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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

0

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

0

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

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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

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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

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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

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Google launches new AI-powered meeting room hardware

Google today announced the Google Meet Series One, a new video conferencing hardware suite for meeting rooms. Built in collaboration with Lenovo, the Series One uses high-end cameras and microphones and then marries them with Google’s AI smarts thanks to using Google’s own Coral M.2 accelerator modules with the company’s Edge TPUs.

Previous Google Meet hardware efforts from companies like ASUS, Acer and Logitech were generally built around a Chromebox. This new effort uses a custom-built compute system at its core and combines that with an almost Google Nest-like tablet-sized screen, a soundbar with eight built-in microphones, additional microphone pods and one of two cameras.

Image Credits: Google

The cameras are maybe the most interesting option here, with the Smart Camera XL features a 20.3-megapixel sensor and 4.3x optical zoom. Thanks to these specs, it can be used as a digital PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera. With that, the system can always automatically zoom in to frame everybody in the room and when the next person joins, it can zoom and pan as necessary to make sure everybody is still visible.

The regular Smart Camera can still do most of this, but it doesn’t feature the optical zoom, making it a better solution for smaller rooms. Google partnered with Huddly to develop this camera system (and the two companies also collaborated on previous Meet hardware projects).

But Google also put a lot of effort into the audio system. With its eight beam-forming microphones built into the soundbar and advanced noise cancellation techniques running on Google’s AI chips, the system should be able to filter out most distractions. Companies can add additional soundbars that only feature the speakers and microphones without the AI chips to cover even larger rooms. These additional units only feature the speakers and microphones, without the additional AI hardware since all of the processing needs to be done centrally.

Image Credits: Google

One nice touch here is that the team also made it easy to install these systems thanks to using Power-over-Ethernet. That should make installing one of these systems in a conference room pretty easy.

Since this is Google, it’s probably no surprise that you can also use the Google Assistant on this system, providing you with hands-free control over the room (something that’s maybe more important today than ever before).

The smallest room kit, with the basic Smart Camera but without the tablet-style meeting controller and microphone pod, will retail for $2,699. For $2,999 you get a complete set with one standard camera, soundbar, microphone pod and controller and if you have a very large room, you can opt for the $3,999 version with the additional soundbar, two microphone pods and the Smart Camera XL.

#acer, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #asus, #chromebox, #computing, #google, #google-nest, #hardware, #huddly, #lenovo, #logitech, #smartphones, #technology, #teleconferencing, #video, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #zoom

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Sennheiser’s MKE 200 on-camera microphone is the perfect home videoconferencing upgrade

Sennheiser has just released a new on-camera, directional microphone. The compact MKE 200 ($99.95) puts a lot of convenience and performance into a small, portable package – one that’s great for go-anywhere vlogging once that’s a reasonable option again, and one that provides a fantastic, but affordable upgrade for your at-home video conferencing setup in the meantime.

The basics

The MKE 200 is a super-cardioid microphone that mounts directly to a camera’s hot shoe sleeve. Unlike most on-camera shotgun mics, it’s a short, stubby affair that’s just under three inches long, rather than being a long tube. It’s light, and small, and it features both a built-in windscreen and shockmount for ultimate portability.

On the front of the MKE 200, you’ll find a threaded 3.5mm audio port that makes for secure connections to your camera’s mic input. In the box, Sennheiser has thoughtfully included both TRS and TRRS cables, which means it’ll work great with just about every DSLR, mirrorless camera or even smartphone out there on the market without the need for additional cables.

The MKE 200 draws all the power it needs from that single cable connection, meaning you won’t need to worry about batteries or recharging. It also includes a fuzzy windscreen sleeve, for minimizing wind noise when shooting outdoors, and a soft carrying pouch for transportation.

Design and performance

The design of the MKE 200 is simple, and in this case simple is very good. Its compact profile and sturdy construction means that it’s both lightweight, but also feels very durable. That, combined with its relatively low cost, means this is a great mic for throwing into a bag without much thought – perfect kit for hitting the road with a lightweight rig, or for topping even the lightest of cameras if you’re using a better camera than your built-in webcam for your at-home Zoom and video setup.

The single cable, battery-free nature of the MKE 200 also means you really don’t have to worry about anything else than fixing it on the cold shoe mount and plugging it in. Sennheiser has also done a good job of extending this simplicity to its performance – out of the box, it sounds pretty great on my Sony A6400, with the default audio settings on the camera.

As for the threaded 3.5mm stereo connector, it’s definitely not strictly necessary – but it’s the kind of quality detail that has earned Sennheiser its stellar reputation. The locking thread means you have one less point of failure to contend with – yes, the cable might still accidentally snag on something and pop out of the camera side, but it won’t budge from the mic.

Sennheiser’s included fuzzy windscreen is another useful addition. It’s sort of like a sock that goes over the entire mic body, and it does a good job of eliminating wind noise. This is something that you might see other mic makers offer as a sold-separate accessory, so it’s great to have it included in the sub-$100 price tag.

Bottom line

The Sennheiser MKE 200 is a great example of a company reading the room and delivering a product that’s perfectly suited to the needs of a broad category of its customers. At under $100, it’s a great and almost impulse-buy level addition to just about every amateur creator’s toolkit. It might not have the range or maximum audio quality of a more expensive dedicated on-camera shotgun mic, but it’s got plenty of power for any vlogging or close-range interview applications, and it’s particularly well-timed for launch since it makes the perfect companion to any compact mirrorless or DSLR camera you might be using as a webcam for your remote videoconferencing, education and event needs.

#gadgets, #hardware, #microphone, #recording, #review, #reviews, #sennheiser, #smartphone, #sony, #tc, #video-conferencing

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A single text is all it took to unleash code-execution worm in Cisco Jabber

A single text is all it took to unleash code-execution worm in Cisco Jabber

Enlarge (credit: Cisco)

Until Wednesday, a single text message sent through Cisco’s Jabber collaboration application was all it took to touch off a self-replicating attack that would spread malware from one Windows user to another, researchers who developed the exploit said.

The wormable attack was the result of several flaws, which Cisco patched on Wednesday, in the Chromium Embedded Framework that forms the foundation of the Jabber client. A filter that’s designed to block potentially malicious content in incoming messages failed to scrutinize code that invoked a programming interface known as “onanimationstart.”

Jumping through hoops

But even then, the filter still blocked content that contained <style>, an HTML tag that had to be included in a malicious payload. To bypass that protection, the researchers used code that was tailored to a built-in animation component called spinner-grow. With that, the researchers were able to achieve a cross-site scripting exploit that injected a malicious payload directly into the internals of the browser built into Jabber.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#biz-it, #cisco-jabber, #exploits, #patches, #video-conferencing, #vulnerabilities, #worms

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Dialpad acquires video conferencing service Highfive

VoIP provider Dialpad, the company behind the popular video conferencing service UberConference, today announced that it has acquired Highfive, a well-funded video conferencing startup that focuses on providing businesses with conference room solutions. The two companies did not disclose the purchase price, but Highfive raised $77.4 million from the likes of Lightspeed Venture Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst and Dimension Data ahead of today’s acquisition.

Led by its CEO Craig Walker, who previously sold GrandCentral to Google and then built Google Voice, Dialpad is clearly aiming to double down on video. While UberConference does have built-in video conferencing features already, the service is mostly known for its calling features. In addition to its conference call solutions and VoiP platform for business users, Dialpad also offers a contact center solution.

“When we did UberConference eight years ago, we were like, ‘look, 80% of, of conferences are just people on the phone. So let’s make phone, audio conferencing better,” Walker said. “And then, obviously, over time time that started changing and then COVID totally accelerated it. So with that accelerating, we realized we really want to double down on video — and not with a mindset of ‘hey, video as a standalone thing is going to be a big investment,’ but video, as part of business communications, has to be excellent and has to be part of a Unified-Communications-as-a Service (UCaaS) system.”

Image Credits: Highfive

Highfive, which was incidentally also launched by a group of ex-Google engineers, always focused exclusively on video. Both companies, Walker noted, were also born in the cloud, but served somewhat different customers until now.

“What’s truly exciting about this combination is the joint heritage — both companies are truly born in the cloud, running on hyperscale, global infrastructures,” Highfive CEO Joe Manuele told me. “Dialpad‘s conferencing, UCaaS and CCaaS offerings were only ever built on public cloud infrastructures, as was Highfive’s. While video is an important part of Diaplpad’s current portfolio, we bring the ability to connect rooms, interop with other video services with our Meeting Connector technology and legacy device support with our Room Connector. Beyond the product fit, the shared industry vision that you can meet all of your communications needs over a hyperscale public cloud environment is what I’m personally most excited about.”

Manuele noted that the company’s board had considered other options, including a new round of fundraising, but in the end, the company decided that video conferencing services now essentially have become part of the larger UCaaS stack.

Image Credits: Dialpad

“While we have developed a scalable, born in the cloud video solution set, it was becoming harder to compete with competitors who were offering inferior ‘free’ video services as part of a UCaaS stack,” he said. “Even the industry leader Zoom had to move to IP Telephony and we see that trend to be irrefutable.”

That’s a thesis Dialpad’s Walker obviously agrees with. “Whether I’m on a phone call, whether it’s my business phone system, or I need to do a video call, or I need to do a conference call, or if I need to go screenshare — if I need to do any of these things, it should all just kind of be one [tool],” he said.

One area Highfive really exceeded in was making its service work seamlessly. It did that by tightly integrating its hardware and software stack, but also by reimagining some of the overall user experience around its room systems.

Walker admitted that nobody is really using room systems right now, but he believes that as people go back to their offices over time, video and remote meetings will potentially become even more important as most companies will adopt some kind of hybrid model for their employees.

He believes this acquisition will also give Dialpad a strong position in the overall market and that this allows Dialpad to offer a complete solution to its customers.

Highfive’s brand may ultimately go away, but customers who have already bought into the company’s systems won’t see any interruptions in their service.

#andreessen-horowitz, #ceo, #conference-call, #craig-walker, #dialpad, #dimension-data, #general-catalyst, #google, #google-voice, #grandcentral, #highfive, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #ma, #tc, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #uberconference, #video-conferencing, #voip, #web-conferencing

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Cisco acquiring BabbleLabs to filter out the lawn mower screeching during your video conference

We’ve all been in a video conference, especially this year, when the neighbor started mowing the lawn or kids were playing outside your window — and it can get pretty loud. Cisco, which owns the WebEx video conferencing service wants to do something about that, and late yesterday it announced it was going to acquire BabbleLabs, a startup that can help filter out background noise.

BabbleLabs has a very particular set of skills. It uses artificial intelligence to enhance the speaking voice, while filtering out those unwanted background noises that seem to occur whenever you happen to be in a meeting.

Interestingly enough, Cisco also sees this as a kind of privacy play by removing background conversation. Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager in the Cisco Security and Applications Business Unit, says that this should go a long way toward improving the meeting experience for Cisco users.

“Their technology is going to provide our customers with yet another important innovation — automatically removing unwanted noise — to continue enabling exceptional Webex meeting experiences,” Patel, who was at Box for many years before joining Cisco recently, said in a statement.

In a blog post, BabbleLabs CEO and co-founder Chris Rowen wrote that conversations about being acquired by Cisco began just recently, and the deal came together pretty quickly. “We quickly reached a common view that merging BabbleLabs into the Cisco Collaboration team could accelerate our common vision dramatically,” he wrote.

BabbleLabs, which launched three years ago and raised $18 million, according to Crunchbase, had an interesting, but highly technical idea. That can sometimes be difficult to translate into a viable commercial product, but makes a highly attractive acquisition target for a company like Cisco.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says this acquisition could be seen as part of a broader industry consolidation. “We’re seeing consolidation taking place as the big web conferencing players are snapping up smaller players to round out their platforms,” he said.

He added, “WebEx may not be getting the attention that Zoom is, but it still has a significant presence in the enterprise, and this acquisition will allow them to keep improving their offering,”

The deal is expected to close in the current quarter after regulatory approval. Upon closing, BabbleLabs employees will become part of Cisco’s Collaboration Group.

#artificial-intelligence, #babblelabs, #cisco, #enterprise, #exit, #fundings-exits, #ma, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #noise-filtering, #startups, #tc, #video-conferencing, #webex

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Leverage AI to optimize customer service outcomes

As offices worldwide shift to remote work, our interactions with customers and colleagues have evolved in tandem. Professionals who once relied on face-to-face communication and firm handshakes must now close deals in a world where both are rare. Coworkers we once sat beside every day are now only available over Slack and Zoom, changing the nature of internal communication as well.

While this new reality presents a challenge, the advancement of key technologies allows us to not just adapt, but thrive. We are now on the precipice of the biggest revolution in workplace communication since the invention of the telephone.

It’s not enough to simply accept the new status quo, particularly as the overall economic climate remains tenuous. Artificial intelligence has much to offer in improving the way we speak to one another in the social distance era, and has already seen wide adoption in certain areas. Much of this algorithmic work has gone on behind the scenes of our most-used apps, such as Google Meet’s noise-canceling technology, which uses an AI to mute certain extraneous sounds on video calls. Other advances work in real-time right before our eyes — like Zoom’s myriad virtual backgrounds, or the automatic transcription and translation technology built into most video conferencing apps.

This kind of technology has helped employees realize that, despite the unprecedented shift to remote work, digital conversations do not just strive to recreate the in-person experience — rather, they can improve upon the way we communicate entirely.

It’s estimated that 65% of the workforce will be working remotely within the next five years. With a more hands-on approach to AI — that is, using the technology to actually augment everyday communications — workers can gain insight into concepts, workflows and ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Your customer service experience

Roughly 55% of the data companies collect falls into the category of “dark data”: information that goes completely unused, kept on an internal server until it’s eventually wiped. Any company with a customer service department is invariably growing their stock of dark data with every chat log, email exchange and recorded call.

When a customer phones in with a query or complaint, they’re told early on that their call “may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Given how cheap data storage has become, there’s no “maybe” about it. The question is what to do with this data.

#artificial-intelligence, #chatbot, #column, #covid-19, #customer-experience, #customer-service, #cybernetics, #ecommerce, #extra-crunch, #growth-and-monetization, #onboarding, #startups, #tc, #telecommuting, #video-conferencing

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Zoom introduces all-in-one home communications appliance for $599

Zoom has become the de facto standard for online communications during the pandemic, but the company has found that it’s still a struggle for many employees to set up the equipment and the software to run a meeting effectively. The company’s answer is an all-in-one communications appliance with Zoom software ready to roll in a simple touch interface.

The device dubbed the Zoom for Home – DTEN ME, is being produced by partner DTEN. It consists of a stand-alone 27 inch screen, essentially a large tablet equipped with three wide-angle cameras designed for high-resolution video and 8 microphones. Zoom software is pre-loaded on the device and the interface is designed to provide easy access to popular Zoom features.

Zoom for Home – DTEN ME with screen sharing on. Image Credit: Zoom

Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, says that the idea is to offer an appliance that you can pull out of the box and it’s ready to use with minimal fuss. “Zoom for Home is an initiative from Zoom that allows any Zoom user to deploy a personal collaboration device for their video meetings, phone calls, interactive whiteboard annotation — all the good stuff that you want to do on Zoom, you can do with a dedicated purpose-built device,” Smith told TechCrunch.

He says this is designed with simplicity in mind, so that you pull it out of the box and launch the interface by entering a pairing code on a website on your laptop or mobile phone. Once the interface appears, you simply touch the function you want such as making a phone call or starting a meeting and it connects automatically.

Image Credits: Zoom

You can link it to your calendar so that all your meetings appear in a sidebar, and you just touch the next meeting to connect. If you need to share your screen it includes ultrasonic pairing between the appliance and your laptop or mobile phone. This works like Bluetooth, but instead of sending out a radio signal, it sends out a sound between 18 and 22 kHz, which most people can’t hear, to connect the two devices, Smith said.

Smith says Zoom will launch with two additional partners including the Neat Bar and the Poly Studio X Series, and could add other partners in the future.

The DTEN appliance will cost $599 and works with an existing Zoom license. The company is taking pre-orders and the devices are expected to ship next month.

#cloud, #enterprise, #hardware, #hardware-appliances, #online-meetings, #tc, #video-conferencing, #zoom

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Decrypted: Police hack criminal phone network; Randori raises $20M Series A

Last week was, for most Americans, a four-day work week. But a lot still happened in the security world.

The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agencies warned of two critical vulnerabilities — one in Palo Alto’s networking tech and the other in F5’s gear — that foreign, nation state-backed hackers will “likely” exploit these flaws to get access to networks, steal data or spread malware. Plus, the FCC formally declared Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE as threats to national security.

Here’s more from the week.


THE BIG PICTURE

How police hacked a massive criminal phone network

Last week’s takedown of EncroChat was, according to police, the “biggest and most significant” law enforcement operation against organized criminals in the history of the U.K. EncroChat sold encrypted phones with custom software akin to how BlackBerry phones used to work; you needed one to talk to other device owners.

But the phone network was used almost exclusively by criminals, allowing their illicit activities to be kept secret and go unimpeded: drug deals, violent attacks, corruption — even murders.

That is, until French police hacked into the network, broke the encryption and uncovered millions of messages, according to Vice, which covered the takedown of the network. The circumstances of the case are unique; police have not taken down a network like this before.

But technical details of the case remain under wraps, likely until criminal trials begin, at which point attorneys for the alleged criminals are likely to rest much of their defense on the means — and legality — in which the hack was carried out.

#advisors, #ceo, #chief-information-security-officer, #china, #computing, #cryptography, #data-breach, #data-protection, #decrypted, #encryption, #extra-crunch, #federal-communications-commission, #huawei, #hunt, #information-technology, #internet-security, #market-analysis, #palo-alto, #security, #series-a, #social, #startups, #u-s-government, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #video-conferencing

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Four views: is edtech changing how we learn?

In the future, students might dismiss stories about weather-related school closures as folklore.

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to experiment with edtech, but it’s still unclear whether attending school virtually with a laptop at the kitchen table offers the same benefits as being in a classroom. One recent study found that only 27% of schools asked teachers to monitor student attendance and 37% were required to do 1:1 check-ins on an ongoing basis.

Can education in a post-pandemic world become more accessible, asynchronous and persistent? Or will our digital divide deepen existing inequities in our educational system?

To consider the issue, four TechCrunch staffers looked at the future of edtech and remote learning:

  • Devin Coldewey
  • Natasha Mascarenhas
  • Alex Wilhelm
  • Danny Crichton

Devin Coldewey: gaming will transform remote learning, but stigma must be addressed

When I was a kid, we played SimCity in computer class once we’d finished our typing lessons, five-paragraph essays and so on. I always thought I was pulling a fast one by zipping through the assignments and getting straight to building my city, but the truth is I was learning just as much with one as the other. The game fooled me into learning about city infrastructure, taxes and other civic concepts that I probably would have fallen asleep had I been reading about them.

As a preschool teacher I found myself on the other side of this phenomenon, finding ways to impart learning on my little charges without boring them — and they were easily bored. It was always better to learn by doing, but kids don’t do anything unless it’s fun.

The pandemic isn’t just affecting higher education; 4th-graders and middle school kids are being thrown for a loop as well — not to mention their teachers. Gaming has to be part of the solution.

Our education system has a sort of built-in fun-to-learning ratio that gets smaller as the years go on, because many of the tools we use to teach core concepts are dated and static. There are a few “edutainment” products if kids are lucky enough to have the iPads or laptops to use them on, but not enough, and they’re plainly of a lower order than the real games kids play all the time. When a kid’s hobby is playing something like Fortnite or Breath of the Wild, does an algebra worksheet dressed up like a 2002 Flash game really seem like anything more than work?

Educational games are stuck on the idea of adding fun to old methods of teaching instead of rethinking how learning can be accomplished outside of those methods. Yet the possibilities of teaching using remote presence and virtual worlds are staggering.

A simple and laudable example is Ubisoft’s educational mode, present in its last two Assassin’s Creed games set in ancient Egypt and classical Athens. For all that they came up short as AAA games, these astonishingly detailed sandboxes offer an entire college course’s worth of anthropology and history; in fact, a special non-violent mode exists just for exploring those aspects of the game.

Imagine telling a classroom full of 14-year-olds that their assignment was to play Assassin’s Creed for an hour a day, find something interesting, look it up and write a paragraph about it. Or build a functioning rocket in Kerbal Space Program. Or finish a set of puzzles in The Witness and list the hidden rules that govern them. Or work with three other kids to build a model of the school in Minecraft or Roblox .

Right now, that’s practically unthinkable (outside a few forward-thinking classrooms), partly because the culture around gaming is weird, toxic and few people take the medium seriously for educational purposes. But if remote learning is going to be part of K-12 education from now on — and we’d better plan for that — we need to meet kids where they are, not try to contort them into a mold cast a century ago.

It’s difficult to visualize because “real” games aren’t built for education except as a secondary consideration. But virtual worlds are becoming venues for more than competition, and embracing that from first principles, by involving educators and students to see what is needed and how those needs can be met, will be a fruitful path for the industry to pursue.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #extra-crunch, #information-technology, #market-analysis, #online-classes, #online-education, #online-learning, #policy, #remote-learning, #roblox, #tc, #ubisoft, #video-conferencing

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Zoom U-turns on no e2e encryption for free users

In a major security U-turn, videoconferencing platform Zoom has said it will, after all, offer end-to-end encryption to all users — including those who do not pay to use its service.

The caveat is that free users must provide certain “additional” pieces of information for verification purposes (such as a phone number where they can respond to a verification link) before being allowed to use e2e encryption — which Zoom says is a necessary check so it can “prevent and fight abuse” on its platform. However it’s a major step up from the prior offer of ‘no e2e unless you pay us‘.

“We are grateful to those who have provided their input on our E2EE design, both technical and philosophical,” Zoom writes in a blog update today. “We encourage everyone to continue to share their views throughout this complex, ongoing process.”

The company faced a storm of criticism earlier this month after Bloomberg reported comments by CEO Eric Yuan, who said it did not intend to provide e2e encryption for non-paying users because it wanted to be able to work with law enforcement.

Security and privacy experts waded it to blast the stance. One notable critic of the position was cryptography expert, Matthew Green — whose name you’ll find listed on Zoom’s e2e encryption design white paper.

“Once the precedent is set that E2E encryption is too ‘dangerous’ to hand to the masses, the genie is out of the bottle. And once corporate America accepts that private communications are too politically risky to deploy, it’s going to be hard to put it back,” Green warned in a nuanced Twitter thread.

Since the e2e encryption storm, Zoom has faced another scandal — this time related to privacy and censorship, after it admitted shutting down a number of Chinese activists accounts at the request of the Chinese government. So the company may have stumbled upon another good reason for reversing its stance — given it’s a lot more difficult to censor content you can’t see.

Explaining the shift in its blog post, Zoom says only that it follows a period of engagement “with civil liberties organizations, our CISO council, child safety advocates, encryption experts, government representatives, our own users, and others”.

“We have also explored new technologies to enable us to offer E2EE to all tiers of users,” it adds.

Its blog briefly discusses how non-paying users will be able to gain access to e2e encryption, with Zoom writing: “Free/Basic users seeking access to E2EE will participate in a one-time process that will prompt the user for additional pieces of information, such as verifying a phone number via a text message.”

“Many leading companies perform similar steps on account creation to reduce the mass creation of abusive accounts. We are confident that by implementing risk-based authentication, in combination with our current mix of tools — including our Report a User function — we can continue to prevent and fight abuse,” it adds.

Certain countries require an ID check to purchase a SIM card so Zoom’s verification provision may make it impossible for some users to access e2e encryption without leaving an identity trail which state agencies could unpick.

Per Zoom’s blog post, a beta of the e2e encryption implementation will kick off in July. The platform’s default encryption remains AES 256 GCM in the meanwhile.

The forthcoming e2e encryption will not be switched on by default — but rather offered as an option. Zoom says this is because it limits some meeting functionality (“such as the ability to include traditional PSTN phone lines or SIP/H.323 hardware conference room systems”).

“Hosts will toggle E2EE on or off on a per-meeting basis,” it further notes, adding that account administrators will also have the ability to enable and disable E2EE at the account and group level.

Today the company also released a v2 update of its e2e encryption design — posting the spec to Github.

#aes, #apps, #cryptography, #data-security, #e2e-encryption, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #eric-yuan, #law-enforcement, #privacy, #security, #video-conferencing, #zoom

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Amid pressure, Zoom will end-to-end encrypt all calls, free or paid

Stylized photo of a computer screen with the image of a padlock.

Enlarge (credit: Yuri Samoilov Follow / Flickr)

Under pressure from privacy and human rights advocates, Zoom said on Wednesday that it will make end-to-end encryption available to both paying and non-paying users of its video conferencing service.

Previously, Zoom said it would provide end-to-end encryption to paying customers and a less-robust form of encryption, known as transit encryption, to non-paying customers. Zoom said the two-tier offering would allow law enforcement to regulate illicit content coming from users who don’t have accounts and, hence, are harder to track. Paying users, by contrast, had more traceability and, hence, were less likely to use the platform for illegal purposes.

Critics in privacy and human rights circles said the Zoom plans threatened to make privacy a premium feature rather than something that’s available by default. The critics called on Zoom to provide the same protections for all users.

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#biz-it, #e2ee, #end-to-end-enryption, #policy, #privacy, #tech, #video-conferencing, #zoom

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