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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘6 Underground’ is very fun and very dumb

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 01:25 PM PST

Netflix’s “6 Underground” feels like a movie that belongs on the big screen.

Sure, it isn’t part of a giant franchise (yet), and it doesn’t feature any well-known superheroes — but it does star “Deadpool”‘s Ryan Reynolds as a wise-cracking hero who criss-crosses the globe, going from one spectacularly destructive set piece to another. And behind the camera, you’ve got Michael Bay (who made “Bad Boys” and countless “Transformers” movies) coordinating the action.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, your hosts freely admit that we … enjoyed it?

The movie is spectacularly dumb, but Bay’s approach to action — cut as often as possible and blow up everything — never gets boring. “6 Underground” opens with a fast-paced car-chase that introduces the titular team of international operatives (each of them with their own specific skill), and it follows up with scenes that are even more inventive and/or pulse-pounding.

It also helps that the script comes from “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, so there’s a glib, profane energy to all of the dialogue, and some of the jokes are genuinely funny.

But your enjoyment will hinge on your ability to turn off your brain — to not be bothered by a plot that’s both laughably slapdash and ridiculously convoluted, or by Bay’s tendency to film women as if their butts were their main features.

And you definitely don’t want think too hard about the core premise, which suggests that the world would be a better place if secretive tech billionaires ignore international law and could force regime change in the Middle East.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:42 “6 Underground” spoiler-free review
22:49 “6 Underground” spoiler discussion

Former Google Pay execs raise $13.2M to build neo-banking platform for millennials in India

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 11:07 AM PST

Two co-founders of Google Pay in India are building a neo-banking platform in the country — and they have already secured backing from three top VC funds.

Sujith Narayanan, a veteran payments executive who co-founded Google Pay in India (formerly known as Google Tez), said on Monday that his startup, epiFi, has raised $13.2 million in its Seed financial round led by Sequoia India and Ribbit Capital. The round valued epiFi at about $50 million.

David Velez, the founder of Brazil-based neo-banking giant Nubank, Kunal Shah, who is building his second payments startup CRED in India, and VC fund Hillhouse Capital also participated in the round.

The eight-month-old startup is working on a neo-banking platform that will focus on serving millennials in India, said Narayanan, in an interview with TechCrunch.

"When we were building Google Tez, we realized that a consumer's financial journey extends beyond digital payments. They want insurance, lending, investment opportunities and multiple products," he explained.

The idea, in part, is to also help users better understand how they are spending money, and guide them to make better investments and increase their savings, he said.

At this moment, it is unclear what the convergence of all of these features would look like. But Narayanan said epiFi will release an app in a few months.

Working with Narayanan on epiFi is Sumit Gwalani, who serves as the startup’s co-founder and chief product and technology officer. Gwalani previously worked as a director of product management at Google India and helped conceptualize Google Tez. In a joint interview, Gwalani said the startup currently has about two-dozen employees, some of whom have joined from Netflix, Flipkart, and PayPal.

Shailesh Lakhani, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, said some of the fundamental consumer banking products such as savings accounts haven't seen true innovation in many years. "Their vision to reimagine consumer banking, by providing a modern banking product with epiFi, has the potential to bring a step function change in experience for digitally savvy consumers," he said.

Cash dominates transactions in India today. But New Delhi's move to invalidate most paper bills in circulation in late 2016 pushed tens of millions of Indians to explore payments app for the first time.

In recent years, scores of startups and Silicon Valley firms have stepped to help Indians pay digitally and secure a range of financial services. And all signs suggest that a significant number of people are now comfortable with mobile payments: More than 100 million users together made over 1 billion digital payments transaction in October last year — a milestone the nation has sustained in the months since.

A handful of startups are also attempting to address some of the challenges that small and medium sized businesses face. Bangalore-based Open, NiYo, and RazorPay provide a range of features such as corporate credit cardsa single dashboard to manage transactions and the ability to automate recurring payouts that traditional banks don’t currently offer. These platforms are also known as neo-bank or challenger banks or alternative banks. Interestingly, most neo-banking platforms in South Asia today serve startups and businesses — not individuals.

CES was a snoozefest

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

At a certain point during the last week, I found myself wandering the halls of CES, looking for the gadget that would fix all of my problems. Maybe it's the modern condition, or just a sign of having been involved in this industry for far too long.

Technology, of course, has a long and sometimes spotty history of attempting to resolve problems it exacerbated in the first place. Fighting fire with fire, as it were. The Nintendo Wii, for instance, was heralded as fight against a sedentary population to which video games have significantly contributed. Hell, Fitbit helped build an entire industry out of it.

Having utterly matured the world of wearable fitness devices, however, the industry has moved on to the next bit frontier: sleep. There's about a dozen reasons why sleeping with your smartphone is a bad idea, but I've woken up with an iPhone imprint on the side of my face more times than I'd care to admit. We know it's bad and yet, we still do it. But the depths of our addiction are a topic for another time.

Identifying opportunities in today’s saturated cybersecurity market

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 08:36 AM PST

Yoav Leitersdorf is the founder of YL Ventures, a 12-year-old, Mill Valley, California.-based seed-stage venture firm that invests narrowly in Israeli cybersecurity startups and closed its fourth fund with $120 million in capital commitments last summer — a vehicle that brings the capital it now manages to $260 million.

The outfit takes a concentrated approach to investing that has seemingly been paying off. YL Ventures was the biggest shareholder in the container security startup Twistlock, for example, which sold to Palo Alto Networks last year for $410 million after raising $63 million altogether. (YL Ventures had plugged $12 million into the company over four years.) It was also the biggest outside shareholder in Hexadite, an Israeli startup that used AI to identify and protect against attacks and that sold in 2017 to Microsoft for a reported $100 million.

Still, the firm sees a lot of cybersecurity startups. It also has an advisory board that's comprised of more than 75 security pros from heavyweight companies. For insight into what they’re shopping for this year — and how startups might grab their attention — we reached out to Leitersdorf last week to ask what he’s hearing.

China Roundup: WeChat’s new focus on monetization

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 08:00 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch's China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. At the beginning of each year, a large crowd of developers, content creators and digitally-savvy business owners gather in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou for the WeChat conference, the messaging giant’s premier annual gathering. The event is meant to give clues to WeChat’s future and the rare occasion where its secretive founder Allen Zhang emerges in public view. But this year, much to the audience’s disappointment, Zhang was absent.

WeChat’s new era of money-making

The boss’s absence was not outright unexpected, an industry analyst told me, as WeChat shifts to focus more on monetization. With 1.1 billion active users, the app has been incredibly conservative with selling ads and pursuing other money-making strategies, an admirable decision from the user’s perspective but arguably frustrating for Tencent’s stakeholders. Part of the restrain is due to Zhang’s user-first design philosophy and minimalistic product aesthetics. When reflecting on why WeChat doesn’t support splash ads — ads that are displayed full-page every time an app is launched — the boss had this to say (in Chinese) at last year’s WeChat conference:

“If WeChat is a person, it must have been your closest friend to deserve so much time you spent on it. So how could I have the heart to plaster an ad on your best friend’s face and ask you to watch the ad before speaking to him?”

The emphasis on user experience now seems overshadowed by Tencent’s need to carve out more revenue streams. The giant’s cash cow — its gaming business — has taken a hit in recent years following a wave of new government policies on the online entertainment industry. Tencent’s imminent rival ByteDance, the creator of TikTok, is getting a larger slice of the digital advertising pie in China.

One way to step up monetization within WeChat is to stimulate more business transactions. The app mapped out at the conference what it has done and what it plans to do on this front.

WeChat founder Allen Zhang addressing the audience of WeChat’s annual conference through a pre-recorded video in January 2020 

Mini programs

The lite apps that skip app store downloads and run inside WeChat have surpassed 300 million daily active users. Practically every internet service in China — with the exception of a few that are at odds with Tencent, such as Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms — have built a WeChat mini program version of their full-fledged app. Without ever leaving WeChat, users can complete tasks from playing casual games, booking movie tickets to getting food delivered.

Consumers and businesses are indeed increasingly embracing WeChat as a platform for transactions, of which the default payment method is WeChat Pay. Users spent more than 800 billion yuan ($115 billion) through mini apps in 2019, up 160% year-over-year driven by the likes of ecommerce and other retail activities.

To further drive that spending momentum, WeChat announced it will make it easier for businesses to monetize through mini programs. For one, these apps will be better integrated into WeChat’s search results, giving businesses more exposure. The messenger will also broaden the variety of ads embedded in mini programs and provide logistics management tools to retail-focused developers.

These efforts signify WeChat’s shift from focusing on mass consumers to businesses, a strategy that goes in tandem with Tencent’s enterprise-driven roadmap for the next few years.It remains to be seen whether these changes will square with Zhang’s user-first philosophy.

Credit scoring

WeChat’s one-year-old “Payments Score” has picked up some 100 million users by far. The program came about amid China’s push to encourage the development of credit scoring across society and industries to both regulate citizen behavior and drive financial inclusion, although Tencent’s private effort should not be conflated with Beijing’s national scheme. Like Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, WeChat Payments Score is better understood as a user loyalty program. Participation is optional and scores factor in variables such as user identity, payment behavior and default history.

Such a trust-building vehicle holds the potential to bring more transactions to WeChat, which previously lacked a full-fledged ecommerce infrastructure a la Alibaba’s Taobao. Users with a high score receive perks like deposit-free hotel booking, while application of the program is not limited to transactions but has also been adapted for rewarding “good” behavior. For instance, those with high points can redeem recyclable trash bags for free.

Tencent’s gaming empire

Tencent snatched up another gaming studio to add to its portfolio after earmarking an undisclosed investment in PlatinumGames, the Japanese developer of the well-received action title Bayonetta said in a blog post.

Over the decade the Chinese gaming behemoth has extended its footprint to a raft of influential gaming studios worldwide, taking stakes in the likes of League of Legends maker Riot Games (full control), Clash of Clans’ Supercell (84%), Fornite developer Epic Games (40%), PlayerUnkonwn’s Battlegrounds’ Bluehold (rumored 10%), and World of Warcraft’s Activation Blizzard. It’s also Nintendo Switch’s publishing partner in China.

PlatinumGames noted that it will continue to operate independently under its existing corporate structure, a setup that’s in line with Tencent’s non-interference investment principle and a major appeal to companies desiring both the giant’s resources and a degree of autonomy. The corpus of cash will help strengthen PlatinumGames’ current business, expand from game developing into self-publishing and add a “wider global perspective.”

Tencent’s hands-off approach has led industry experts to call it an “investment vehicle” relying on external intellectual property but in recent times the company’s in-house development teams have been striving for more visibility. Its Shenzhen-based TiMi studio, for example, is notable for producing the mobile blockbuster Honor of Kings; its Lightspeed and Quantum studio, similarly, rose to fame for developing the popular mobile version of PUBG.

R.I.P. Goofy Times

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

A strange new sensation has settled across the tech industry, one so foreign, so alien, it’s almost hard to recognize. A sense that some great expectations are being radically revised downwards; that someone has turned down a previously unquenchable money spigot; that unit economics can matter even when you’re in growth mode. Could it be … thrift?

Well, OK, let’s not go that crazy. But we are witnessing a remarkable confluence of (relatively) parsimonious events. Last year’s high-profile tech IPOs are far from high-fliers: Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest, and Peloton are all down from their IPO prices as I write this, some of them significantly so, even while the overall market has climbed to all-time highs. Those who expected immediate massive wealth six months later, even for relative recent employees, have been surprised.

Meanwhile, not-yet-public companies are tightening their belts, or taking their chances. We have seen recent waves of layoffs at a spectrum of tech unicorns. Others, i.e. Casper and One Medical, just filed for IPOs to general criticism if not outright derision of the numbers in their S-1s.

The less said about the WeWork debacle, the better, but we can’t not talk about it, as the repercussions have been significant. Both directly — SoftBank is ramping back significantly, including walking away from term sheets, prompting more layoffs — and indirectly, in that they seem to have swung the Valley’s overall mood from greed towards fear.

Towards fear, please note, not to fear; there’s a big difference. Even in the absence of SoftBank there is is still a whole lot of venture money sloshing around out there … although it seems possible that its investors are beginning to find it a little harder to spend it responsibly. VCs, correctly, are generally still extremely optimistic about the overall future of the tech industry, and still tend to focus on growth first, revenue a distant second, cash flow third, and profits maybe someday eventually depending on a lot of factors.

That said, the once-pervasive sense that everything tech touches immediately turns to gold is much diminished. It’s worth noting that many pure software companies, and their IPOs, are still very successful: Zoom, Docusign, Datadog, and a lot of other companies you’ve never heard of unless you’re an enterprise software fetishist are doing quite nicely, thanks. It’s only consumer tech which seems to be either currently disappointing or previously overvalued, depending on your point of view. Software is continuing to eat the world.

But there seems to be a growing recognition that the world is a forest, not a pizza, and there is a big difference between low-hanging fruit and eggs hidden in the high branches. Just because you use some custom software doesn’t make you a software company; it just means you’re paying today’s table stakes. So if you’re not a software company, and you’re not a hardware company … then how exactly are you a tech company?

By that rubric, which seems like a pretty reasonable one, WeWork isn’t a tech company, and never was. Casper isn’t a tech company. One Medical isn’t a tech company. (This is admittedly highly anecdotal, but judging from my own household’s recently experiences, One Medical’s new software systems seem to have degraded rather than improved their level of care.) They’ve been dressed up like tech companies to adopt the tech halo, but it looks awfully unconvincing on them — and they’ve done so just as that halo has begun to slip.

Maybe this multi-market malaise is temporary, a hangover from a few overhyped IPOs and last year’s SoftBank madness. Maybe the tech wheat will be separated from the wannabe chaff soon enough, and the former will continue to prosper. Or maybe, just maybe, we’re beginning to see the end of the golden days of low hanging fruit, and increasingly only hard science or hard software will be the paths to tech success. It’s a little unclear which way to hope.

Samsung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 05:45 AM PST

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

Week in Review: The old Vision Fund heave-ho

Posted: 12 Jan 2020 05:00 AM PST

Hey everyone, welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.

The big story

The WeWork saga already led SoftBank to make headlines months ago when CEO Masayoshi Son urged portfolio companies to chase cashflow, but this was the week that the shoe dropped for plenty of startups and the layoffs commenced.

  • Getaround let go of 150 employees according to The Information.
  • Zume is planning to fire 400 people, Business Insider reports.
  • Oyo is firing “thousands,” Bloomberg reports.
  • Rappi is laying off 6% of its workforce, the company announced.

These are just the Vision Fund portfolio companies to announce layoffs this week, in the past several months we’ve already seen restructurings at Fair, Wag, Katerra, Opendoor, Ola, Brandless, Uber and, of course, WeWork. Now, one batch of portfolio companies making a similar move does not a trend make, unless it’s SoftBank of course. It’s been a rocky year for late-stage startups chasing the public life. The less-than-rosy debuts of some of the decade’s most investor-adored startups has been embarrassing for plenty but Uber’s debut and WeWork’s near-implosion has been a pretty awful look for the Vision Fund.

On the positive side, in many ways it seems SoftBank isn’t ushering in a new ill to the world of late-stage capital, rather it’s being forced to correct a trend it helped usher in. Hyper-growth isn’t dead but there are limits in turning “Uber for X” into a universal mantra for revamping business strategies. Plenty of SoftBank’s startups are going to be stuck making on-the-move adjustments they weren’t expecting to need to make, but the move to trim the fat seems far from life-or-death for the majority of them. For the employees affected, there isn’t as much of a silver-lining.

Sonos Move 3

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Sonos sues Google
    An interesting lawsuit to emerge this week, Sonos is suing Google for alleged patent infringement, with the speaker company alleging that Google has stolen some of its tech and owes it cash. Google acknowledges that the two had been in talks about licensing tech but doesn’t seem stoked about the suit. Read more here.
  • Twitter rethinks replies
    Twitter banning the nazis has become an unfortunate meme of sorts that highlights how many issues Twitter has with abuse on its site. Building a comprehensive blacklist was a pretty daunting challenge for Twitter which has significantly less resources that Facebook or YouTube, its new solution is to have different types of whitelists for tweets so that the original poster can limit replies. Read more about it in our coverage.

GettyImages 535059003

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

ab 5 uber lyft

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Megan Rose Dickey talked a bit about the fight being waged to keep contractors classified as such in the face of new legislation.

How gig economy giants are trying to keep workers classified as independent contractors

“Now that 2020 has started, Uber, DoorDash and Lyft are taking additional steps to undermine a new California law that would help more gig workers qualify as full-time employees. These moves entail product changes, lawsuits and ramped-up efforts to get a ballot initiative in front of voters that would roll back the new legislation.

Let's start with the most recent development; yesterday, Uber  sent a note to users announcing that it's getting rid of upfront pricing in favor of estimated prices, unless they're Uber Pool rides…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

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