impact — and of course travel is a big part of this.”

“We have worked hard to respond quickly to these requirements,” he continues. “We updated our product and product roadmap to better match these new needs. Our flexible booking tool FlexiPerk [which TravelPerk happened to launch pre-pandemic, in summer 2019] guarantees refunds on cancelled trips at short notice; our risk-management API TravelSafe keeps travellers updated in real time on local health guidelines and restrictions; and GreenPerk, our sustainability tool, directly reduces carbon emissions through initiatives run by our partner Atmosfair.”

Sustainability and business travel aren’t a natural pairing, however. Certainly not for air travel — where environmental groups accuse carbon offsetting schemes of boiling down to ‘greenwashing’ when what’s really needed to achieve a reduction in CO2e emissions is for people to take fewer flights.

TravelPerk launched its GreenPerk offsetting scheme in February 2020, letting customers pay a fee per carbon tonne to cover its guesstimate of the total emissions toll their trip will generate. But it’s only been applied to 10% of its business volume so far.

With 90% not even being offset, you hardly need to be Greta Thunberg to call that the opposite of ‘sustainable’.

Still, Meir says he expects the offset percentage to “grow rapidly”. “We intend to use this funding to develop GreenPerk even further,” he says, adding: “We want to be the standard bearer for the industry in terms of sustainable business travel.”

However when asked whether TravelPerk might seek to advance sustainability by supporting digital replacement itself (such as by being able to offer its users videoconferencing as an alternative to flying) he declines to comment, saying: “We don’t have anything to share yet on how we’ll advance that goal [sustainability] right now, but we’re working on some exciting ideas!”

Coming up with creative ways to reduce the need for business travel certainly doesn’t feature in TravelPerk’s near term vision.

Meir predicts a “full comeback” for business travel — arguing that “the meetings that matter happen in person” — while conceding that the travel industry will nonetheless be very different. (Hence its goal of “building the products for that [more flexible] future”.)

“We expect to double down on growth in the U.S. and Europe and that includes making key hires across all roles, especially in our hubs in Chicago, London, and Barcelona,” he says, adding that it expects the team to grow “rapidly” in the next 12-24 months (without putting any numbers on the planned hires).

TravelPerk will also continue to eye acquisition targets, per Meir. “Following our first two acquisitions, of Albatross and NexTravel, this funding round will also help us to continue being aggressive in our growth strategy. We aim to complete more acquisitions this year,” he says on that. 

“Whilst many other providers have been in hibernation over the past year, we’ve been aggressive, continuing to update our product and growing our customer base, and we think that gives us a great foundation for growth in 2021 and beyond,” he adds.

Commenting on the Series D in a statement, Pogos Saiadian, investor at Greyhound Capital, said: “There is no doubt that from 2021 onwards the average business trip will look very different to how it did in 2019. We are confident that business travel will recover and thrive in the years ahead. We also believe that people will, more than ever before, need a platform like TravelPerk that has deep inventory, excellent ‘seven-star’ customer service, provides a great traveler experience and integrates with the broader tech-stack.

“We believe that this is a huge long-term opportunity, and as customers ourselves, we see first-hand the tremendous value that TravelPerk provides across organizations, from finance to admin and the travellers themselves. The fact the company is beating growth expectations already for this year further supports our belief that TravelPerk is a true market leader, and we are delighted to be supporting the next stage of the company’s growth with this investment.”

 

#air-travel, #airbnb, #api, #avi-meir, #barcelona, #booking-com, #business-travel, #chicago, #europe, #expedia, #farfetch, #fundings-exits, #getyourguide, #greyhound-capital, #kayak, #nextravel, #saas, #skyscanner, #tc, #travel-industry, #travelperk, #united-states, #video-conferencing

Telegram to add group video calls next month

Group video calls will be coming to Telegram’s messaging platform next month with what’s being touted as a fully featured implementation, including support for web-based videoconferencing.

Founder Pavel Durov made the announcement via a (text) message posted to his official Telegram channel today where he wrote “we will be adding a video dimension to our voice chats in May, making Telegram a powerful platform for group video calls”.

“Screen sharing, encryption, noise-cancelling, desktop and tablet support — everything you can expect from a modern video conferencing tool, but with Telegram-level UI, speed and encryption. Stay tuned!” he added, using the sorts of phrases you’d expect from an enterprise software maker.

Telegram often taunts rivals over their tardiness to add new features but on video calls it has been a laggard, only adding the ability to make one-on-one video calls last August — rather than prioritizing a launch of group video calls, as it had suggested it would a few months earlier.

In an April 2020 blog post, to mark passing 400M users, it wrote that the global lockdown had “highlighted the need for a trusted video communication tool” — going on to dub video calls in 2020 “much like messaging in 2013”.

However it also emphasized the importance of security for group video calling — and that’s perhaps what’s caused the delay.

(Another possibility is the operational distraction of needing to raise a large chunk of debt financing to keep funding development: Last month Telegram announced it had raised over $1BN by selling bonds — its earlier plan to monetize via a blockchain platform having hit the buffers in 2020.)

In the event, rather than rolling out group video calls towards the latter end of 2020 it’s going to be doing so almost half way through 2021 — which has left videoconferencing platforms like Zoom to keep cleaning up during the pandemic-fuelled remote work and play boom (even as ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been added to our lexicon).

How secure Telegram’s implementation of group video calls will be, though, is an open question.

Durov’s post mades repeat mention of “encryption” — perhaps to make a subtle dig at Zoom’s own messy security claims history — but doesn’t specify whether it will use end-to-end encryption (we’ve asked).

Meanwhile Zoom does now offer e2e — and also has designs on becoming a platform in its own right, with apps and a marketplace, so there are a number of shifts in the comms landscape that could see the videoconferencing giant making deeper incursions into Telegram’s social messaging territory.

The one-to-one video calls Telegram launched last year were rolled out with its own e2e encryption — so presumably it will be replicating that approach for group calls.

However the MTProto encryption Telegram uses is custom-designed — and there’s been plenty of debate among cryptography experts over the soundness of its approach. So even if group calls are e2e encrypted there will be scrutiny over exactly how Telegram is doing it.

Also today, Durov touted two recently launched web versions of Telegram (not the first such versions by a long chalk, though) — adding that it’s currently testing “a functional version of web-based video calls internally, which will be added soon”.

He said the Webk and Webz versions of the web app are “by far the most cross-platform versions of Telegram we shipped so far”, and noting that no downloads or installs are required to access your chats via the browser.

“This is particularly good for corporate environments where installing native apps is now always allowed, but also good for users who like the instant nature of web sites,” he added, with another little nod toward enterprise users.

#cryptography, #e2e-encryption, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #group-video-calls, #noise-cancelling, #pavel-durov, #social, #telegram, #video-conferencing, #web-app, #zoom

Interview: Apple executives on the 2021 iPad Pro, stunting with the M1 and creating headroom

When the third minute of Apple’s first product event of 2021 ticked over and they had already made 3 announcements we knew it was going to be a packed one. In a tight single hour this week, Apple launched a ton of new product including AirTags, new Apple Card family sharing, a new Apple TV, a new set of colorful iMacs, and a purple iPhone 12 shade.

Of the new devices announced, though, Apple’s new 12.9” iPad Pro is the most interesting from a market positioning perspective. 

This week I got a chance to speak to Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Greg Joswiak and Senior Vice President of Hardware Engineering John Ternus about this latest version of the iPad Pro and its place in the working universe of computing professionals. 

In many ways, this new iPad Pro is the equivalent of a sprinter being lengths ahead going into the last lap and just turning on the afterburners to put a undebatable distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. Last year’s model is still one of the best computers you can buy, with a densely packed offering of powerful computing tools, battery performance and portability. And this year gets upgrades in the M1 processor, RAM, storage speed, Thunderbolt connection, 5G radio, new ultra wide front camera and its Liquid Retina XDR display. 

This is a major bump even while the 2020 iPad Pro still dominates the field. And at the center of that is the display.

Apple has essentially ported its enormously good $5,000 Pro Display XDR down to a 12.9” touch version, with some slight improvements. But the specs are flat out incredible. 1,000 nit brightness peaking at 1,600 nits in HDR with 2,500 full array local dimming zones — compared to the Pro Display XDR’s 576 in a much larger scale.

Given that this year’s first product launch from Apple was virtual, the media again got no immediate hands on with the new devices introduced, including iPad Pro. This means that I have not yet seen the XDR display in action. Unfortunately, these specs are so good that estimating them without having seen the screen yet is akin to trying to visualize “a trillion” in your head. It’s intellectually possible but not really practical. 

It’s brighter than any Mac or iOS device on the market and could be a big game shifting device for professionals working in HDR video and photography. But even still, this is a major investment to ship a micro-LED display in the millions or tens of millions of units with more density and brightness than any other display on the market. 

I ask both of them why there’s a need to do this doubling down on what is already one of the best portable displays ever made — if not one of the best displays period. 

“We’ve always tried to have the best display,” says Ternus. “We’re going from the best display on any device like this and making it even better, because that’s what we do and that’s why we, we love coming to work every day is to take that next big step.

“[With the] Pro Display XDR if you remember one thing we talked about was being able to have this display and this capability in more places in the work stream. Because traditionally there was just this one super expensive reference monitor at the end of the line. This is like the next extreme of that now you don’t even have to be in the studio anymore you can take it with you on the go and you can have that capability so from a, from a creative pro standpoint we think this is going to be huge.”

In my use of the Pro Display and my conversations with professionals about it one of the the common themes that I’ve heard is the reduction in overall workload due to the multiple points in the flow where color and image can be managed accurately to spec now. The general system in place puts a reference monitor very late in the production stage which can often lead to expensive and time consuming re-rendering or new color passes. Adding the Liquid Retina XDR display into the mix at an extremely low price point means that a lot more plot points on the production line suddenly get a lot closer to the right curve. 

One of the stronger answers on the ‘why the aggressive spec bump’ question comes later in our discussion but is worth mentioning in this context. The point, Joswiak says, is to offer headroom. Headroom for users and headroom for developers. 

“One of the things that iPad Pro has done as John [Ternus] has talked about is push the envelope. And by pushing the envelope that has created this space for developers to come in and fill it. When we created the very first iPad Pro, there was no Photoshop,” Joswiak notes. “There was no creative apps that could immediately use it. But now there’s so many you can’t count. Because we created that capability, we created that performance — and, by the way sold a fairly massive number of them — which is a pretty good combination for developers to then come in and say, I can take advantage of that. There’s enough customers here and there’s enough performance. I know how to use that. And that’s the same thing we do with each generation. We create more headroom to performance that developers will figure out how to use.

“The customer is in a great spot because they know they’re buying something that’s got some headroom and developers love it.”

The iPad Pro is now powered by the M1 chip — a move away from the A-series naming. And that processor part is identical (given similar memory configurations) to the one found in the iMac announced this week and MacBooks launched earlier this year.

“It’s the same part, it’s M1,” says Ternus. “iPad Pro has always had the best Apple silicon we make.”

“How crazy is it that you can take a chip that’s in a desktop, and drop it into an iPad,” says Joswiak. “I mean it’s just incredible to have that kind of performance at such amazing power efficiency. And then have all the technologies that come with it. To have the neural engine and ISP and Thunderbolt and all these amazing things that come with it, it’s just miles beyond what anybody else is doing.”

As the M1 was rolling out and I began running my testing, the power per watt aspects really became the story. That really is the big differentiator for M1. For decades, laptop users have been accustomed to saving any heavy or intense workloads for the times when their machines were plugged in due to power consumption. M1 is in the process of resetting those expectations for desktop class processors. In fact, Apple is offering not only the most powerful CPUs but also the most power-efficient CPUs on the market. And it’s doing it in a $700 Mac Mini, a $1,700 iMac and a $1,100 iPad Pro at the same time. It’s a pretty ridiculous display of stunting, but it’s also the product of more than a decade of work building its own architecture and silicon.

“Your battery life is defined by the capacity of your battery and the efficiency of your system right? So we’re always pushing really really hard on the system efficiency and obviously with M1, the team’s done a tremendous job with that. But the display as well. We designed a new mini LED for this display, focusing on efficiency and on package size, obviously, to really to be able to make sure that it could fit into the iPad experience with the iPad experience’s good battery life. 

“We weren’t going to compromise on that,” says Ternus.

One of the marquee features of the new iPad Pro is its 12MP ultra-wide camera with Center Stage. An auto-centering and cropping video feature designed to make FaceTime calling more human-centric, literally. It finds humans in the frame and centers their faces, keeping them in the frame even if they move, standing and stretching or leaning to the side. It also includes additional people in the frame automatically if they enter the range of the new ultra-wide 12MP front-facing camera. And yes, it also works with other apps like Zoom and Webex and there will be an API for it.

I’ve gotten to see it in action a bit more and I can say with surety that this will become an industry standard implementation of this kind of subject focusing. The crop mechanic is handled with taste, taking on the characteristics of a smooth zoom pulled by a steady hand rather than an abrupt cut to a smaller, closer framing. It really is like watching a TV show directed by an invisible machine learning engine. 

“This is one of the examples of some of our favorite stuff to do because of the way it marries the hardware and software right,” Ternus says. “So, sure it’s the camera but it’s also the SOC and and the algorithms associated with detecting the person and panning and zooming. There’s the kind of the taste aspect, right? Which is; how do we make something that feels good it doesn’t move too fast and doesn’t move too slow. That’s a lot of talented, creative people coming together and trying to find the thing that makes it Apple like.”

It also goes a long way to making the awkward horizontal camera placement when using the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard. This has been a big drawback for using the iPad Pro as a portable video conferencing tool, something we’ve all been doing a lot of lately. I ask Ternus whether Center Stage was designed to mitigate this placement.

“Well, you can use iPad in any orientation right? So you’re going to have different experiences based on how you’re using it. But what’s amazing about this is that we can keep correcting the frame. What’s been really cool is that we’ve all been sitting around in these meetings all day long on video conferencing and it’s just nice to get up. This experience of just being able to stand up and kind of stretch and move around the room without walking away from the camera has been just absolutely game changing, it’s really cool.”

It’s worth noting that several other video sharing devices like the Portal and some video software like Teams already offer cropping-type follow features, but the user experience is everything when you’re shipping software like this to millions of people at once. It will be interesting to see how Center Stage stacks up agains the competition when we see it live. 

With the ongoing chatter about how the iPad Pro and Mac are converging from a feature-set perspective, I ask how they would you characterize an iPad Pro vs. a MacBook buyer? Joswiak is quick to respond to this one. 

“This is my favorite question because you know, you have one camp of people who believe that the iPad and the Mac are at war with one another right it’s one or the other to the death. And then you have others who are like, no, they’re bringing them together — they’re forcing them into one single platform and there’s a grand conspiracy here,” he says.

“They are at opposite ends of a thought spectrum and the reality is that neither is correct. We pride ourselves in the fact that we work really, really, really hard to have the best products in the respective categories. The Mac is the best personal computer, it just is. Customer satisfaction would indicate that is the case, by a longshot.”

Joswiak points out that the whole PC category is growing, which he says is nice to see. But he points out that Macs are way outgrowing PCs and doing ‘quite well’. He also notes that the iPad business is still outgrowing the tablets category (while still refusing to label the iPad a tablet). 

“And it’s also the case that it’s not an ‘either or’. The majority of our Mac customers have an iPad. That’s an awesome thing. They don’t have it because they’re replacing their Mac, it’s because they use the right tool at the right time.

What’s very cool about what [Ternus] and his team have done with iPad Pro is that they’ve created something where that’s still the case for creative professionals too — the hardest to please audience. They’ve given them a tool where they can be equally at home using the Mac for their professional making money with it kind of work, and now they can pick up an iPad Pro — and they have been for multiple generations now and do things that, again, are part of how they make money, part of their creative workflow flow,” says Joswiak. “And that test is exciting. it isn’t one or the other, both of them have a role for these people.”

Since converting over to an iPad Pro as my only portable computer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the multimodal aspects of professional work. And, clearly, Apple has as well given its launch of a Pro Workflows team back in 2018. Workflows have changed massively over the last decade, and obviously the iPhone and an iPad, with their popularization of the direct manipulation paradigm, have had everything to do with that. In the current world we’re in, we’re way past ‘what is this new thing’, and we’re even way past ‘oh cool, this feels normal’ and we’re well into ‘this feels vital, it feels necessary.’ 

“Contrary to some people’s beliefs, we’re never thinking about what we should not do on an iPad because we don’t want to encroach on Mac or vice versa,” says Ternus. “Our focus is, what is the best way? What is the best iPad we can make what are the best Macs we can make. Some people are going to work across both of them, some people will kind of lean towards one because it better suits their needs and that’s, that’s all good.”

If you follow along, you’ll know that Apple studiously refuses to enter into the iPad vs. Mac debate — and in fact likes to place the iPad in a special place in the market that exists unchallenged. Joswiak often says that he doesn’t even like to say the word tablet.

“There’s iPads and tablets, and tablets aren’t very good. iPads are great,” Joswiak says. “We’re always pushing the boundaries with iPad Pro, and that’s what you want leaders to do. Leaders are the ones that push the boundaries leaders are the ones that take this further than has ever been taken before and the XDR display is a great example of that. Who else would you expect to do that other than us. And then once you see it, and once you use it, you won’t wonder, you’ll be glad we did.”

Image Credits: Apple

#api, #apple, #apple-inc, #computing, #foxconn, #greg-joswiak, #ios, #ipad, #ipad-pro, #ipads, #iphone, #iphone-12, #isp, #john-ternus, #mac, #machine-learning, #macintosh, #mobile-phones, #portable-media-players, #tablet-computers, #tc, #touchscreens, #vice-president, #video-conferencing, #webex

Zoom launches $100M Zoom Apps investment fund

When Zoom launched Zoom Apps and the Marketplace as a place to sell them last year, it was a big signal that the company wanted to be more than just a popular video conferencing application. It wanted to be a platform, which developers could use to build applications on top of Zoom.

Today the company announced a $100 million investment fund to encourage the most promising startups using the Zoom toolset to launch a business by giving them funding, while using that as a springboard to encourage other developers to take advantage of the tooling on the platform.

“We’re looking for companies with a viable product and early market traction, and a commitment to developing on and investing in the Zoom ecosystem,” Zoom’s Colin Born wrote in a blog post announcing the new program.

The company’s corporate development team with heavy involvement from the Zoom executive team will be in charge of selecting and managing the portfolio companies. The company plans to invest between $250,000 and $2.5 million in each startup in the portfolio.

“A big part of this is helping facilitate those early companies and giving them the access to resources and connections within Zoom, so that they can grow and succeed,” Zoom CTO Brendan Ittelson told me.

While the company wants to invest successfully, a big part of this is using the fund to encourage developers to take advantage of the platform offerings from Zoom. “We feel we’ll help [these startups] build these valuable and engaging experiences and by having that and by investing, we’re helping bring solutions and further expand the ecosystem and our customers should benefit from that,” he said.

Zoom has a number of developer tools that budding entrepreneurs can use to build applications that take advantage of Zoom functionality. In March the company introduced an SDK (software development kit) designed to help programmers embed Zoom functionality inside other applications.

The company also provides tools for embedding an application inside of Zoom, such as one designed for a specific purpose like education or healthcare, and it has created a centralized place to learn about all of them at developer.zoom.us.

Zoom is not alone in investing in companies building applications on its platform. Firms like Sequoia, Maven Ventures and Emergence Capital have already started investing in startups building companies on top of Zoom including Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu.

The fund gives startup founders one more option to get some funding to get their idea off the ground. Ittelson says all of the investments will be seed level investments for starters and they will be providing developer and business resources to help the young startups build and distribute their products.

While he says that the company will be on the lookout for promising startups to bring into the portfolio, interested entrepreneurs can apply directly at zoom.com/fund.

#apis, #cloud, #corporate-investment-arms, #developer, #sdks, #startups, #tc, #video-conferencing, #zoom

Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display

Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, including a mash-up of the Apple TV with a HomePod speaker, and an integrated camera for video chat, according to Bloomberg. It’s also said to be working on a smart speaker that basically combines a HomePod with an iPad, providing something similar to Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub in functionality.

The Apple TV/HomePod hybrid would still connect to a television for outputting video, and would offer similar access to all the video and gaming services that the current Apple TV does, while the speaker component would provide sound output, music playback, and Siri integration. It would also include a built-in camera for using video conferencing apps on the TV itself, the report says.

That second device would be much more like existing smart assistant display devices on the market today, with an iPad-like screen providing integrated visuals. The project could involve attaching the iPad via a “robotic arm” according to Bloomberg, that would allow it to move to accommodate a user moving around, with the ability to keep them in frame during video chat sessions.

Bloomberg doesn’t provide any specific timelines for release of any of these potential products, and it sounds like they’re still very much in the development phase, which means Apple could easily abandon these plans depending on its evaluation of their potential. Apple just recently discontinued its original HomePod, the $300 smart speaker it debuted in 2018.

Rumors abound about a refreshed Apple TV arriving sometime this year, which should boast a faster processor and also an updated remote control. It could bring other hardware improvements, like support for a faster 120Hz refresh rate available on more modern TVs.

#apple, #apple-inc, #apple-tv, #assistant, #computing, #hardware, #homepod, #ios, #ipad, #portable-media-players, #siri, #smart-speaker, #speaker, #tablet-computers, #tc, #touchscreens, #video-conferencing

Passive collaboration is essential to remote work’s long-term success

In 1998, Sun Microsystems piloted its “Open Work” program, letting roughly half of their workforce work flexibly from wherever they wanted. The project required new hardware, software and telecommunications solutions, and took about 24 months to implement.

Results were very positive, with a reduction in costs and the company’s carbon footprint. Despite this outcome, long-term remote work never really caught on more broadly. In fact, the 2010s were focused on going the other direction, as open offices, on-site perks and co-working spaces sprung up around the idea that in-person community is an essential component of innovation.

In 2020, companies of all sizes, in all corners of the world, were forced to shift to remote work with the onset of COVID-19. While some companies were better positioned than others — whether it be due to a previously distributed workforce, a reliance on cloud apps and services, or already-established flexible work policies — the adjustment to a fully remote workforce has been challenging for everyone. The truth is that even the largest companies have had to rely on the heroics of employees making sacrifices and persevering through numerous challenges to get through this time.

Technology like high-quality video conferencing and the cloud have been integral in making remote work possible. But we don’t yet have a complete substitute for in-person work because we continue to lack tooling in one critical area: passive collaboration. While active collaboration (which is the lion’s share) can happen over virtual meetings and emails, we haven’t fully solved for enabling the types of serendipitous conversations and chance connections that often power our biggest innovations and serve as the cornerstone of passive collaboration.

Active versus passive collaboration

Those outside of the tech industry may think that software engineers only need a computer and a secure internet connection to do their work. But the stereotype of the lone engineer coding away in solitude has long been shattered. The best engineering work isn’t done in isolation, but in collaboration, as teams discuss, wrangle and brainstorm through problems. Video conference platforms and chat applications help us collaborate actively, and tools like Microsoft Visual Studio Code and Google Docs allow for dedicated asynchronous collaboration, too.

But what we currently lack are the moments of spontaneous engagement that energize us and invite new ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have been part of the conversation. The long-term impact of not having access to this has not yet been measured, but it’s my belief that it will have a negative effect on innovation because passive collaboration plays such a critical role in fostering creativity.

The whiteboard

The best way to think about the differences between passive and active collaboration is to look at a whiteboard. Someone recently asked me, “What is it with people in tech and whiteboards? Why are they such a big deal?” Whiteboards are simple and “low-tech,” yet have become quintessential in our industry. That’s because they represent a source of multi-modal collaboration for engineers. Let’s think back to before COVID. How many times have you walked by (or been a part of) a scrum meeting of engineers huddled around a whiteboard?

Have you ever stopped by because you overheard a snippet of a conversation and wanted to learn more or share your perspective? Or maybe something on a whiteboard caught your eye and caused you to start a conversation with another colleague, leading to a breakthrough. These are all moments of passive collaboration, which whiteboards so excellently enable (in addition to being a tool for real-time, active collaboration). They’re low-friction ways to invite new ideas and perspectives to the conversation that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered.

While whiteboards are one mode of facilitating passive collaboration, they aren’t the only option. Serendipitous meetings in the break room, overhearing a conversation from the next cubicle over, or spotting someone across the room who’s free for a quick gut-check are also examples of passive collaboration. These interactions are a critical piece of how we work together and the hardest to recreate in a world of remote work. Just as silos in the development process are detrimental to software quality, so too is a lack of passive collaboration.

We need tools that will help us peek over at what other people are working on without the pressure of a dedicated meeting time or update email. The free and open exchange of ideas is a birthplace for innovation, but we haven’t yet figured out how to create a good virtual space for this.

Looking forward

The future of work is one in which teams are more distributed than ever before, meaning we need new tools for passive collaboration not just for this year, but for the future, too. Our own internal survey results tell us that while some employees prefer the option to be fully remote once the pandemic is behind us, the majority want a more flexible solution in the future.

Crucially, the answer is not to create more meetings or email threads, but instead to reimagine virtual spaces that can function like the classic whiteboard and other serendipitous modes of collaboration. As we all still look for ways to solve this challenge, we at LinkedIn have been thinking about how to encourage cross-team conversations and open Q&As to share resources, as a start.

For decades, the tech industry has paved the way for innovations in employee experience, creating spaces and benefits that reduced friction in collaboration and productivity. Now, as we look ahead to a hybrid work world, we must find new ways to continue supporting employee productivity and creativity. It’s only when we’re able to fully realize passive collaboration virtually that we’ll have unlocked the full potential of remote and hybrid work situations.

#collaboration, #column, #distributed-workforce, #labor, #startups, #telecommuting, #video-conferencing, #whiteboard

Zoombombing countermeasures are ineffective in the vast majority of cases

An upset young woman closes her eyes rather than look at her laptop screen.

Enlarge

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools, colleges, and businesses to limit in-person meetings, the world quickly adopted video conferencing from services such as Zoom and Google Meet. That, in turn, gave way to “zoombombing,” the term for when Internet trolls join online meetings with the goal of disrupting them and harassing their participants. Meeting services have adopted a variety of countermeasures, but a new research paper finds that most of them are ineffective.

The most commonly used countermeasures include password-protecting meetings, using waiting rooms so that conference organizers can vet people before allowing them to participate, and counseling participants not to post meeting links in public forums.

The problem with these approaches is that they assume the wrong threat model. One common assumption, for instance, is that the harassment is organized by outsiders who weren’t privy to meeting details. Researchers at Boston University and the State University of New York at Binghamton studied zoombombing calls posted on social media for the first seven months of last year and found that wasn’t the case in most instances.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#biz-it, #internet-trolls, #online-meetings, #policy, #tech, #video-conferencing, #zoombombing

Cosmos Video – a ‘Club Penguin for adults’ to socialise and work – raises $2.6M from LocalGlobe

All over the world startups are piling into the space marked “virtual interaction and collaboration”. What if a startup created a sort of ‘Club Penguin for adults’?

Step forward Cosmos Video, which has a virtual venues platform that allows people to work, hang out and socialize together. It has now raised $2.6m in seed funding LocalGlobe with participation from Entrepreneur First, Andy Chung and Phillip Moehring (AngelList), and Omid Ashtari (former President of Citymapper).

Founders Rahul Goyal and Karan Baweja previously led product teams at Citymapper and TransferWise respectively.

Cosmos allows users to create virtual venues by combining game mechanics with video chat. The idea is to bring back the kinds of serendipitous interactions we used to have in the real world. You choose an avatar, then meet up with their colleagues or friends inside a browser-based game. As you move your avatars closer to one another person you can video chat with them, as you might in real life.

The competition is the incumbent video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but calls on these platforms have a set agenda, and are timeboxed – they’re rigid and repetitive. On Cosmos you sit on the screen and consume one video call after another as you move around the space, so it is mimicking serendipity, after a fashion.

As well as having a social application, office colleagues can work collaboratively on tools such as whiteboards, Google documents and Figma; play virtual board games or gather around a table to chat.

Cosmos is currently being used in private beta by a select group of companies to host their offices and for social events such as Christmas parties. Others are using it to host events, meetup groups and family gatherings.

Co-founder Rahul Goyal said in a statement: “Once the pandemic hit, we both saw productivity surge in our respective teams but at the same time, people were missing the in-office culture. Video conferencing platforms provide a great service when it comes to meetings, but they lack spontaneity. Cosmos is a way to bring back that human connection we lack when we spend all day online, by providing a virtual world where you can play a game of trivia or pong after work with colleagues or gather round a table to celebrate a friend’s birthday.”

George Henry, partner, LocalGlobe: “We were really impressed with the vision and potential of Cosmos. Scaling live experiences online is one of the big internet frontiers where there are still so many opportunities. Now that the video infrastructure is in place, we believe products like Cosmos will enable new forms of live online experiences.”

#angellist, #christmas, #citymapper, #club-penguin, #co-founder, #computing, #entrepreneur, #europe, #google, #groupware, #internet-culture, #microsoft, #president, #tc, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #video, #video-conferencing, #virtual-reality, #virtual-world

Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

When Zoom announced Zapps last month — the name has since been wisely changed to Zoom Apps — VC Twitter immediately began speculating that Zoom could make the leap from successful video conferencing service to becoming a launching pad for startup innovation. It certainly caught the attention of former TechCrunch writer and current investor at Signal Fire Josh Constine, who tweeted that “Zoom’s new ‘Zapps’ app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups.”

As Zoom usage exploded during the pandemic and it became a key tool for business and education, the idea of using a video conferencing platform to build a set of adjacent tooling makes a lot of sense. While the pandemic will come to an end, we have learned enough about remote work that the need for tools like Zoom will remain long after we get the all-clear to return to schools and offices.

We are already seeing promising startups like Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu built with Zoom in mind, and these companies are garnering investor attention. In fact, some investors believe Zoom could be the next great startup ecosystem.

Moving beyond video conferencing

Salesforce paved the way for Zoom more than a decade ago when it opened up its platform to developers and later launched the AppExchange as a distribution channel. Both were revolutionary ideas at the time. Today we are seeing Zoom building on that.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven Ventures and an early Zoom investor (who is credited with naming the company) says he always saw the service as potentially a platform play. “I’ve been saying publicly, before anyone realized it, that Zoom is the next great open platform on which to build billion-dollar businesses,” Scheinman told me.

He says he talked with Zoom leadership about opening up the platform to external developers several years ago before the IPO. It wasn’t really a priority at that point, but COVID-19 pushed the idea to the forefront. “Post-IPO and COVID, with the massive growth of Zoom on both the enterprise and consumer side, it became very clear that an app marketplace is now a critical growth area for Zoom, which creates a huge opportunity for nascent startups to scale,” he said.

Jason Green, founder and managing director at Emergence Capital (another early investor in Zoom and Salesforce) agreed: “Zoom believes that adding capabilities to the core Zoom platform to make it more functional for specific use cases is an opportunity to build an ecosystem of partners similar to what Salesforce did with AppExchange in the past.”

Building the platform

Before a platform can succeed with developers, it requires a critical mass of users, a bar that Zoom has clearly passed. It also needs a set of developer tools to connect to the various services on the platform. Then the substantial user base acts as a ready market for the startup. Finally, it requires a way to distribute those creations in a marketplace.

Zoom has been working on the developer components and brought in industry veteran Ross Mayfield, who has been part of two collaboration startups in his career, to run the developer program. He says that the Zoom Apps development toolset has been designed with flexibility to allow developers to build applications the way that they want.

For starters, Zoom has created WebViews, a way to embed functionality into an application like Zoom. To build WebViews in Zoom, the company created a JS Kit, which in combination with existing Zoom APIs enables developers to build functionality inside the Zoom experience. “So we’re giving developers a lot of flexibility in what experience they create with WebViews plus using our very rich set of API’s that are part of the existing platform and creating some new API’s to create the experience,” he said.

#app-stores, #developer, #emergence-capital, #enterprise, #startup-ecosystems, #startups, #tc, #video, #video-conferencing, #zoom

MG Siegler talks portfolio management and fundraising 6 months into the COVID-19 pandemic

This week, GV General Partner (and TechCrunch alum) MG Siegler joined us on Extra Crunch Live for a far-ranging chat about what it takes to foster a good relationship between investor and startup, how portfolio management and investing has changed as the COVID-19 crisis drags on, and what Siegler expects will and won’t stick around in terms of changes in behavior in investment and entrepreneurship once the pandemic passes.

We last caught up with Siegler on the heels of his investment in Universe, a mobile-focused, e-commerce business-building startup. The coronavirus pandemic was relatively new and no one was sure how long it would last or what measures to contain it would look like. Now, with a few months of experience under his belt, Siegler told me that things have relatively settled into a new normal from his perspective as an investor – sometimes for worse, sometimes for better, but mostly just resulting in differences that require adaptation.

This select transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Aside from section headers, all text below is taken from MG Siegler’s responses to my questions.

Business impacts of coping with the pandemic six months on

Just talking about the business side of the equation, I do think that things have sort of stabilized in the day-to-day world here. For us, certainly, I think it’s it’s just as much of a factor though, of just learning how to operate in this in this weird and surreal environment, and knowing how to do remote meetings better. Knowing how to hop on quick Zoom calls, Hangouts, and phone calls, with portfolio companies, to help put out fires, and doing all board meetings remotely, and all that sort of stuff.

That seems like it’s pretty straightforward on paper, but in day-to-day operations, these are all different little learning things that you have to do and come across. I do feel like things are operating in a pretty streamlined manner, or as much as they can be at this point. But, you know, there’s always going to be some more wildcards – like we’re a week away, today, from from the US election.

#chair, #entrepreneur, #extra-crunch-live, #forward, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #venture-capital, #video-conferencing

Dialpad raises $100M Series E at a $1.2B valuation

Dialpad, the business-centric voice, video and contact-center service, today announced that it has raised a $100 million Series E funding round led by OMERS Growth Equity. Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures, ICONIQ Capital and Work-Bench also participated. The company says its valuation is over $1.2 billion after it has now raised a total of $245 million.

The funding news comes only a few weeks after the company also announced its acquisition of video conferencing service Highfive, a move that brought deeper expertise in mobile video and conferencing room devices to the company.

Recently, Dialpad has put a lot of emphasis on its AI solutions. Back in 2018, it launched its VoiceAI service, for example, and it now offers a number of AI solutions as part of its Voice Intelligence service (or Vi, as the company calls it). This includes a note-taking service, for example, as well as call transcripts and sentiment analysis, among other features.

“We have seen a huge increase in demand for cloud communications tools, and we are raising additional capital to meet this demand,” said Craig Walker, CEO of Dialpad. “Users want a single platform to handle voice, video and messaging. They also want that platform to be smart; to do things like automate note taking and provide real-time insights and answers in response to what’s happening on a call or meeting. We have invested in real-time speech recognition, natural language processing and voice analytics on a system that works anywhere, on any device. Our goal has always been to empower the future of work, and we are thrilled to join the OMERS Growth Equity portfolio and to continue to innovate.”

The company says it now has an annual run rate of over $100 million and its customers include the likes of Uber, Motorola Solutions, Domo and Xero. In total, the 500-employee company says it now has more than 70,000 customers.

“We are excited to become an investor in Dialpad. Craig and his team have built an impressive company, offering a leading product in a market with a long growth runway. We believe cloud-based software and artificial intelligence are in the early stages of widespread adoption, and Dialpad is playing a leading role in this change,” said Mark Shulgan, Managing Director and Head of OMERS Growth Equity, who will join the company’s board. We are proud to join Dialpad’s impressive roster of existing investors, and look forward to taking this journey with the company.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #artificial-intelligence, #ceo, #cloud-based-software, #craig-walker, #dialpad, #google-ventures, #highfive, #iconiq-capital, #motorola-solutions, #natural-language-processing, #omers, #omers-growth-equity, #speech-recognition, #tc, #teleconferencing, #uber, #video-conferencing, #voice-intelligence, #web-conferencing