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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


GaN chargers are still worth getting excited about

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 02:59 PM PST

Listen. Chargers aren't sexy. You know it. I know it. Charger companies know it, regardless of what they tell you in their pitch deck. Honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to think of too many electronic accessories less utilitarian. Dongles, maybe? Cord wraps?

But I want it known that I'm still capable of being excited about them — even the wired kind — in 2020. Why? Two words: Gallium nitride. The material has a number of key applications, including next-gen wireless technologies. But right now, there's only one thing I care about: small chargers.

Last year at CES I wrote about a great little charger from Anker. Since then, I've upgraded to a 15-inch MacBook Pro and put out the call to a couple of CES companies for something that would fulfill my very specific needs. First, it needs to charge my big computer. Second, I travel a lot, so I'd prefer if it didn't fall out of the outlets that Delta sticks on their seats.

Seriously, it's a real problem that I have. This sort of stuff matters on any flight longer than four hours.

Navitas answered the call with a pair of branded GaN chargers from RavPower and Eggtronic, at 61 and 65 watts, respectively. The primary distinction between the two is form factor. RavPower's $36 charger is bigger and blockier, where as the significantly pricier ($100) Eggtronic lays flush. Honestly, preference comes down to what you need out of a charger. I was able to get both to sit in the Delta outlet, but still had them come loose a few times — which probably says as much about the airline's outlets as anything.

Also, 61 or 65 watts isn't going to charge up your system as fast as the standard 85/87 watt brick. It's better for keeping a system charged, and most great for portable. I'm phasing out the Pixelbook charger I've been using and planning to have one or the other in my backpack at all times (along with the standard MacBook charger for long trips). There’s still a ways to go for my ideal charger, but we’re getting there. 

Both are currently available for purchase.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Don’t be a selfless startup

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 02:21 PM PST

One of the enduring truths of big companies is that they aren't innovative. They are "innovative" in the marketing sense, but fail to ever execute on new ideas, particularly when those ideas cannibalize existing products and revenues.

So it often takes a real competitor to force these incumbent, legacy businesses to evolve in any meaningful way. Usually that change leads to disruption, in the classic way that Clayton Christensen describes in “The Innovator's Dilemma.” An upstart company creates a new technology or business model that is better for an under-served segment of a market, and as that company improves, it competes directly with the incumbent and eventually wins over its market with a vastly superior product.

Unfortunately, real life isn't so easy, as WeWork and MoviePass have shown us over the past few years.

In both cases, there were incumbents. In movie theaters, you had AMC and the like, which built a business model around ticket sales (shared with movie studios) and food/beverage concessions that targeted occasional customers at a high price point. Meanwhile, in commercial real estate, you had large landowners and family holders who demanded extremely long rent terms at high prices, often with personal financial guarantees from the CEO of the tenant firm.

Is Instacart’s wider rollout of Pickup an attempt to sidestep labor laws?

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 01:19 PM PST

Earlier today, Instacart more widely rolled out its Pickup product, which enables customers to retrieve groceries directly from stores. The announcement comes just a day after Instacart shoppers unveiled their latest action to #DeleteInstacart, another step in the ongoing series of protests against the grocery startup’s wage and tipping practices.

Next Monday, Instacart workers are asking customers and the general public to tweet at Instacart, telling the company they will delete Instacart until the company meets their demands. They wrote:

We have fought for fair pay, but Instacart continues to lower it. This current protest only has one small demand — to raise the app’s default tip amount back to 10%. This is the same default setting Instacart had originally, but the company has repeatedly lowered it (as well as resorted to outright theft) to take it away from us. Combined with their recent bonus-cutting act of retaliation, workers are now bleeding out of both sides — our pay is too low AND the default tip amount is too low.

In a statement, Instacart said it’s tested a number of default tip options over the years, including a 10% default, no default and a 5% default. That has been in place for the last two years.

“Ultimately, we believe customers should have the choice to determine the tip amount they choose to give a shopper based on the experience they have,” an Instacart spokesperson said. “The default amount serves as a baseline for a shopper's potential tip, and can be increased to any amount by the customer.”

In light of a new California gig worker protections law, which Instacart opposes, the greater push into pickup services could be a way for the company to beef up its argument that gig workers are free from the control of Instacart, and that its part-time workers* do the bulk of what Instacart says is its fastest-growing business.

Rocket Lab to open a new combined HQ, mission control and production facility in Long Beach

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 01:08 PM PST

Rocket Lab is expanding its U.S. footprint, alongside the opening of its first launch site on Wallops Island, Va. The rocket launch startup will open a new corporate headquarters in Long Beach, Calif. at a facility that will also provide some production capabilities, and act as its second Mission Control Center, complementing its existing Mission Control in New Zealand.

Construction on the new facility has already begun, Rocket Lab says, and should be completed in the second quarter of this year. Its production capacity will mean it can put out over a dozen full Electron launch vehicles per year, which should serve the company’s needs in terms of supplying its planned launch cadence of roughly one launch per month from the Wallops Island launch site.

In addition to Electron launch vehicles, the Long Beach facility will also be producing Rocket Lab satellites, which are part of the company’s expanded service offerings. Rocket Lab announced last year that it was moving beyond just offering launches to clients, and will provide end-to-end mission services — including customizable satellite hardware that can be tailored to the needs of clients looking to deploy small satellites for any number of purposes.

Rocket Lab is also going to house its first U.S. Mission Control Center at this Long Beach location, from which it’ll be able to coordinate and manage its launches at Wallops. Between that and its New Zealand-based Mission Control, this should help it manage the increased volume it should ramp up to when launching from both LC-1 in New Zealand and LC-2 at Wallops — and eventually, a second launch pad at its Mahia Peninsula, NZ complex.

Google acquires AppSheet to bring no-code development to Google Cloud

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 12:46 PM PST

Google announced today that it is buying AppSheet, an eight-year-old no-code mobile-application-building platform. The company had raised more than $17 million on a $60 million valuation, according to PitchBook data. The companies did not share the purchase price.

With AppSheet, Google gets a simple way for companies to build mobile apps without having to write a line of code. It works by pulling data from a spreadsheet, database or form, and using the field or column names as the basis for building an app.

It is integrated with Google Cloud already integrating with Google Sheets and Google Forms, but also works with other tools, including AWS DynamoDB, Salesforce, Office 365, Box and others. Google says it will continue to support these other platforms, even after the deal closes.

As Amit Zavery wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition, it’s about giving everyone a chance to build mobile applications, even companies lacking traditional developer resources to build a mobile presence. “This acquisition helps enterprises empower millions of citizen developers to more easily create and extend applications without the need for professional coding skills,” he wrote.

In a story we hear repeatedly from startup founders, Praveen Seshadri, co-founder and CEO at AppSheet, sees an opportunity to expand his platform and market reach under Google in ways he couldn’t as an independent company.

“There is great potential to leverage and integrate more deeply with many of Google's amazing assets like G Suite and Android to improve the functionality, scale, and performance of AppSheet. Moving forward, we expect to combine AppSheet's core strengths with Google Cloud's deep industry expertise in verticals like financial services, retail, and media  and entertainment,” he wrote.

Google sees this acquisition as extending its development philosophy with no-code working alongside workflow automation, application integration and API management.

No code tools like AppSheet are not going to replace sophisticated development environments, but they will give companies that might not otherwise have a mobile app the ability to put something decent out there.

Four years after being acquired, Hipmunk is shutting down

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 12:24 PM PST

If you’re still using Hipmunk for trip planning, it’s time to find another site. Sooner than later, really.

The Hipmunk team announced this afternoon that it’ll be shutting down in just about a week’s time. Come January 23rd, says the blog post, both the Hipmunk website and app will be shuttered.

The team also tweeted:

This shutdown comes right around three and a half years after corporate travel/expensing platform Concur acquired Hipmunk back in September of 2016.

Founded by Adam J. Goldstein and Reddit co-founder Steve “spez” Huffman, Hipmunk was one of the first well-made “metasearch” travel sites. It scrounged up flights (and hotels/car rentals/etc.) from across myriad services like Expedia, Priceline, etc., presenting all the times/prices in one big skimmable interface.

The team had an upbeat tone in the original post announcing the acquisition, with Goldstein noting that “Hipmunk isn’t going anywhere.” Alas, things change in four years. Goldstein parted ways with the team at the end of 2018.

In an FAQ about the announcement, Hipmunk clarifies that all accounts will go dark come January 23rd — and while it says existing reservations won’t be impacted by this, they note that all booking matters should go through whichever final provider they pointed you to.

Delta Air Lines’ startup partnerships are fueling innovation

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 10:58 AM PST

For the first time, this year Delta Air Lines had a large presence at CES. The carrier used much of its space to highlight the “parallel reality” screens developed by Misapplied Sciences and Sarcos Robotics, which brought its latest Guardian exoskeleton. At the show, I sat down with COO Gil West, an industry veteran with years of experience at a number of airlines and airplane manufacturers, to talk about how the company works with these startups.

Like all large companies, Delta has gone through a bit of a digital transformation in recent years by rebuilding a lot of the technical infrastructure that powers its internal and external services (though like all airlines, it also still has plenty of legacy tech that is hard to replace). This work enabled the company to move faster, rethink a lot of its processes and heightened the reality that a lot of this innovation has to come from outside the company.

“If you think about where we are as a world right now, it’s a Renaissance period for transportation,” West said. “Now, fortunately, we’re right in the middle of it, but if you think about the different modes of transportation and autonomous and electrification — and the technologies like AI and ML — everything is converging. There’s truly, I think, a transportation revolution — and we’ll play in it.

Reading Ted Chiang’s ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 10:45 AM PST

What would we do if we could visit our own pasts or futures? Are we more likely to change our timelines, or will our timelines actually project themselves back on to us more forcefully?

This is the first discussion post of this beta-testing, informal TechCrunch book club, which is starting with the first short story in Ted Chiang's science fiction collection “Exhalation.” Join us as we walk through each story in succession in the coming weeks and explore a wider expanse of technology and its effect on society.

The first story in the collection is “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate,” a compact, interwoven series of tales that discusses a time-shifting "gate" that allows people to move forward and backward in time at a specific interval. Chiang takes the familiar device of the time-travel machine and repurposes it for a deeper introspection of how humans consider their own lives and the lives they affect.

For this first week, I want to start with some reading questions (posted below) to think about before presenting deeper thoughts from me and readers. As I mentioned before, you can email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com and include them below in the comments, as well. Several communities online on Reddit and Twitter have already begun conversations, as well.

My friend and occasional Extra Crunch contributor Eliot Peper wrote in to describe what he considered the most foundational passage of the piece, and his thoughts:

"Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons."

This passage resonated with me deeply because it hints at one of the reasons I love reading science fiction like Chiang's: Not to catch a glimpse into the future, but to inspect the present more closely, and from fresh angles—learning lessons along the way.

We will return next week on Tuesday with more fully formed thoughts on this short story, as well as a similar reading guide for the second short story, the eponymous “Exhalation.”

Some questions to ponder about “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate”:

  • What is Chiang trying to convey about the meaning of destiny? Are we really "the audience as well as the players"?
  • Do we have agency in our own lives? Can we really affect the future with our own actions?
  • How should we observe what happens around us? Is consideration of what is happening enough to bring understanding and contentment, or do we have to have a stake in every outcome for us to feel satisfied?
  • Why did Chiang choose this particular time and setting (historical Baghdad) for this short story?
  • Similarly, why did he choose to include three tales in such a short story? What did this structural device provide us as readers?
  • What does the introduction of the gate imply about how new technology is accepted? Is it believable that such a wondrous device would be accepted so readily?
  • Is the gate neutral? Could it be used for good or evil, or does it depend on the user themselves?

Tesla is now selling a t-shirt commemorating Cybertruck shattered window flub

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 10:22 AM PST

Tesla apparently isn’t afraid to embrace some of its more embarrassing moments when doing so will likely lead to moving lots of merch — the automaker is now selling a t-shirt emblazoned with a graphic of the shatter incurred in the Cybertruck’s driver-side window when the controversial pickup truck was officially unveiled at the end of last year.

During that event in November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk invited Tesla lead designer Franz von Holzhausen onstage to stress test the Cybertruck’s durability. Von Holzhausen proceeded to smash the truck’s side panels with a sledgehammer, leaving no visible marks — but when he moved on to throwing a steel ball bearing at the supposedly blast-proof windows, they seemed to easily shatter.

The driver-side window first smashed, spidering the glass (but, as noted by Musk at the time, not allowing the ball to actually pass all the way through). At von Holzhausen’s urging, the rear driver-side window quickly followed suit on a second throw from the designer, once the attempt was OK’d by a seemingly stunned Musk.

This new t-shirt, which is available from the Tesla official merch shop, retails for $45 and features what looks like the actual photographic recreation of the shatter pattern from the front window, the first to be shattered in the onstage gaffe. The back of the shirt features the official Cybertruck logo, which is a primal, pared-down triangle that looks like a silhouette of the top of the Cybertruck from the wheel wells up.

When I checked, I couldn’t actually purchase the t-shirt, but it’s likely to be a hot seller (if it didn’t just sell out in the first two minutes of availability already). The incident was instantly meme-orialized, and though Tesla later said that it was actually a result of a structural weakening of the window glass due to von Holzhausen’s earlier sledgehammer blasts at the door below, it clearly wasn’t a planned or desired part of the presentation for Musk or Tesla.

Just like Musk’s onstage claims regarding the window glass strength, take his Twitter assertion that the “T-shirt is bulletproof & makes u buff!” with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Daily Crunch: Visa makes a $5.3 billion acquisition

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 10:02 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Visa is acquiring Plaid for $5.3 billion, 2x its final private valuation

You can compare what Plaid does to Stripe — but instead of facilitating payments, Plaid helps developers share banking and other financial information more easily.

Plaid raised $250 million at the end of 2018, with both Mastercard and Visa quietly participating in the round. So Visa must be pretty happy with how the startup has developed since then.

2. Google wants to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within two years

The fact that Google will drop support for these cookies — which are typically used to track users across the web — doesn't necessarily come as a surprise, given the company’s announcements around privacy in Chrome. But this aggressive timeline is new.

3. Disney+ was the most downloaded app in the US in Q4 2019

Following the app's mid-November launch in the U.S., Disney+ was downloaded more than 30 million times in Q4 2019 — according to a new report from SensorTower, that’s more than double the downloads for the runner-up, TikTok.

4. Spotify and Warner Chappell end dispute in India, sign global licensing deal

The announcement marks the end of the companies’ litigation before the Bombay High Court, where Warner Music was seeking an injunction to prevent Spotify from using its music in India. Spotify ended up launching in India anyway, but without a number of Warner Music titles.

5. The robot homecoming is upon us

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri. But Darrell Etherington argues that between slow-burn categories and the sheer volume of newer products, it now seems certain we're on a path that will lead to robots becoming common household items. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Atrium lays off lawyers, explains pivot to legal tech

Moving forward, the Justin Kan-founded startup will focus on its software for startups navigating fundraising, hiring and collaborating with lawyers. Atrium also plans to ramp up its startup advising services, and it’s doubling down on its year-old network of professional service providers that help clients navigate day-to-day legal work.

7. Disrupting Space: A new event from TechCrunch

The show will be held at Gateway Sheraton Hotel in Los Angeles on June 25, right in the neighborhood of America's most powerful players in space, including Boeing, Northrop, Lockheed, Raytheon, Teledyne, The Aerospace Corporation, the U.S. Air Force and, of course, SpaceX.

Microsoft and NSA say a security bug affects millions of Windows 10 computers

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

Microsoft has released a security patch for a dangerous vulnerability affecting hundreds of millions of computers running Windows 10.

The vulnerability is found in a decades-old Windows cryptographic component, known as CryptoAPI. The component has a range of functions, one of which allows developers to digitally sign their software, proving that the software has not been tampered with. But the bug may allow attackers to spoof legitimate software, potentially making it easier to run malicious software — like ransomware — on a vulnerable computer.

“The user would have no way of knowing the file was malicious, because the digital signature would appear to be from a trusted provider,” Microsoft said.

CERT-CC, the the vulnerability disclosure center at Carnegie Mellon University, said in its advisory that the bug can also be used to intercept and modify HTTPS (or TLS) communications.

Microsoft said it found no evidence to show that the bug has been actively exploited by attackers, and classified the bug as “important.”

Independent security journalist Brian Krebs first reported details of the bug.

The National Security Agency confirmed in a call with reporters that it found the vulnerability and turned over the details to Microsoft, allowing the company to build and ready a fix.

Only two years ago the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The agency used the vulnerability to create an exploit, known as EternalBlue, as a way to secretly backdoor vulnerable computers. But the exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch that once the vulnerability was discovered, it went through the vulnerabilities equities process, a decision-making process used by the government to determine if it should retain control of the flaw for use in offensive security operations or if it should be disclosed to the vendor. It’s not known if the NSA used the bug for offensive operations before it was reported to Microsoft.

“It’s encouraging to see such a critical vulnerability turned over to vendors rather than weaponized.”

Neuberger confirmed Microsoft’s findings that NSA had not seen attackers actively exploiting the bug.

Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker and founder of Rendition Infosec, told TechCrunch that it was “encouraging” that the flaw was turned over “rather than weaponized.”

“This one is a bug that would likely be easier for governments to use than the common hacker,” he said. “This would have been an ideal exploit to couple with man in the middle network access.”

Microsoft is said to have released patches for Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016, which is also affected, to the U.S. government, military and other high-profile companies ahead of Tuesday’s release to the wider public, amid fears that the bug would be abused and vulnerable computers could come under active attack.

The software giant kept a tight circle around the details of the vulnerabilities, with few at the company fully aware of their existence, sources told TechCrunch. Only a few outside the company and the NSA — such as the government’s cybersecurity advisory unit Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — were briefed.

CISA also issued a directive, compelling federal agencies to patch the vulnerabilities.

Williams said this now-patched flaw is like “a skeleton key for bypassing any number of endpoint security controls,” he told TechCrunch.

Skilled attackers have long tried to pass off their malware as legitimate software, in some cases by obtaining and stealing certificates. Last year, attackers stole a certificate belonging to computer maker Asus to sign a backdoored version of its software update tool. By pushing the tool to the company’s own servers, “hundreds of thousands” of Asus customers were compromised as a result.

When certificates are lost or stolen, they can be used to impersonate the app maker, allowing them to sign malicious software and make it look like it came from the original developer.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer at security firm CrowdStrike, said in a tweet that the NSA-discovered bug was a “critical issue.”

“Everyone should patch. Do not wait,” he said.

Kubernetes gets a bug bounty program

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 09:55 AM PST

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) today announced its first bug bounty program for Kubernetes, the ubiquitous container orchestration system originally built by Google. To run this program, the CNCF is partnering with Google and HackerOne and bounties will range from $100 to $10,000.

Kubernetes already has a Product Security Committee that includes engineers from Google’s own Kubernetes security team, and there are obviously plenty of eyes on the code. A bounty program, however, will get more (and new) security researchers to examine the code and help reward those who are already doing this work.

"Kubernetes already has a robust security team and response process, further cemented by the recent Kubernetes security audit,” said Maya Kaczorowski the product manager for container security at Google. “We have a stronger and more secure open-source project than we've ever had before. By launching a bug bounty program, we're putting our money where our mouth is — and most importantly, rewarding the researchers already doing this important work. We hope to attract additional security researchers to get more eyes on the code, shakeout security bugs and back up our work on Kubernetes security with financial support."

The bounty includes all of the core Kubernetes components in its GitHub repository. Specifically, the team notes, it is interested in authentication bugs, potential privilege escalations and remote code execution bugs in the kubelet and API server. The CNCF also stresses that researchers are encouraged to look at the overall Kubernetes supply chain. You can find the exact details of how the program and rewards are structured here.

Instagram tests Direct Messaging on web where encryption fails

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 09:49 AM PST

Instagram will finally let you chat from your web browser, but the launch contradicts Facebook’s plan for end-to-end encryption in all its messaging apps. Today Instagram began testing Direct Messages on the web for a small percentage of users around the globe, a year after TechCrunch reported it was testing web DMs.

When fully rolled out, Instagram tells us its website users will be able to see when they’ve received new DMs, view their whole inbox, start new message threads or group chats, send photos (but not capture them), double click to Like and share posts from their feed via Direct so they can gossip or blast friends with memes. You won’t be able to send videos, but can view non-disappearing ones. Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri tweeted that he hopes to “bring this to everyone soon” once the kinks are worked out.

Web DMs could help office workers, students and others stuck on a full-size computer all day or who don’t have room on their phone for another app to spend more time and stay better connected on Instagram. Direct is crucial to Instagram’s efforts to stay ahead of Snapchat, which has seen its Stories product mercilessly copied by Facebook but is still growing thanks to its rapid fire visual messaging feature that’s popular with teens.

But as Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos tweeted, “This is fascinating, as it cuts directly against the announced goal of E2E encrypted compatibility between FB/IG/WA. Nobody has ever built a trustworthy web-based E2EE messenger, and I was expecting them to drop web support in FB Messenger. Right hand versus left?”

A year ago Facebook announced it planned to eventually unify Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct so users could chat with each other across apps. It also said it would extend end-to-end encryption from WhatsApp to include Instagram Direct and all of Facebook Messenger, though it could take years to complete. That security protocol means that only the sender and recipient would be able to view the contents of a message, while Facebook, governments and hackers wouldn’t know what was being shared.

Yet Stamos explains that historically, security researchers haven’t been able to store cryptographic secrets in JavaScript, which is how the Instagram website runs, though he admits this could be solved in the future. More problematically, Stamos writes that “the model by which code on the web is distributed, which is directly from the vendor in a customizable fashion. This means that inserting a backdoor for one specific user is much much easier than in the mobile app paradigm,” where attackers would have to compromise both Facebook/Instagram and either Apple or Google’s app stores.

“Fixing this problem is extremely hard and would require fundamental changes to how the WWW [world wide web] works” says Stamos. At least we know Instagram has been preparing for today’s launch since at least February when mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong alerted us. We’ve asked Instagram for more details on how it plans to cover web DMs with end-to-end encryption or whether they’ll be exempt from the plan. [Update: An Instagram spokesperson tells me that as with Instagram Direct on mobile, messages currently are not encrypted. The company is working on making its messaging products end-to-end encrypted, and it continues to consider ways to accomplish this.]

Critics have called the messaging unification a blatant attempt to stifle regulators and prevent Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp from being broken up. Yet Facebook has stayed the course on the plan while weathering a $5 billion fine plus a slew of privacy and transparency changes mandated by an FTC settlement for its past offenses.

Personally, I’m excited, because it will make DMing sources via Instagram easier, and mean I spend less time opening my phone and potentially being distracted by other apps while working. Almost 10 years after Instagram’s launch and six years since adding Direct, the app seems to finally be embracing its position as a utility, not just entertainment.

Ubiquity6 launches a studio editor built for the real world

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 09:43 AM PST

“The time is over for Unity,” Ubiquity6 CEO Anjney Midha says. “It’s just not the future.”

Even though 2019 was a rough year for augmented reality startups, Ubiquity6 remains ambitious as one of the better-capitalized players in the space. In 2018, the startup closed $27 million from Benchmark and Index Ventures; they’ve raised $37.5 million in total. The company, which now has 65 employees, has been operating largely in secret for the past two-and-a-half years, promising the eventual release of a web browser built for augmented reality.

After a couple of public demos, including a showing at SFMOMA, Ubiquity6 released their app Display.land in public beta last month. The app enables users to walk through and capture 3D space with their phone cameras.

The company’s big announcement today puts that release in greater context; they’re building a level editor of sorts that can help developers and the technically curious turn their scans into small games or 3D scenes that mix the digital and real. Ubiquity6 is opening early access sign-ups for the studio editor today.

Ubiquity6 wants to seize on some of the consumer interest in real-time editors built for titles like Fortnite and Roblox that have become a hit with modders. Combining that kind of user experience with the niche of real-world capture that appeals to AR/VR junkies, the company is hoping they can bring aboard a community that understands what their platform could enable.

Display.land may be built with the phone in mind, but Ubiquity6 hopes that the startup’s phone app will be a means to an end for creators capturing and designing 3D content that can be viewed on multiple platforms via the web. I demoed the company’s platform on mobile, desktop and VR, something that just required clicking a link. The app still feels quite experimental and there’s a non-trivial learning curve to capturing environments that won’t turn out as a gargled 3D mess.

"The thing about this age of creativity is that you never know what's good enough," Midha tells TechCrunch in an interview. "It will not work in 100% of examples, but 'good enough' really only comes from giving it to a large number of users and seeing where they find it useful."

The startup’s product is in its early stages, while engines like Unity are behemoths built for plenty of use cases. As Unity optimizes for professional use cases beyond gaming, it’s too complex and time-intensive to keep up with developers, Midha argues. Over time, he says, the company’s platform will pick up more general-purpose functionality to appease developers interested in elements of this new offering but that desire more base-level features to compete with existing engines.

While other AR startups have drifted away from consumers to find more receptive enterprise customers, Midha feels that the consumer opportunity hasn’t been tapped. "I think the vision has always been consumer," he says. "If you believe and have conviction in the space, it's unfair to compromise on that vision.”

A look inside Visa’s shareholder presentation for the $5.3B Plaid deal

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 09:25 AM PST

Fresh off the news yesterday that Visa is buying fintech unicorn Plaid for $5.3 billion, the payments giant is making its case to its shareholders. Given the scale of the deal, and the implied bet that Visa is making on the future of its market, the company prepared a presentation, which means we get to peer into its thinking regarding Plaid itself and the fintech market as a whole.

In a short deck, Visa argues that buying Plaid will: 1) provide it with deep access to an exploding market (fintech), 2) help it boost growth (at a small hit to profits) and 3) provide a means to expand Visa’s total addressable market by building on Plaid’s small customer base, allowing for future growth.

Access to new markets, faster revenue expansion and larger total addressable market (TAM) are pretty good things for any business. Let’s see how Visa makes its case.

Plaid

In Visa’s view, the fintech world’s growth is “very high.” The credit card and payments company reports in its presentation to shareholders that fintech adoption (the percent of “internet enabled customers using at least 1 fintech app”) is growing at a 43% compound rate. Visa also highlights the amount of capital going into the space, namely $120 billion in the last five years.

Announcing the agenda for Robotics+AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 09:00 AM PST

We're bringing TC Sessions: Robotics+AI back to UC Berkeley on March 3, and we're excited to announce our jam-packed agenda. For months we've been recruiting speakers from the ranks of the most innovative founders, top technologists and hard-charging VCs working in robotics and AI, and the speaker line-up will capture the remarkable acceleration across the field in the past year. 

New for this year, we will be hosting our very first pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. There is still time to submit your application. 

And one amazing fact: 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the first use of the word “robot.” What better way to mark the occasion than to grab an early-bird ticket ($150 savings) right now and right here before prices increase.

We've still got some key guests to announce, and will be adding some new names to the agenda in the coming days. In the meantime, check out these highlights:

Agenda

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:50 AM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry's VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

10:50 AM – 11:10 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:10 AM – 11:30 AM

Innovation Break. Coming soon

11:30 AM – 11:40 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club

11:40 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete and Dusty builds robot-powered tools. We'll talk with the founders of these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

1:00 PM – 1:20 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:20 PM – 1:35 PM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its fifth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

1:35 PM – 2:00 PM

Lending a Helping Robotic Hand with Vivian Chu (Diligent Robotics) and Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems)

As populations age in a number of countries, caregivers are turning to robots for assistance. We’ll discuss the role technology can play in helping care for and assist those in need. 

2:00 PM – 2:25 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:25 PM – 2:45 PM

Innovation Break. Coming soon

2:45 PM – 3:10 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM 

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:00 PM – 4:20 PM 

Innovation Break. Coming soon

4:20 PM – 4:45 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

4:45 PM – 5:10 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics) and speakers to be announced

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. These companies are helping ease the first steps into the wider world of automation.

5:10 PM – 5:35 PM

Robotic Surgeons (speakers to be announced)

Robots have been part of the operating room for well over a decade, but we’re still only scratching the surface. Leaders from a number of robot-assisted surgery companies will discuss the changing role of robots in the hospital.

Tickets are on sale now

Book your $275 early-bird ticket today and save $150 before prices go up on February 14.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here.

Got a startup? Book a startup exhibitor package today and demo your company in front of 1,000+ attendees. Each table comes with four attendee tickets, so you can divide and conquer the conference.

Seattle’s ExtraHop expects $100M ARR in 2020, IPO the following year

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 08:28 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re continuing our series on companies that have reached the $100 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) threshold, or are about to. ExtraHop is the company of the day, a Seattle-based firm that deals with cloud analytics and a portion of the security world called “network detection and response.”

ExtraHop is interesting because of its scale, its IPO plans and its history of capital efficiency. Regular readers will recall that we’ve praised Braze and Egnyte in this series, noting that, compared to some unicorns and other members of the $100 million ARR club, they had raised modest sums. Both have raised a multiple of ExtraHop’s own known capital tally.

TechCrunch got on the phone yesterday with ExtraHop’s CEO Arif Kareem and CFO Bill Ruckelshaus to dig in more. Here’s what we learned.

Growth

In conjunction with its ARR and IPO notes that we’ll deal with shortly, ExtraHop announced a number of financial metrics this morning, including: more than $150 million in bookings in 2019, up from over $100 million in 2018; and, revenue growth of “more than” 40% in 2019, a threshold it also cleared in 2018.

Tradeshift raises $240M and appears to put its expected IPO on hold — for now

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 08:16 AM PST

Tradeshift — the startup which set out to disrupt the traditional arena of supply chain payments and marketplaces when it first appeared in 2008 — has today announced a new funding round of $240 million in equity and debt, raised from a combination of existing and new investors.

The funding will be used to help accelerate its growth and, it says, set the company "on a direct path to profitability in the near future."

That last line is telling, as the new funding comes in the context of what was widely held to be a window of opportunity for Tradeshift to head toward an IPO.

What this new funding means it that Tradeshift is effectively delaying its IPO to get its “house in order” in the context of a new economic environment that has become skeptical toward tech IPOs in the wake of the WeWork debacle, which saw public investors cool toward new tech company listings.

Although the company isn’t saying this, perhaps in this instance, its motto should be temporarily changed from “shift happens” to the more apt “shit happens.”

Still, at least Tradeshift is coming from a position of relative strength. In a statement, the company said it has reported more than two years of strong growth in quarterly revenue, and recorded its best-ever year in 2019, including more than 60% revenue growth, with more than 250 deals closed (the average deal size was doubled). Furthermore, more than 40% of the total cumulative transaction volume across its platform came in the past year, it says.

Tradeshift said the additional capital will be used to further momentum it has seen across core product lines, including Tradeshift Pay, which was ranked in 2019 as the strongest ePayables SaaS solution in the industry by analyst firm Ardent Partners, and Tradeshift Go, with more than 200 new customers signed in 2019.

The new investment will also support the monetization of its trade finance proposition across a user base of over two million suppliers.

"The additional funding we've secured is a testament to the belief the investor community has in our vision and our business model," said Christian Lanng, CEO of Tradeshift in the statement. "As a network business, growth is always going to be a key part of our story. But it's also important that we manage that growth responsibly."

I asked him what he meant by “networked.” Lang believes we are moving “from cloud businesses to networked businesses,” where, instead of companies, like Microsoft having one single solution but also offering a variety of other products (such as LinkedIn and Skype), people and businesses will opt more for single-use tools.

"The fact that both Microsoft and Salesforce bid for Linkedin shows that we have moved into a network era," he told me.

Tradeshift's drive toward profitability ahead of a possible IPO also means it's going to slash costs to bring overheads in line with revenue.

Lanng said this will likely mean reducing headcount in its expensive San Francisco offices, but reallocating resources and talent to locations where that is more affordable. He told me "costs and margins" would now be the focus.

"As we reach the next phase in the maturity of our business, our focus for the coming year will be about doubling down in areas where we're seeing the greatest momentum, while continuing to ensure we have the necessary balance in place to fully capitalize on the enormous opportunities in front of us," he said.

What is clearly unspoken about this latest move is that this leaner, meaner Tradeshift is going to continue to weather this year, at the very least, as a private company before, most likely, looking toward its long-awaited IPO in the mid-term.

Previous investors in the company have included Goldman Sachs, the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments), HSBC, H14, GP Bullhound, Gray Swan, a venture company established by Tradeshift's founders, American Express Ventures, the CreditEase Fintech Investment Fund, Notion Capital, Santander InnoVentures and others. In 2018, when it raised $250 million, it claimed its valuation passed $240 million.

Google wants to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within two years

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 08:00 AM PST

Google today announced its plans to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within the next two years. The fact that Google will drop support for these cookies, which are typically used to track users across the web, doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given Google’s announcements around privacy in Chrome, including its proposed “privacy sandbox.”  But this aggressive timeline is new and puts the company on a track that will have repercussions for a lot of other industries, as well.

“This is our strategy to re-architect the standards of the web, to make it privacy-preserving by default,” Justin Schuh, Google’s director for Chrome engineering, told me. “There’s been a lot of focus around third-party cookies, and that certainly is one of the tracking mechanisms, but that’s just a tracking mechanism and we’re calling it out because it’s the one that people are paying attention to.” Preventing fingerprinting, among other things, is also something Google’s team is working on.

Starting this February, Google will also implement some techniques for limiting cross-site tracking by enforcing its new SameSite rules and by requiring that cookies that are labeled for third-party use can only be accessed over an HTTPS connection. The new SameSite rules, which Google has tested with a subset of users in Chrome over the last few months, are somewhat complex, but the overall idea here is that developers who want others to be able to use their cookies will have to explicitly label them as such.

Over the next two years, though, Google plans to go far beyond this and completely remove support for third-party cookies from Chrome. That, however, marks a massive change for the advertising industry and the publishers that often depend on marketers’ ability to (for better or worse) track users across the web. Google’s solution to this is the “privacy sandbox,” which would ideally still allow advertisers to show you relevant ads while also allowing you to share as little about you and your browsing history as possible.

What exactly this will look like still remains to be seen, though, as a lot of the ideas are still in flux. Schuh, however, noted that Google doesn’t want to go this alone, and that it plans to go through the web standards process for this. He noted that Google plans to start some trials over the next year or so and start migrating advertisers and publishers to some of the new systems it is working on.

This is a massive change, though, and Google will surely face some pushback. “I’m not going to say that everyone has been on board for all of our proposals,” Schuh admitted. “But in all corners, some of the proposals have been received very well. For the ones that haven’t, we’re open to alternative solutions as long as they have the kind of privacy and security properties — as long as they have the same kind of predictability that we expect — because we don’t want to put Band-Aid solutions on top of the web, we would rather fix the architecture of the web, […] we just don’t see any alternative but to fix the architecture of the web.”

Others, however, will have to get on board — including other browser vendors. Schuh seems optimistic that this will happen, in part because it is also in the best interest of the users. “We don’t want the web to be fragmented,” he said. “We don’t want people to have to figure out every different thing they have to do on every different browser. We want a level of consistency here, even if there are details that browsers choose to be different.”

Right now, a lot of Chrome’s competitors, like Mozilla’s Firefox, have taken pretty radical approaches to simply blocking many third-party cookies. Google argues that this will be to the detriment of the web and only drive the industry to find workarounds.

As with all of Google’s recent privacy proposals, it’ll be interesting to watch how the industry will react to this one. Given Google’s own role in the advertising ecosystem, Google has some clear financial interests in getting this right — and to keep the advertising ecosystem on the web healthy.

 

Disney+ was the most downloaded app in the US in Q4 2019

Posted: 14 Jan 2020 07:59 AM PST

U.S. consumers have shown strong interest in Disney’s new family-friendly streaming service, Disney+, according to new data from Sensor Tower, which focused on app trends in the final quarter of 2019. Following the app’s mid-November launch in the U.S., Disney+ was downloaded more than 30 million times in Q4 2019 — that’s more than double its next nearest competitor, TikTok, the firm said.

These total downloads were counted across both the Apple App Store and Google Play, with the App Store accounting for over 18 million of the Disney+ downloads and Google Play accounting for more than 12 million. This allowed the new streaming app to become the most downloaded app in the App Store and Google Play, individually, in addition to being the most downloaded app overall in the quarter.

On the App Store, Disney+ beat out YouTube and TikTok for the No. 1 spot, after YouTube held the top position for the past four quarters. The app also hit a notable milestone on Google Play, as no other app had surpassed 10 million in U.S. downloads on Google Play in a quarter since Facebook Messenger did back in 2017.

In terms of revenue, Disney+ grossed more than $50 million in its first 30 days, beating out other subscription video on demand (SVOD) rivals, like HBO NOW and Showtime. In December, Disney+ also generated more U.S. revenue than HBO NOW had in its best month, including during revenue spikes it saw during the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

In Q4, Disney+ generated 16% of all SVOD revenue in the U.S. — an impressive feat, given it only launched in mid-November. Also notable is that the app was able to reach 71% of Netflix’s peak revenue in December.

In addition, Disney+’s 30 million U.S. installs were more than Hulu and Amazon Prime Video had in all of 2019.

Though the app immediately grabbed 34% of Q4 SVOD downloads at launch, Sensor Tower notes that downloads for other SVOD apps still grew by 12.5% quarter-over-quarter in Q4 2019, and 4.7% year-over-year. That could indicate that Disney+ isn’t cannibalizing other apps in the streaming market — it’s expanding the market.

While Disney’s brand is powerful, Disney+ is also benefiting from the timing of its launch. Unlike Netflix, which had to steadily carve out its place in the U.S. streaming market, consumers are now ready and willing to try new streaming apps. The new app also launched just ahead of the holiday season, when people have more time to spend with entertainment apps and games. Plus, Disney+ launched with several promotions to help push installs, including one with (disclosure: TC parent) Verizon that offered a year for free, another with Google to give three free months to Chromebook owners and a discounted bundle of Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu for $12.99/month.

Now in its second month, post-launch, Sensor Tower says the app has reached nearly 41 million total installs across the App Store and Google Play worldwide and has generated an estimated $97.2 million in consumer spending.

Its revenue figures are still strong, too, with the app generating $43.9 in month two after the $53.3 million it made during the first 30 days. (This includes revenue in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands).

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