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Internet connectivity projects unite as Alphabet spinout Loon grabs $125M from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile

Two futuristic projects are coming together to help increase global internet access after Loon, the Google spinout that uses a collection of floating balloons to bring connectivity to remote areas, announced it has raised money from a SoftBank initiative.

HAPSMobile, a SoftBank project that is also focused on increasing global connectivity, is investing $125 million into Loon, according to an announcement from SoftBank made this morning. The agreement includes an option for Loon to make a reciprocal $125 million investment in HAPSMobile and it includes co-operation plans, details of which are below.

HAPSMobile is a one-year-old joint venture between SoftBank and U.S. company AeroVironment . The company has developed a solar-powered drone that’s designed to deliver 5G connectivity in the same way Facebook has tried in the past. The social network canceled its Aquila drone last year, although it is reported to have teamed up with Airbus for new trials in Australia.

Where Facebook has stumbled, HAPSMobile has made promising progress. The company said that its HAWK 30 drone — pictured below in an impression — has completed its initial development and the first trials are reportedly set to begin this year.

Loon, meanwhile, was one of the first projects to go after the idea of air-based connectivity with a launch in 2013. The business was spun out of X, the ‘moonshot’ division of Alphabet, last year and, though it is still a work in progress, it has certainly developed from an initial crazy idea conceived within Google.

Loon played a role in connecting those affected by flooding in Peru in 2017 and it assisted those devastated by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Loon claims its balloons have flown more than 30 million kms and provided internet access for “hundreds of thousands” of people across the world.

In addition to the capital investment, the two companies have announced a set of initiatives that will help them leverage their collective work and technology.

For starters, they say they will make their crafts/balloons open to use for the other — so HAPSMobile can tap Loon balloons for connectivity and vice-versa — while, connected to that, they will jointly develop a communication payload across both services. They also plan to develop a common ground station that could work with each side’s tech and develop shared connectivity that their airborne hardware can tap.

Loon has already developed fleet management technology because of the nature of its service, which is delivered by a collection of balloons, and that will be optimized for HAPSMobile.

The premise of HAPSMobile is very much like Loon

Outside of tech, the duo said they will create an alliance “to promote the use of high altitude communications solution with regulators and officials worldwide.”

The investment is another signal that shows SoftBank’s appetite in tech investing is not limited to up-and-coming startups via its Vision Fund, more established ventures are indeed also in play. Just yesterday, the Vision Fund announced plans to invest $1 billion in German payment firm Wirecard and its past investments include ARM and Nvidia, although SoftBank has sold its stake in the latter.

Lyft’s imminent IPO could value the company at $23B

Ridehailing firm Lyft will make its Nasdaq debut as early as next week at a valuation of up to $23 billion, The Wall Street Journal reports. The business will reportedly price its shares at between $62 and $68 apiece, raising roughly $2 billion in the process.

With a $600 million financing, Lyft was valued at $15.1 billion in June.

Lyft filed paperwork for an initial public offering in December, mere hours before its competitor Uber did the same. The car-sharing behemoths have been in a race to the public markets, igniting a pricing war ahead of their respected IPOs in a big to impress investors.

Uber’s IPO may top $120 billion, though others have more modestly pegged its initial market cap at around $90 billion. Uber has not made its S-1 paperwork public but is expected to launch its IPO in April.

Lyft has not officially priced its shares. Its S-1 filing indicated a $100 million IPO fundraise, which is typically a placeholder amount for companies preparing for a float. Lyft’s IPO roadshow, or the final stage ahead of an IPO, begins Monday.

San Francisco-based Lyft has raised a total of $5.1 billion in venture capital funding from key stakeholders including the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, which boasts a 13 percent pre-IPO stake, plus General Motors (7.76 percent), Fidelity (7.1 percent), Andreessen Horowitz (6.25 percent) and Alphabet (5.3 percent). Early investors, like seed-stage venture capital firm Floodgate, also stand to reap big returns.

Lyft will trade under the ticker symbol “LYFT.” JPMorgan Chase & Co., Credit Suisse Group AG and Jefferies Financial Group Inc. are leading the IPO.

Lyft recorded $2.2 billion in revenue in 2018 — more than double 2017’s revenue — on a net loss of $911 million.

Lyft declined to comment.

YouTube’s CEO says it will continue addressing monetization issues, admits Rewind 2018 was “cringey”

In an open letter to YouTube creators today, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki admitted that even her kids think Rewind 2018 is “cringey.” Meant as a celebratory recap, the video has garnered a record-setting 15 million dislikes so far.

“We hear you that it didn’t accurately show the year’s key moments, nor did it reflect the YouTube you know. We’ll do better to tell our story in 2019,” Wojcicki wrote.

Wojcicki also mentioned important issues like Article 13, proposed legislation in the European Union nicknamed the “meme ban” for its potentially chilling effect on user-generated content and monetization. Many creators saw their revenue hurt during “Adpocalypse” last year after YouTube introduced new policies to placate advertisers.

Intended to keep ads from running in front of videos with objectionable content, creators said the policies also resulted in the demonetization of many videos without a clear reason. But the letter is unlikely to address the concerns of creators who are still trying to recover revenue or gain a better understanding of how YouTube’s policies are enforced.

For example, Wojcicki repeated the statistic that the number of YouTube creators “earning five or six figures in the last year grew more than 40 percent,” which the platform has said since at least December 2017, when Adpocalypse began. (That month, Bloomberg published a story that said YouTube claimed channels making six figures or more in revenue had increased 40 percent over the last year).

But YouTube doesn’t provide much more detail than that and though Wojcicki said that number is proof that creators are “creating the next generation of media companies and we’re thrilled to see how much the YouTube creator economy is thriving,” researchers have found that a very thin sliver of YouTubers ever make it into that revenue bracket.

For example, a professor at Germany’s Offenburg University of Applied Sciences found last year that breaking into the top three percent of most-viewed channels on YouTube might bring in advertising revenue of about $16,800 a year. Those at the very top, or top one percent, often earn revenue through other deals like sponsorships, making it even more difficult to estimate how much of their revenue comes from advertising on YouTube.

Wojcicki also did not address the fact that YouTube has been kicking off many channels that were part of multi-channel networks (MCN), often used by creators who don’t to deal directly with YouTube AdSense.

Videos are removed because they may be at risk of violating YouTube’s terms of service, but creators and MCNs have complained about the lack of transparency into how they are enforced.

Wojcicki acknowledged the communication issues and said YouTube had taken steps to improve it. YouTube Studio, to provide more insight into how videos are performing, will be available to all creators this year. YouTube is also now more responsive on social media channels. Wojcicki said it has increased the number of its responses by 50 percent and made response times 50 percent faster.

Wojcicki also noted that monetization “remains a pain point” for many creators. “Just as a reminder, we started last year with many of our largest advertisers paused because of brand safety concerns,” she wrote.

“We worked incredibly hard to build the right systems and tools to make sure advertisers feel confident investing in YouTube, and most are now back,” she continued. “On the creator side, we’ve been improving our classifiers so that we make the right monetization decision for each video,” adding that YouTube has increased the accuracy of its monetization icon system (which gives creators details about why a video has been monetized or not) by 40 percent and made it easier for creators to appeal decisions.

But she conceded that YouTube still has more work to do. Part of that effort includes giving creators other potential revenue streams, like YouTube Music and YouTube Premium, which has expanded to 29 countries from five at the beginning of 2019. It also lowered the subscriber threshold for channel memberships, which allows viewers to purchase memberships, to 30,000 from 100,000.

The “meme ban”

YouTube creators and other people who rely on the platform as a source of revenue in the EU will have an extra set of headaches to deal with next year. Last September, the EU Parliament voted to back Article 13 of the European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Market. Nicknamed the “meme ban” because it would mandate sites with large amounts of user-generated content to take down content that infringes on copyright, the legislation’s vague wording has led to concerns about how it would be enforced.

For YouTube in particular, Article 13 means that it would have automatically scan and filter user uploads for copyright violations, but it is unclear if its existing Content ID system would be enough for it to comply. Although memes and parodies are protected by laws in many countries, upload filters still aren’t advanced enough to differentiate between copyright violations and memes. Article 13’s opponents worry that this can have a chilling effect. Wojcicki wrote last year that it could potentially shut down the ability of millions of people to upload to YouTube and threaten “thousands of jobs” in the EU. YouTube is campaigning for the legislation to be reworded.

In today’s letter, Wojcicki said videos about the issue have been viewed “hundreds of millions of times,” but added that policymakers “lacked an understanding of the European creator community’s impact and size.”

“I shared with legislators the huge economic benefit you all bring to your home countries,” she said. “In France alone, we have more than 190 channels with more than 1 million subscriptions, with the number of E.U. channels reaching that milestone up 70% year over year.”

Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

Google will not bid for the Pentagon’s $10B cloud computing contract, citing its “AI Principles”

Google has dropped out of the running for JEDI, the massive Defense Department cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion. In a statement to Bloomberg, Google said that it decided not to participate in the bidding process, which ends this week, because the contract may not align with the company’s principles for how artificial intelligence should be used.

In statement to Bloomberg, Google spokesperson said “We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles. And second, we determined that there were portions of the contract that were out of scope with our current government certifications,” adding that Google is still “working to support the U.S. government with our cloud in many ways.”

Officially called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, bidding for the initiative’s contract began two months ago and closes this week. JEDI’s lead contender is widely considered to be Amazon, because it set up the CIA’s private cloud, but Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are also expected to be in the running.

The winner of the contract, which could last for up to 10 years, is expected to be announced by the end of the year. The project is meant to accelerate the Defense Department’s adoption of cloud computing and services. Only one provider will be chosen, a controversial decision that the Pentagon defended by telling Congress that the pace of handling task orders in a multiple-award contract “could prevent DOD from rapidly delivering new capabilities and improved effectiveness to the warfighter that enterprise-level cloud computing can enable.”

Google also addressed the controversy over a single provider, telling Bloomberg that “had the JEDI contract been open to multiple vendors, we would have submitted a compelling solution for portions of it. Google Cloud believes that a multi-cloud approach is in the best interest of government agencies, because it allows them to choose the right cloud for the right workload.”

Google’s decision no to bid for JEDI comes four months after it reportedly decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, which involved working with the military to analyze drone footage, including images taken in conflict zones. Thousands of Google employees signed a petition against its work on Project Maven because they said it meant the company was directly involved in warfare. Afterward, Google came up with its “AI Principles,” a set of guidelines for how it will use its AI technology.

It is worth noting, however, that Google is still under employee fire because it is reportedly building a search engine for China that will comply with the government’s censorship laws, eight years after exiting the country for reasons including its limits on free speech.

Epic Games just gave a perk for folks to turn on 2FA; every other big company should, too

Let’s talk a bit about security.

Most internet users around the world are pretty crap at it, but there are basic tools that companies have, and users can enable, to make their accounts, and lives, a little bit more hacker-proof.

One of these — two-factor authentication — just got a big boost from Epic Games, the maker of what is currently The Most Popular Game In The World: Fortnite.

Epic is already getting a ton of great press for what amounts to very little effort.

Son: Do you know what two-factor authentication is?
Me: Uh, yeah?
Son: I get a free dance on @Fortnitegame if I enable two factor. Can we do that?

Incentives matter.

— Dennis (@DennisF) August 23, 2018

The company is giving users a new emote (the victory dance you’ve seen emulated in airports, playgrounds and parks by kids and tweens around the world) to anyone who turns on two-factor authentication. It’s one small (dance) step for Epic, but one giant leap for securing their users’ accounts.

The thing is any big company could do this (looking at you Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and any other company with a huge user base).

Apparently the perk of not getting hacked isn’t enough for most users, but if you give anyone the equivalent of a free dance, they’ll likely flock to turn on the feature.

It’s not that two-factor authentication is a panacea for all security woes, but it does make life harder for hackers. Two-factor authentication works on codes, basically tokens, that are either sent via text or through an over-the-air authenticator (OTA). Text messaging is a pretty crap way to secure things, because the codes can be intercepted, but OTAs — like Google Authenticator or Authy — are sent via https (pretty much bulletproof, but requiring an app to use).

So using SMS-based two-factor authentication is better than nothing, but it’s not Fort Knox (however, these days, even Fort Knox probably isn’t Fort Knox when it comes to security).

Still, anything that makes things harder for crimes of opportunity can help ease the security burden for companies large and small, and the consumers and customers that love them (or at least are forced to pay and use them).

I’m not sure what form the perk could or should take. Maybe it’s the promise of a free e-book or a free download or an opportunity to have a live chat with the celebrity, influencer or athlete of a user’s choice. Whatever it is, there’re clearly something that businesses could do to encourage greater adoption.

Self-preservation isn’t cutting it. Maybe an emote will do the trick.

Google parent Alphabet looks to restore cell service in Puerto Rico with Project Loon balloons

 The FCC has given approval for Google parent company, Alphabet, to help Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands regain wireless service. The company will attempt to enable LTE connectivity using its high-flying Project Loon balloons.

BREAKING: FCC issues experimental license to Google to provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico through Project Loon balloons.
— Matthew Berry… Read More

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Africa Roundup: eBay expands, Google CEO visits Lagos, Ghana enters space

 eBay opened up its U.S. platform to Africa through its partnership with MallforAfrica.com. Americans can now buy products on eBay from select vendors in six African countries, starting with merchandise categories of fashion, art, jewelry, and clothing.
For the new program, MallforAfrica selects the sellers and handles payments on its proprietary platform. DHL is the shipping partner. Online… Read More

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Crunch Report | China’s Central Bank Puts a Ban on ICOs

China’s central bank puts a ban on ICOs, the next generation of the Lily drone is here, WhatsApp for Business is launching and Alphabet creates a new holding company to complete 2015 corporate reorganization. All this on Crunch Report! Read More

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Nest’s latest home camera is the super smart Nest Cam IQ

 Nest has a brand new security camera in their line-up, taking its place alongside the Nest Cam and Nest Cam Outdoor. The new member of the family is the Nest Cam IQ, a camera that takes its design cues from the Nest Cam Outdoor, but is made for indoor use and has new, smarter built-in capabilities that benefit from its high-resolution 4K video sensor to pay better attention to those… Read More

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So much for Equal Pay Day: Google accused of 'very significant' pay discrimination

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The Labor Department claimed Friday that Google has fostered an “extreme” gender pay gap across its entire workforce.

The bombshell accusation stems from an ongoing investigation into the search giant’s payroll practices, The Guardian first reported. It also comes three days after the company sang its own praises on Equal Pay Day.

A department official testified in a San Francisco courtroom this week that enough “compelling evidence” had already been found to make a case for systemic discrimination. The agency first filed suit against Google in January in a bid to force the company to turn over salary data in accordance with anti-discrimination laws. Read more…

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Crunch Report | AppDynamics CEO Talks Cisco Acquisition

AppDynamics CEO David Wadhwani and Cisco VP of IoT Rowan Trollope talk to us about the $3.7 billion acquisition, Alpahbet biotech moonshot lands $800 million in funding and a Snapchat Spectacles case melts while charging. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

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Innovation under the hood will rev the engines of a fintech revolution

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Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt heads to Trump Tower (again)

lobby After their much-publicized meeting with President-elect Trump last month, many prominent figures in tech appear to be circling back to Trump tower. Eric Schmidt is the latest to be spotted at Trump’s Manhattan outpost, stopping by a few hours after AT&T’s Randall Stephenson met with Trump. Around the time of his visit, Schmidt, a former close Hillary Clinton supporter,… Read More

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