Amazon expands same-day Prime delivery to 6 more U.S. cities

Amazon announced this morning it’s expanding its faster, same-day delivery service to half a dozen more U.S. cities. The service, which the retailer has been working to make same-day delivery even faster over the past year, now offers consumers in a number of markets the ability to shop up to 3 million items on Amazon.com, then receive their orders in only a few hours.

To do so, Amazon invested in what it called “mini-fulfillment centers” closer to where customers lived in select U.S. markets, initially in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando, and Dallas. Those customers could then shop across a dozen merchandise categories, including Baby, Beauty & Health, Kitchen & Dining, Electronics, Pet Supplies, and more. As the pandemic continued to impact Amazon’s business, in November 2020, Amazon expanded its faster same-day service to more cities, to include Nashville and Washington, D.C.

With today’s expansion, Amazon is rolling out same-day delivery to Prime members in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa, Charlotte, and Houston, bringing the total markets served to 12. In these markets, shoppers will be able to place orders online throughout the day then have items on their doorstep in as fast as 5 hours, Amazon says. Customers can also place orders by midnight to have their orders arrive the following morning.

The service continues to be free with no additional charges on orders over $35 that qualify for same-day delivery. Orders under $35 have a $2.99 fee for Prime customers, and a $12.99 fee for non-members. Prime membership, meanwhile, is $12.99 per month or $119 per year.

The time frame commitments for same-day delivery are the same as those Amazon promised last year when it first announced its plans to speed up Prime delivery. Orders placed between midnight and 8 AM will arrive today by 1 PM. Orders placed between 8 AM and 1 PM arrive by 6 PM; those placed between 1 PM and 5 PM will arrive by 10 PM; and those placed between 5 PM and midnight will arrive overnight by 8 AM. That means customers can place orders fairly late and receive their items before they head out of the house the next day.

Faster same-day delivery has been one of the most significant services Amazon has used to challenge rivals like Walmart and Target, who both benefit from having a large brick-and-mortar footprint that allows them to more quickly serve their customers through same-day order pickup, curbside pickup, and same-day delivery services. While Walmart partners with third-parties on its same-day service, Express delivery, largely focused on grocery, Target acquired delivery service Shipt in 2017 to bring its fast delivery services in-house.

In response to the growing competition, Amazon has been recently acquiring smaller warehouse space inside major urban metros, including in these six new markets where it’s now announcing same-day delivery, as well as larger markets, like New York, and even suburban neighborhoods. It also acquired Whole Foods for $137.7 billion in 2017, not only to more fully participate in the online grocery business, but also in part because of its large retail footprint.

As Amazon has sped up the pace of what’s available under “Prime” delivery, it has wound down its older “Prime Now” business, which was retired Aug. 30 and will be fully shut down by year-end. The separate app had allowed customers to shop items that were available in one or two hours for an additional fee.

The news follows Amazon’s earning miss last week, when the retailer fell short of Wall St.’s estimates for revenue, and gave a weaker than-expected outlook for the quarter ahead, which Amazon attributed to difficult comparisons with a time frame that included Covid lockdowns during height of the pandemic in 2020. The company reported $113.08 billion in revenue and earnings of $15.12, versus expectations of $115.2 billion and $12.30.

#amazon, #amazon-prime, #amazon-com, #baltimore, #charlotte, #chicago, #dallas, #delivery-services, #detroit, #ecommerce, #food-delivery, #houston, #nashville, #new-york, #online-grocery, #online-shopping, #orlando, #philadelphia, #phoenix, #prime, #prime-now, #retailers, #shipt, #tampa, #target, #united-states, #walmart, #washington-d-c, #whole-foods

Evernote quietly disappeared from an anti-surveillance lobbying group’s website

In 2013, eight tech companies were accused of funneling their users’ data to the U.S. National Security Agency under the so-called PRISM program, according to highly classified government documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six months later, the tech companies formed a coalition under the name Reform Government Surveillance, which as the name would suggest was to lobby lawmakers for reforms to government surveillance laws.

The idea was simple enough: to call on lawmakers to limit surveillance to targeted threats rather than conduct a dragnet collection of Americans’ private data, provide greater oversight and allow companies to be more transparent about the kinds of secret orders for user data that they receive.

Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL (to later become Verizon Media, which owns TechCrunch — for now) were the founding members of Reform Government Surveillance, or RGS, and over the years added Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, Snap and Zoom as members.

But then sometime in June 2019, Evernote quietly disappeared from the RGS website without warning. What’s even more strange is that nobody noticed for two years, not even Evernote.

“We hadn’t realized our logo had been removed from the Reform Government Surveillance website,” said an Evernote spokesperson, when reached for comment by TechCrunch. “We are still members.”

Evernote joined the coalition in October 2014, a year and a half after PRISM first came to public light, even though the company was never named in the leaked Snowden documents. Still, Evernote was a powerful ally to have onboard, and showed RGS that its support for reforming government surveillance laws was gaining traction outside of the companies named in the leaked NSA files. Evernote cites its membership of RGS in its most recent transparency report and that it supports efforts to “reform practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information” — which makes its disappearance from the RGS website all the more bizarre.

TechCrunch also asked the other companies in the RGS coalition if they knew why Evernote was removed and all either didn’t respond, wouldn’t comment or had no idea. A spokesperson for one of the RGS companies said they weren’t all that surprised since companies “drop in and out of trade associations.”

The website of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which features Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote, which is also a member. Image Credits: TechCrunch

While that may be true — companies often sign on to lobbying efforts that ultimately help their businesses; government surveillance is one of those rare thorny issues that got some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley rallying behind the cause. After all, few tech companies have openly and actively advocated for an increase in government surveillance of their users, since it’s the users themselves who are asking for more privacy baked into the services they use.

In the end, the reason for Evernote’s removal seems remarkably benign.

“Evernote has been a longtime member — but they were less active over the last couple of years, so we removed them from the website,” said an email from Monument Advocacy, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm that represents RGS. “Your inquiry has helped to prompt new conversations between our organizations and we’re looking forward to working together more in the future.”

Monument has been involved with RGS since near the beginning after it was hired by the RGS coalition of companies to lobby for changes to surveillance laws in Congress. Monument has spent $2.2 million in lobbying to date since it began work with RGS in 2014, according to OpenSecrets, specifically on lobbying lawmakers to push for changes to bills under congressional consideration, such as changes to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, albeit with mixed success. RGS supported the USA Freedom Act, a bill designed to curtail some of the NSA’s collection under the Patriot Act, but was unsuccessful in its opposition to the reauthorization of Section 702 of FISA, the powers that allow the NSA to collect intelligence on foreigners living outside the United States, which was reauthorized for six years in 2018.

RGS has been largely quiet for the past year — issuing just one statement on the importance of transatlantic data flows, the most recent hot-button issue to concern tech companies, fearing that anything other than the legal status quo could see vast swaths of their users in Europe cut off from their services.

“RGS companies are committed to protecting the privacy of those who use our services, and to safeguard personal data,” said the statement, which included the logos of Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote.

In a coalition that’s only as strong as its members, the decision to remove Evernote from the website while it’s still a member hardly sends a resounding message of collective corporate unity — which these days isn’t something Big Tech can find much of.

#amazon, #apple, #articles, #cloud-storage, #computing, #congress, #edward-snowden, #europe, #evernote, #facebook, #government, #linkedin, #mass-surveillance, #microsoft, #national-security-agency, #prism, #security, #software, #spokesperson, #techcrunch, #transparency-report, #twitter, #united-states, #usa-freedom-act, #verizon, #washington-d-c, #yahoo

Tamika Butler, Remix’s Tiffany Chu and Revel’s Frank Reig to discuss how to balance equitability and profitability at TC Sessions Mobility

The race among mobility startups to become profitable by controlling market share has produced a string of bad results for cities and the people living in the them.

City officials and agencies learned from those early deployments of ride-hailing and shared scooter services and have since pushed back with new rules and tighter control over which companies can operate. This correction has prompted established companies to change how they do business and fueled a new crop of startups, all promising a different approach.

But can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? And how?

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a virtual event scheduled for June 9, aims to dig into those questions. Luckily, we have three guests who are at the center of cities, equity and shared mobility: community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Butler, a lawyer and founder and principal of her own consulting company, is well known for work in diversity and inclusion, equity, the built environment, community organizing and leading nonprofits. She was most recently the director of planning in California and the director of equity and inclusion at Toole Design. She previously served as the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler also sits on the board of Lacuna Technologies.

Chu is the CEO and co-founder of Remix, a startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design. Remix was recently acquired by Via for $100 million and will continue to operate as a subsidiary of the company. Remix, which was backed by Sequoia Capital, Energy Impact Partners, Y Combinator, and Elemental Excelerator has been recognized as both a 2020 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and BloombergNEF Pioneer for its work in empowering cities to make transportation decisions with sustainability and equity at the forefront. Chu currently serves as Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and sits on the city’s Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. Previously, Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, the first UX hire at Zipcar and is an alum of Y Combinator. Tiffany has a background in architecture and urban planning from MIT.

Early Bird tickets to the show are now available — book today and save $100 before prices go up.

Reig is the co-founder and CEO of Revel, a transportation company that got its start launching a shared electric moped service in Brooklyn. The company, which launched in 2018, has since expanded its moped service to Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Miami, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. The company has since expanded its focus beyond moped and has started to build fast-charging EV Superhubs across New York City and launched an eBike subscription service in four NYC boroughs. Prior to Revel, Reig held senior roles in the energy and corporate sustainability sectors.

The trio will join other speakers TechCrunch has announced, a list that so far includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JonBen Bevirt, investor and Linked founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, as well as investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital and Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event.

#america, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #brands, #butler, #california, #ceo, #cities, #clara-brenner, #companies, #construct-capital, #energy, #energy-impact-partners, #frank-reig, #joby-aviation, #miami, #mit, #new-york-city, #oakland, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #remix, #revel, #san-francisco, #sequoia-capital, #starship-technologies, #startup-company, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility, #techcrunch, #tiffany-chu, #transportation, #urban-innovation-fund, #washington-d-c, #world-economic-forum, #y-combinator, #zipcar

Pie Insurance raises $118M for data-driven workers’ comp coverage

Pie Insurance, a startup offering workers’ compensation insurance to small businesses, announced this morning that it has closed on $118 million in a Series C round of funding.

Allianz X — investment arm of German financial services giant Allianz — and Acrew Capital co-led the round, which brings the Washington, D.C.-based startup’s total equity funding raised to over $300 million since its 2017 inception. Pie declined to disclose the valuation at which its latest round was raised, other than to say it was “a significant increase.”

Return backers Greycroft, SVB Capital, SiriusPoint, Elefund and Moxley Holdings also participated in the Series C financing.

The startup, which uses data and analytics in its effort to offer SMBs a way to get insurance digitally and more affordably, has seen its revenues climb by 150% since it raised $127 million in a Series B extension last May. Its headcount too has risen — to 260 from 140 last year.

Pie began selling its insurance policies in March 2018. The company declined to give recent hard revenue numbers, saying it only has grown its gross written premium to over $100 million and partnered with over 1,000 agencies nationwide. Last year, execs told me that in the first quarter of 2020, the company had written nearly $19 million in premiums, up 150% from just under $7.5 million during the same period in 2019.

Like many other companies over the past year, Pie Insurance — with its internet-driven, cloud-based platform — has benefited from the increasing further adoption of digital technologies. 

“We are riding that wave,” said Pie Insurance co-founder and CEO John Swigart. “We believe small businesses deserve better than they have historically gotten. And we think that technology can be the means by which that better experience, that more efficient process, and fundamentally, that lower price can be delivered to them.”

Pie’s customer base includes a range of small businesses including trades, contractors, landscapers, janitors, auto shops and restaurants. Pie sells its insurance directly through its website and also mostly through thousands of independent insurance agents.

Workers’ compensation insurance is the only commercial insurance mandated for every company in the United States, points out Lauren Kolodny, founding partner at Acrew Capital.

“Historically, it’s been extremely cumbersome to qualify, onboard and manage workers’ comp insurance — particularly for America’s small businesses which haven’t been prioritized by larger carriers,” she wrote via email. 

Pie, Koldony said, is able to offer underwriting decisions “almost instantly,” digitally and more affordably than legacy insurance carriers.

“I have seen very few insurtech teams that come close,” she added.

Dr. Nazim Cetin, CEO of Allianz X, told TechCrunch via email that his firm believes Pie is operating in an “attractive and growing market that is ripe for digital disruption.”

The company, he said, leverages “excellent,” proprietary data and advanced analytics to be able to provide tailored underwriting and automation. 

“We see some great collaboration opportunities with Allianz companies too,” he added.

Looking ahead, the company plans to use its new capital to invest further in technology and automation, as well as to grow its core workers’ comp insurance business and “lay the groundwork for new business offerings in 2021 and beyond.”

#acrew-capital, #allianz, #allianz-x, #america, #financial-services, #funding, #fundings-exits, #insurance, #insurance-policies, #insurtech, #lauren-kolodny, #pie-insurance, #recent-funding, #startups, #svb-capital, #underwriting, #united-states, #venture-capital, #washington-d-c

Amazon will expand its Amazon Care on-demand healthcare offering U.S.-wide this summer

Amazon is apparently pleased with how its Amazon Care pilot in Seattle has gone, since it announced this morning that it will be expanding the offering across the U.S. this summer, and opening it up to companies of all sizes, in addition to its own employees. The Amazon Care model combines on-demand and in-person care, and is meant as a solution from the search giant to address shortfalls in current offering for employer-sponsored healthcare offerings.

In a blog post announcing the expansion, Amazon touted the speed of access to care made possible for its employees and their families via the remote, chat and video-based features of Amazon Care. These are facilitated via a dedicated Amazon Care app, which provides direct, live chats via a nurse or doctor. Issues that then require in-person care is then handled via a house call, so a medical professional is actually sent to your home to take care of things like administering blood tests or doing a chest exam, and prescriptions are delivered to your door as well.

The expansion is being handled differently across both in-person and remote variants of care; remote services will be available starting this summer to both Amazon’s own employees, as well as other companies who sign on as customers, starting this summer. The in-person side will be rolling out more slowly, starting with availability in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and “other cities in the coming months” according to the company.

As of today, Amazon Care is expanding in its home state of Washington to begin serving other companies. The idea is that others will sing on to make Amazon Care part of its overall benefits package for employees. Amazon is touting the speed advantages of testing services, including results delivery, for things including COVID-19 as a major strength of the service.

The Amazon Care model has a surprisingly Amazon twist, too – when using the in-person care option, the app will provide an updating ETA for when to expect your physician or medical technician, which is eerily similar to how its primary app treats package delivery.

While the Amazon Care pilot in Washington only launched a year-and-a-half ago, the company has had its collective mind set on upending the corporate healthcare industry for some time now. It announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan back at the very beginning of 2018 to form a joint venture specifically to address the gaps they saw in the private corporate healthcare provider market.

That deep pocketed all-star team ended up officially disbanding at the outset of this year, after having done a whole lot of not very much in the three years in between. One of the stated reasons that Amazon and its partners gave for unpartnering was that each had made a lot of progress on its own in addressing the problems it had faced anyway. While Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan’s work in that regard might be less obvious, Amazon was clearly referring to Amazon Care.

It’s not unusual for large tech companies with lots of cash on the balance sheet and a need to attract and retain top-flight talent to spin up their own healthcare benefits for their workforces. Apple and Google both have their own on-campus wellness centers staffed by medical professionals, for instance. But Amazon’s ambitious have clearly exceeded those of its peers, and it looks intent on making a business line out of the work it did to improve its own employee care services — a strategy that isn’t too dissimilar from what happened with AWS, by the way.

#amazon, #amazon-care, #apple, #aws, #baltimore, #berkshire-hathaway, #computing, #enterprise, #eta, #google, #health, #healthcare, #jpmorgan, #physician, #seattle, #tc, #technology, #united-states, #washington, #washington-d-c

Forward Health raises $225M from investors including The Weeknd as it looks to expand nationwide

Primary care startup Forward Health is looking to expand its tech-powered, personalized healthcare model across the U.S., and will use a new $225 million Series D raise to help make it happen. The new capital comes from Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, SoftBank, Mark Benioff – and recording artist The Weeknd – among others. I spoke to Forward Health co-founder and CEO Adrian Aoun about his company’s plans for this fresh capital, and we also chatted briefly about how The Weeknd got involved.

Forward, which currently operates clinics in select U.S. markets including LA, New York, Chicago, SF and Washington, D.C., has a number of distinguishing features, but most notable are likely its tech-first approach that includes a full biometric assessment upon first visit, and its business model, which eschews insurance providers altogether and instead works based on a single flat membership fee.

Aoun and his co-founders created Forward Health with the idea of building a healthcare business that’s aligned with its customers in terms of incentives, which is why they sidestepped insurance altogether. That’s led to a focus on customer service and long-term patient relationships and outcomes, which Aoun says are stronger because they’re not bound by an individual’s relationship with their employer, for instance, which is often the case when an employer foots the bill for healthcare via company-provided insurance.

“The average person in the Bay Area is with their employer for about two and a quarter years,” Aoun told me. “So your employer is kind of sitting there thinking, if you get the flu, you’re missing three days of work – I’m out some money.” That means they’ll do things like institute programs to remind employees constantly to get their annual flu vaccine, and do other things to make that happen like provide on-premise shots. But Aoun says they’re optimizing for short-term outcomes, not long-term health – because that’s where their incentives tell them to optimize.

Image Credits: Forward Health

But when long-term healthcare programs, like lifestyle shifts that can lessen the potential of truly dangerous outcomes like heart disease and cancer, come into play, an employer who expects you to stick around for a few years at most is far less incentivized to want to fund that. Forward Health, which aims to attract subscribers and, for lack of a better term, minimize churn, actually is incentivized to make those long-term outcomes positive for everyone who comes through the door.

That’s part of why one focus with this new funding is to debut new doctor-led programs tailored to treating conditions that individual patients might be predisposed to – like heart health, if heart disease runs in your family, or specific types of cancer, if there’s a history of that, for instance.

“We’ve got our [in-clinic] body scanners, our blood tests, our gene sequencing – we basically collect on the order of about 500 biometric data points,” Aoun said. “The idea is you and your doctor then figure out which which kind of programs make sense for you based upon those.”

For example, Aoun says he’s actually at fairly high risk for developing heart disease, so there’s a Forward program that includes doing a heart risk analysis, blood tests, and regular at-home monitoring of key risk factors like blood pressure and weight. Another program for cancer prevention includes measures designed to help lessen the risk of contracting the top five cancers in terms of prevalence — so Forward created a dermatoscope for that, which is essentially a skin scanner to map out an individual’s moles and skin features and alert them of any changes.

This builds on work that Forward began at the outset of COVID-19 — its ‘Forward at Home’ program, which includes sending patients home with specialized sensors for remote care. Another specialized program tailored to COVID-19 actually offers monitoring specific to the disease in order to track a patient’s progress safely.

“We’re now launching programs for all the top diseases to help you get ahead of them,” Aoun said. “And whatever kind of programs you’re using, you walk away with plans that are tailored to you, again, to counsel you not only on the potential risks for the things like the cancer and heart disease, but also to be proactive, with guidance from diet, to exercise, to stress, and to sleep, etc.”

The programs are supported by Forward’s 24/7 worldwide care support team, which subscribers can access via their mobile app. It’s also complemented by the check-ins with your physician via the ‘Forward at Home’ in-home virtual visits.

Image Credits: Forward Health

While Forward is already rolling these out, it has plans to continue to develop new ones, and it’s also monitoring results in order to understand how they’re working for users, and will be sharing that data once it has collected a significant sample. I asked Aoun how Forward can scale this kind of personalized care – especially now that the startup plans to open additional locations in other parts of the country.

Basically, Aoun said that Forward approached it as an engineering problem. He argues that most solutions in healthcare see the fundamental issue as a labor problem — but trying to scale that, with the salaries that medical professionals command, and the limited availability of skilled talent, makes no sense. Especially because consumers are naturally looking for improvements in their standard of care over time, in the same way they expect improvements in the products they buy or services they use.

Rather than relying on a chain of increasingly specific medical professionals to address individual health risks and needs, Aoun said Forward identified that there’s a massive amount of overlap in preventative care courses of action. The Forward team focused on breaking the fundamental elements down into what equate roughly to reusable Lego blocks, which can be recombined with relative speed and repeatability to produce a program that’s nonetheless tailored to an individual’s needs.

Combined with Forward Health’s longitudinal approach to care, these programs and their recombinant nature should prove a good dataset from which to assess how a direct, client-focused primary care model affects overall health.

And, because I promised, I’ll leave you with how Aoun says The Weeknd got involved in the Series D.

“He literally just walked by one of our locations, and walked in and was like, ‘This is awesome,’ and then asked a friend, who asked a friend, who asked a friend to get connected,” he told me.

#adrian-aoun, #artist, #cancer, #chicago, #disease, #flu, #forward, #forward-health, #founders-fund, #health, #healthcare, #khosla-ventures, #louisiana, #new-york, #physician, #recent-funding, #softbank, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #washington-d-c

Twitter’s vision of decentralization could also be the far-right’s internet endgame

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub who joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc..”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows user to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

#android, #biz-stone, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #encryption, #free-software, #gab, #google, #house-energy-and-commerce-committee, #jack-dorsey, #peer-to-peer, #photographer, #president, #social, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #social-network, #social-networks, #tc, #technology, #text-messaging, #trump, #twitter, #united-states, #washington-d-c, #web-applications

Twitter will reinstate Trump’s account following his deletion of tweets

A Twitter spokesperson has confirmed with TechCrunch this morning that Trump has deleted three tweets that led to the temporarily suspension of this account last night.

Twitter locked the account pending deletion of the offending tweets on Wednesday following the riot and siege of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and said that the suspension would remain in place so long as the tweets were not removed, and that any further violation of its rules could result in an actual permanent account suspension for Trump.

The President’s account is to remain lock 12 hours after his deletion of the tweets (seen below). While we don’t have exact timing on when the countdown started, he has yet to tweet from the account. The account also still bears the warning that, “this Tweet is no longer available because it violated the Twitter Rules.”

While Trump has previously enjoyed the benefit of a rule Twitter put in place that allowed a special exemption for content that would normally violate its terms of service, but that it would allow to remain in the interest of public access in cases where it comes from accounts with a significant public interest component, like Trump’s while he’s occupying the office of U.S. President.

The three tweets that finally proved a bridge too far for Twitter included a video posted by Trump that called for an end to the violence on Capitol Hill, but that also said “We love you, you’re very special” to the terrorists taking part in the action. The other two included statements that falsely suggested the legitimate results of the most recent U.S. presidential election were somehow fraudulent, including one that suggested the terrorist actions in Washington that resulted were somehow justified.

It’s worth noting that Twitter didn’t actually deleted the offending tweets; the company generally has a policy of removing tweets that violate its terms from public view, and notifying the offending account that they must be deleted by the account holder themselves in order to re-instate the ability to actively use the account.

While Trump does not have access to his own official Twitter account, his deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino posted a statement early Thursday morning about the Electoral Certification process, which was completed in the early hours. The statement again included inciting language falsely disputing the election results, but remains available and untouched by any of Twitter’s flagging measures.

Until this week, most anticipated that Trump would continue to enjoy protections that come with his political status. Yesterday’s move marked a shift for Twitter, but there remains a major question around his status in the remaining two weeks of his Presidential term. Facebook, meanwhile, has taken the opposite action, altogether banning Trump from its platform, for “at least the next two weeks.”

#capitol, #donald-trump, #operating-systems, #policy, #president, #presidential-election, #social, #social-media, #software, #tc, #text-messaging, #twitter, #united-states, #washington, #washington-d-c

World Leaders Express Horror as U.S. Capitol Attack ‘Shakes the World’

Global leaders watched live as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, and many saw it as a warning to global democracies, placing the blame squarely on President Trump.

#demonstrations-protests-and-riots, #trump-donald-j, #u-s-capitol, #united-states, #united-states-politics-and-government, #washington-d-c

Pro-Trump mob storms the US Capitol, touting ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy

A chaotic scene unfolded in Washington D.C. on Wednesday as a large crowd of pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol Building.

The Trump supporters flooded into the nation’s capital to attend a rally held earlier by President Trump outside the White House. The rally was timed to protest lawmakers gathering Wednesday to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win.

At his own event, Trump encouraged his supporters to continue demonstrating against Congress, claiming incorrectly that Vice President Mike Pence holds the power to overturn the election results. While the situation is still unfolding, protesters penetrated the Capitol building and injuries have been confirmed, including at least one gunshot victim.

As Trump supporters flooded up the Capitol steps with “Make America Great Again” hats and “Stop the Steal” banners, the president did little to quell the violence. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “USA demands the truth!”

Twitter appended a warning label calling Trump’s election fraud claims “disputed” to the tweet. After his supporters already made their way into the Capitol building, the president seemed to walk back his calls to action, calling for supporters to remain peaceful.

The Stop the Steal movement grew out of online conspiracies boosting Trump’s unfounded claims that Democrats had in some way rigged the presidential election. In reality, U.S. electoral results were decisively in favor of Biden, though votes trickled in over an extended period of time, as expected, due to a massive expansion of pandemic-related mail-in voting.

Facebook made efforts to rein in Stop the Spread groups soon after the election, blocking the hashtag for violating its rules around election misinformation. “The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said at the time.

Stop the Steal supporters also found a foothold on many other platforms, including Reddit, Twitter and alternative social networks like Gab and Parler, which have attracted far-right users with policies much friendlier to extremist content. The crowd at the capitol also shares considerable overlap with QAnon, a constellation of conspiracy theories that exploded on Facebook, YouTube and other online platforms over the last few years.

This story is developing.

#congress, #deception, #donald-trump, #government, #online-platforms, #parler, #president, #presidential-election, #qanon, #social-networks, #spokesperson, #tc, #trump, #twitter, #united-states, #vice-president, #washington-d-c, #white-house

Dragos raises $110M Series C as demand to secure industrial systems soars

Cybersecurity firm Dragos has raised $110 million in its Series C, almost triple the amount that it raised two years ago in its last round.

Dragos was founded in 2016 to detect and respond to threats facing industrial control systems (ICS), the devices critical to the continued operations of power plants, water and energy supplies, and other critical infrastructure. The company’s threat detection platform — its moneymaker — helps companies with industrial control systems defend against hackers trying to get into important operational systems. Its platform kicks out hackers that could shut down manufacturing lines or control energy supply systems, while its research arm keeps tabs on the hackers that can break into these highly complex and segmented industrial networks in the first place.

The startup’s latest round was led by National Grid Partners and Koch Disruptive Technologies, with both firms adding a member each to Dragos’ board. The round also saw participation from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, as well as return investors Allegis Cyber, Canaan Partners, DataTribe, Energy Impact Partners and Schweitzer Engineering Labs.

This latest round of funding will help the company with its go-to-market efforts, as well as growing its customer support team with 30 staff and building up its sales and marketing team. Lee said the company’s priority had been to work on its threat platform, and less selling it.

About one-third of the company’s employees work in software engineering to build its threat platform.

Dragos founder and chief executive Robert Lee said the pandemic, which forced vast swathes of the world to work remotely from home under lockdown restrictions, served as a wake-up call for companies with critical infrastructure.

“When you’re talking about critical infrastructure sites and people’s utilities, you need to put your best foot forward on the tech first,” he said.

Many companies were already trying to adapt with the digital age, but Lee said many companies realized they had underinvested in ICS security.

Dragos team picture

A team photo of Dragos employees. Image Credits: Dragos

Based just outside Washington D.C., Dragos now has over 220 employees and will be adding more, close to doubling its headcount since last year, and adding new offices in Melbourne, Dubai and in the United Kingdom.

Lee said the U.K.’s transition out of the European Union would all but ensure that the new U.K. office could not serve as an EU hub for the company, but that it was necessary to “to go where the problems are.”

Another one of those places is Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, where Dragos has an office and now draws an investment. Saudi oil and gas manufacturing plants have been the target of several cyberattacks, including the Trisis malware in 2017 that shut down one of the kingdom’s biggest petrochemical plants. But the country has faced extensive criticism for its human rights record by international rights groups. Lee said the company works to protect infrastructure that serves civilians and has actively rejected military contracts that would fall afoul of those values. “I don’t want to put asterisks on that mission,” he said.

Lee told TechCrunch that the company has grown at a rapid pace since it was founded four years ago.

“Our goal was never to get acquired,” he said. Echoing remarks he made last year, Lee said that the company’s plan was to continue growing and investing in the problems that Dragos sees — with an eventual goal to take the company public. “But we’re not rushed,” he said.

“The hallmark of Dragos being successful won’t be a successful IPO,” said Lee. “The hallmark will be having validated and built the market large enough that there can be other companies that come behind us serving the other more niche aspects of the ICS market and building out the community, and making sure our infrastructure is safer.”

#california, #canaan-partners, #companies, #computer-security, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #dragos, #dubai, #energy-impact-partners, #hewlett-packard-enterprise, #national-grid-partners, #recent-funding, #saudi-arabia, #security, #series-c, #software-engineering, #startups, #united-kingdom, #washington-d-c

Google Pay gets a major redesign with a new emphasis on personal finance

Google is launching a major redesign of its Google Pay app on both Android and iOS today. Like similar phone-based contactless payment services, Google Pay — or Android Pay as it was known then — started out as a basic replacement for your credit card. Over time, the company added a few more features on top of that but the overall focus never really changed. After about five years in the market, Google Pay now has about 150 million users in 30 countries. With today’s update and redesign, Google is keeping all the core features intact but also taking the service in a new direction with a strong emphasis on helping you manage your personal finances (and maybe get a deal here and there as well).

Google is also partnering with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account in 2021. Called Plex, these mobile-first bank accounts will have no monthly fees, overdraft charges or minimum balances. The banks will own the accounts but the Google Pay app will be the main conduit for managing these accounts. The launch partners for this are Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

Image Credits: Google

“What we’re doing in this new Google Pay app, think of it is combining three things into one,” Google director of product management Josh Woodward said as he walked me through a demo of the new app. “The three things are three tabs in the app. One is the ability to pay friends and businesses really fast. The second is to explore offers and rewards, so you can save money at shops. And the third is getting insights about your spending so you can stay on top of your money.”

Paying friends and businesses was obviously always at the core of Google Pay — but the emphasis here has shifted a bit. “You’ll notice that everything in the product is built around your relationships,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s lead for Payments and Next Billion Users, told me. “It’s not about long lists of transactions or weird numbers. All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the feature that’s now front and center in the app is P2P payments. You can also still pay and request money through the app as usual, but as part of this overhaul, Google is now making it easier to split restaurant bills with friends, for example, or your rent and utilities with your roommates — and to see who already paid and who is still delinquent. Woodward tells me that Google built this feature after its user research showed that splitting bills remains a major pain point for its users.

In this same view, you can also find a list of companies you have recently transacted with — either by using the Google Pay tap-and-pay feature or because you’ve linked your credit card or bank account with the service. From there, you can see all of your recent transactions with those companies.

Image Credits: Google

Maybe the most important new feature Google is enabling with this update is indeed the ability to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Google Pay so that it can pull in information about your spending. It’s basically Mint-light inside the Google Pay app. This is what enables the company to offer a lot of the other new features in the app. Google says it is working with “a few different aggregators” to enable this feature, though it didn’t go into details about who its partners are. It’s worth stressing that this, like all of the new features here, is off by default and opt-in.

Image Credits: Google

The basic idea here is similar to that of other personal finance aggregators. At its most basic, it lets you see how much money you spent and how much you still have. But Google is also using its smarts to show you some interesting insights into your spending habits. On Monday, it’ll show you how much you spent on the weekend, for example.

“Think of these almost as like stories in a way,” Woodward said. “You can swipe through them so you can see your large transactions. You can see how much you spent this week compared to a typical week. You can look at how much money you’ve sent to friends and which friends and where you’ve spent money in the month of November, for example.”

This also then enables you to easily search for a given transaction using Google’s search capabilities. Since this is Google, that search should work pretty well and in a demo, the team showed me how a search for ‘Turkish’ brought up a transaction at a kebab restaurant, for example, even though it didn’t have ‘Turkish’ in its name. If you regularly take photos of your receipts, you can also now search through these from Google Pay and drill down to specific things you bought — as well as receipts and bills you receive in your Gmail inbox.

Also new inside of Google Pay is the ability to see and virtually clip coupons that are then linked to your credit card, so you don’t need to do anything else beyond using that linked credit card to get extra cashback on a given transaction, for example. If you opt in, these offers can also be personalized.

Image Credits: Google

The team also worked with the Google Lens team to now let you scan products and QR codes to look for potential discounts.

As for the core payments function, Google is also enabling a new capability that will let you use contactless payments at 30,000 gas stations now (often with a discount). The partners for this are Shell, ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco.

In addition, you’ll also soon be able to pay for parking in over 400 cities inside the app. Not every city is Portland, after all, and has a Parking Kitty. The first cities to get this feature are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., with others to follow soon.

It’s one thing to let Google handle your credit card transaction but it’s another to give it all of this — often highly personal — data. As the team emphasized throughout my conversation with them, Google Pay will not sell your data to third parties or even the rest of Google for ad targeting, for example. All of the personalized features are also off by default and the team is doing something new here by letting you turn them on for a three-month trial period. After those three months, you can then decide to keep them on or off.

In the end, whether you want to use the optional features and have Google store all of this data is probably a personal choice and not everybody will be comfortable with it. The rest of the core Google Pay features aren’t changing, after all, so you can still make your NFC payments at the supermarket with your phone just like before.

#android, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #austin, #bank, #boston, #citi, #computing, #exxonmobil, #google, #google-pay, #minneapolis, #mobile-payments, #online-payments, #p2p, #portland, #product-management, #shell, #tc, #up, #washington, #washington-d-c

Facebook steps into cloud gaming — and another feud with Apple

Facebook will soon be the latest tech giant to enter the world of cloud gaming. Their approach is different than what Microsoft or Google has built but Facebook highlights a shared central challenge: dealing with Apple.

Facebook is not building a console gaming competitor to compete with Stadia or xCloud, instead the focus is wholly on mobile games. Why cloud stream mobile games that your device is already capable of running locally? Facebook is aiming to get users into games more quickly and put less friction between a user seeing an advertisement for a game and actually playing it themselves. Users can quickly tap into the title without downloading anything and if they eventually opt to download the title from a mobile app store, they’ll be able to pick up where they left off.

Facebook’s service will launch on the desktop web and Android, but not iOS due to what Facebook frames as usability restrictions outlined in Apple’s App Store terms and conditions.

With the new platform, users will  be able to start playing mobile games directly from Facebook ads. Image via Facebook.

While Apple has suffered an onslaught of criticism in 2020 from developers of major apps like Spotify, Tinder and Fortnite for how much money they take as a cut from revenues of apps downloaded from the App Store, the plights of companies aiming to build cloud gaming platforms have been more nuanced and are tied to how those platforms are fundamentally allowed to operate on Apple devices.

Apple was initially slow to provide a path forward for cloud gaming apps from Google and Microsoft, which had previously been outlawed on the App Store. The iPhone maker recently updated its policies to allow these apps to exist, but in a more convoluted capacity than the platform makers had hoped, forcing them to first send users to the App Store before being able to cloud stream a gaming title on their platform.

For a user downloading a lengthy single-player console epic, the short pitstop is an inconvenience, but long-time Facebook gaming exec Jason Rubin says that the stipulations are a non-starter for what Facebook’s platform envisions, a way to start playing mobile games immediately without downloading anything.

“It’s a sequence of hurdles that altogether make a bad consumer experience,” Rubin tells TechCrunch.

Apple tells TechCrunch that they have continued to engage with Facebook on bringing its gaming efforts under its guidelines and that platforms can reach iOS by either submitting each individual game to the App Store for review or operating their service on Safari.

In terms of building the new platform onto the mobile web, Rubin says that without being able to point users of their iOS app to browser-based experiences, as current rules forbid, Facebook doesn’t see pushing its billions of users to accessing the service primarily from a browser as a reasonable alternative. In a Zoom call, Rubin demoes how this  could operate on iOS, with users tapping an advertisement inside the app and being redirected to a game experience in mobile Safari.

“But if I click on that, I can’t go to the web. Apple says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you can’t do that,’ Rubin tells us. “Apple may say that it’s a free and open web, but what you can actually build on that web is dictated by what they decide to put in their core functionality.”

Facebook VP of Play Jason Rubin. Image via Facebook.

Rubin, who co-founded the game development studio Naughty Dog in 1994 before it was acquired by Sony in 2001, has been at Facebook since he joined Oculus months after its 2014 acquisition was announced. Rubin had previously been tasked with managing the games ecosystem for its virtual reality headsets, this year he was put in charge of the company’s gaming initiatives across their core family of apps as the company’s VP of Play.

Rubin, well familiar with game developer/platform skirmishes, was quick to distinguish the bone Facebook had to pick with Apple and complaints from those like Epic Games which sued Apple this summer.

“I do want to put a pin in the fact that we’re giving Google 30% [on Android]. The Apple issue is not about money,” Rubin tells TechCrunch. “We can talk about whether or not it’s fair that Google takes that 30%. But we would be willing to give Apple the 30% right now, if they would just let consumers have the opportunity to do what we’re offering here.”

Facebook is notably also taking a 30% cut of transaction within these games, even as Facebook’s executive team has taken its own shots at Apple’s steep revenue fee in the past, most recently criticizing how Apple’s App Store model was hurting small businesses during the pandemic. This saga eventually led to Apple announcing that it would withhold its cut through the end of the year for ticket sales of small businesses hosting online events.

Apple’s reticence to allow major gaming platforms a path towards independently serving up games to consumers underscores the significant portion of App Store revenues that could be eliminated by a consumer shift towards these cloud platforms. Apple earned around $50 billion from the App Store last year, CNBC estimates, and gaming has long been their most profitable vertical.

Though Facebook is framing this as an uphill battle against a major platform for the good of the gamer, this is hardly a battle between two underdogs. Facebook pulled in nearly $70 billion in ad revenues last year and improving their offerings for mobile game studios could be a meaningful step towards increasing that number, something Apple’s App Store rules threaten.

For the time being, Facebook is keeping this launch pretty conservative. There are just 5-10 titles that are going to be available at launch, Rubin says. Facebook is rolling out access to the new service, which is free, this week across a handful of states in America, including California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and West Virginia. The hodge-podge nature of the geographic rollout is owed to the technical limitations of cloud-gaming– people have to be close to data centers where the service has rolled out in order to have a usable experience. Facebook is aiming to scale to the rest of the U.S. in the coming months, they say.

#america, #android, #app-store, #california, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #connecticut, #delaware, #epic-games, #executive, #facebook, #google, #iphone, #jason-rubin, #maryland, #massachusetts, #microsoft, #mobile-app, #mobile-game, #new-jersey, #new-york, #operating-systems, #pennsylvania, #rhode-island, #software, #sony, #spotify, #tc, #texas, #tinder, #united-states, #virginia, #virtual-reality, #vp, #washington-d-c, #web-browser, #xcloud

Humana partners with Heal and invests $100 million in the company’s doctor-on-demand service

“The doctor’s office is dead.”

That’s the way Nick Desai, the co-founder and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based startup Heal describes the future of traditional healthcare delivery.

While Desai’s bluster may be wishful thinking, the doctor’s office is certainly changing, and that’s thanks in part to companies like Heal, which offer in-home and telemedical consultations — and health insurance providers like Humana that are backing them.

The two companies have announced a new partnership that will see Humana pushing Heal’s in-home and virtual care delivery services to the patients it covers and committing $100 million to spur the Los Angeles-based startup’s growth.

“Humana has a more strategic view of home-based care,” said Desai. “We want all payers to be this strategic. Most insurance partners offer Heal now but we want them to view it more strategically.”

For Desai, the home is the best place to get care because doctors can see the environment that may influence (and in some cases complicate or worsen) a patient’s condition. Heal, Desai says, also works with the digital technologies to provide more remote and persistent patient monitoring, so that doctors can have a better sense of a patient’s health over time, rather than at an acute moment of care.

“You want to talk to the doctor and get continuity of care,” said Desai. “We think we are…  an accelerant for the adoption of those services.”

Things like iPhone-based EKG machines, remote diagnostics to determine diabetic retinopathy, digital hubs to provide remote monitoring of body mass and movement are all hardware offerings within Heal’s panoply of care and diagnostic solutions. “We want to be able to gather more and more of those diagnostics remotely,” Desai said. “Anything that makes care more accurate, more data driven, more timely we want to use and ask our patients to utilize so that they can get better care, more quickly and more affordably.”

The new financing from Humana will go to support Heal’s geographic expansion, product development, and sales and marketing, Desai said. Already, the company has expanded into new treatment areas, including teletherapy for mental health.

Discussion between Heal and the Louisville-based Humana began back in December and the two businesses only inked the final terms of their deal last week.

Heal telemedicine, telepsychology (CA only), and digital monitoring services are currently available in New York, New Jersey, Washington, California, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. To date, the company has linked patients with over 200,000 home visits from doctors since its launch in 2015.

Under the terms of the agreement with Humana, will expand to geographies in Chicago, Charlotte and Houston as part of Humana’s “Bold Goal” program focusing on addressing and creating healthcare services that address social determinants and social needs for its population of insured patients.

“The partnership with Heal is part of Humana’s efforts to build a broader set of offerings across the spectrum of home based care, with high quality, value-based primary care being a key foundational element,” said Susan Diamond, Humana’s Segment President, Home Business, who is joining Heal’s Board of Directors as part of the partnership and investment. “We continue to see high levels of customer satisfaction and improved health outcomes when care is delivered in the home. Our goal is to make the healthcare experience easier, more personalized and caring for the people we serve—and is the hallmark of how Humana delivers human care.”

For Desai, the deal is also an indicator of not just his company’s growth, but the growth of the entire Los Angeles technology ecosystem.

“Heal’s funding just proves that LA is  as much an epicenter of venture backed ecosystem as any in the country including Silicon Valley,” he said. 

#articles, #california, #charlotte, #chicago, #georgia, #heal, #health, #houston, #humana, #iphone, #los-angeles, #louisville, #maryland, #new-jersey, #new-york, #tc, #technology, #telehealth, #telemedicine, #virginia, #washington, #washington-d-c

Self-driving vehicle startup Argo AI completes $2.6B deal with Volkswagen, expands to Europe

Volkswagen Group finalized Tuesday its $2.6 billion investment into Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup that came out of stealth in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford.

The deal turns Argo into a global company with two customers — VW and Ford — as well as operations in the U.S. and Europe and an instant jump in its workforce. Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group, will be absorbed into Argo AI. AID’s Munich offices will become Argo’s European headquarters.

That integration, which can begin now that the deal has closed, will expand Argo’s workforce to more than 1,000 people. Argo also has offices in Detroit, Palo Alto, and Cranbury, New Jersey. The company has fleets of autonomous vehicles mapping and testing on public roads in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. That mission now expands to VW. Ford and VW will share the cost of developing Argo AI’s self-driving vehicle technology under the terms of the deal.

“Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC CEO John Lawler said in a blog post.

Two years ago, Ford said it would spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams.

Lawler emphasized that “sharing development costs” doesn’t mean Ford is reducing its overall spend in autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company said it will reallocate money towards development of transportation as a service software and fleet operations for its eventual self-driving service.

Despite this shared investment, Ford and VW will not collaborate on the actual self-driving vehicle service.

Lawler, who is also vice president of mobility partnerships at Ford, said the U.S. automaker “will remain independent and fiercely competitive in building its own self-driving service.”

Argo’s board will now be comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

#argo-ai, #artificial-intelligence, #austin, #automation, #cars, #detroit, #europe, #henry-ford, #miami, #munich, #new-jersey, #palo-alto, #pittsburgh, #robotics, #self-driving-car, #tc, #transport, #volkswagen, #volkswagen-group, #washington-d-c

Polestar to open first U.S. stores in the second half of 2020

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington D.C. and Florida regions. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

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Uber drivers and riders will be required to wear face coverings

Uber is planning to require drivers and riders to wear face masks as it prepares to ramp its ride-hailing business back up after being hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNN was first to report that executives approved a new policy that would require drivers and riders to wear face masks or coverings in some markets, including the U.S.. TechCrunch confirmed Monday that Uber has developed a policy for certain markets.

Uber still faces one considerable challenge: securing enough face masks and other supplies to protect drivers. The company said multiple orders have either been delayed or canceled as from major manufacturers prioritize healthcare workers and other first responders.

It’s also not clear how Uber will enforce its policy.

“As countries reopen, Uber is focused on safety and proceeding with caution,” an Uber spokesperson said in a emailed statement. “Today, we continue to ask riders to stay home if they can, while shipping safety supplies to drivers who are providing essential trips. At the same time, our teams are preparing for the next phase of recovery, where we will all have a role to play. We’ll communicate updates directly to users when ready, but in the meantime, we continue to urge all riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings when using Uber.”

Uber has been encouraging riders to stay home through an in-app message and through marketing such as TV spots. The app is still available and people have used it to take trips to grocery stores, to essential jobs and pharmacies. Uber has urged, but not yet required, riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings.

Protecting drivers

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe and North America, Uber drivers have found themselves on the front lines, often times transporting healthcare and other essential workers who were potentially exposed to the disease.

Uber announced last month that it would buy and ship face masks to active drivers and delivery workers globally. However, COVID-19 has squeezed global supplies for face masks and disinfectant. Uber and other ride-share drivers have reported problems accessing the supplies.

In the first week of April, Uber said it began receiving and then shipping about 500,000 ear-loop face masks to drivers. The company initially targeted the most active drivers in COVID-19 hotspots such as New York City and Los Angeles. (In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a Worker Protection Order that requires companies to provide essential workers with personal protective equipment.) Uber said it also is prioritizing cities and states such as San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New Jersey that have asked drivers to wear face covers.

Uber said it will make these supplies available to all active drivers as more become available. Uber’s goal is to be able to offer masks nationwide regardless of local regulations.

As of this week, Uber has either shipped or preparing to ship 1.4 million ear-loop face masks in the United States. The company also started in early April to ship disinfectant to drivers in Chicago, Los Angeles, NYC, Seattle and Washington D.C.

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GM exits car-sharing business and shuts down Maven

GM’s experiment with car sharing is over. The automaker Tuesday said its Maven car-sharing service, which launched in 2016, will shut down for good.

Maven had paused service due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company sent an email to customers Tuesday that after examining the business, the car-sharing industry and COVID-19, it decided to shutter the service permanently. The Verge was the first to report the story.

The car-sharing service has struggled for months, long before COVID-19 upended the “shared” mobility sector. Last year, Maven scaled back and stopped service in nearly half of the 17 North American cities in which it operated. Maven continued to operate in Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. However, two programs within Maven, its consumer car-sharing and peer-to-peer service, also stopped in Washington, D.C. Only a program directed at gig workers was still operational in that city.

GM confirmed to TechCrunch that it has started to wind down Maven. All assets and resources will be transferred to GM’s Global Innovation organization, as well as the larger enterprise, according to a GM spokesperson.

The company confirmed that all operations should be concluded by later this summer. Maven had already suspended its consumer car-sharing and a peer-to-peer service due to COVID-19. A separate program directed at gig economy workers has been “very limited and will continue to wind down,” a GM spokesperson said.

“We’ve gained extremely valuable insights from operating our own car-sharing business,” Pamela Fletcher, GM’s vice president of global innovation, said in an emailed statement. “Our learnings and developments from Maven will go on to benefit and accelerate the growth of other areas of GM business.”

Below is a screenshot of the email sent Tuesday morning to Maven customers.

maven shut down

Image Credits: Screenshot/Maven email

The company doesn’t have plans to re-enter the car-sharing business. The company told TechCrunch that it “will take the great insights we’ve gained from Maven and leverage its car-sharing technology to provide new GM fleet services, and explore other new service offerings.”

Maven was designed to bring and expand several of GM’s existing test programs under one brand. At the time of its launch, Maven was essentially three car-sharing services in one that included a city-based service that rented GM vehicles by the hour through an app and another for urban apartment dwellers in Chicago and New York.

Maven developed and launched a smartphone app, which was used by customers to search for and reserve a vehicle, unlock the door and remotely start, cool or heat the car. 

It was an important launch for GM and its Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, who used a study commissioned in the wake of the ignition switch engineering scandal to accelerate her plans to transform the culture and operations at the automaker. Dozens of executives participated in transformational leaders programs; Maven was one of the fruits that spun out of that.

A wave of other initiative and investments were announced in 2016 that showed GM’s shift in interest toward unconventional transportation businesses that were adjacent to its core business of producing, selling and financing cars, trucks and SUVs to consumers.

But Maven never quite settled on one business model. The car-sharing service continued to evolve, leaving and entering cities or tweaking where it offered certain programs. For instance, the company launched in 2017 Maven Reserve in Los Angeles and San Francisco to allow customers to rent its GM-branded vehicles for a month at a time. It also started Maven Gig in hopes of tapping into a growing demand from rideshare and delivery app drivers.

Maven then launched a service in summer 2018 in Chicago, Detroit and Ann Arbor that let owners rent out their personal GM-branded vehicles through its Maven car-sharing platform. The peer-to-peer car rental service was designed to operate in a similar fashion to how Turo and Getaround work.

The service’s demise seemed to begin after the company lost its CEO Julia Steyn in January 2019. It scaled back a few months later and was only operating in a handful of cities up until the COVID-19 pandemic put further pressure on the business.

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