Microsoft

Auto Added by WPeMatico

Inside GitLab’s IPO filing

While the technology and business world worked towards the weekend, developer operations (DevOps) firm GitLab filed to go public. Before we get into our time off, we need to pause, digest the company’s S-1 filing, and come to some early conclusions.

GitLab competes with GitHub, which Microsoft purchased for $7.5 billion back in 2018.

The company is notable for its long-held, remote-first stance, and for being more public with its metrics than most unicorns — for some time, GitLab had a November 18, 2020 IPO target in its public plans, to pick an example. We also knew when it crossed the $100 million recurring revenue threshold.

Considering GitLab’s more recent results, a narrowing operating loss in the last two quarters is good news for the company.

The company’s IPO has therefore been long expected. In its last primary transaction, GitLab raised $286 million at a post-money valuation of $2.75 billion, per Pitchbook data. The same information source also notes that GitLab executed a secondary transaction earlier this year worth $195 million, which gave the company a $6 billion valuation.

Let’s parse GitLab’s growth rate, its final pre-IPO scale, its SaaS metrics, and then ask if we think it can surpass its most recent private-market price. Sound good? Let’s rock.

The GitLab S-1

GitLab intends to list on the Nasdaq under the symbol “GTLB.” Its IPO filing lists a placeholder $100 million raise estimate, though that figure will change when the company sets an initial price range for its shares. Its fiscal year ends January 31, meaning that its quarters are offset from traditional calendar periods by a single month.

Let’s start with the big numbers.

In its fiscal year ended January 2020, GitLab posted revenues of $81.2 million, gross profit of $71.9 million, an operating loss of $128.4 million, and a modestly greater net loss of $130.7 million.

And in the year ended January 31, 2021, GitLab’s revenue rose roughly 87% to $152.2 million from a year earlier. The company’s gross profit rose around 86% to $133.7 million, and operating loss widened nearly 67% to $213.9 million. Its net loss totaled $192.2 million.

This paints a picture of a SaaS company growing quickly at scale, with essentially flat gross margins (88%). Growth has not been inexpensive either — GitLab spent more on sales and marketing than it generated in gross profit in the past two fiscal years.

Microsoft Office 2021 will be available on October 5th

Igor Bonifacic
Contributor

Igor Bonifacic is a contributing writer at Engadget.

Microsoft will release Office 2021, the next consumer version of its productivity suite, on October 5th. That’s the same day the company will launch Windows 11. Much like Office 2019 before it, Office 2021 is a one-time purchase that will be available on both Windows and macOS. It’s for people who don’t want to subscribe to the company’s Microsoft 365 subscription.

Microsoft promised to share more details on Office 2021 soon, but we know from reporting by The Verge’s Tom Warren that the release will feature many of the same improvements found in Office LTSC, a variant of the software the company released today for enterprise customers who can’t access the Cloud. Among other improvements, it adds accessibility features and dark mode support. We also know from a previous announcement Microsoft plans to support the software for at least five years, and that the software will work with both 32- and 64-bit systems out of the box.

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

Xbox and Special Olympics hold first ‘Gaming for Inclusion’ esports event

Gaming in general is moving towards accessibility, but that’s not as much the case in esports, which like other sports are competitive and by nature somewhat exclusive. Xbox and the Special Olympics are working together on a new event that combines competition with inclusion, and it’s going on right now.

This week, Special Olympics athletes will be competing against each other in tournaments of Rocket League, Madden NFL 22, and Forza Motorsports 7. The prize, other than prestige and pride, is playing with one of the Special Olympics’ celebrity supporters: “NBA superstar Jayson Tatum, NFL legend Jamaal Charles, and WWE Superstars.”

“This tournament is a meaningful and important step in making esports more accessible and it empowers Special Olympics athletes with a new way to compete,” said Jenn Panattoni, Head of Xbox Social Impact. “Xbox has invested in numerous accessibility features and products, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller and features like copilot or speech to text. The purpose of all this continued work is to ensure that players feel welcome and that they belong on the Xbox platform.”

The tournaments are being recorded right now, and will be broadcast over the rest of the week, along with the “celebrity showcase” coming Saturday with recaps. You can check out a schedule at the bottom of this post, but generally just keep an eye on the Xbox Twitch channel and Special Olympics YouTube channel.

I like to highlight these events because accessibility has been on the back burner for so long in the gaming world, and now we’re seeing big moves by developers, publishers, and partners to make things better. Microsoft’s XAC is a great example, as is the panoply of visual, audio, and difficulty options in the latest Ratchet & Clank game. Esports is definitely one of the areas that needs more diversity, though, and the participating players were glad to take part. I asked Special Olympics Jose Moreno and Colton Rice for their thoughts on the matter.

Do you think competitive gaming is getting more accessible?

Rice: Competitive gaming is definitely getting more accessible. Not only are the games becoming more accessible, accessibility allows people with disabilities to become more competitive players. People with intellectual disabilities are always trying to compete at their best. We want to do what everyone else is doing, and sometimes just need a little help to make that happen.

Moreno: I do think that competitive gaming is getting more accessible because Microsoft has started bringing out video game controllers that are accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities – accessible to everybody. I’m a lifelong gamer, and accessibility in esports has been game-changing. Accessible gaming wasn’t available when I was growing up. Today, it’s so much more fun to play when you can play with friends of all abilities and everybody can participate.

Special Olympics athletes Colton Rice, left, and Jose Moreno.

How are you experiencing that change?

Moreno: In my opinion, the more the video games industry include people with intellectual disabilities, the better the video game community is going to get to know how we love playing video games just like everybody else. And through events like Gaming for Inclusion, I’m not just able to compete – I’m included as a part of a community of gamers where I am welcomed and included.

Rice: People with intellectual disabilities have skills and pay attention to details; when we set our minds to do something, we practice until we are the best we can be especially when we enjoy doing it – and that includes gaming. People with disabilities just need more time to learn, but when you’re dedicated to something that you’re passionate about, you won’t stop until you succeed.

What’s something you’d like to see more of, from developers, publishers etc?

Moreno: I would like to see more from developers or makers or publishers of video games in general or computer games to include more people with intellectual disabilities in the video game workforce. People with intellectual disabilities can play a variety of roles and provide unique perspectives on how to improve the gaming experience. Publishers and developers can get a different perspective from people with disabilities; whether that’s featuring people with intellectual disabilities represented in their storylines or seeing them in the games themselves. We’re eager to be a part of this process, and there are lots of passionate gamers with intellectual disabilities who would like to participate in focus groups or in actual jobs as creators within the industry.

Rice: The companies who make these games are trying to make high quality games that are enjoyable for everybody. There is still a lot that can be done to make games more accessible. For example, it can be frustrating when gamers with intellectual disabilities are learning a new game with instructions that are hard to read. It can take hours to learn how to play the new version of a game you’ve played for years. That doesn’t mean people with intellectual disabilities aren’t capable of playing or competing – it just means we need better accessibility tools to help us learn.

If gaming companies want to create accessible, inclusive games, they could benefit from including gamers with intellectual disabilities in the creative process to help make or test “easy read” or beginner’s instructions, or find ways to simplify navigation between different levels of a game. Gaming can build a community and reach people who feel left out. Accessibility allows everybody to have fun.


This competition and other events in online gaming have been essential to keeping the Special Olympics community connected and active over a difficult couple years.

“Special Olympics has a long-standing partnership with Microsoft that has been incredibly valuable for the athletes and families of the Special Olympics movement,” said the organization’s Chief Information and Technology Officer, Prianka Nandy. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, our main concern has been the safety and health of our athletes, who are amongst the most vulnerable population to have an adverse or catastrophic outcome from the virus. This led to the cancellation and postponement of thousands of annual in-person events and competitions – which meant our athletes have missed out on the connections and opportunities to experience the joy of being with their teammates, coaches, and friends. At this time, our goals remain to raise awareness of the Special Olympics movement and the accomplishments, hopes, and dreams of our incredible athletes, and to change attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities within the gaming community, all while remembering that gaming can be fun and inclusive for all.”

Rezilion raises $30M help security operations teams with tools to automate their busywork

Security operations teams face a daunting task these days, fending off malicious hackers and their increasingly sophisticated approaches to cracking into networks. That also represents a gap in the market: building tools to help those security teams do their jobs. Today, am Israeli startup called Rezilion that is doing just that — building automation tools for DevSecOps, the area of IT that addresses the needs of security teams and the technical work that they need to do in their jobs — is announcing $30 million in funding.

Guggenheim Investments is leading the round with JPV and Kindred Capital also contributing. Rezilion said that unnamed executives from Google, Microsoft, CrowdStrike, IBM, Cisco, PayPal, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, eBay, Symantec, RedHat, RSA and Tenable are also in the round. Previously, the company had raised $8 million.

Rezilion’s funding is coming on the back of strong initial growth for the startup in its first two years of operations.

Its customer base is made up of some of the world’s biggest companies, including two of the “Fortune 10” (the top 10 of the Fortune 500). CEO Liran Tancman, who co-founded Rezilion with CTO Shlomi Boutnaru, said that one of those two is one of the world’s biggest software companies, and the other is a major connected device vendor, but he declined to say which. (For the record, the top 10 includes Amazon, Apple and Alphabet/Google.)

Tancman and Boutnaru had previously co-founded another security startup, CyActive, which was acquired by PayPal in 2015; the pair worked there together until leaving to start Rezilion.

There are a lot of tools out in the market now to help automate different aspects of developer and security operations. Rezilion focuses on a specific part of DevSecOps: large businesses have over the years put in place a lot of processes that they need to follow to try to triage and make the most thorough efforts possible to detect security threats. Today, that might involve inspecting every single suspicious piece of activity to determine what the implications might be.

The problem is that with the volume of information coming in, taking the time to inspect and understand each piece of suspicious activity can put enormous strain on an organization: it’s time-consuming, and as it turns out, not the best use of that time because of the signal to noise ratio involved. Typically, each vulnerability can take 6-9 hours to properly investigate, Tancman said. “But usually about 70-80% of them are not exploitable.” That represents a very inefficient use of the security team’s time and energy.

“Eight of out ten patches tend to be a waste of time,” Tancman said of the approach that is typically made today. He believes that as its AI continues to grow and its knowledge and solution becomes more sophisticated, “it might soon be 9 out of 10.”

Rezilion has built a taxonony and an AI-based system that essentially does that inspection work as a human would do: it spots any new, or suspicious, code, figures out what it is trying to do, and runs it against a company’s existing code and systems to see how and if it might actually be a threat to it or create further problems down the line. If it’s all good it essentially whitelists the code. If not it flags it to the team.

The stickiness of the product has come out of how Tancman and Boutnaru understand large enterprises, especially those heavy with technology stacks, operate these days in what has become a very challenging environment for cybersecurity teams.

“They are using us to accelerate their delivery processes while staying safe,” Tancman said. “They have strict compliance departments and have to adhere to certain standards,” in terms of the protocols they take around security work, he added. “They want to leverage DevOps to release that.” He said Rezilion has generally won over customers in large part for simply understanding that culture and process and helping them work better within that. “Companies become users of our product because we showed them that, at a fraction of the effort, they can be more secure.” This has special resonance in the world of tech, although financial services and others that essentially leverage technology as a significant foundation for how they operate, are also among the startup’s user base.

Down the line, Rezilion plans to add in remediation and mitigation into the mix to further extend what it can do with its automation tools, which is part of where the funding will be going, too, Boutnaru said. But he doesn’t believe it will ever replace the human in the equation.

“It will just focus them on the places where you need more human thinking,” he said. “We’re just removing the need for tedious work.”

In that grand tradition of enterprise automation, then, it will be interesting to watch which other automation-centric platforms might make a move into security alongside the other automation they are building. For now, Rezilion is forging out an interesting enough area for itself to get investors interested.

“Rezilion’s product suite is a game changer for security teams,” said Rusty Parks, senior MD of Guggenheim Investments, in a statement. “It creates a win-win, allowing companies to speed innovative products and features to market while enhancing their security posture. We believe Rezilion has created a truly compelling value proposition for security teams, one that greatly increases return on time while thoroughly protecting one’s core infrastructure.”

Microsoft acquires TakeLessons, an online and in-person tutoring platform, to ramp up its edtech play

Microsoft said in January this year that Teams, its online collaboration platform, was being used by over 100 million students — boosted in no small part by the Covid-19 pandemic and many schools going partly or fully remote. Now, it’s made another acquisition to continue expanding its position in the education market.

The company has acquired TakeLessons, a platform for students to connect with individual tutors in areas like music lessons, language learning, academic subjects and professional training or hobbies, and for tutors to book and organize the lessons they give, both online and in person.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed but we are trying to find out. San Diego-based TakeLessons had raised at least $20 million from a range of VCs and individuals that included LightBank, Uncork Capital, Crosslink Capital and others. TakeLessons posted a short note in the form of a Q&A confirming the deal on its site. The note said that it will continue operating business as usual for the time being, with the intention of taking its platform to a wider global audience.

It’s not clear how many active students and tutors TakeLessons had on its platform at the time of acquisition, but for some context, another big player in the area of online one-to-one tutoring, GoStudent out of Europe, raised $244 million in funding earlier this year that valued it at $1.7 billion. Others in online tutoring like Brainly are also seeing valuations in the hundreds of millions.

Given the relatively modest amount raised by TakeLessons, it’s likely this was a much lower valuation. Yet the acquisition is still one that gives Microsoft the infrastructure and beginnings of setting up a much more aggressive play in mass-market online education, potentially to go head-to-head with these and other big platforms.

TakeLessons today offers instruction in a wide variety of areas, including music lessons (which was where it had gotten its start) through to languages, academic subjects and test prep, computer skills, crafts and more. It has been around since 2006 and got its start first as a platform for people to connect with tutors local to them for in-person lessons, before progressing into online lessons to complement that business.

The pandemic has precipitated a shift to a much bigger wave of the latter, with online tutoring apparently the majority of what is offered on TakeLessons platform today. These lessons continue to be offered on a one-on-one basis, but additionally students can take part in group lessons online via the startup’s Live platform.

The shift to online education that we’ve seen take hold around the world is likely why Microsoft sees a big opportunity here.

On the heels of many schools around the world scrambling for better online learning platforms to manage remote learning during lockdowns and quarantines, educators, families and students have been using (and paying for) a variety of different tools. Within that, Microsoft has been pushing hard to make Teams a leader in that area.

That was built on years of traction already in the market (and a number of other investments and acquisitions that Microsoft has made over the years).

But it also comes amid a new insurgence of competition arising from the current state of affairs. That includes adoption of Google Classroom, as well as a wide variety of more targeted point solutions for specific purposes like video lessons (Zoom figures big here); apps for lesson planning and homework planning; online on-demand tutorials in specific areas like math or languages or science to bolster in-class learning experiences; and more.

The Microsoft way is to bring as many features into a platform as possible to make it more sticky and less likely that users will turn to other apps, providing more value for money around the Microsoft offer. In other words, I’d expect to see Microsoft do more deals and launch more features to cover all of the services that it doesn’t already provide through its educational tools.

(Case in point: my children’s school uses Teams for online lessons, in part because it already uses Outlook for its email system. Now, the school has announced that it will no longer be using a different third-party app for homework planning; instead, teachers will be assigning homework and managing it via Teams. For a cash-strapped state school like ours, it makes sense that it would opt out of paying for two apps when it can get the same features in just one of them. The kids are not happy about this! This is what Microsoft leverages with its platform play.)

NextLessons is somewhat adjacent to that school-focused education strategy. Yes, there will be a big audience of students and their families who might represent a good cross-selling opportunity for tutoring, but NextLessons represents also a more mass-market offering, open to anyone who might want to learn something, not just those already using Microsoft Education products.

So the interest here is likely not just students who want to supplement their online learning — there is a big audience for online tutoring — but any lifelong learner, as well as the many consumers or professionals out there who have gotten interested in learning something new, especially in the last 1.5 years of spending more time alone and/or at home.

And with that, there are other potential opportunities for NextLessons in the Microsoft universe.

Just yesterday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, held an online presentation about what work will look like in the future. Education — specifically professional development — figured strongly in that discussion, with the conversation coinciding with LinkedIn launching a new Learning Hub.

LinkedIn has not only been working for years on building out its education business, but it has also long been looking for a more sticky inroad into doing more with video on its platform.

Something like NextLessons could, interestingly, kill those two birds with one stone. While LinkedIn’s education content up to now has not been something specifically tied to “live” online lessons, you could imagine a bridge between Microsoft’s latest acquisition and what LinkedIn might consider next, too.

Microsoft confirms investment in India’s Oyo in a multi-year strategic deal to co-develop travel and hospitality products

Microsoft has entered a “multi-year strategic alliance” with Oyo to work with the Indian startup to co-develop “next-generation” travel and hospitality products and tech.

Thursday’s announcement confirms a late July TechCrunch report. TechCrunch had reported that Microsoft was in talks to invest in Oyo and was exploring ways to provide its technologies to the Indian startup, which is one of the most valuable in the South Asian market.

In a press statement, Microsoft confirmed that it has also made a strategic equity investment in Oyo, but didn’t disclose the amount. A regulatory filing showed last month that the Windows-maker had invested $5 million in the Indian startup. The investment valued Oyo at $9.6 billion.

Oyo will switch to Microsoft Azure for its cloud-based needs and co-develop solutions with the American giant to “benefit patrons who operate small and medium hotel and home storefronts,” the firms said. “As part of this alliance, OYO will develop Smart Room experiences for travelers on the OYO platform, such as premium and customized in-room experiences for its guests. Using Microsoft’s Azure IoT, the experience will include self-check-in supported by a digital register of arrivals and departures and self-Know Your Customer (KYC) along with IoT-managed smart locks and virtual assistance,” the firms said.

“Combining the power of Azure with the tech and product stack developed by OYO, we are looking forward to accelerating innovation in travel and hospitality,” said Anant Maheshwari, President of Microsoft India, in a statement. “It is inspiring to see how the Microsoft cloud is empowering digital natives like OYO to accelerate industry transformation and innovations, turning the challenges of a post-pandemic era into opportunities for the future.”

Oyo has emerged as one of the largest hotel chains in the world, with presence in India, Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S. But some of its missteps in its pursuit of aggressive expansion — “toxic culture,” lapse in governance and relationship with many hotel owners — have scarred its growth.

Just as the startup was pledging to improve its relationship with hotel owners, the pandemic arrived. In response, Oyo slowed its growth and laid off thousands of employees globally earlier this year as nations across the world enforced lockdowns.

The pandemic hit the seven-year-old startup like a “cyclone,” CEO Ritesh Agarwal told Bloomberg TV in July. “We built something for so many years and it took just 30 days for it drop by over 60%,” he said, adding that the firm had not made any decision on exploring the public markets.

Airbnb-backed Oyo had between $780 million to $800 million in its bank, Agarwal said at a virtual conference recently, and had pared its “monthly burn” across all businesses to $4 million to $5 million. (The startup had about $1 billion in the bank in December 2020.)

In July — after Agarwal’s remarks at the aforementioned conference — Oyo said it had raised $660 million in debt. That debt was used to pay off the previous debt, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As for Microsoft, Oyo is the latest of several strategic investments it has made in the country. The firm has backed a handful of startups in the South Asian market, including news aggregator and short-video platform DailyHunt, e-commerce giant Flipkart, and logistics SaaS firm FarEye.

AI-driven voice assistant PolyAI raises $14M round led by Khosla Ventures

“Conversational AI” startup PolyAI, based out of London, has raised $14 million in a funding round led by Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures, with participation from existing investors (Point72 Ventures, Amadeus Capital, Sands Capital Ventures, Passion Capital and Entrepreneur First). This follows their $12m Series A, and will provide resources for further US expansion beyond its existing US team. The startup has now raised $28m to date.

PolyAI builds and deploys voice assistants for automating customer services, which, claims the startup, sound like real humans. This helps companies get an infinite and cheaper supply of their best human voice operators, which reduces customer waiting times, and increases customer satisfaction and retention, says the company.

Co-founder Dr Nikola Mrkšić said: “The technical term for our technology is ‘multi-turn conversational AI’, but all the caller has to do is talk to it, like they would to a human. Compared to existing call centers, our assistants can boost customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores by up to 40% and reduce handling times by up to five minutes.”

“We build these systems very quickly (relative to the competition) — we get experiences like these up and running in 2-4 weeks thanks to our transformer-based language understanding models and the underlying dialog management platform,” he added.

In a statement, Vinod Khosla said: “PolyAI is one of the first AI companies using the newest generation of large pre-trained deep learning models (akin to BERT and GPT-3) in a real-world enterprise product. This means they can deploy automated AI agents in as little as two weeks, where incumbent providers of voice assistants would take up to six months to deploy an older version of this technology.”

A spinout from the University of Cambridge, PolyAI says it is is effectively ’pushing at an open door’ as the pandemic has led to staffing shortages in call centers, driving more companies to deploy smart voice assistants, which appear not to have been replaced chatbots at all, as consumer generally prefer to speak than type.

“We were expecting the system to handle 40% of calls, but at launch it handled 80%, and within two weeks it was up to 87%,” said Brian Jeppesen of Landry’s Golden Nugget Hotels & Casinos. “Callers think the AI agent is human”, Jeppesen continued, “which is great because the voice assistant never has a bad day, and is on 24/7. I wish I could hire more agents like that!”

Competitors include Nuance (recently acquired by Microsoft), IPSoft, Interactions, SmartAction, and Replicant. But PolyAI says its voice assistant can be turned live more quickly, in more languages, and charges on a per-minute basis.

Founded by Nikola Mrkšić (CEO), Tsung-Hsien Wen (CTO), Pei-Hao Su (Engineering Director), the three met while doing PhDs with Professor Steve Young, a leader in spoken dialog systems who pioneered many technologies that underpin voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa.

Recent PolyAI clients include Landry’s Entertainment, Greene King, Starling Bank, and Viasat. 

Real-time database platform SingleStore raises $80M more, now at a $940M valuation

Organizations are swimming in data these days, and so solutions to help manage and use that data in more efficient ways will continue to see a lot of attention and business. In the latest development, SingleStore — which provides a platform to enterprises to help them integrate, monitor and query their data as a single entity, regardless of whether that data is stored in multiple repositories — is announcing another $80 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue investing in its platform, hiring more talent and overall business expansion. Sources close to the company tell us that the company’s valuation has grown to $940 million.

The round, a Series F, is being led by Insight Partners, with new investor Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and previous backers Khosla Ventures, Dell Capital, Rev IV, Glynn Capital, and GV (formerly Google Ventures) also participating. The startup has to date raised $264 million, including most recently an $80 million Series E as recently as last December, just on the heels of rebranding from MemSQL.

The fact that there are three major strategic investors in this Series F — HPE, Dell and Google — may say something about the traction that SingleStore is seeing, but so too do its numbers: 300%+ increase in new customer acquisition for its cloud service and 150%+ year-over-year growth in cloud

Raj Verma, SingleStore’s CEO, said in an interview that its cloud revenues have grown by 150% year over year and now account for some 40% of all revenues (up from 10% a year ago). New customer numbers, meanwhile, have grown by over 300%.

“The flywheel is now turning around,” Verma said. “We didn’t need this money. We’ve barely touched our Series E. But I think there has been a general sentiment among our board and management that we are now ready for the prime time. We think SingleStore is one of the best kept secrets in the database market. Now we want to aggressively be an option for people looking for a platform for intensive data applications or if they want to consolidate databases to 1 from 3, 5 or 7 repositories. We are where the world is going: real-time insights.”

With database management and the need for more efficient and cost-effective tools to manage that becoming an ever-growing priority — one that definitely got a fillip in the last 18 months with Covid-19 pushing people into more remote working environments. That means SingleStore is not without competitors, with others in the same space including Amazon, Microsoft, Snowflake, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Redis and more. Others like Firebolt are tackling the challenges of handing large, disparate data repositories from another angle. (Some of these, I should point out, are also partners: SingleStore works with data stored on AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and Red Hat, and Verma describes those who do compute work as “not database companies; they are using their database capabilities for consumption for cloud compute.”)

But the company has carved a place for itself with enterprises and has thousands now on its books, including GE, IEX Cloud, Go Guardian, Palo Alto Networks, EOG Resources, and SiriusXM + Pandora.

“SingleStore’s first-of-a-kind cloud database is unmatched in speed, scale, and simplicity by anything in the market,” said Lonne Jaffe, managing director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “SingleStore’s differentiated technology allows customers to unify real-time transactions and analytics in a single database.” Vinod Khosla from Khosla Ventures added that “SingleStore is able to reduce data sprawl, run anywhere, and run faster with a single database, replacing legacy databases with the modern cloud.”

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions 

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.

Big Tech pledges billions to bolster U.S. cybersecurity defenses

Tech giants Apple, Google and Microsoft have pledged billions to bolster U.S. cybersecurity following a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday.

The meeting, which also included attendees from the financial and education sectors, was held following months of high-profile cyberattacks against critical infrastructure and several U.S. government agencies, along with a glaring cybersecurity skills gap; according to data from CyberSeek, there are currently almost 500,000 cybersecurity jobs across the U.S that remain unfilled.

“Most of our critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and the federal government can’t meet this challenge alone,” Biden said at the start of the meeting. “I’ve invited you all here today because you have the power, the capacity and the responsibility, I believe, to raise the bar on cybersecurity.”

In order to help the U.S. in its fight against a growing number of cyberattacks, Big Tech pledged to invest billions of dollars to strengthen cybersecurity defenses and to train skilled cybersecurity workers.

Apple has vowed to work with its 9,000-plus suppliers in the U.S. to drive “mass adoption” of multi-factor authentication and security training, according to the White House, as well as to establish a new program to drive continuous security improvements throughout the technology supply chain.

Google said it will invest more than $10 billion over the next five years to expand zero-trust programs, help secure the software supply chain, and to enhance open source security. The search and ads giant has also pledged to train 100,000 Americans in fields like IT support and data analytics, learning in-demand skills including data privacy and security.

“Robust cybersecurity ultimately depends on having the people to implement it,” said Kent Walker, Google’s global affairs chief. “That includes people with digital skills capable of designing and executing cybersecurity solutions, as well as promoting awareness of cybersecurity risks and protocols among the broader population.”

And, Microsoft said it’s committing $20 billion to integrate cybersecurity by design and deliver “advanced security solutions.” It also announced that it will immediately make available $150 million in technical services to help federal, state, and local governments with upgrading security protection, and will expand partnerships with community colleges and non-profits for cybersecurity training.

Other attendees included Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud computing arm, and IBM. The former has said it will make its security awareness training available to the public and equip all AWS customers with hardware multi-factor authentication devices, while IBM said it will help to train more than 150,000 people in cybersecurity skills over the next five years.

While many have welcomed Big Tech’s commitments, David Carroll, managing director at Nominet Cyber, told TechCrunch that these latest initiatives set a “powerful precedent” and show “the gloves are well and truly off” — some within the cybersecurity industry remain skeptical.

Following the announcement, some infosec veterans noted that many of the vacant cybersecurity jobs the U.S. is looking to fill fall behind on competitive salaries and few, if any, benefits.

“So 500,000 open cybersecurity jobs and almost that same amount or more looking for jobs,” said Khalilah Scott, founder of TechSecChix, a foundation for supporting women in technology, in a tweet. “Make it make sense.”

Microsoft backs India’s Oyo at $9.6 billion valuation

Microsoft has invested $5 million in Indian budget hotel chain Oyo, according to a regulatory filing this week. The investment confirms a TechCrunch scoop from last month.

The new investment values Oyo at $9.6 billion, only slightly below the $10 billion implied valuation from the Indian startup’s previous financing round in 2019. The startup, which lost significant business to the pandemic, was valued at just $3 billion in recent quarters by SoftBank, one of its largest investors.

TechCrunch reported earlier that this strategic investment may also involve Oyo shifting to use Microsoft’s cloud services. The company is planning to file for an IPO later this year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Oyo, which is one of India’s most valuable startups, has aggressively expanded to many markets including Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S. in recent years.  But some of its missteps — “toxic culture,” lapse in governance, and relationship with many hotel owners — have scarred its growth.

Just as the startup was pledging to improve its relationship with hotel owners, the pandemic arrived. In response, Oyo slowed its growth and laid off thousands of employees globally earlier this year as nations across the world enforced lockdowns.

The pandemic hit the seven-year-old startup like a “cyclone,” Agarwal told Bloomberg TV last month. “We built something for so many years and it took just 30 days for it drop by over 60%,” he said, adding that the firm had not made any decision on exploring the public markets.

Airbnb-backed Oyo had between $780 million to $800 million in its bank, Agarwal said at a virtual conference recently and had pared its “monthly burn” across all businesses to $4 million to $5 million. (The startup had about $1 billion in the bank in December 2020.)

Last month — after Agarwal’s remarks at the aforementioned conference — Oyo said it had raised $660 million in debt. That debt was used to pay off the previous debt, according to a person familiar with the matter.

If the deal between the two firms materializes, it will be Microsoft’s latest investment in an Indian startup. The firm has backed a handful of startups in the South Asian market, including news aggregator and short-video platform DailyHunt, e-commerce giant Flipkart, and logistics SaaS firm FarEye.

This Week in Apps: In-app events hit the App Store, TikTok tries Stories, Apple reveals new child safety plan

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple to scan for CSAM imagery

Apple announced a major initiative to scan devices for CSAM imagery. The company on Thursday announced a new set of features, arriving later this year, that will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in its cloud and report it to law enforcement. Companies like Dropbox, Google and Microsoft already scan for CSAM in their cloud services, but Apple had allowed users to encrypt their data before it reached iCloud. Now, Apple’s new technology, NeuralHash, will run on users’ devices, tatformso detect when a users upload known CSAM imagery — without having to first decrypt the images. It even can detect the imagery if it’s been cropped or edited in an attempt to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, on iPhone and iPad, the company will roll out protections to Messages app users that will filter images and alert children and parents if sexually explicit photos are sent to or from a child’s account. Children will not be shown the images but will instead see a grayed-out image instead. If they try to view the image anyway through the link, they’ll be shown interruptive screens that explain why the material may be harmful and are warned that their parents will be notified.

Some privacy advocates pushed back at the idea of such a system, believing it could expand to end-to-end encrypted photos, lead to false positives, or set the stage for more on-device government surveillance in the future. But many cryptology experts believe the system Apple developed provides a good balance between privacy and utility, and have offered their endorsement of the technology. In addition, Apple said reports are manually reviewed before being sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The changes may also benefit iOS developers who deal in user photos and uploads, as predators will no longer store CSAM imagery on iOS devices in the first place, given the new risk of detection.

In-App Events appear on the App Store

Image Credits: Apple

Though not yet publicly available to all users, those testing the new iOS 15 mobile operating system got their first glimpse of a new App Store discovery feature this week: “in-app events.” First announced at this year’s WWDC, the feature will allow developers and Apple editors alike to showcase directly on the App Store upcoming events taking place inside apps.

The events can appear on the App Store homepage, on the app’s product pages or can be discovered through personalized recommendations and search. In some cases, editors will curate events to feature on the App Store. But developers will also be provided tools to submit their own in-app events. TikTok’s “Summer Camp” for creators was one of the first in-app events to be featured, where it received a top spot on the iPadOS 15 App Store.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands support for student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch ahead of the fall semester. Tens of thousands more U.S. and Canadian colleges will now support mobile student IDs in the Apple Wallet app, including Auburn University, Northern Arizona University, University of Maine, New Mexico State University and others.

Apple was accused of promoting scam apps in the App Store’s featured section. The company’s failure to properly police its store is one thing, but to curate an editorial list that actually includes the scams is quite another. One of the games rounded up under “Slime Relaxations,” an already iffy category to say the least, was a subscription-based slime simulator that locked users into a $13 AUD per week subscription for its slime simulator. One of the apps on the curated list didn’t even function, implying that Apple’s editors hadn’t even tested the apps they recommend.

This is infuriating. How is Apple *featuring* these scams?

Let’s take a look at one of these apps!

“Jelly: Slime simulator, ASMR”

1/https://t.co/lDTn8eEVfz pic.twitter.com/VyYKUSLdJE

— Simeon (@twolivesleft) August 5, 2021

Tax changes hit the App Store. Apple announced tax and price changes for apps and IAPs in South Africa, the U.K. and all territories using the Euro currency, all of which will see decreases. Increases will occur in Georgia and Tajikistan, due to new tax changes. Proceeds on the App Store in Italy will be increased to reflect a change to the Digital Services Tax effective rate.

Game Center changes, too. Apple said that on August 4, a new certificate for server-based Game Center verification will be available via the publicKeyUrl.

Fintech

Robinhood stock jumped more than 24% to $46.80 on Tuesday after initially falling 8% on its first day of trading last week, after which it had continued to trade below its opening price of $38.

Square’s Cash app nearly doubled its gross profit to $546 million in Q2, but also reported a $45 million impairment loss on its bitcoin holdings.

Coinbase’s app now lets you buy your cryptocurrency using Apple Pay. The company previously made its Coinbase Card compatible with Apple Pay in June.

Social

An anonymous app called Sendit, which relies on Snap Kit to function, is climbing the charts of the U.S. App Store after Snap suspended similar apps, YOLO and LMK. Snap was sued by the parent of child who was bullied through those apps, which led to his suicide. Sendit also allows for anonymity, and reviews compare it to YOLO. But some reviews also complained about bullying. This isn’t the first time Snap has been involved in a lawsuit related to a young person’s death related to its app. The company was also sued for its irresponsible “speed filter” that critics said encouraged unsafe driving. Three young men died using the filter, which captured them doing 123 mph.

TikTok is testing Stories. As Twitter’s own Stories integrations, Fleets, shuts down, TikTok confirmed it’s testing its own Stories product. The TikTok Stories appear in a left-hand sidebar and allow users to post ephemeral images or video that disappear in 24 hours. Users can also comment on Stories, which are public to their mutual friends and the creator. Stories on TikTok may make more sense than they did on Twitter, as TikTok is already known as a creative platform and it gives the app a more familiar place to integrate its effects toolset and, eventually, advertisements.

Facebook has again re-arranged its privacy settings. The company continually moves around where its privacy features are located, ostensibly to make them easier to find. But users then have to re-learn where to go to find the tools they need, after they had finally memorized the location. This time, the settings have been grouped into six top-level categories, but “privacy” settings have been unbundled from one location to be scattered among the other categories.

A VICE report details ban-as-a-service operations that allow anyone to harass or censor online creators on Instagram. Assuming you can find it, one operation charged $60 per ban, the listing says.

TikTok merged personal accounts with creator accounts. The change means now all non-business accounts on TikTok will have access to the creator tools under Settings, including Analytics, Creator Portal, Promote and Q&A. TikTok shared the news directly with subscribers of its TikTok Creators newsletter in August, and all users will get a push notification alerting them to the change, the company told us.

Discord now lets users customize their profile on its apps. The company added new features to its iOS and Android apps that let you add a description, links and emojis and select a profile color. Paid subscribers can also choose an image or GIF as their banner.

Twitter Spaces added a co-hosting option that allows up to two co-hosts to be added to the live audio chat rooms. Now Spaces can have one main host, two co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Co-hosts have all the moderation abilities as hosts, but can’t add or remove others as co-hosts.

making it easier to manage your Space…introducing co-hosting!

– hosts have two co-host invites they can send
– the table just got bigger: 1 host, 2 co-hosts, and 10 speakers
– co-hosts can help invite speakers, manage requests, remove participants, pin Tweets and more! pic.twitter.com/s76JFbhTL2

— Spaces (@TwitterSpaces) August 5, 2021

Messaging

Tencent reopened new user sign-ups for its WeChat messaging app, after having suspended registrations last week for unspecified “technical upgrades.” The company, like many other Chinese tech giants, had to address new regulations from Beijing impacting the tech industry. New rules address how companies handle user data collection and storage, antitrust behavior and other checks on capitalist “excess.” The gaming industry is now worried it’s next to be impacted, with regulations that would restrict gaming for minors to fight addiction.

WhatsApp is adding a new feature that will allow users to send photos and videos that disappear after a single viewing. The Snapchat-inspired feature, however, doesn’t alert you if the other person takes a screenshot — as Snap’s app does. So it may not be ideal for sharing your most sensitive content.

Telegram’s update expands group video calls to support up to 1,000 viewers. It also announced video messages can be recorded in higher quality and can be expanded, regular videos can be watched at 0.5 or 2x speed, screen sharing with sound is available for all video calls, including 1-on-1 calls, and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

American Airlines added free access to TikTok aboard its Viasat-equipped aircraft. Passengers will be able to watch the app’s videos for up to 30 minutes for free and can even download the app if it’s not already installed. After the free time, they can opt to pay for Wi-Fi to keep watching. Considering how easy it is to fall into multi-hour TikTok viewing sessions without knowing it, the addition of the addictive app could make long plane rides feel shorter. Or at least less painful.

Chinese TikTok rival Kuaishou saw stocks fall by more than 15% in Hong Kong, the most since its February IPO. The company is another victim of an ongoing market selloff triggered by increasing investor uncertainty related to China’s recent crackdown on tech companies. Beijing’s campaign to rein in tech has also impacted Tencent, Alibaba, Jack Ma’s Ant Group, food delivery company Meituan and ride-hailing company Didi. Also related, Kuaishou shut down its controversial app Zynn, which had been paying users to watch its short-form videos, including those stolen from other apps.

Twitch overtook YouTube in consumer spending per user in April 2021, and now sees $6.20 per download as of June compared with YouTube’s $5.60, Sensor Tower found.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Spotify confirmed tests of a new ad-supported tier called Spotify Plus, which is only $0.99 per month and offers unlimited skips (like free users get on the desktop) and the ability to play the songs you want, instead of only being forced to use shuffle mode.

The company also noted in a forum posting that it’s no longer working on AirPlay2 support, due to “audio driver compatibility” issues.

Mark Cuban-backed audio app Fireside asked its users to invest in the company via an email sent to creators which didn’t share deal terms. The app has yet to launch.

YouTube kicks off its $100 million Shorts Fund aimed at taking on TikTok by providing creators with cash incentives for top videos. Creators will get bonuses of $100 to $10,000 based on their videos’ performance.

Dating

Match Group announced during its Q2 earnings it plans to add to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. Since then, Match was spotted testing group live video on Tinder, but says that particular product is not launching in the near-term. At least two brands will see Hyperconnect-powered integrations in 2021.

Photos

The Photo & Video category on U.S. app stores saw strong growth in the first half of the year, a Sensor Tower report found. Consumer spend among the top 100 apps grew 34% YoY to $457 million in Q2 2021, with the majority of the revenue (83%) taking place on iOS.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Gaming

Epic Games revealed the host of its in-app Rift Tour event is Ariana Grande, in the event that runs August 6-8.

Pokémon GO influencers threatened to boycott the game after Niantic removed the COVID safety measures that had allowed people to more easily play while social distancing. Niantic’s move seemed ill-timed, given the Delta variant is causing a new wave of COVID cases globally.

Health & Fitness

Apple kicked out an app called Unjected from the App Store. The new social app billed itself as a community for the unvaccinated, allowing like-minded users to connect for dating and friendships. Apple said the app violated its policies for COVID-19 content.

Google Pay expanded support for vaccine cards. In Australia, Google’s payments app now allows users to add their COVID-19 digital certification to their device for easy access. The option is available through Google’s newly updated Passes API which lets government agencies distribute digital versions of vaccine cards.

COVID Tech Connect, a U.S. nonprofit initially dedicated to collecting devices like phones and tablets for COVID ICU patients, has now launched its own app. The app, TeleHome, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way for patients to place a video call for free at a time when the Delta variant is again filling ICU wards, this time with the unvaccinated — a condition that sometimes overlaps with being low-income. Some among the working poor have been hesitant to get the shot because they can’t miss a day of work, and are worried about side effects. Which is why the Biden administration offered a tax credit to SMBs who offered paid time off to staff to get vaccinated and recover.

Popular journaling app Day One, which was recently acquired by WordPress.com owner Automattic, rolled out a new “Concealed Journals” feature that lets users hide content from others’ viewing. By tapping the eye icon, the content can be easily concealed on a journal by journal basis, which can be useful for those who write to their journal in public, like coffee shops or public transportation.

Edtech

Recently IPO’d language learning app Duolingo is developing a math app for kids. The company says it’s still “very early” in the development process, but will announce more details at its annual conference, Duocon, later this month.

Educational publisher Pearson launched an app that offers U.S. students access to its 1,500 titles for a monthly subscription of $14.99. the Pearson+ mobile app (ack, another +), also offers the option of paying $9.99 per month for access to a single textbook for a minimum of four months.

News & Reading

Quora jumps into the subscription economy. Still not profitable from ads alone, Quora announced two new products that allow its expert creators to monetize their content on its service. With Quora+ ($5/mo or $50/yr), subscribers can pay for any content that a creator paywalls. Creators can choose to enable a adaptive paywall that will use an algorithm to determine when to show the paywall. Another product, Spaces, lets creators write paywalled publications on Quora, similar to Substack. But only a 5% cut goes to Quora, instead of 10% on Substack.

Utilities

Google Maps on iOS added a new live location-sharing feature for iMessage users, allowing them to more easily show your ETA with friends and even how much battery life you have left. The feature competes with iMessage’s built-in location-sharing feature, and offers location sharing of 1 hour up to 3 days. The app also gained a dark mode.

Security & Privacy

Controversial crime app Citizen launched a $20 per month “Protect” service that includes live agent support (who can refer calls to 911 if need be). The agents can gather your precise location, alert your designated emergency contacts, help you navigate to a safe location and monitor the situation until you feel safe. The system of live agent support is similar to in-car or in-home security and safety systems, like those from ADT or OnStar, but works with users out in the real world. The controversial part, however, is the company behind the product: Citizen has been making headlines for launching private security fleets outside law enforcement, and recently offered a reward in a manhunt for an innocent person based on unsubstantiated tips.

Funding and M&A

🤝 Square announced its acquisition of the “buy now, pay later” giant AfterPay in a $29 billion deal that values the Australian firm at more than 30% higher than the stock’s last closing price of AUS$96.66. AfterPay has served over 16 million customers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, to date, and comes at a time when the BNPL space is heating up. Apple has also gotten into the market recently with an Affirm partnership in Canada.

🤝 Gaming giant Zynga acquired Chinese game developer StarLark, the team behind the mobile golf game Golf Rival, from Betta Games for $525 million in both cash and stock. Golf Rival is the second-largest mobile golf game behind Playdemic’s Golf Clash, and EA is in the process of buying that studio for $1.4 billion.

💰  U.K.-based Humanity raised an additional $2.5 million for its app that claims to help slow down aging, bringing the total raise to date to $5 million. Backers include Calm’s co-founders, MyFitness Pal’s co-founder and others in the health space. The app works by benchmarking health advice against real-world data, to help users put better health practices into action.

💰 YELA, a Cameo-like app for the Middle East and South Asia, raised $2 million led by U.S. investors that include Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, general partner of RAD Fund. The app is focusing on signing celebrities in the regions it serves, where smartphone penetration is high and over 6% of the population is under 35.

💰 London-based health and wellness app maker Palta raised a $100 million Series B led by VNV Global. The company’s products include Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, Zing Fitness Coach and others, which reach a combined 2.4 million active, paid subscribers. The funds will be used to create more mobile subscription products.

🤝 Emoji database and Wikipedia-like site Emojipedia was acquired by Zedge, the makers of a phone personalization app offering wallpapers, ringtones and more to 35 million MAUs. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. Emojipedia says the deal provides it with more stability and the opportunity for future growth. For Zedge, the deal provides🤨….um, a popular web resource it thinks it can better monetize, we suspect.

💰 Mental health app Revery raised $2 million led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for its app that combines cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with mobile gaming concepts. The company will focus on other mental health issues in the future.

💰 London-based Nigerian-operating fintech startup Kuda raised a $55 million Series B, valuing its mobile-first challenger bank at $500 million. The inside round was co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global.

💰 Vietnamese payments provider VNLife raised $250 million in a round led by U.S.-based General Atlantic and Dragoneer Investment Group. PayPal Ventures and others also participated. The round values the business at over $1 billion.

Downloads

Mastodon for iPhone

Fans of decentralized social media efforts now have a new app. The nonprofit behind the open source decentralized social network Mastodon released an official iPhone app, aimed at making the network more accessible to newcomers. The app allows you to find and follow people and topics; post text, images, GIFs, polls, and videos; and get notified of new replies and reblogs, much like Twitter.

Xingtu

@_666eveITS SO COOL FRFR do u guys want a tutorial? #fypシ #醒图 #醒图app♬ original sound – Ian Asher

TikTok users are teaching each other how to switch over to the Chinese App Store in order to get ahold of the Xingtu app for iOS. (An Android version is also available.) The app offers advanced editing tools that let users edit their face and body, like FaceTune, apply makeup, add filters and more. While image-editing apps can be controversial for how they can impact body acceptance, Xingtu offers a variety of artistic filters which is what’s primarily driving the demand. It’s interesting to see the lengths people will go to just to get a few new filters for their photos — perhaps making a case for Instagram to finally update its Post filters instead of pretending no one cares about their static photos anymore.

Tweets

Facebook still dominating top charts, but not the No. 1 spot:  

The most downloaded app worldwide for July 2021 was @tiktok_us with more than 63M installs. @Facebook, @instagram, @messenger, and @WhatsApp rounded out the top 5: https://t.co/H9RMR5Pg9P #tiktok #topapps #mobileapps #mobilegrowth pic.twitter.com/srlDI07FeD

— Sensor Tower (@SensorTower) August 5, 2021

Not cool, Apple: 

Apple promoting these slime apps again.

A few of them have $10+ weekly subscriptions.

One of them doesn’t even do anything.https://t.co/d0dKLCkiVF

— Beau Nouvelle (@BeauNouvelle) August 4, 2021

This user acquisition strategy: 

Great feedback, wanna use/test @FlightyApp? Looks like you fly some based on your profile, and good feedback is my lifeblood.

— Ryan Jones (@rjonesy) August 4, 2021

Maybe Stories don’t work everywhere: 

if you see a Fleet no you didn’t https://t.co/4rKI7f45PL

— Twitter (@Twitter) August 3, 2021

Growth is not enough

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Grace and Chris to sort through a week that brought together both this quarter’s earnings cycle, and the Q3 IPO rush. So, it was just a little busy!

Before we get to topics, however, a note that we are having a lot of fun recording these live on Twitter Spaces. We’ve found a hacky way to capture local audio and also share the chats live. So, hit us up on Twitter so you can hang out with us. It’s fun – and we may even bring you up on stage to play guest host.

Ok, now, to the Great List of Subjects:

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Shopify’s Q2 results beat estimates as e-commerce shines

Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.

In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.

Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.

Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.

After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.

In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.

The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.

Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.

Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.

It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?

This tool tells you if NSO’s Pegasus spyware targeted your phone

Over the weekend, an international consortium of news outlets reported that several authoritarian governments — including Mexico, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — used spyware developed by NSO Group to hack into the phones of thousands of their most vocal critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and business executives.

A leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets was obtained by Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with the reporting consortium, including The Washington Post and The Guardian. Researchers analyzed the phones of dozens of victims to confirm they were targeted by the NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which can access all of the data on a person’s phone. The reports also confirm new details of the government customers themselves, which NSO Group closely guards. Hungary, a member of the European Union where privacy from surveillance is supposed to be a fundamental right for its 500 million residents, is named as an NSO customer.

The reporting shows for the first time how many individuals are likely targets of NSO’s intrusive device-level surveillance. Previous reporting had put the number of known victims in the hundreds or more than a thousand.

NSO Group sharply rejected the claims. NSO has long said that it doesn’t know who its customers target, which it reiterated in a statement to TechCrunch on Monday.

Researchers at Amnesty, whose work was reviewed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, found that NSO can deliver Pegasus by sending a victim a link which when opened infects the phone, or silently and without any interaction at all through a “zero-click” exploit, which takes advantage of vulnerabilities in the iPhone’s software. Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak said in a tweet that NSO’s zero-clicks worked on iOS 14.6, which until today was the most up-to-date version.

Amnesty’s researchers showed their work by publishing meticulously detailed technical notes and a toolkit that they said may help others identify if their phones have been targeted by Pegasus.

The Mobile Verification Toolkit, or MVT, works on both iPhones and Android devices, but slightly differently. Amnesty said that more forensic traces were found on iPhones than Android devices, which makes it easier to detect on iPhones. MVT will let you take an entire iPhone backup (or a full system dump if you jailbreak your phone) and feed in for any indicators of compromise (IOCs) known to be used by NSO to deliver Pegasus, such as domain names used in NSO’s infrastructure that might be sent by text message or email. If you have an encrypted iPhone backup, you can also use MVT to decrypt your backup without having to make a whole new copy.

The Terminal output from the MVT toolkit, which scans iPhone and Android backup files for indicators of compromise. Image Credits: TechCrunch

The toolkit works on the command line, so it’s not a refined and polished user experience and requires some basic knowledge of how to navigate the terminal. We got it working in about 10 minutes, plus the time to create a fresh backup of an iPhone, which you will want to do if you want to check up to the hour. To get the toolkit ready to scan your phone for signs of Pegasus, you’ll need to feed in Amnesty’s IOCs, which it has on its GitHub page. Any time the indicators of compromise file updates, download and use an up-to-date copy.

Once you set off the process, the toolkit scans your iPhone backup file for any evidence of compromise. The process took about a minute or two to run and spit out several files in a folder with the results of the scan. If the toolkit finds a possible compromise, it will say so in the outputted files. In our case, we got one “detection,” which turned out to be a false positive and has been removed from the IOCs after we checked with the Amnesty researchers. A new scan using the updated IOCs returned no signs of compromise.

Given it’s more difficult to detect an Android infection, MVT takes a similar but simpler approach by scanning your Android device backup for text messages with links to domains known to be used by NSO. The toolkit also lets you scan for potentially malicious applications installed on your device.

The toolkit is — as command line tools go — relatively simple to use, though the project is open source so it won’t be long before someone will surely build a user interface for it. The project’s detailed documentation will help you — as it did us.

You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849. You can also send files or documents using our SecureDrop. Learn more

US blames China for Exchange server hacks and ransomware attacks

The Biden administration and its allies has formally accused China of the mass-hacking of Microsoft Exchange servers earlier this year, which prompted the FBI to intervene as concerns rose that the hacks could lead to widespread destruction.

The mass-hacking campaign targeted Microsoft Exchange email servers with four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities that allowed the hackers — which Microsoft already attributed to a China-backed group of hackers called Hafnium — to steal email mailboxes and address books from tens of thousands of organizations around the United States.

Microsoft released patches to fix the vulnerabilities, but the patches did not remove any backdoor code left behind by the hackers that might be used again for easy access to a hacked server. That prompted the FBI to secure a first-of-its-kind court order to effectively hack into the remaining hundreds of U.S.-based Exchange servers to remove the backdoor code. Computer incident response teams in countries around the world responded similarly by trying to notify organizations in their countries that were also affected by the attack.

In a statement out Monday, the Biden administration said the attack, launched by hackers backed by China’s Ministry of State Security, resulted in “significant remediation costs for its mostly private sector victims.”

“We have raised our concerns about both this incident and the [People’s Republic of China’s] broader malicious cyber activity with senior PRC Government officials, making clear that the PRC’s actions threaten security, confidence, and stability in cyberspace,” the statement read.

The National Security Agency also released details of the attacks to help network defenders identify potential routes of compromise.

Several allies, including the U.K. and the members of NATO, also backed the Biden administration in its findings. In a statement, the U.K. government found Beijing responsible for a “pervasive pattern” of hacking. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied claims of state-backed or sponsored hacking.

The Biden administration also blamed China’s Ministry of State Security for contracting with criminal hackers to conduct unsanctioned operations, like ransomware attacks, “for their own personal profit.” The government said it was aware that China-backed hackers have demanded millions of dollars in ransom demands against hacked companies. Last year, the Justice Department charged two Chinese spies for their role in a global hacking campaign that saw prosecutors accuse the hackers of operating for personal gain.

Although the U.S. has publicly engaged the Kremlin to try to stop giving ransomware gangs safe harbor from operating from within Russia’s borders, the U.S. has not previously accused Beijing of launching or being involved with ransomware attacks.

“The PRC’s unwillingness to address criminal activity by contract hackers harms governments, businesses, and critical infrastructure operators through billions of dollars in lost intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments, and mitigation efforts,” said Monday’s statement.

The statement also said that the China-backed hackers engaged in extortion and cryptojacking, a way of forcing a computer to run code that uses its computing resources to mine cryptocurrency, for financial gain.

The Justice Department also announced fresh charges against four China-backed hackers working for the Ministry of State Security, which U.S. prosecutors said were engaged in efforts to steal intellectual property and infectious disease research into Ebola, HIV and AIDS, and MERS against victims based in the U.S., Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom by using a front company to hide their operations.

“The breadth and duration of China’s hacking campaigns, including these efforts targeting a dozen countries across sectors ranging from healthcare and biomedical research to aviation and defense, remind us that no country or industry is safe. Today’s international condemnation shows that the world wants fair rules, where countries invest in innovation, not theft,” said deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco.

Could Cloud PCs be Microsoft’s gateway to Chromebook-like hardware?

When Microsoft announced that it was releasing a cloud PC service called Windows 365 this morning, it got me thinking. While Windows 365 is about packaging a virtual Windows business desktop in a cloud context, if you think about the announcement in a different way, perhaps it could herald the beginning of a lightweight, cloud-based version of Windows — something that has been talked about for some time.

To be clear, the cloud PC announcement wasn’t related to hardware at all. It’s taking a Windows desktop and moving it fully virtualized to the cloud where you can run it from anywhere giving you a replica of your Windows desktop PC in the cloud. But what if you stretched that idea a bit by taking Microsoft 365 with Office apps and threw it onto a low-cost PC and used the Edge browser as your primary way of interacting with the computer? Now you have something that could compete directly with a Chromebook-style computer.

That’s exactly what Google has done with Chrome and Chromebooks for over a decade, working with partners to deliver low-cost hardware with most required compute work taking place in the cloud. The Chrome browser is the primary desktop environment, Google Workspace (aka G Suite) is the default set of office suite apps with word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software along with email and calendar and other services. In fact, you can run any software service you wish in Chrome including Microsoft’s cloud office tools. Regardless, the end-result of this is a low-end business (or personal) laptop that gets most of its power from the cloud.

Most people don’t need a modern notebook computer, and the hardware required to run full-strength operating systems contributes to the high cost of the underlying machine, something Google discovered long ago. If you simplified everything to a browser, an office suite, and web access to your favorite tools, you would have just about everything you need without all of the management headaches associated with owning a PC with a traditional OS sitting on it.

Think about the person who just uses email, office tools and watches a little Netflix. This kind of machine would be perfect for them without blowing their budget out of the water or being overly complex.

Last year when the pandemic hit and everyone had to hunker down and work on a PC including children, people went looking for a low-cost option. They voted for Chromebook in droves accounting for over 30 million units sold, including over 11 million in the fourth quarter alone, according to Canalys data.

While growth slowed a bit in the first quarter of this year, Canalys found Chromebook shipments still grew by 275%. Brian Lynch, an analyst at Canalys wrote in the report that “Chromebooks are well and truly a mainstream computing product now,” adding that “while the education sector still accounts for the majority of shipments, their popularity with consumers and traditional commercial customers has reached new heights over the course of the last year.”

Windows did well too, but given the number of Chromebooks flying off the shelves — led by Lenovo and HP, two companies that also make machines running Microsoft software — a Windows-based cloud PC could give Chromebook a run for its money.

It’s worth noting that, yes, there are low-cost Windows PCs out there. You can get one at Walmart for $149, which competes price-wise with any Chromebook computer out there, but these lower end Windows machines are still a full-fledged Windows PC and you still have to deal with all the management. From an IT (or personal use) perspective, Chromebooks are much easier to manage than Windows PCs.

Since Satya Nadella came on board as CEO at Microsoft in 2014, the company has shown a strong willingness to shift its focus away from the PC where it made its name (and its money) and move toward the cloud. So far, Redmond has done well moving in that direction with its market cap recently breaking the $2 trillion threshold.

What’s more, Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure market share sits at around 20%, more than doubling where it was in 2014 when Nadella took over. Even more, the company had around 16% of cloud office suite market share in 2014, a figure that has grown to 40% today. Google’s office suite is the fairest of them all though with almost 60%, according to Statista. That is due at least in part to its Chromebook sales pushing users towards its suite.

If Microsoft wants to dent that number, a good way to do that would be to create a cloud-based notebook that looks a lot like Chromebook, but with a Windows bent. It would mean eating into their traditional desktop PC OS dominance, but much like in 2014, it could be about trading a past with diminishing returns for a future with much more promising ones.

Microsoft launches Windows 365

Microsoft today launched Windows 365, a service that gives businesses the option to easily let their employees access a Windows 10 desktop from the cloud (with Windows 11 coming once it’s generally available). Think game streaming, but for your desktop. It’ll be available for business users (and only business users), on August 2, 2021.

Announced through a somewhat inscrutable press release, Windows 365 has been long expected and is really just an evolution of existing remote desktop services.

But hey, you may say, doesn’t Microsoft already offer Azure Virtual Desktop that gives businesses the option to let their employees access a Windows PC in the cloud? Yes, but the difference seems to be that Windows 365 is far easier to use and involves none of the complexity of setting up a full Azure Virtual Desktop environment in the Azure cloud.

But couldn’t Microsoft have made Azure Virtual Desktop easier to use instead of launching yet another virtual desktop service? Yes, but Azure Virtual Desktop is very much an enterprise service and by default, that means it must play nicely with the rest of the complexities of a company’s existing infrastructure. The pandemic pressed it into service in smaller companies because they had few alternatives, but in many ways, today’s launch is Microsoft admitting that it was far too difficult to manage for them. Windows 365, on the other hand, is somewhat of a fresh slate. It’s also available through a basic subscription service.

“Microsoft also continues to innovate in Azure Virtual Desktop for those organizations with deep virtualization experience that want more customization and flexibility options,” the company says. At least we know why the company renamed Windows Virtual Desktop to Azure Virtual desktop now. That would’ve gotten quite confusing.

Image Credits: Microsoft

This also gives Microsoft the opportunity to talk about “a new hybrid personal computing category” its CEO Satya Nadella calls a ‘Cloud PC.’ It’s a bit unclear what exactly that’s supposed to be, but it’s a new category.

“Just like applications were brought to the cloud with SaaS, we are now bringing the operating system to the cloud, providing organizations with greater flexibility and a secure way to empower their workforce to be more productive and connected, regardless of location,” Nadella explains in today’s press release.

But isn’t that just a thin client? Maybe? But we’re not talking hardware here. It’s really just a virtualized operating system in the cloud that you can access from anywhere — and that’s a category that’s been around for a long time.

“Hybrid work has fundamentally changed the role of technology in organizations today,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365. “With workforces more disparate than ever before, organizations need a new way to deliver a great productivity experience with increased versatility, simplicity and security. Cloud PC is an exciting new category of hybrid personal computing that turns any device into a personalized, productive and secure digital workspace. Today’s announcement of Windows 365 is just the beginning of what will be possible as we blur the lines between the device and the cloud.”

 

 

Microsoft confirms it’s buying cybersecurity startup RiskIQ

Microsoft has confirmed it’s buying RiskIQ, a San Francisco-based cybersecurity company that provides threat intelligence and cloud-based software as a service for organizations.

Terms of the deal, which will see RiskIQ’s threat intelligence services integrated into Microsoft’s flagship security offerings, were not disclosed, although Bloomberg previously reported that Microsoft will pay more than $500 million in cash for the company. Microsoft declined to confirm the reported figure.

The announcement comes amid a heightened security landscape as organizations shift to remote and hybrid working strategies.

RiskIQ scours the web, mapping out details about websites and networks, domain name records, certificates and other information, like WHOIS registration data, providing customers visibility into what assets, devices and services can be accessed outside of a company’s firewall. That helps companies lock down their assets and limit their attack surface from malicious actors. It’s that data in large part that helped the company discover and understand Magecart, a collection of groups that inject credit card stealing malware into vulnerable websites.

Microsoft says that by embedding RiskIQ’s technologies into its core products, its customers will be able to build a more comprehensive view of the global threats to their businesses as workforces continue to work outside of the traditional office environment.

The deal will also help organizations to keep an eye on supply-chain risks, Microsoft says. This is likely a growing priority for many: an attack on software provider SolarWinds last year saw affected at least 18,000 of its customers, and just this month IT vendor Kaseya fell victim to a ransomware attack that spread to more than 1,000 downstream businesses.

Eric Doerr, vice president of cloud security at Microsoft, said: “RiskIQ helps customers discover and assess the security of their entire enterprise attack surface — in the Microsoft cloud, AWS, other clouds, on-premises, and from their supply chain. With more than a decade of experience scanning and analyzing the internet, RiskIQ can help enterprises identify and remediate vulnerable assets before an attacker can capitalize on them.”

RiskIQ was founded in 2009 and has raised a total of $83 million over four rounds of funding. Elias Manousos, who co-founded RiskIQ and serves as its chief executive, said he was “thrilled” at the acquisition.

“The vision and mission of RiskIQ is to provide unmatched internet visibility and insights to better protect and inform our customers and partners’ security programs,” said Manousos. “Our combined capabilities will enable best-in-class protection, investigations, and response against today’s threats.”

The acquisition is one of many Microsoft has made recently in the cybersecurity space in recent months. The software giant last year bought Israeli security startup CyberX in a bid to boost its Azure IoT business, and just last month it acquired Internet of Things security firm ReFirm Labs.

Equity Monday: Cybersecurity startups see deluge of capital as Microsoft looks to buy RiskIQ

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

It was a busy weekend for everyone, regardless of whether you were watching the technology, what Branson was up to, or the footie. I won’t take sides on the match, but I will say that it was gripping unto the very end and a great example of sport. Now, the news:

And don’t forget that earnings season is just around the corner. It’s a pretty important cycle. Why? Because startup valuations are hot, and could take a hit if earnings come up short. And the IPO market is pretty freaking active; poor earnings from major tech companies could crimp exit-prices for mature startups.

Ok! Talk to you on Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Nobody wins as DoD finally pulls the plug on controversial $10B JEDI contract

After several years of fighting and jockeying for position by the biggest cloud infrastructure companies in the world, the Pentagon finally pulled the plug on the controversial winner-take-all $10 billion JEDI contract today. In the end, nobody won.

“With the shifting technology environment, it has become clear that the JEDI cloud contract, which has long been delayed, no longer meets the requirements to fill the DoD’s capability gaps,” a Pentagon spokesperson stated.

The contract procurement process began in 2018 with a call for RFPs for a $10 billion, decade long contract to handle the cloud infrastructure strategy for The Pentagon. Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb told TechCrunch why they were going with the. single-winner approach: “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said at the time.

From the start though, companies objected to the single winner approach, believing that the Pentagon would be better served with a multi-vendor approach. Some companies, particularly Oracle believed the procurement process was designed to favor Amazon.

In the end it came down to a pair of finalists — Amazon and Microsoft — and in the end Microsoft won. But Amazon believed that it had superior technology and only lost the deal because of direct interference by the previous president, who had open disdain for then CEO Jeff Bezos (who is also the owner of the Washington Post newspaper).

Amazon decided to fight the decision in court, and after months of delay, the Pentagon made the decision that it was time to move on. In a blog post, Microsoft took a swipe at Amazon for precipitating the delay.

“The 20 months since DoD selected Microsoft as its JEDI partner highlights issues that warrant the attention of policymakers: when one company can delay, for years, critical technology upgrades for those who defend our nation, the protest process needs reform. Amazon filed its protest in November 2019 and its case was expected to take at least another year to litigate and yield a decision, with potential appeals afterward,” Microsoft wrote in its blog post about the end of the deal.

It seems like a fitting end to a project that felt like it was doomed from the beginning. From the moment the Pentagon announced this contract with the cutesy twist on Star Wars name, the procurement process has taken more twist and turns than a TV soap.

In the end, there was a lot of sound and fury and now a lot of nothing. We move onto whatever cloud procurement process happens next.

Note: We have a request into Amazon for a comment and will update the story when they respond.

Dispense with the chasm? No way!

Geoffrey Moore
Contributor

Known for his seminal book “Crossing the Chasm,” Geoffrey Moore is an author, speaker and adviser who splits his consulting time between startup companies in the Wildcat Venture Partners portfolio and established high-tech enterprises — including Salesforce, Microsoft, Autodesk, F5Networks, Gainsight, Google and Splunk.

Jeff Bussgang, a co-founder and general partner at Flybridge Capital, recently wrote an Extra Crunch guest post that argued it is time for a refresh when it comes to the technology adoption life cycle and the chasm. His argument went as follows:

  1. VCs in recent years have drastically underestimated the size of SAMs (serviceable addressable markets) for their startup investments because they were “trained to think only a portion of the SAM is obtainable within any reasonable window of time because of the chasm.”
  2. The chasm is no longer the barrier it once was because businesses have finally understood that software is eating the world.
  3. As a result, the early majority has joined up with the innovators and early adopters to create an expanded early market. Effectively, they have defected from the mainstream market to cross the chasm in the other direction, leaving only the late majority and the laggards on the other side.
  4. That is why we now are seeing multiple instances of very large high-growth markets that appear to have no limit to their upside. There is no chasm to cross until much later in the life cycle, and it isn’t worth much effort to cross it then.

Now, I agree with Jeff that we are seeing remarkable growth in technology adoption at levels that would have astonished investors from prior decades. In particular, I agree with him when he says:

The pandemic helped accelerate a global appreciation that digital innovation was no longer a luxury but a necessity. As such, companies could no longer wait around for new innovations to cross the chasm. Instead, everyone had to embrace change or be exposed to an existential competitive disadvantage.

But this is crossing the chasm! Pragmatic customers are being forced to adopt because they are under duress. It is not that they buy into the vision of software eating the world. It is because their very own lunches are being eaten. The pandemic created a flotilla of chasm-crossings because it unleashed a very real set of existential threats.

The key here is to understand the difference between two buying decision processes, one governed by visionaries and technology enthusiasts (the early adopters and innovators), the other by pragmatists (the early majority). The early group makes their decisions based on their own analyses. They do not look to others for corroborative support. Pragmatists do. Indeed, word-of-mouth endorsements are by far the most impactful input not only about what to buy and when but also from whom.

GitHub previews new AI tool that makes coding suggestions

GitHub has unveiled a new product that leverages artificial intelligence to help you write code more efficiently. Named GitHub Copilot, today’s new product can suggest lines of code and even sometimes entire functions.

GitHub has partnered with OpenAI to develop this tool. It doesn’t replace developers, it’s just a tool that should improve productivity and make it easier to learn how to code. GitHub frames this new tool as an AI pair programmer.

The model behind GitHub Copilot has been trained on billions of lines of code — many of them are hosted and available publicly on GitHub itself. When you’re writing code, GitHub Copilot suggests code as you type. You can cycle through suggestions, accept or reject them.

In order to figure out what you’re currently coding, GitHub Copilot tries to parse the meaning of a comment, the name of the function you are writing, or the past couple of lines. The company shows a few demos on its website.

In particular, you can describe a function in plain English in a comment and then convert it to actual code. If you’re getting started with a new language or you’ve been using no-code or low-code tools in the past, that feature could be useful.

If you’re writing code every day, GitHub Copilot can be used to work with a new framework or library. You don’t have to read the documentation from start to finish as GitHub Copilot already knows the specific functions and features of the framework you’re working with. It could also replace many Stack Overflow queries.

GitHub Copilot integrates directly with Visual Studio Code. You can install it as an extension or use it in the cloud with GitHub Codespaces. Over time, the service should improve based on how you interact with GitHub Copilot. As you accept and reject suggestions, those suggestions should get better.

Currently available as a technical preview, GitHub plans to launch a commercial product based on GitHub Copilot. It currently works best with Python, JavaScript, TypeScript, Ruby and Go.

LinkedIn formally joins EU Code on hate speech takedowns

Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has committed to doing more to quickly purge illegal hate speech from its platform in the European Union by formally signing up to a self-regulatory initiative that seeks to tackle the issue through a voluntary Code of Conduct.

In statement today, the European Commission announced that the professional social network has joined the EU’s Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online, with justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, welcoming LinkedIn’s (albeit tardy) participation, and adding in a statement that the code “is and will remain an important tool in the fight against hate speech, including within the framework established by digital services legislation”.

“I invite more businesses to join, so that the online world is free from hate,” Reynders added.

While LinkedIn’s name wasn’t formally associated with the voluntary Code before now it said it has “supported” the effort via parent company Microsoft, which was already signed up.

In a statement on its decision to formally join now, it also said:

“LinkedIn is a place for professional conversations where people come to connect, learn and find new opportunities. Given the current economic climate and the increased reliance jobseekers and professionals everywhere are placing on LinkedIn, our responsibility is to help create safe experiences for our members. We couldn’t be clearer that hate speech is not tolerated on our platform. LinkedIn is a strong part of our members’ professional identities for the entirety of their career — it can be seen by their employer, colleagues and potential business partners.”

In the EU ‘illegal hate speech’ can mean content that espouses racist or xenophobic views, or which seeks to incite violence or hatred against groups of people because of their race, skin color, religion or ethnic origin etc.

A number of Member States have national laws on the issue — and some have passed their own legislation specifically targeted at the digital sphere. So the EU Code is supplementary to any actual hate speech legislation. It is also non-legally binding.

The initiative kicked off back in 2016 — when a handful of tech giants (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft) agreed to accelerate takedowns of illegal speech (or well, attach their brand names to the PR opportunity associated with saying they would).

Since the Code became operational, a handful of other tech platforms have joined — with video sharing platform TikTok signing up last October, for example.

But plenty of digital services (notably messaging platforms) still aren’t participating. Hence the Commission’s call for more digital services companies to get on board.

At the same time, the EU is in the process of firming up hard rules in the area of illegal content.

Last year the Commission proposed broad updates (aka the Digital Services Act) to existing ecommerce rules to set operational ground rules that they said are intended to bring online laws in line with offline legal requirements — in areas such as illegal content, and indeed illegal goods. So, in the coming years, the bloc will get a legal framework that tackles — at least at a high level — the hate speech issue, not merely a voluntary Code. 

The EU also recently adopted legislation on terrorist content takedowns (this April) — which is set to start applying to online platforms from next year.

But it’s interesting to note that, on the perhaps more controversial issue of hate speech (which can deeply intersect with freedom of expression), the Commission wants to maintain a self-regulatory channel alongside incoming legislation — as Reynders’ remarks underline.

Brussels evidently sees value in having a mixture of ‘carrots and sticks’ where hot button digital regulation issues are concerned. Especially in the controversial ‘danger zone’ of speech regulation.

So, while the DSA is set to bake in standardized ‘notice and response’ procedures to help digital players swiftly respond to illegal content, by keeping the hate speech Code around it means there’s a parallel conduit where key platforms could be encouraged by the Commission to commit to going further than the letter of the law (and thereby enable lawmakers to sidestep any controversy if they were to try to push more expansive speech moderation measures into legislation).

The EU has — for several years — had a voluntary a Code of Practice on Online Disinformation too. (And a spokeswoman for LinkedIn confirmed it has been signed up to that since its inception, also through its parent company Microsoft.)

And while lawmakers recently announced a plan to beef that Code up — to make it “more binding”, as they oxymoronically put it — it certainly isn’t planning to legislate on that (even fuzzier) speech issue.

In further public remarks today on the hate speech Code, the Commission said that a fifth monitoring exercise in June 2020 showed that on average companies reviewed 90% of reported content within 24 hours and removed 71% of content that was considered to be illegal hate speech.

It added that it welcomed the results — but also called for signatories to redouble their efforts, especially around providing feedback to users and in how they approach transparency around reporting and removals.

The Commission has also repeatedly calls for platforms signed up to the disinformation Code to do more to tackle the tsunami of ‘fake news’ being fenced on their platforms, including — on the public health front — what they last year dubbed a coronavirus infodemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly contributed to concentrating lawmakers’ minds on the complex issue of how to effectively regulate the digital sphere and likely accelerated a number of EU efforts.

 

Edge Delta raises $15M Series A to take on Splunk

Seattle-based Edge Delta, a startup that is building a modern distributed monitoring stack that is competing directly with industry heavyweights like Splunk, New Relic and Datadog, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Menlo Ventures and Tim Tully, the former CTO of Splunk. Previous investors MaC Venture Capital and Amity Ventures also participated in this round, which brings the company’s total funding to date to $18 million.

“Our thesis is that there’s no way that enterprises today can continue to analyze all their data in real time,” said Edge Delta co-founder and CEO Ozan Unlu, who has worked in the observability space for about 15 years already (including at Microsoft and Sumo Logic). “The way that it was traditionally done with these primitive, centralized models — there’s just too much data. It worked 10 years ago, but gigabytes turned into terabytes and now terabytes are turning into petabytes. That whole model is breaking down.”

Image Credits: Edge Delta

He acknowledges that traditional big data warehousing works quite well for business intelligence and analytics use cases. But that’s not real-time and also involves moving a lot of data from where it’s generated to a centralized warehouse. The promise of Edge Delta is that it can offer all of the capabilities of this centralized model by allowing enterprises to start to analyze their logs, metrics, traces and other telemetry right at the source. This, in turn, also allows them to get visibility into all of the data that’s generated there, instead of many of today’s systems, which only provide insights into a small slice of this information.

While competing services tend to have agents that run on a customer’s machine, but typically only compress the data, encrypt it and then send it on to its final destination, Edge Delta’s agent starts analyzing the data right at the local level. With that, if you want to, for example, graph error rates from your Kubernetes cluster, you wouldn’t have to gather all of this data and send it off to your data warehouse where it has to be indexed before it can be analyzed and graphed.

With Edge Delta, you could instead have every single node draw its own graph, which Edge Delta can then combine later on. With this, Edge Delta argues, its agent is able to offer significant performance benefits, often by orders of magnitude. This also allows businesses to run their machine learning models at the edge, as well.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

“What I saw before I was leaving Splunk was that people were sort of being choosy about where they put workloads for a variety of reasons, including cost control,” said Menlo Ventures’ Tim Tully, who joined the firm only a couple of months ago. “So this idea that you can move some of the compute down to the edge and lower latency and do machine learning at the edge in a distributed way was incredibly fascinating to me.”

Edge Delta is able to offer a significantly cheaper service, in large part because it doesn’t have to run a lot of compute and manage huge storage pools itself since a lot of that is handled at the edge. And while the customers obviously still incur some overhead to provision this compute power, it’s still significantly less than what they would be paying for a comparable service. The company argues that it typically sees about a 90 percent improvement in total cost of ownership compared to traditional centralized services.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

Edge Delta charges based on volume and it is not shy to compare its prices with Splunk’s and does so right on its pricing calculator. Indeed, in talking to Tully and Unlu, Splunk was clearly on everybody’s mind.

“There’s kind of this concept of unbundling of Splunk,” Unlu said. “You have Snowflake and the data warehouse solutions coming in from one side, and they’re saying, ‘hey, if you don’t care about real time, go use us.’ And then we’re the other half of the equation, which is: actually there’s a lot of real-time operational use cases and this model is actually better for those massive stream processing datasets that you required to analyze in real time.”

But despite this competition, Edge Delta can still integrate with Splunk and similar services. Users can still take their data, ingest it through Edge Delta and then pass it on to the likes of Sumo Logic, Splunk, AWS’s S3 and other solutions.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

“If you follow the trajectory of Splunk, we had this whole idea of building this business around IoT and Splunk at the Edge — and we never really quite got there,” Tully said. “I think what we’re winding up seeing collectively is the edge actually means something a little bit different. […] The advances in distributed computing and sophistication of hardware at the edge allows these types of problems to be solved at a lower cost and lower latency.”

The Edge Delta team plans to use the new funding to expand its team and support all of the new customers that have shown interest in the product. For that, it is building out its go-to-market and marketing teams, as well as its customer success and support teams.

 

Databricks co-founder and CEO Ali Ghodsi is coming to TC Sessions: SaaS

In many industries, Databricks has become synonymous with modern data warehousing and data lakes. Since it’s exactly these technologies that are at the core of what modern businesses are doing around operationalizing their data, data engineering and building machine-learning models — and since Databricks is at the forefront of startups that offer these services on a SaaS-like platform, who better to join us at TC Sessions: SaaS on October 27 than Databricks co-founder and CEO Ali Ghodsi.

Ghodsi co-founded Databricks together with a handful of partners in 2013 with the idea of commercializing the open-source Apache Spark analytics engine for big data processing. As is the case with so many open-source companies, Ghodsi, who has a Ph.D. from KTH/Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and whose research focused on distributed computing, was one of the original developers of the Spark engine. At Databricks, he first served as the company’s VP of Engineering and Product Management before being named CEO in 2016.

Under his leadership, Databricks has reached a $28 billion valuation and has now raised a total of $1.9 billion. The company’s bets on open source, data and AI are clearly paying off and unlike some of its competitors, Databricks has done a good job staying ahead of the trends (and had a bit of luck given that some of those trends, including the rise of machine learning, really benefitted the company, too).

Despite consistent rumors of Microsoft and others trying to acquire the company in recent years, Ghodsi and his board have clearly decided that they want to remain independent. Instead, Databricks has shrewdly partnered with all of the big cloud players, starting with Microsoft, which actually gave the service the kind of prime placement in its Azure cloud computing service and user interface that was previously unheard of. Most recently, the company brought its platform to Google Cloud.

Ghodsi will join us at TC Sessions: SaaS to talk about building his company, raising funding at crazy valuations and what the future of data management in the AI space looks like.

$75 Early Bird ticket sales end October 1. Grab your ticket today and gain insights on how to scale your B2B and B2C company from CEOs who have done it themselves. Meet the founders building with low code/no code, meet the investors cutting the checks, and discover the next generation of SaaS startups bridging data with new technologies.

Supreme Court revives LinkedIn case to protect user data from web scrapers

The Supreme Court has given LinkedIn another chance to stop a rival company from scraping personal information from users’ public profiles, a practice LinkedIn says should be illegal but one that could have broad ramifications for internet researchers and archivists.

LinkedIn lost its case against Hiq Labs in 2019 after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the CFAA does not prohibit a company from scraping data that is publicly accessible on the internet.

The Microsoft-owned social network argued that the mass scraping of its users’ profiles was in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA, which prohibits accessing a computer without authorization.

Hiq Labs, which uses public data to analyze employee attrition, argued at the time that a ruling in LinkedIn’s favor “could profoundly impact open access to the Internet, a result that Congress could not have intended when it enacted the CFAA over three decades ago.” (Hiq Labs has also been sued by Facebook, which it claims scraped public data across Facebook and Instagram, but also Amazon, Twitter, and YouTube.)

The Supreme Court said it would not take on the case, but instead ordered the appeal’s court to hear the case again in light of its recent ruling, which found that a person cannot violate the CFAA if they improperly access data on a computer they have permission to use.

The CFAA was once dubbed the “worst law” in the technology law books by critics who have long argued that its outdated and vague language failed to keep up with the pace of the modern internet.

Journalists and archivists have long scraped public data as a way to save and archive copies of old or defunct websites before they shut down. But other cases of web scraping have sparked anger and concerns over privacy and civil liberties. In 2019, a security researcher scraped millions of Venmo transactions, which the company does not make private by default. Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition startup, claimed it scraped over 3 billion profile photos from social networks without their permission.

E3 2021 catch up

If you’re like me, you spent the weekend longing for the mixed bag that is downtown Los Angeles during E3. I’ve got fond memories of fish tacos, The Last Bookstore, watching playoff basketball in garishly lit hotel lobbies and, of course, video game press conference after video game press conference.

For a second year in a row, the show’s gone all virtual, owing to…well, you know, that pesky virus that has defined the past year and a half of our lives. Last year’s show was canceled altogether (though a handful of companies still kept to the schedule). Show organizers simply didn’t think they would be able to pull together a digital event — and frankly, it’s probably for the best that they understood those limitations.

The 2021 event, which kicked off on Saturday, marks the first all-virtual version of the event. For the time being, it’s also the last. Mayor Eric Garcetti kicked off the show by announcing that E3 would return to the LA Convention Center in 2022.

Gaming had a banner 2020, and while growth has slowed, as parts of the world look forward to a post-pandemic life, things are still growing. Some well-timed numbers from NPD this morning point to a 3% year-over-year growth for May 2021, as spending on gaming rose to $4.5 billion. Year-to-date, things are up 17%.

The timing of last year’s canceled event was certainly unfortunate from a hardware standpoint. Console refreshes are massive events at E3. 2020 gave us the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Announcements were relegated to Sony and Microsoft’s own events. That meant the companies were able to draw things out — revealing small details, piece by piece, rather than saving everything for the big show. It’s a strategy that lends itself much better to virtual presentations and blog posts than it does big conventions.

Congrats to @XboxP3 and the whole team on a great showcase. Great time to be a gamer

— Hermen Hulst (@hermenhulst) June 13, 2021

Sony is sitting this one out, too. While it’s entirely possible the company will be holding a big, virtual State of Play event at some point this summer, it won’t be tied to E3. Still, some Sony execs like PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst used the opportunity congratulate Microsoft on “a great showcase” on Twitter. So that’s a nice thing.

Thus far, Microsoft is the only one of the big three to present at the event. Nintendo will be holding a Treehouse event tomorrow. The Switch Pro could be on tap for the event, with an upgraded OLED display and internals. That would likely also mean a bunch of upgraded content for the new version of the four-year-old console.

Microsoft, meanwhile, went big on games. Understandable, given the recent launch of the Series X. And, let’s face it, these virtual events are perfectly suited for playing a whole bunch of trailers. The company showcased 30 games (and a fridge) in all. Of those, 27 will be part of the Xbox Game Pass, in case you had any doubt about what the future of gaming on the Xbox will look like. The event was framed as a combination Xbox and Bethesda showcase, having acquired the publisher earlier this year.

“Our growing family of 23 studios is devoted to advancing the medium we all love,” the company writes, “so we were happy to share that now through the end of the year, you can look forward to back-to-back monthly releases coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one, led by a record five new titles from Xbox Game Studios this holiday, including Halo Infinite.”

Highlights include:

Halo Infinite got a trailer and some in-game multiplayer footage. The latest version of the beloved Xbox mainstay is arriving this holiday season.

Starfield will be arriving November 11 [deep breath] 2022. The expansive space title will be an Xbox exclusive at launch.

Forza Horizon 5 will arrive in November. The latest installment of the popular racing series is set in Mexico.

In a no-brainer crossover event, Sea of Thieves will be teaming up with Pirates of the Caribbean for gameplay featuring Captain Jack Sparrow and others.

Age of Empires IV got an extended trailer and release date: October 28.

Battlefield 2042 got its first gameplay, including a sweet new wing suit.

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator will be hitting the new Xboxes on July 27th, along with a Top Gun expansion pack. That’s in honor of Top Gun: Maverick, which is apparently still coming out at some point.

Square Enix also held its customary big showcase on Sunday. The publisher will be releasing a bunch of new Marvel titles. Highlights include:

The long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy. The adventure title is set to launch this October.

Marvel’s Avenger, meanwhile, will be getting the Black Panther-themed expansion pack, War for Wakanda. That’s arriving in August.

It wouldn’t be a Square Enix event without a Final Fantasy spinoff, right? The perennial favorite RPG is birthing Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin, which arrives on a slew of different platforms next year.

Ubisoft, meanwhile, made waves on Saturday with a first look at the new Avatar adaptation, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Extraction is due out on September 16. Originally titled Rainbow Six: Quarantine, the name was changed for obvious reasons.

Capcom and Take-Two will showcase tonight, followed by Nintendo Direct and Bandai Namco tomorrow. On Thursday, EA is set to hold its own Play Live event. Meanwhile, here’s some video of that new Xbox fridge. Who said there wasn’t any new hardware?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nexford University lands $10.8M pre-Series A to scale its flexible remote learning platform

Two profound problems face the higher education sector globally — affordability and relevance. Whether you live in Africa, Europe, or the U.S., a major reason why people don’t go to university or college or even drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees. On the other hand, relevance shows the huge gap between what traditional universities teach and what global employers actually look for. It’s not a secret that universities focus a bit too much on theory.

Over the past few years, there has been the emergence of a number of alternative credential providers trying to provide students with the necessary skills to earn and make a living. Nexford University is one of such platforms, and today, it has a closed $10.8 million pre-Series A funding round.

Dubai-based VC Global Ventures led the new round. Other investors include Future Africa’s new thematic fund (focused on education), angel investors, and family offices. Unnamed VCs from 10 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, Dubai, Switzerland, Qatar, Nigeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also took part.

To date, Nexford has raised $15.3 million, following the first tranche of $4.5 million in seed funding raised two years ago.

Fadl Al Tarzi launched Nexford University in 2019. The tech-enabled university is filling affordability and relevance gaps by providing access to quality and affordable education.

“That way, you get the best of both worlds,” CEO Al Tarzi said to TechCrunch. “You get practical skills that you can put to work immediately or for your future career while actively keeping a job. So the whole experience is designed as a learning as a service model.”

Nexford Unversity lets students study at their own pace. Once they apply and get admitted into either a degree program or a course program, they choose how fast or slow they want the program to be.

Nexford University

Fadl Al Tarzi (CEO, Nexford University)

The CEO says whatever students learn on the platform is directly applicable to their jobs. Currently, Nexford offers undergraduate degrees in business administration; 360° marketing; AI & automation; building a tech startup; business analytics; business in emerging markets; digital transformation; e-commerce; and product management. Its graduate degrees are business administration, advanced AI, e-commerce, hyperconnectivity, sustainability, and world business.

Nexford’s tuition structure is very different from traditional universities because it’s modelled monthly. Its accredited degrees cost between $3,000 to $4,000 paid in monthly instalments. In Nigeria, for instance, an MBA costs about $160 a month, while a bachelor degree costs $80 a month. But the catch for the monthly instalment structure means the faster a learner graduates, the less they pay.

What’s it like learning with Nexford University?

Nexford University doesn’t offer standardized and theoretical tests or assignments as most traditional universities do. Al Tarzi says the company employs what he calls a competency-based education model where students prove mastery by working on practical projects.

For instance, a student working on an accounting course will most likely need to create a P&L statement, analyze balance sheets and identify where the error is to correct it. The platform then gives the student different scenarios showing companies with different revenues and expense levels. The task? To analyse and extract certain ratios to help make sense of which company is profitable and the other unit economics involved.

Though Nexford plays in the edtech space, Al Tarzi doesn’t think the company is an edtech company. As a licensed and accredited online university, Nexford has a huge amount of automation across the organization and provides students with support from faculty and career advisors.

After offering degrees, Nexford puts on its placement hats by fixing its graduates with partner employers.

There’s a big shortage of jobs in Nigeria, and despite the high unemployment, it’s actually difficult to find extremely qualified entry-level graduates. So Nexford has carried out several partnerships where employers sponsor their employees or soon-to-be employees for upskilling and rescaling purposes.

An illustration is with Sterling Bank, a local bank in the country. Most Nigerian banks have yearly routines where they hire graduates and put them on weeks-long training programs. Sterling Bank employs any candidate it feels did great after the capital intensive (eight weeks in most cases) programs.

So what Nexford has done is to partner with Sterling to fund the tuition for high school leavers. When these students go through Nexford’s programs for the first year, they begin to get part-time placements at Sterling. Upon graduation, they get a job in the bank.

“That saves Sterling the training cost and our tuition fee is almost equal to the training that they provided for students. Also, students start paying back once they get placed, so it’s a win-win.”

Nexford University has learners from 70 countries, with Nigeria its biggest market yet. Nexford also has blue-chip partnerships with Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning, and IBM to provide access to tools, courses and programmes to improve the learning experience.

One of the major gains of this learning experience is how it prepares people for remote jobs. Nexford is bullish on its virtual skills grid, where people will get jobs remotely regardless of their location on the platform.

“Across Sub Saharan Africa by the year 2026, there’s gonna be a shortage of about 100 million university seats as a result of huge growth in youth population not met by growth and supply. Even if you want to build universities fast, you wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. And that spirals down to the job market. We don’t think the local economy will produce enough jobs in Nigeria, for instance. But we want to enable people to get remote jobs across the world and not necessarily have to migrate.” 

Last year, Nexford’s revenues grew by 300%. This year, the company hopes to triple the size of its enrollment from last year, the CEO said.

Nexford is big on designing students’ curriculum based on analysis of what their employer needs. Al Tarzi tells me that the company always follow the Big Data approach, asking themselves, “how do we find out what employers worldwide are looking for and keep our curriculum alive and relevant?”

“We develop proprietary technology that enables us to analyze job vacancies as well as several other data sources; use AI to understand how those data sets and build a curriculum based on those findings. So, in short, we start with the end in mind,” he answers.

The company is keen on improving its technology regardless. It wants to analyse skills more accurately and automate more functions to enhance user experience. That’s what the funding will be used for in addition to fuelling its regional expansion plans (particularly in Asia) and investing in growth and product development. Per the latter, the online university says it will be launching partner programs with more employers globally to facilitate both placement and upskilling and rescaling. 

Merging both worlds of tech and the traditional university model is no easy feat. The former is about efficiency, user-centricity, product, among others. The latter embodies rigidity and continues to lag behind fast-paced innovation. And while there’s been a boom in edtech, most startups try to circumvent the industry’s bureaucracy by launching an app or a MOOC. Nexford’s model of running a degree-granting, licensed, accredited, and regulated university is more challenging but in it lies so much opportunity.

Iyin Aboyeji, Future Africa general partner CEO, understands this. It’s one reason why the company is the first investment out of Future Africa’s soon-to-be-launched fund focused on the future of learning and why he believes the company is a game-changer for higher education in Africa.

“During the pandemic, while many universities in Nigeria were shut down due to labour disputes, Nexford was already delivering an innovative and affordable new model of online higher education designed for a skills-based economy.”  

For general partner at Global Ventures Noor Sweid, Nexford University is redressing the mismatch between the supply of talent and the demands of today’s digital economy. “We are thrilled to partner with Fadl and the Nexford team on their journey toward expanding access to universal quality higher education in emerging markets,” she said.

Bing blocked image searches for the historic ‘Tank Man’ Chinese protest photo. It’s fixed now.

Bing blocked image searches for the historic 'Tank Man' Chinese protest photo. It's fixed now.

June 4, 2021 was the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Hong Kong.

Naturally, more people than usual would look up pictures from the 1989 protests on that day. And, of course, the most infamous photos from Tiananmen Square are that of “tank man,” a single Chinese man — who is still unidentified to this day — that stood in the way of Chinese military tanks cracking down on the protests.

If users in the U.S. tried to search “tank man,” on Google Images, this is what they’d see:

Bing blocked image searches for the historic 'Tank Man' Chinese protest photo. It's fixed now.

Image: screenshot: google

However, if they attempted an image search on Microsoft Bing, they would have seen a very different results page: Read more…

More about Microsoft, China, Bing, Tiananmen Square, and Tech

Hackers are targeting employees returning to the post-COVID office

With COVID-19 restrictions lifting and employees starting to make their way back into offices, hackers are being forced to change tack. While remote workers have been scammers’ main target for the past 18 months due to the mass shift to home working necessitated by the pandemic, a new phishing campaign is attempting to exploit those who have started to return to the physical workplace.

The email-based campaign, observed by Cofense, is targeting employees with emails purporting to come from their CIO welcoming them back into offices.

The email looks legitimate enough, sporting the company’s official logo in the header, as well as being signed spoofing the CIO. The bulk of the message outlines the new precautions and changes to business operations the company is taking relative to the pandemic.

If an employee were to be fooled by the email, they would be redirected to what appears to be a Microsoft SharePoint page hosting two company-branded documents. “When interacting with these documents, it becomes apparent that they are not authentic and instead are phishing mechanisms to garner account credentials,” explains Dylan Main, threat analyst at Cofense’s Phishing Defense Center.

However, if a victim decides to interact with either document, a login panel appears and prompts the recipient to provide login credentials to access the files.

“This is uncommon among most Microsoft phishing pages where the tactic of spoofing the Microsoft login screen opens an authenticator panel,” Main continued. “By giving the files the appearance of being real and not redirecting to another login page, the user may be more likely to supply their credentials in order to view the updates.”

Another technique the hackers are employing is the use of fake validated credentials. The first few times login information is entered into the panel, the result will be the error message that states: “Your account or password is incorrect.”

“After entering login information a few times, the employee will be redirected to an actual Microsoft page,” Main says. “This gives the appearance that the login information was correct, and the employee now has access to the OneDrive documents. In reality, the threat actor now has full access to the account owner’s information.”

While this is one of the first campaigns that’s been observed targeting employees returning to the workplace (Check Point researchers uncovered another last year), it’s unlikely to be the last. Both Google and Microsoft, for example, have started welcoming staff back to office cubicles, and the majority of executives expect that at least 50% of employees will be back working in the office by July, according to a recent PwC study.

“We saw threat actors follow the trends throughout the pandemic, and we expect they are likely to leverage themes of returning to work in their attacks in the coming months,” Tonia Dudley, a strategic advisor at Cofense, told TechCrunch. “We can expect remote workers to continue to be targeted as well. While employers begin to bring staff back to the office, it’s likely we’ll see a hybrid model of work moving forward. Both groups will be targets for phishing attacks.”

Threat actors typically adapt to exploit the global environment. Just as the shift to mass working over remote connections led to an increase in the number of attacks attempting to exploit remote login credentials, it’s likely the number of attacks targeting on-premise networks and office-based workers will continue to grow over the coming months.

OpenAI’s $100M startup fund will make ‘big early bets’ with Microsoft as partner

OpenAI is launching a $100 million startup fund, which it calls the OpenAI Startup Fund, though which it and its partners will invest in early-stage AI companies tackling major problems (and productivity). Among those partners and investors in the fund is Microsoft, at whose Build conference OpenAI founder Sam Altman announced the news.

In a prerecorded video, Altman explained that “this is not a typical corporate venture fund. We plan to make big early bets on a relatively small number of companies, probably not more than 10.”

It’s not clear exactly how the $100M will be divided or disbursed, or on what timeline, or whether this is part of a longer program. But it seems to be a limited fund, not just the 2021 round.

Altman did say that they will be looking for companies that are taking on serious issues, like healthcare, climate change, and education, where AI-powered applications or approaches could “benefit all of humanity,” in keeping with OpenAI’s mission statement. But it would also consider productivity improvements as well, presumably like the GPT-3 powered natural language coding Microsoft showed off yesterday.

“We know it’s you, the developers, who can use powerful tools like gpt3 to create ambitious applications that will leave a positive mark on the world,” said Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott in the company’s stream. “Microsoft is thrilled to be able to support this fund.”

Companies selected for funding will receive early access to new OpenAI systems and Azure resources from Microsoft, which hopefully would allow them to spring fully formed and ready to scale from the program. OpenAI would not elaborate on the equity agreement, expectations for startups, other partners, or any further details. It’s entirely possible that the $100M figure is the only thing they’ve actually settled on.

The minimal application process suggests they expect a large number of submissions, but if you want to throw your company into the mix, start prepping your elevator pitch. Part of the application is a one minute video (take note that “Demos, music and effects are not necessary”) that the selection team (the makeup of which OpenAI did not detail) will no doubt watch if a company makes it through the first round of winnowing. Hope you haven’t dismantled that Zoom background just yet.

Taking Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 for a spin

These days, the path of least resistance in laptop design is straight-up knocking off the MacBook. We’ve certainly seen our share of egregious cases over the years. Microsoft, however, has defiantly forged its own path with industrial design across the board. Its products are largely interesting and innovative — something not every hardware manufacturer can say these days.

The company doesn’t always get it right. It swung for the fences with the Surface Duo, for example. While certainly innovative, the product came up short in enough categories that made it extremely hard to recommend. The Surface Laptop, on the other hand, while not the most groundbreaking product in the line, has pretty consistently been one of the best, marrying a Windows-ready touchscreen with a more standardized notebook design.

The last few models have been solid, and this year’s — perhaps predictably — doesn’t present a big change. The big upgrades after about a year and a half are new chips (your choice of AMD Ryzen or an Intel Core i5 or i7) and enhanced battery life that offers a beefy additional 8.5 hours. Essentially, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect — or hope for — from a regular system refresh.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design language remains largely unchanged. The Surface Laptop is nothing if not unique on that front, with its tapered sides and felt-covered palm rests. The material has a nice feel to it — one that bests just straight-up metal on a cold day, though I’ve already noticed a bit of wear after some light use.

The keyboard remains on the soft side, with a surprising amount of give to it. Not the best keyboard I’ve seen on a laptop, but certainly not the worst (who can forget that rough run for Apple?), and like anything else, it takes a bit of getting used to.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. Maybe it’s the fact that Microsoft’s Surface Laptops keep coming out when the weather is nice that I always feel inclined to take them outside. But jeez is that display reflective. Almost distractingly so. Plenty of laptop screens are glossy, of course, but Microsoft’s really leaned in here, to the point I wouldn’t recommend using it in any sort of sunshine — even at full brightness, the screen can’t counteract that reflection.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

When you can see it, the display looks great. Microsoft sent along the smaller of the two. At 13.5-inches, the screen clocks in at 2256 x 1504 at 201 ppi (you get the same pixel density on the 15-inch version, as well). Ours was the new Ice Blue color. It’s subtle, though. Honestly, I read it more as a silver/gray. The speakers sound great, and the webcam is just fine, but it’s safe to say it’s probably time to upgrade to 1080p across the board as teleconferencing remains front of mind.

The 13.5-inch system starts at $1,000, which gets you 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, along with the AMD Ryzen 5 4680U process. As configured, our system runs $1,700, which doubles the RAM and storage and swaps the AMD in for an Intel Core i7. Another $600 will double the RAM and storage yet again (same processor). Geekbench scored the processor at a solid 1378 on single-core and 4876 on multi-core. Performance was solid throughout — though after spending a fair amount of time using Apple’s M1, it’s clear that Intel has its work cut out for it.

Microsoft is still hanging onto its magnetic proprietary charging port here. I know it still has its diehard fans, but I’d much prefer to see the company go with something more universal, like adding another USB-C port — though that impacts the system’s compatibility with a slew of different Surface accessories. Around the other side you get USB-A, USB-C and a headphone jack. It’s a nice mix, but more ports would certainly be a step up.

I was fairly disappointed with the various corners the company cut on the Surface Laptop Go last year. Of course, the entry-level 13.5-inch Laptop is $300 more than the 12-inch Laptop Go. But if you’re looking to do more than just the basics, this is probably is a wise investment.

Leveling the playing field

Williesha Morris
Contributor

Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, playing video games or chatting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries. 

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team. 

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny. 

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible. 

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community. 

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them. 

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers. 

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device. 

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry. 

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.” 

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR. 

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices. 

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation. 

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want. 

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said. 

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.  

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems. 

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology. 

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved. 

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

 

Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

Microsoft is getting a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former senior vice president at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, says a company announcement released Monday.

After eight years at Qualcomm where he led sales and business development, Hou will spearhead strategy, sales and operation for Microsoft in the Greater China region. Hou was credited for achieving 3X revenue growth for Qualcomm’s semiconductor business and fostering partnerships in the smartphone, industrial and automotive industries in China, according to the announcement.

A native of northeast China, Hou had a five-year stint at McKinsey & Company after he graduated from the University of Michigan and Peking University.

Crozier joined Microsoft back in 1994 and will officially pass the torch to Hou in July. His next step is yet to be announced.

Crozier is resigning at a time when China is racing to outrace the U.S. as the global technology leader. The ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute has shaken the global supply chain, jacking up manufacturing costs for American hardware makers. Meanwhile, a number of legacy U.S. tech giants are scaling back their presence in China, where historically they have maintained research teams to better grasp the flourishing Chinese market.

In 2019, Oracle laid off hundreds of staff at its R&D center in China. Last year, IBM closed its R&D center in China after 25 years in part due to increased labor costs, former employees told TechCrunch.

The Microsoft counterpart, Microsoft Research Asia, is widely respected and regarded as the “West Point” for China’s artificial intelligence scientists. Famed alumni include ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming and the founder of autonomous driving unicorn Momenta.

Compared to its fame in China’s tech industry, Microsoft’s revenue in China is modest as a result of rampant piracy and competition. In a 2018 interview, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said 90% of companies in China were using the Microsoft operating system but only 1% were paying for it.

On the new business front, Microsoft has tried to peddle its Azure cloud computing product to Chinese enterprises but has so far been dwarfed by domestic players Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei.

China contributed less than 2% of Microsoft’s annual revenue, or around $2 billion, president Brad Smith said in January 2020.

Like other foreign tech firms operating in China, Microsoft is often caught in the middle between local authorities and speech advocates. Its professional social network LinkedIn and search engine Bing have both been criticized for censoring content considered sensitive by the Chinese government.

Google-backed Dailyhunt and Josh’s parent firm raises over $100 million

VerSe Innovation, the parent firm of popular news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, said on Monday it has raised over $100 million as part of a Series H financing round from Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners.

The announcement follows another $100 million+ investment the startup secured from Google, AlphaWave, and Microsoft in December last year. That tranche of investment, also part of Series H, had turned Dailyhunt into a unicorn (giving it a valuation of $1 billion or higher). The startup has to-date raised about $430 million.

Dailyhunt, co-run by Virendra Gupta and former Facebook India head Umang Bedi, is a popular news and entertainment app that serves more than 285 million users each day in 14 local languages in India. Its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market, would explain why Twitter last month partnered with the Indian firm to bring Moments to Dailyhunt.

VerSe Innovation expanded to short form videos last year, with Josh, after New Delhi banned TikTok and created a theoretical void for snacking content in the country. Scores of large giants and startups — including MX Player and ShareChat — have attempted to try their hand at short form videos in the recent quarters.

Facebook launched Instagram Reels in India last year, and YouTube launched Shorts, which is already garnering over 3.5 billion daily views in India, it said last month. (With over 450 million users in India, YouTube is closing in on WhatsApp’s market lead in India.)

Josh appears to have emerged as one of the leading players: The startup says Josh has amassed over 85 million monthly active users — 40 million of whom check the app each day — and the app sees more than 1.5 billion video plays everyday.

Now the startup says it is exploring expansion into more categories and like with Dailyhunt and Josh, cater users in smaller cities and towns and eventually replicate this model in international markets.

India’s internet economy is expected to be worth $639 billion by 2030, analysts at Citi wrote in a report to clients late last month. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated digital adoption and users’ appetite to transact online, a report from analysts at UBS said last week.

India leads with Tier 2 cities comparable to Tier 1. Biggest catch up opportunity in Philippines and Vietnam (UBS)

“Josh represents a confluence of India’s top 200+ best creators, the 10 biggest music labels, 15+ million UGC creators, best in class content creation tools, the hottest entertainment formats, and formidable user demographics. Josh has been consistently rated as the leading Indian short-video app in India on the Play store,” the startup said in a statement.

The startup said it will deploy the fresh capital to broaden its local languages content offering, and expand its creators ecosystem and AI and ML tech stacks.

Brush up on your Microsoft skills with this stacked certification bundle

Brush up on your Microsoft skills with this stacked certification bundle

TL;DR: The Premium Microsoft Office and Data Apps Certification Bundle is on sale for £29.44 as of Dec. 28, saving you 97% on list price.


We’re betting “Microsoft Office” is listed as a skill on your CV. But if you still don’t have a clue how to format a Word document or use formulas in Excel, you better shape up.

This Microsoft course bundle has you covered. It includes 18 courses and over 70 hours of content covering not just Word and Excel, but also Access, Outlook, PowerApps, Visio, PowerPoint, VBA, Publisher, and more. Sohail Anwar, who’s worked at Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays, founded the training course catalog back in 2015 as a means of passing his skills onto colleagues to help them *ahem* earn and excel. Read more…

More about Microsoft, Mashable Shopping, Shopping Uk, Uk Deals, and Tech

Microsoft backs Epic Games, says Apple is threatening game development

Microsoft backs Epic Games, says Apple is threatening game development

Microsoft has inserted itself into the ongoing legal dispute between Apple and Epic Games, and the Xbox company is lining up behind the Unreal Engine.

Unreal, which is Epic’s creation, is a set of software tools (often referred to as an “engine”) that developers use to build video games. Epic confirmed on Monday that Apple will cut the company off from iOS and MacOS development tools on Aug. 28. That spurred a response from Microsoft.

On Sunday, Microsoft filed a statement with the U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif. claiming that Apple’s move to cut off Epic threatens a sizable community of creators that have no connection to the ongoing litigation. Read more…

More about Apple, Microsoft, Epic Games, Fortnite, and Entertainment

Microsoft spins out 5-year-old Chinese chatbot Xiaoice

Microsoft is shedding its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the U.S. software behemoth said (in Chinese) Monday, confirming an earlier report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.

The announcement came several months after Microsoft announced it would close down its voice assistant app Cortana in China among other countries late last year.

Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to accelerate Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and buildout of the chatbot’s “commercial ecosystem.”

The spinoff will see the new entity license technologies from Microsoft for subsequent research and development in Xiaoice and continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its stakes in the new company.

In 2014, a small team of Microsoft’s Bing researchers unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately created a sensation in China and was regarded by many as their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just a few weeks after Microsoft rolled out Cortana in the country. Modeled on the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be a user’s friend.

Like all foreign companies, Microsoft has to grapple with China’s censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed by Tencent’s instant messenger QQ over suspicions of politically sensitive speech.

The project has involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI land, ranging from Lu Qi, who went on to join Baidu as its chief operating officer and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took up a post at Baidu to head the search giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive at Microsoft’s storied Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of fledgling news app News Break.

Shum will serve as chairman at Xiaoice’s new standalone entity. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as chief executive officer. Chen Zhan, a developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, is appointed general manager of the Japanese office.

The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with a mission to further develop its client base across the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.

Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice has a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices globally at the last count. The chatbot has found applications in such areas as finance, retail, auto, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed it can “mine context, tonality and emotions from text to create unique patterns within seconds.”

India’s FarEye raises $25M to grow its logistics SaaS startup in international markets

More than 150 e-commerce and delivery companies globally use an Indian logistics startup’s service to work out the optimum way before they ship items to their customers. That startup, Noida-based FarEye, has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its footprint in international markets.

M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, led the seven-year-old startup’s Series D financing round. Eight Roads Ventures, Honeywell Ventures, and existing investor SAIF Partners participated in the round, which pushes FarEye’s total raise-to-date to $40 million.

FarEye helps companies orchestrate, track, and optimize their logistics operations. Say you order a pizza from Domino’s, the eatery uses FarEye’s service, which integrates into the system it is using, to quickly inform the customer how long they need to wait for the food to reach them.

Behind the scenes, FarEye is helping Domino’s evaluate a plethora of moving pieces. How many delivery people are in the vicinity? Can it bundle a few orders? What’s the maximum number of items one can carry? How experienced is the delivery person? What’s the best route to reach the customer? And, would the restaurant need the same number of delivery people the following day?, explained Kushal Nahata, co-founder and chief executive of FarEye, in an interview with TechCrunch .

Gautam Kumar (left), Gaurav Srivastava (centre), and Kushal Nahata co-founded FarEye in 2013

“The level of digitization that logistics firms have made over the years remains minimal. The amount of visibility they have over their own delivery network is minimal. Forget what a customer should expect,” said Nahata, explaining the challenges the industry faces.

FarEye is addressing this by using AI to parse through more than a billion data points to identify the optimum solution. In the past one year, it has fine-tuned its algorithm to handle last-mile and long-haul deliveries to offer a full-suite of services to its clients.

The startup, which employs about 350 people, said it is already handling more than 10 million transactions a day. The more transactions it processes, the better its algorithm becomes, he said.

FarEye today has clients across several categories including transportation and logistics, retail (which includes grocery, furniture, and fashion), and FMCG in 20 nations. Some of these clients include Walmart, FedEx, DHL, Amway, Domino’s, Bluedart, Future Group, and J&J. Nahata said the startup will use the fresh capital to improve its predictive tech and grow its footprint in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific region.

“We are solving certain problems for our customers today, but I feel we can solve much larger problems and help digitize the entire supply chain network,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic jeopardises grocery and e-commerce firms’ ability to timely deliver items to customers, FarEye said it is making Serve, one of its services that focuses on enabling movement of everyday essentials, free for any firm to use for more than a year.

“The global pandemic has accelerated the need for enterprises to scale their supply chain operations efficiently to meet the rising share of online deliveries. FarEye’s highly configurable last-mile and long-haul logistics platform has been validated by leading global enterprises across the 3PL, retail and manufacturing categories,” said Shweta Bhatia, a partner at Eight Roads Ventures, in a statement.

FarEye has been making money since day one, but Nahata said an IPO is not something on the table for the foreseeable future. “Our biggest focus right now is to grow,” he said.

Workers at America’s largest companies are not covered under coronavirus aid package

Workers at America’s largest companies are not covered under a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday that is supposed to support American workers impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The bill still has to be voted on by the Senate and approved before it can be signed into law, but its structure leaves a gaping hole in the prevention strategy the government has said is necessary to reduce the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

“No American worker should worry about missing a paycheck if they’re feeling ill,” said Vice President Mike Pence at the Sunday press briefing from the Coronavirus Task Force. “If you’re sick with a respiratory illness stay home.”

However, millions of Americans potentially don’t have the ability to make that choice under the congressional aid package touted by both Democrats and Republicans. By excluding companies with more than 500 employees from the Congressional aid, the health and welfare of millions of Americans in industries providing goods, manufacturing, and vital services to most of the country is being left up to the discretion of their employers.

Details of the legislative compromise were first reported by The New York Times yesterday. And chart published by The New York Times illustrated just how many companies didn’t have paid sick leave policies in place as the coronavirus began to spread in the US (companies have changed policies to respond to the coronavirus).

Image courtesy of The New York Times

Big technology companies took the lead early this month in changing policies for their workers and by the end of last week many of the country’s largest employers had followed suit. But it looks like their work won’t be covered under the government’s current plan — and that any measures to extend sick leave and paid time off will be limited to a response to the current outbreak.

These large employers have already responded by closing stores or reducing hours in areas where most cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed — and companies operating in most of those states are required by law to offer paid leave to their hourly employees and contractors.

Companies who have responded to the outbreak by changing their time-off and sick leave policies include Walmart, Target, Darden Restaurants (the owner of the Olive Garden restaurant chain), Starbucks, Lowes, and KFC, have joined tech companies and gig economy businesses like Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Instacart, Microsoft, Postmates, Salesforce, and Uber in offering extended leave benefits to employees affected by the coronavirus.

These kinds of guarantees can go a long way to ensuring that hourly workers in the country don’t have to choose between their health and their employment. The inability to pass a law that would cover all workers puts everyone at risk.

Without government stepping in, industries are crafting their own responses. Late Sunday, automakers including GM, Ford, and FiatChrysler joined the United Auto Workers union in announcing the creation of a coronavirus task force to coordinate an industrywide response for the automotive sector.

As the Pew Research Center noted last week, the bill proposed by House Democrats had initially proposed temporary federal sick leave covering workers with COVID-19 or caring for family members with two-thirds of their wages for up to three months; expiring in January 2021. The measure would have also guaranteed private employers give workers seven days of paid sick leave with another 14 days available immediately in the event of future public health emergencies.

Most workers have less than nine days of sick leave covered under current state legislation. There is no national mandate for paid sick leave. After one year on the job, 22 percent of workers have access to less than five days, while another 46 percent of employees can get five-to-nine days of paid sick leave. Only 38 percent of workers have between ten and fourteen days of leave.

The Pew Research Center also reported that the lack of access to paid sick leave increases as wages decline. Over 90 percent of workers receiving hourly rages over $32.21 have some form of paid sick leave. Only about 50 percent of workers who make $13.80 or less have access to some form of paid sick leave. For Americans who make under $10.80 an hour, only about 30 percent receive any sick leave.

How big tech is taking on COVID-19

Over the past week, one thing has become painfully clear for U.S. residents: COVID-19 is going to permeate every aspect of our lives for a long time to come. Those of us in and around tech have been noticing this for months now. First through the impact on our friends and colleagues in Asia, who have been facing fallout from the pandemic head-on for some time, and then through the domino effect on tech conferences.

First there was MWC, then Facebook’s F8, E3, WWDC. The list goes on and on. Yesterday, TechCrunch announced that we would be postponing a pair of our own events. It was the right thing to do, and increasingly not really a choice, to be honest, as more and more cities have banned large gatherings.

Tech has been keenly aware of COVID-19’s impact for a while now because being a tech company is being a global company almost by default. Now, however, the virus’s threat has come to nearly everyone’s back door. If you don’t yet know someone who has been infected with the virus, odds are good you will soon. This is our reality, for now, at least.

If there’s hope to be mustered from this event, it’s in the prospect of people helping people. Coming together, separately, at a safe social distance. The response of the current administration leaves much to be desired at the moment. As yesterday’s press conference involved praise of the “private sector” and a parade of high profile executives, the reality is that many of us may have to rely on corporates and execs to help fill in the gaps of gutted government departments.

There will be plenty of time to call out the inevitable opportunism of corporate America (and it looks like I’m going to have a lot more free time on my hands in the coming months to do exactly that), but for now, let’s note some of the folks who are pitching in by donating supplies or easing some of the burden on a strained and uncertain population.

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma today released a statement noting plans to donate 500,000 test kits and one million face masks. The donation follows similar ones to Japan and Europe, following the devastating impact on his own country.

“Drawing from my own country’s experience, speedy and accurate testing and adequate personal protective equipment for medical professionals are most effective in preventing the spread of the virus,” Ma said in a statement. “We hope that our donation can help Americans fight against the pandemic!”

Yesterday, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced that his video conferencing platform would be available for free to K-12 schools in Japan, Italy and the U.S. The move comes as the service is seeing a massive spike in downloads as many businesses and schools are attempting to adapt to working and learning remotely.

Earlier this week, Bill Gates, who recently left his position on Microsoft’s board, announced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was teaming up with Wellcome and Mastercard to fund treatments to the tune of $125 million. Yesterday, Facebook announced it was committing $20 million in donations to support relief efforts. Apple announced a similar $15 million in donations, along with letting customers skip the March payment on their Apple Cards without risking interest payments. IPS like AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink, Comcast, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and Cox, meanwhile, have promised not to overcharge, charge late fees or terminate service, in an attempt to keep people connected.

Likely we’ll continue to see more such announcements in the coming weeks and months as companies struggle with impact to their workforces and bottom lines. Some will no doubt be more crass that others, but there’s little doubt that such gestures will be a big part of our ability to emerge from one of the scariest and most surreal moments in recent memory.

Microsoft moves its 2020 Build developer conference online

May is traditionally a month of big developer conferences, with Facebook F8, Google I/O and Microsoft Build often happening within the same two-week period. But not this year. After F8 and I/O were already canceled in favor of online events, Microsoft is now unsurprisingly following suit, too, and canceling the in-person element of Build, which was scheduled to run from May 19 to 21, citing concerns over the current coronavirus outbreak.

microsoft build logo“The safety of our community is a top priority. In light of the health safety recommendations for Washington State, we will deliver our annual Microsoft Build event for developers as a digital event, in lieu of an in-person event,” the company said in a statement to The Verge. “We look forward to bringing together our ecosystem of developers in this new virtual format to learn, connect and code together. Stay tuned for more details to come.”

The announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Indeed, it was really only a question of when Microsoft would make the call and the real surprise was how long it took Microsoft to make this call, especially given how hard Washington state has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Currently, a number of Washington state counties have banned events with more than 250 people. That ban was set to expire before Build.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft hasn’t actually updated the Build homepage yet and you can still buy a ticket. If I were you, I wouldn’t do that, though. You’ll get a refund, but it’s not worth the hassle.

Microsoft will pay hourly workers regular wages even if their hours are reduced because of COVID-19 concerns

As more COVID-19 cases are identified in the United States, some companies are asking employees to work from home if possible. But that impacts the jobs of people who work in on-site operations, including many who are paid by the hour. Today Microsoft said that it will continue paying all vendor hourly service providers in Puget Sound and Northern California their usual wage, even if their work hour are reduced.

The announcement specifically refers to Microsoft workers in the Puget Sound region and Northern California, but the company said it will “[explore] how to best move forward in a similar way in other parts of the country and the world that are impacted by COVID-19.”

In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote that employees in those regions who can work from home have been asked to do so.

“As a result, we have reduced need in those regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs,” he said. “We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.”

Smith added, “While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making pubic health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and social impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have asked employees in places where COVID-19 cases have been identified to work from home, like Washington state and California, including Google, Lyft and Square. Concerns about the COVID-19 have also led to the cancellations of major events, like Mobile World Congress and Google’s I/O developer conference.

AWS partners with Kenya’s Safaricom on cloud and consulting services

Amazon Web Services has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.

In a statement to TechCrunch, the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.

Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.

“The APN is…the program for technology…businesses who leverage AWS to build solutions and services for customers…and sell their AWS offerings by providing valuable business, technical, and marketing support,” Safaricom said.

“We chose to partner with AWS because it offers customers the broadest and deepest cloud platform…This agreement will allow us to accelerate our efforts to enable digital transformation in Kenya,” said Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

“Safaricom will be able to offer AWS services to East-African customers, allowing businesses of all sizes to quickly get started on AWS cloud,” the company statement continued.

For now, the information provided by Safaricom is a bit sparse on the why and how of the partnership between the American company and East African mobile, financial and ISP provider.

TechCrunch has an inquiry into Amazon and some additional questions posed to Safaricom, toward additional coverage.

An initial what-this-all-means take on the partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.

The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.

MS and Liquid Telecom have focused heavily on the continent’s young tech companies. “We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s  Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch in 2018.

Amazon hasn’t gone fully live yet with e-commerce services in Africa, but it has aggressively positioned AWS and built a regional client list that includes startups — such as fintech venture Jumo — and large organizations, such Absa and Standard Bank.

Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.

Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth ($531 million) of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).

Compared to other players — such as Airtel  Money and Equitel Money — M-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.

A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.

Extending AWS services to them will play out next to the building of Microsoft’s $100 million Africa Development Center, with an office in Nairobi, announced last year.

Fiddler Labs, SRI and Berkeley experts open up the black box of machine learning at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

As AI permeates the home, work, and public life, it’s increasingly important to be able to understand why and how it makes its decisions. Explainable AI isn’t just a matter of hitting a switch, though; Experts from UC Berkeley, SRI, and Fiddler Labs will discuss how we should go about it on stage at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.

What does explainability really mean? Do we need to start from scratch? How do we avoid exposing proprietary data and methods? Will there be a performance hit? Whose responsibility will it be, and who will ensure it is done properly?

On our panel addressing these questions and more will be two experts, one each from academia and private industry.

Trevor Darrell is a professor at Berkeley’s Computer Science department who helps lead many of the university’s AI-related labs and projects, especially those concerned with the next generation of smart transportation. His research group focuses on perception and human-AI interaction, and he previously led a computer vision group at MIT.

Krishna Gade has passed in his time through Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Microsoft, and has seen firsthand how AI is developed privately — and how biases and flawed processes can lead to troubling results. He co-founded Fiddler as an effort to address problems of fairness and transparency by providing an explainable AI framework for enterprise.

Moderating and taking part in the discussion will be SRI International’s Karen Myers, director of the research outfit’s Artificial Intelligence Center and an AI developer herself focused on collaboration, automation, and multi-agent systems.

Save $50 on tickets when you book today. Ticket prices go up at the door and are selling fast. We have two (yes two) Startup Demo Packages Left – book your package now and get your startup in front of 1000+ of today’s leading industry minds. Packages come with 4 tickets – book here.

Microsoft will now pay up to $20k for Xbox Live security exploits

Think you’ve found a glaring security hole in Xbox Live? Microsoft is interested.

The company announced a new bug bounty program today, focused specifically on its Xbox Live network and services. Depending on how serious the exploit is and how complete your report is, they’re paying up to $20,000.

Like most bug bounty programs, Microsoft is looking for pretty specific/serious security flaws here. Found a way to execute unauthorized code on Microsoft’s servers? They’ll pay for that. Keep getting disconnected from Live when you play as a certain legend in Apex? Not quite the kind of bug they’re looking for.

Microsoft also specifically rules out a few types of vulnerabilities as out-of-scope, including DDoS attacks, anything that involves phishing Microsoft employees or Xbox customers, or getting servers to cough up basic info like server name or internal IP. You can find the full breakdown here.

This is by no means Microsoft’s first foray into bounty programs; they’ve got similar programs for the Microsoft Edge browser, their “Windows Insider” preview builds, Office 365, and plenty of other categories. The biggest bounties they offer are on their cloud computing service, Azure, where the bounty for a super specific bug (gaining admin access to an Azure Security Lab account, which are closely controlled) can net up to $300,000.

InterviewBit secures $20M to grow its advanced online computer science program in India

InterviewBit, a Bangalore-based startup that runs an advanced online computer science program for college graduates and young professional engineers, has raised $20 million in one of the largest Series A financing rounds in the education sector.

The nine-month-old startup’s Series A round was led by Sequoia India, Tiger Global and Global Founders Capital among others, it said. The startup said it is also rebranding its online coding program, earlier called InterviewBit Academy, to Scaler Academy.

InterviewBit operates on an income-sharing model, where students have the option to pay after they have landed a job. The concept, also known as human capital contract, has been around for decades but is beginning to see some traction now.

The startup said more than 2,000 students have enrolled in its six-month program to date. It had received over 200,000 applications. And “several hundred” of those who enrolled in the program have landed jobs at tech companies such Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Students enrolled in Scaler Academy are mentored and taught by tech leaders and subject matter experts working with organisations including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix.

The startup, which is part of Sequoia India’s Surge accelerator program, will use the new fund to scale up its enrollment and launch in new markets. It also plans to invest in its curriculum and in live teaching product.

Indian newspaper Times of India first reported about the financing round last year, and said the round would value InterviewBit at over $100 million.

“Within a short period of time, Scaler Academy has made a huge impact on the capabilities of our students, who spend, on average 4-5 hours/day on our online and live learning platform,” said Abhimanyu Saxena, co-founder of InterviewBit. “We are very excited that our work results in a step function change in the careers of our students — and so we have rebranded it to Scaler Academy, a platform for pursuing excellence in software programming.”

A recent National Employability Report Engineers 2019 report highlighted that the employability of Indian engineers continues to be as low as 20%. “With that in mind, Scaler Academy’s meticulously structured 6-month online program effectively enhances the coding skills of professionals by creating a modern curriculum with exposure to the latest technologies,” the startup said.

Tech’s biggest companies are worth ~$5T as 2019’s epic stock market run wraps

Look, this is the last post I’m writing in 2019 and I’m tired. But I can’t let the year close without taking stock of how well tech stocks did this year. It was bonkers.

So let’s mark the year’s conclusion with some notes for our future selves. Yes, we know that the Nasdaq has been setting new records and SaaS had a good year. But we need to dig in and get the numbers out so that we can look back and remember.

Let’s cap off this year the way it deserves to be remembered, as a kick-ass trip ’round the sun for your local, public technology company.

Keeping score

We’ll start with the indices that we care about:

  • The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 35% in 2019
  • The SaaS-heavy Bessemer Cloud Index rose 41% this year

Next, the highest-value U.S.-based technology companies:

  • Microsoft was up around 55% in 2019
  • Apple managed an 86% gain in the year
  • Not be left out, Facebook rose 57%
  • Amazon posted its own gain of 23% in 2019
  • Alphabet managed to grow by 29%, as well

Now let’s turn to some companies that we care about, even if they are smaller than the Big Five:

  • Salesforce? Up 19% this year
  • Adobe was up 46% in 2019, which was astounding
  • Intel picked up 28% in the year, making it no slouch
  • Even Oracle managed to gain 17% in 2019

And so on.

The technology industry’s epic run has been so strong that The Wall Street Journal noted this morning that, powered by tech companies, U.S. stocks “are poised for their best annual performance in six years.” The Journal highlighted the performance of Apple and Microsoft in particular for helping drive the boom. I wonder why.

How long will we live in the neighborhood of Nasdaq 9,000? How long can two tech companies be worth more than $1 trillion at the same time? How long can the biggest tech companies be worth a combined $4.93 trillion (I remember when $3 trillion for the Big Five was news, and I recall when the group reach a collective value of $4 trillion).1

But the worst trade in recent years has been the pessimists’ gambit. No matter what, stocks have kept going up, short-term hiccoughs and other missteps aside.

For nearly everyone, that is. While tech stocks in general did very well, some names that we all know did not. Let’s close on those reminders that a rising tide lifts only most boats.

2019 naughty list

Several of the most lackluster public tech companies were 2019 technology IPOs, interestingly enough. Who didn’t do well? Uber earns a spot on the naughty list for not only being underwater from its IPO price, but also from its final private valuations. And as you guessed, Lyft is down from its IPO price as well, which is not good.

Some 2019 IPOs did well in the middle of the year, but fell a little flat as the year came to a close. Pinterest, Beyond Meat and Zoom meet that criteria, for example. And some SaaS companies struggled, even if we think they will reach $1 billion in revenue in time.

But it was mostly a party. The public markets were good, and tech stocks were great. This helped create another 100+ unicorns in the year.

Such was 2019. On to 2020!

  1. In time, those numbers will look small. But sitting here on December 31, 2019, they appear huge and towering and, it must be said, somewhat perilously stacked.