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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Apple to start online sales in India in Q3 this year

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 03:00 PM PST

Apple's much-awaited online store in India will be operational starting Q3 this year, a little longer than previously expected, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The iPhone-maker said in August last year that it was “eager to serve [customers of India] online and in-store with the same experience and care that Apple customers around the world enjoy."

While the company never shared a firm timeline on when the online and brick-and-mortar stores would be set up in India, it was originally aiming to start the online sales in the country in the first quarter of this year, the source said. (The Q1 launch timeline was first signaled by Bloomberg, which reported that the operations would begin "within months.")

An Apple spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The source said the company was still working on the logistics of setting up the store and that the quarter between July and September was the new tentative deadline. Apple CEO Tim Cook would likely plan an India trip for the announcement, the source said.

The company’s first official physical store in India, to be situated in Mumbai, will take an additional few months of time for setting up and might not be ready by this year, the source said.

India, the world's second largest smartphone market, eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers last year, paving the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they set up presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

Currently, Apple sells its products in India through partnered third-party offline retailers and e-commerce platforms such as Amazon India, Flipkart and Paytm Mall. Prior to New Delhi's policy change, Apple had requested the government numerous times to relax the local foreign direct investment (FDI) rules.

Apple executives have long expressed disappointment at Amazon India, Flipkart and Paytm Mall for offering heavy discounts on the iPhone and MacBook Air to boost their respective GMV metrics, people familiar with the matter have told TechCrunch.

iPhone shipments in India grew 6% in 2019 compared with a 43% decline in 2018, according to research firm Counterpoint, which projected that the growth would continue this year.

Apple on Tuesday posted a record revenue of $91.8 billion for the quarter that ended in December. Cook said in the earnings call that India was among the markets where the company's revenue grew in "double-digit."

Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg is stepping down

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 02:35 PM PST

Match Group, home to Tinder, Match, OKCupid, PoF, and a host of other online dating apps, announced today that CEO Mandy Ginsberg would be stepping down from her position after 14 years with the company. She’s served in the CEO role since her appointment in 2017. Related to this, Ginsberg will also resign from Match’s Board of Directors. Assuming her position is Shar Dubey, currently the President of the Match Group, who will begin her new role March 1.

Dubey has also been with Match Group for 14 years, the past two as Match Group President. She’s been a board member since late 2019. Prior to her most recent position, Dubey served as Chief Operating Officer of the Tinder business, where she led the team that launched Tinder Gold, the company’s most successful monetization feature to date. She also previously served as President of Match Group Americas and Chief Product Officer of the Match Brand.

The exec shakeup doesn’t end with the CEO changes. Match today named Gary Swidler as Chief Operating Officer, in addition to his role as CFO. In the new role, Swidler will also oversee corporate communications, market research, corporate strategy, data security, advertising, and user safety across the portfolio of brands, the company says.

Meanwhile, Match also named Faye Iosotaluno as its Chief Strategy Officer and Justine Sacco as Chief Communications Officer. Both will report to Swidler.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported the news, citing an internal memo offering more details about Ginsberg’s departure. According to the memo, a tornado hit Ginsberg’s home in October and last week she underwent surgery.

Axios has a copy of the memo, where Ginsberg further explains she had opted for a double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene in the past. She has now has to have surgery again, as the FDA had recalled the implants. The memo says she plans to take time off this year to focus on health:

So why am I leaving now? These last 4 months have been personally trying. In October, Dallas experienced a tornado that barreled through the city destroying many homes in its wake. Thankfully no one was killed, but the tornado hit my home, making it unlivable. This has definitely impacted my family. And I have had some recent health hiccups. I have been pretty public about the fact that after my mom and aunt died of ovarian cancer 15 years ago, I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and at the time, opted for a preventative double mastectomy due to high risk of breast cancer. And 10 years later, just last Friday, I had to have another surgery due to an FDA recall of the implants, because they have been linked to cancer. It's been a lot to handle. And while I expect to have a clean bill of health, short term I need to take care of myself and so will take some time off this year to do just that.

In the memo, Ginsberg also praises Dubey as having an “incredible command of the consumer internet space” and “the vision and experience to take this business forward.”

She is so well suited for this role and we won't miss a beat during this transition. Not only is she a brilliant, analytical and action-oriented executive, but she is a great leader because she wants every single person on the team to win. And so many people who have worked for Shar have told me she is the best boss they have ever had. Now you all have the best boss.

In a statement about Ginsberg’s departure, Match Group Chairman Joey Levin said, “Mandy has had a profound impact on Match Group’s culture, the team, and through the success of our products, the world. She recruited Shar to the company more than a decade ago, and it’s been incredible to witness what these two executives have built together. Mandy will always be a part of the Match Group family, wherever she is. But, if she will no longer be here, we cannot imagine a better successor than Shar. The Match Group leadership team has a deep bench of talent, and Shar, Gary and the team will continue to lead Match Group forward.”

Dubey takes the helm at Match Group ahead of a significant change to its business. In October, digital media holding company IAC took the next step towards spinning off Match Group as an independent company.

Match Group reported better-than-expected revenues and profit for the third quarter of 2019, thanks largely to the revenue growth for its top dating app, Tinder, which also became the top-grossing non-game app of 2019. Revenues of $541 million were up by 22% year over year, due to improvements of 19% and 4% in average subscriber base and Average Revenue per User (ARPU), respectively.

 

Study of YouTube comments finds evidence of radicalization effect

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 02:21 PM PST

Research presented at the ACM FAT 2020 conference in Barcelona today supports the notion that YouTube’s platform is playing a role in radicalizing users via exposure to far-right ideologies.

The study, carried out by researchers at Switzerland’s Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, found evidence that users who engaged with a middle ground of extreme right-wing content migrated to commenting on the most fringe far-right content.

A March 2018 New York Times article by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci set out the now widely reported thesis that YouTube is a radicalization engine. Followup reporting by journalist Kevin Roose told a compelling tale of the personal experience of an individual, Caleb Cain, who described falling down an “alt right rabbit hole” on YouTube. But researcher Manoel Horta Ribeiro, who was presenting the paper today, said the team wanted to see if they could find auditable evidence to support such anecdotes.

Their paper, called “Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube,” details a large-scale study of YouTube looking for traces of evidence — in likes, comments and views — that certain right-leaning YouTube communities are acting as gateways to fringe far-right ideologies.

Per the paper, they analyzed 330,925 videos posted on 349 channels — broadly classifying the videos into four types: Media, the Alt-lite, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) and the Alt-right — and using user comments as a “good enough” proxy for radicalization (their data set included 72 million comments).

The findings suggest a pipeline effect over a number of years where users who started out commenting on alt-lite/IDW YouTube content shifted to commenting on extreme far-right content on the platform over time.

The rate of overlap between consumers of Media content and the alt-right was found to be far lower.

“A significant amount of commenting users systematically migrates from commenting exclusively on milder content to commenting on more extreme content,” they write in the paper. “We argue that this finding provides significant evidence that there has been, and there continues to be, user radicalization on YouTube, and our analyses of the activity of these communities… is consistent with the theory that more extreme content ‘piggybacked’ on the surge in popularity of I.D.W. and Alt-lite content… We show that this migration phenomenon is not only consistent throughout the years, but also that it is significant in its absolute quantity.”

The researchers were unable to determine the exact mechanism involved in migrating YouTube users from consuming “alt lite” politics to engaging with the most fringe and extreme far-right ideologies — citing a couple of key challenges on that front: Limited access to recommendation data; and the study not taking into account personalization (which can affect a user’s recommendations on YouTube).

But even without personalization, they say they were “still able to find a path in which users could find extreme content from large media channels.”

During a conference Q&A after presenting the paper, Horta Ribeiro was asked what evidence they had that the radicalization effect the study identifies had occurred through YouTube, rather than via some external site — or because the people in question were more radicalized to begin with (and therefore more attracted to extreme ideologies) versus the notion of YouTube itself being an active radicalization pipeline.

He agreed it’s difficult to make an absolute claim that YouTube is to blame. But also argued that, as host to these communities, the platform is responsible.

“We do find evident traces of user radicalization, and I guess the question asks why is YouTube responsible for this? And I guess the answer would be because many of these communities they live on YouTube and they have a lot of their content on YouTube and that’s why YouTube is so deeply associated with it,” he said.

“In a sense I do agree that it’s very hard to make the claim that the radicalization is due to YouTube or due to some recommender system or that the platform is responsible for that. It could be that something else is leading to this radicalization and in that sense I think that the analysis that we make it shows there is this process of users going from milder channels to more extreme ones. And this solid evidence towards radicalization because people that were not exposed to this radical content become exposed. But it’s hard to make strong causal claims — like YouTube is responsible for that.”

We reached out to YouTube for a response to the research but the company did not reply to our questions.

The company has tightened its approach toward certain far-right and extremist content in recent years, in the face of growing political and public pressure over hate speech, targeted harassment and radicalization risks.

It has also been experimenting with reducing algorithmic amplification of certain types of potentially damaging nonsense content that falls outside its general content guidelines — such as malicious conspiracy theories and junk science.

Product Hunt launches beta of YourStack, a home for your favorite things

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:55 PM PST

The team behind Product Hunt is launching a new social network called YourStack, a platform aiming to connect people that are passionate about products and help them discover what things their friends love.

“It’s super simple, you just search through and create a stack of products you love,” Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover tells TechCrunch. “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just software, but also games and books and beauty products, you name it.”

YourStack’s catalog doesn’t have every product under the sun, but if it’s a tech object, startup service, app or direct-to-consumer thing, chances are you can “stack” it. Once you add it to your profile, you can write a quick little descriptor and also share some tips and tricks you’ve learned about the product in question.

Product Hunt was acquired by AngelList just over three years ago, and since then Hoover and company have grown the platform into a go-to hub for makers looking to launch tech products. The team of 20 is now splitting their time between Product Hunt and YourStack, hoping that the new venture can lead to a platform that’s more centered on people and the products they use. While a social network based entirely around the multi-national brands that people love is something I’d love to hear Bernie Sanders’ thoughts on, it’s clear there’s an open opportunity here.

Social media platforms like Instagram have given influencers a huge platform for paid product endorsements, but because there’s so much schilling, consumers can’t put a ton of trust in the recommendations. Platforms like Twitter have been great for this inside the tech industry, but there’s no UI for it, so you sort of have to be at the right place at the right time, and, furthermore, the tech folks who have these great product insights are too busy being thought leaders.

If YourStack takes off, who knows what it could eventually become, but the goal seems to be to let users gain access to more personal product recommendations. On the product creator side, Hoover believes YourStack could give some great qualitative data that allows makers to understand how customers are using what they’ve built.

The product is in beta right now with a waitlist that’s already a few thousand users deep, but Hoover says the goal right now is to gather feedback.

“With a lot of social products, you don’t know how people are going to use them when they first start,” Hoover tells TechCrunch. “We actually had a very similar approach when we launched Product Hunt, where we let more and more people onto it each day and that was really effective in letting it slowly grow rather than leading people to a bad experience.”

Apple reports a record $12.7B in services revenue

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:48 PM PST

Apple’s increasing focus on its services business seems to be paying off, with the company reporting a record $12.7 billion in services net sales during the first quarter of its fiscal year — a year-over-year increase of roughly 17%.

Services includes existing offerings like iCloud and Apple Music, as well as a number of new subscriptions that Apple has launched in the past year, such as Apple Arcade and Apple TV+.

The numbers were part of a strong earnings report for Apple, with better-than-expected revenue of $91.8 billion.

The company no longer reports the unit sales of its different product lines, but we can still track general trends by looking at net sales. In addition to the growth in services, the wearables, home and accessories category grew even more rapidly, reaching a record high of $10.0 billion (compared to $7.3 billion a year ago).

Meanwhile, iPhone sales were also up to around $56.0 billion, compared to $52.0 billion during the previous Q1, with CEO Tim Cook crediting “strong demand for our iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro models” in the earnings release.

There was less happy news for in the Mac and iPad categories, where sales fell to $7.2 billion (from $7.4 billion) and $6.0 billion (from $6.7 billion) respectively.

Apple shares rise after company reports better-than-expected revenue of $91.8B

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:35 PM PST

Today after the bell, Apple reported the results of the first quarter of its fiscal 2020. The company’s revenue totaled $91.8 billion, far ahead of expectations of $88.43 billion. At the same time, the company’s per-share profit of $4.99 was greater than the market-anticipated figure of $4.54 per share.

In immediate trading following the news, Apple’s stock is up several points. The company’s shares have traded at all-time highs in recent months, matching the northward march of many other technology companies’ equity.

Previously, Apple told investors that it expected revenue of “between $85.5 billion and $89.5 billion” in the quarter, along with “gross margin between 37.5 percent and 38.5 percent.” The company’s Q1 F2020 gross margin result? 38.4%.

Digging into the quarter a bit more, here’s how Apple’s performance shook out during the three-month period:

  • Product revenue: $79.1 billion
  • Services revenue: $12.7 billion
  • Net income: $22.2 billion

As you can see, Apple’s product revenue led its quarter. Digging into that line-item, here are the building blocks of its lucrative hardware business:

  • iPhone: $56.0 billion
  • Mac: $7.2 billion
  • iPad: $6.0 billion
  • “Wearables, Home and Accessories:” $10.0 billion

All that spun out to earnings per share of $5.04 (basic), and $4.99 (diluted).

The company highlighted its smaller-device and home category, with CEO Tim Cook saying his company posted “all-time records for Services and Wearables.” Apple has worked in recent years to lessen its revenue dependence on the iPhone; services and smaller electronics are some of its hopes to do so. This is doubly true as the company posted a year-over-year decline in Mac revenue.

Apple wrapped calendar 2019 with cash, equivalents and various types of marketable securities worth $207 billion, while its debt load appeared to land around $118 billion.

Looking ahead, Apple anticipates Q2 F2020 revenue “between $63.0 billion and $67.0 billion,” and gross margin in the same range as the sequentially preceding quarter. A more regular, non-holiday three-month period in other words.

More from TechCrunch soon digging into the company’s hardware sales and earnings call. Stay tuned.

Toothless: Facebook proposes a weak Oversight Board

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:33 PM PST

Facebook’s internal “Supreme Court” can’t set precedents, can’t make decisions about Facebook Dating or Marketplace, and can’t oversee WhatsApp, Oculus, or any messaging feature, according to the bylaws Facebook proposed today for its Oversight Board. It’s designed to provide an independent appeals process for content moderation rulings. But it will only be able to challenge content taken down, not left up, until at least later this year so it likely won’t be able to remove misinformation in political ads allowed by Facebook’s controversial policy before the 2020 election.

Oh, and this Board can’t change many of its own bylaws without Facebook’s approval.

The result is an Oversight Board does not have deep or broad power to impact Facebook’s on-going policies — only to clean up a specific instance of a botched decision. It will allow Facebook to point to an external decision maker when it gets in hot water for potential censorship, differing responsibility.

That said, it’s better than nothing. Currently Facebook simply makes these decisions internally with little recourse for victims. It will also force Facebook to be a little more transparent about its content moderation rule-making, since it will have to publish explanations for why it does or doesn’t adopt the policy change recommendations.

But for Facebook to go to so much work consulting 2,200 people in 88 countries for feedback on its plans to create the Oversight Board, then propose bylaws that keep its powers laughably narrow, feels like an emblem of Facebook’s biggest criticisms: that it talks a big game about privacy and safety, but its actions serve to predominantly protect its power and control over social networking.

For starters, the Board is funded for six years with an irrevocable $130 million from Facebook, but it could let it expire after that. Decisions can take up to 90 days to make and 7 days once made to be implemented, so the Board isn’t designed for rapid response to viral issues.

Without Facebook’s approval, the Board can amend only Article 1 (Oversight Board) sections 1 (Membership), 2 (Administration), and 4 (Transparency and Communications; and Article 4 (The Trust). That leaves out the important Article 1, section 3 (Case Review and Decisions) and more, meaning it can’t alter what kinds of cases are submitted, picked up for decision, or what those decisions means.

One major issue is that Facebook is choosing the co-chairs of the Board who will then pick the 40 initial Board members who’ll choose the future members. Facebook has already picked these co-chairs but won’t reveal them until next month. A controversial or biased co-chair could influence all future decisions of the Board by choosing its membership. We also don’t know if Facebook asked candidates for the co-chair positions about their views on issues like misinformation in political ads and if that influenced who was offered the position.

You can expect a lot of backlash if Facebook chooses an overtly liberal or conservative co-chair or one firmly aligned and opposed with the current presidential administration. That will be rightful, considering a single co-chair more motivated by politics than what’s right for Facebook’s 2 billion users could have disatrous implications for its content policies.

In one of the most worrying quotes I’ve ever seen from a Facebook executive in 10 years of reporting on the company, VP of global policy Nick Clegg told Wired’s Steven Levy that "We know that the initial reaction to the Oversight Board and its members will basically be one of cynicism—because basically, the reaction to pretty well anything new that Facebook does is cynical.”

So Clegg has essentially disarmed all criticism of Facebook and crystallized the company’s defensive stance…which is one of pure cynicsm. He’s essentially saying “Why should we listen to anyone. They hate anything we do.” That’s a dangerous path, and again one that embodies exactly what society is so concerned about: that one of the most powerful companies in the world in charge of fundamental communications utilties actually doesn’t care what the public has to say.

Clegg also emphatically told Wired that the Board won’t approach the urgent issue of misinformation in political ads before the 2020 election because the Board needs time to “find its feet”. Not only does that mean the Board can’t rule on perhaps the most important and controversial of Facebook’s policies decisions until the damage from campaign lies is done. It also implies Clegg and Facebook have the ability to influence what cases the Board doesn’t look at, which is exactly what the purported autonomy of the Board is meant to prevent.

In the end, while the Oversight Board’s decisions on a specific piece of content are binding, Facebook has lee-way when deciding whether to apply it to similar existing pieces of content. And in what truly makes the Board toothless, Facebook only has to take the Board’s guidance on changes to policy going forward under consideration. The Board can’t set precedents. Recommendations will go through Facebook’s “policy development process” and receive “thorough analysis”, but Facebook can then just say ‘nope’.

I hope the chosen co-chairs and eventual members refuse to ratify this set of bylaws without changes. Facebook initial intention for the Oversight Board seemed sound. Some decisions about how information flows in our society should be bigger than Mark Zuckerberg. But the devil in the details say he still gets the final say.

[Correction 4:05pm pacific: We originally published that the Board can’t amend its bylaws without Facebook’s approval. In fact, the Board can’t amend some critical bylaws such as those about Case Review and Decisions without approval, but it does have power over membership and transparency.]

Essential advice for securing your small startup

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:09 PM PST

Jeff Bezos' phone was hacked. And if the richest person in the world is vulnerable, chances are good that your startup could get hacked, too.

The good news is that, as a tiny company, you're not a big target. But as soon as you hire your first employee, it's time to think about adopting basic security practices to ensure that you're less vulnerable. Nothing is perfectly secure on the internet, but you can mitigate risk.

When you have fewer than 10 employees, you don't want to use a single sign-on service like Okta. Solutions that work great for companies with tens of thousands of employees are not practical because they're not designed for you.

As a basic rule, you want things to be simple by design. Relying on fewer services will reduce your attack surface, and if people can follow rules without even thinking about them, your organization will be less vulnerable. You might be great at spotting phishing attempts and securing your own accounts, but your startup is only as secure as your least-savvy employee. Most security issues come from human error.

A Christian-friendly payments processor spilled 6 million transaction records online

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:00 PM PST

A little-known payments processor, which bills itself as a Christian-friendly company that does “not process credit card transactions for morally objectionable businesses,” left online a database containing years’ worth of customer payment transactions.

The database contained 6.7 million records since 2013, and was updating by the day. But the database was not protected with a password, allowing anyone to look inside.

Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database. TechCrunch identified its owner as Cornerstone Payment Systems, which provides payment processing to ministries, nonprofits and other morally aligned businesses across the U.S., including churches, religious radio personalities and pro-life groups.

Payment processors handle credit and debit card transactions on behalf of a business.

A review of a portion of the database showed each record contained payee names, email addresses and in many, but not all, cases, postal addresses. Each record also had the name of the merchant being paid, the card type, the last four digits of the card number and its expiry date.

The data also contained specific dates and times of the transaction. Each record also indicated if a payment was successful or if it was declined. Some of the records also contained notes from the customer, often describing what the payment was for — such as a donation or a commemoration.

Although there was some evidence of tokenization — a way of replacing sensitive information with a unique string of letters and numbers — the database itself was not encrypted.

We used some of the email addresses to contact a number of affected customers. Two people whose names and transactions were found in the database confirmed their information was accurate.

After TechCrunch contacted Cornerstone, the company pulled the database offline.

“Cornerstone Payment Systems has secured all server access,” said spokesperson Tony Adamo.

“It is vital to note that Cornerstone Payment Systems does not store complete credit card data or check data. We have put in place enhanced security measures locking down all URLs. We are currently reviewing all logs for any potential access,” he added.

Cornerstone did not say if it will inform state regulators of the security lapse, which it’s required to do under California state’s data breach notification laws.

Read more:

Five reasons you (really) don’t want to miss TechCrunch’s AI and Robotics show on March 3

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 01:00 PM PST

TechCrunch's fourth Robotics and AI show is coming up on March 3 at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. If past experience is any guide, the show is sure to draw a big crowd (cheap student rates here!), but there's still time to grab a pass. If you're wondering why you want to take a day out to catch a full day of interviews and audience Q&A with the world's top robotics and AI experts, read on.  

It's the software / AI, stupid. So said (in so many words) the legendary surgical robotics founder Dr. Frederic Moll at Disrupt SF last year. And this year's agenda captures that reality from many angles. UC Berkeley's Stuart Russell will discuss his provocative book on AI, “Human Compatible,” and the deeply important topic of AI “explainability” will be front and center with SRI's Karen Myers, Fiddler Labs' Krishna Gade and UC Berkeley's Trevor Darrell. Then there is the business of developing and sustaining robots, whether at startups, which is where Freedom Robotics' Joshua Wilson comes in, or at large enterprises, with Vicarious' D. Scott Phoenix

Robotics founders have more fun. That's why we have a panel of the three top founders in agricultural robotics, as well as another three on construction robotics and two on human assistive robotics, plus a pitch competition featuring five additional founders, each carefully chosen from a large pool of applicants. We'll also bring a few of those founders back for a separate audience Q&A. Meet tomorrow's big names in robotics today!

Big companies do robots too. No one knows that better than Amazon's top roboticist, Tye Brady, who already presides over 100,000 warehouse robots. The editors are eager to hear what's next in Amazon's ambitious automation plans. Toyota's robotics focus is mobility, and Toyota Research Institute's TRI-AD CEO James Kuffner and TRI VP of Robotics Max Bajracharya will discuss projects they plan to roll out at the Tokyo Olympics. And if that's not enough, Maxar Technologies' Lucy Condakchian will show off Maxar’s robotic arm that will travel to Mars aboard the fifth Mars Rover mission later this year. 

Robotics VCs are chill (once you get to know them). We will have three check writers onstage for the big talk about where they see the best investments emerging — Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors) — plus two separate audience Q&A sessions, one with notable robotics / AI VCs Rob Coneybeer (Shasta) and Aaron Jacobson (NEA) and a second with corporate VCs Quinn Li (Qualcomm) and Kass Dawson (SoftBank).

Network, recruit, repeat. Last year there were 1,500 attendees at this show, and they were the cream of the robotics world — founders, investors, technologists, executives and engineering students. Expect nothing less this year. TechCrunch's CrunchMatch mobile app makes meeting folks super easy, plus the event is in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall — a sunny happy place that naturally spins up great conversations. Don't miss out.

Our Early-Bird Ticket sale ends this Friday — book your tickets today and save $150 before prices increase. Students can book a super-discounted ticket for just $50 right here.

Modified HoloLens helps teach kids with vision impairment to navigate the social world

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 11:59 AM PST

Growing up with blindness or low vision can be difficult for kids, not just because they can’t read the same books or play the same games as their sighted peers; Vision is also a big part of social interaction and conversation. This Microsoft research project uses augmented reality to help kids with vision impairment “see” the people they’re talking with.

The challenge people with vision impairment encounter is, of course, that they can’t see the other people around them. This can prevent them from detecting and using many of the nonverbal cues sighted people use in conversation, especially if those behaviors aren’t learned at an early age.

Project Tokyo is a new effort from Microsoft in which its researchers are looking into how technologies like AI and AR can be useful to all people, including those with disabilities. That’s not always the case, though it must be said that voice-powered virtual assistants are a boon to many who can’t as easily use a touchscreen or mouse and keyboard.

The team, which started as an informal challenge to improve accessibility a few years ago, began by observing people traveling to the Special Olympics, then followed that up with workshops involving the blind and low vision community. Their primary realization was of the subtle context sight gives in nearly all situations.

“We, as humans, have this very, very nuanced and elaborate sense of social understanding of how to interact with people — getting a sense of who is in the room, what are they doing, what is their relationship to me, how do I understand if they are relevant for me or not,” said Microsoft researcher Ed Cutrell. “And for blind people a lot of the cues that we take for granted just go away.”

In children this can be especially pronounced, as having perhaps never learned the relevant cues and behaviors, they can themselves exhibit antisocial tendencies like resting their head on a table while conversing, or not facing a person when speaking to them.

To be clear, these behaviors aren’t “problematic” in themselves, as they are just the person doing what works best for them, but they can inhibit everyday relations with sighted people, and it’s a worthwhile goal to consider how those relations can be made easier and more natural for everyone.

The experimental solution Project Tokyo has been pursuing involves a modified HoloLens — minus the lens, of course. The device is also a highly sophisticated imaging device that can identify objects and people if provided with the right code.

The user wears the device like a high-tech headband, and a custom software stack provides them with a set of contextual cues:

  • When a person is detected, say four feet away on the right, the headset will emit a click that sounds like it is coming from that location.
  • If the face of the person is known, a second “bump” sound is made and the person’s name announced (again, audible only to the user).
  • If the face is not known or can’t be seen well, a “stretching” sound is played that modulates as the user directs their head towards the other person, ending in a click when the face is centered on the camera (which also means the user is facing them directly).
  • For those nearby, an LED strip shows a white light in the direction of a person who has been detected, and a green light if they have been identified.

Other tools are being evaluated, but this set is a start, and based on a case study with a game 12-year-old named Theo, they could be extremely helpful.

Microsoft’s post describing the system and the team’s work with Theo and others is worth reading for the details, but essentially Theo began to learn the ins and outs of the system and in turn began to manage social situations using cues mainly used by sighted people. For instance, he learned that he can deliberately direct his attention at someone by turning his head towards them, and developed his own method of scanning the room to keep tabs on those nearby — neither one possible when one’s head is on the table.

That kind of empowerment is a good start, but this is definitely a work in progress. The bulky, expensive hardware isn’t exactly something you’d want to wear all day, and naturally different users will have different needs. What about expressions and gestures? What about signs and menus? Ultimately the future of Project Tokyo will be determined, as before, by the needs of the communities who are seldom consulted when it comes to building AI systems and other modern conveniences.

Smartphone sales expected to get a slight bump in 2020

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 11:00 AM PST

Last year saw global smartphone sales decline for the first time since analysts started tracking such things. In Gartner's case, that comprises a full 11 years, as figures dropped 2% for 2019. Following on last week's global device forecast, the firm is drilling down on smartphone figures with some slightly rosier results.

According to the new numbers from the firm, global smartphone rates are expected to reverse course slightly for 2020, with a predicted 3% bump in worldwide sales. It's a minor success, but after a few years of stagnation and then decline, a small victory is a victory no less.

I won't dig too far into why numbers have been falling lately (I'd direct you here instead), but 2020 is expected to be the first year the move to 5G will finally see some real, tangible payoff for manufacturers. Apple, of course, is expected to get into the game at the end of the year, with the next iPhone, while a new batch of Qualcomm chips are helping to make cheaper 5G devices a reality.

5G phone sales are expected to have their largest impact in China and the broader Asia/Pacific regions. Those areas are expected to increase at 5.1% and 5.7% in overall sales, year over year, respectively. The Middle East and North Africa region, meanwhile, should get the biggest bump, at 5.9% for the year.

Ultimately, 5G may only be a temporary solution to declining smartphone sales. Without a radical shift in form factor or functionality, it's hard to imagine smartphone sales seeing a substantial course correction in the coming years.

Free Agency wants to give every tech worker a career and salary boost

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 10:58 AM PST

Labor markets, particularly those in the tech industry, are incredibly lopsided against employees. Companies screen, interview, and negotiate with thousands of candidates per year, while employees may only go through recruiting a handful of times in their lives. Inevitably, they can select the wrong positions, pick the wrong managers to work with, and end up with a salary well below market rate.

New York City-based Free Agency wants to become the advocate of choice for this high-priced talent. Taking its cue from Hollywood and the sports world, the growing startup wants to identify great workers and offer them the career counseling, interview guidance, and salary negotiation prowess to let them do their best work — and at the right wage.

The company, which was founded last year by Sherveen Mashayekhi and Alex Rothberg, exclusively told TechCrunch that it has now reached 100 "Free Agents" on its platform, and it also announced that it has netted a combined $5.35 million in seed investments led by Resolute Ventures and Bloomberg Beta last year.

The way Free Agency works is simple. In exchange for the service's help in finding and negotiating a career change, the startup takes 5-10% of its client's first-year salary at their new company. As an example, given that median tech salaries at top companies have hovered around $200,000, that would be a fee of $10,000-$20,000.

That may sound exorbitant, but for the founders of Free Agency, it is anything but. They believe that many employees regularly fail to find the most ideal companies to work for and to negotiate the best salaries, which means that a significant amount of money is being left on the table by their potential clients.

Free Agency founders Alex Rothberg, COO, and Sherveen Mashayekhi, CEO. Photo via Free Agency.

"Our business model keeps us incentive-aligned with the candidate, driven by outcomes rather than upfront fees," Mashayekhi, who is CEO, explained to me. "But it's also important to note that Free Agency is, philosophically, also aligned with what employers want. Happy candidates who feel fairly paid will remain at their jobs longer and contribute more productivity. We help make happy candidates."

Free Agency is in many ways a parallel to the rise of income-share agreements (ISAs) in the edtech world, which my colleague Eric Peckham has written about extensively in recent months. In lieu of tuition, some new education startups are using ISAs as a way to guarantee better employment outcomes for students while limiting their debt burden. Their growing popularity has spawned significant investor interest.

Today, Free Agency is barely one year old with just about 11 employees on the payroll. Longer term though, it wants to manage the budding careers of tech workers in much the way that Hollywood agents often do — finding new projects to work on, helping its talent develop their own skills, brands, and thought leadership, and helping them network with key decision-makers so they get called upon when great new opportunities arise.

"Today, we're focused primarily on the job search inflection point, but Free Agency is really a career-long partner. You'll see us continue to add ways to help our Free Agents succeed along 5 or 10 years of partnerships through intentional career management," Mashayekhi said.

Talent agents exist in industries like Hollywood, book publishing, and sports because the talent themselves often don't want to take on the burdens of managing their own careers. Film directors and baseball pitchers want to practice and hone their craft, not spend hours negotiating with studio execs and club owners. Agents also are more up-to-date on industry salary trends, and also where new opportunities are arising. Plus, they often work with talent managers to optimize all the ancillary revenues that comes from these careers (product endorsements, speaker engagements, etc.)

Furthermore, these industries have extremely strong superstar income patterns, where top talent can easily make tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a career.

While the tech industry has traditionally not had agents, tech talent is increasingly having similar superstar properties. Star engineers, product managers, and designers can make tens of millions of dollars across salary and equity packages, and often have a range of ancillary revenue sources from consulting engagements with VC firms to lecture circuit payments. Even better, new talent is often making six-figures, whereas the early years in an entertainment or sports career is often focused on securing any paying job.

What remains to be see is whether engineers will willingly give up a segment of their income in order to get better career help. Certainly Free Agency is not the first company that has tried to tackle this emerging field. 10x Management is a talent agency that has focused on vetting top freelance developers, and was profiled in The New Yorker a few years ago. Other startups have also entered the space over the past decade.

Free Agency believes it has the timing and service quality to win this market. While it is early days, much like the excitement around ISAs in education, I expect models like Free Agency to increasingly become popular as a way to manage our careers, and this is one startup worth paying attention to in the coming years.

In addition to Resolute and Bloomberg, Ludlow Ventures, Background Capital, Parker Thompson, Will Oberndorf, Amrit Saxena, Jenny Fielding, Greg Schroy, Gordon Wintrob, and Orrick LLP also joined the round as investors.

Daily Crunch: Facebook expands privacy options

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 10:13 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. All users can now access Facebook's tool for controlling which apps and sites can share data for ad-targeting

Facebook is making its "Off-Facebook Activity" tool, which allows users to manage and delete the data that third-party websites and apps share with Facebook, available to all users worldwide. The feature was first introduced in 2018 at Facebook's annual developer conference, but only launched to users in select geographies last year.

As Facebook explains today, other businesses send Facebook information about your activity on their sites and apps, which Facebook then uses to show you relevant ads. With the new Off-Facebook Activity tool, you can see a summary of that information and clear it from your account.

2. ServiceNow acquires conversational AI startup Passage AI

Passage AI helps customers build chatbots in multiple languages, something that should come in handy as ServiceNow continues to modernize its digital service platform.

3. Flipboard expands into local news

The goal with the new offering is to give Flipboard users an easy way to catch up with local news, sports, dining, real estate, transportation and weather from a variety of sources, including local newspapers, local TV stations, radio stations, college news sites and even blogs.

4. Tech valuations versus tech-enabled valuations: 2020 IPO edition

The value of tech-enabled companies is coming into focus as several American unicorns test the public markets, with data showing that some venture-backed companies that are often grouped with technology companies are in fact worth just a fraction of their tech-first cousins. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

5. With Tony Fadell's help, Advano is building battery components to power an electric future

The technology was innovative enough to earn the Louisiana-based startup a place in Y Combinator's accelerator. It has now attracted the attention of Mitsui Kinzoku, which is investing in the company as a strategic partner, and Tony Fadell, the famous product designer known as “the father of the iPod” and the founder of the smart thermostat company Nest.

6. Scroll launches its subscription offering ad-free access across 300 partner sites

CEO Tony Haile previously led analytics company Chartbeat, and he said he founded Scroll because of his frustration with the way news sites were becoming dragged down by ads and trackers — and despite those performance-slowing/privacy-defying practices, publications were still struggling to make money.

7. Filmic's DoubleTake app brings simultaneous camera shooting to the iPhone 11

The most visually compelling use here is Shot/Reverse Shot, which takes video from both the rear-facing and front-facing cameras at once. Obviously there's going to be a gulf in image quality between the front and back, but the ability to do both simultaneously opens up some pretty fascinating possibilities.

Just released: Last round of tickets to 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

If parties came with an alert system, this post would qualify as Def Con 4. Now hear this — we just released the final batch of tickets to our 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize, which heats up on February 7 in San Francisco. If you want to be there with more than 1,000 of Silicon Valley's finest, act now with all due haste. Buy your ticket right here.

Hang out with your crowd and enjoy cocktails, craft beer and tempting appetizers. Branch out and meet new people in a relaxed, laid-back setting. Startuppers, you work hard, and now it's time to let loose a little. Bust out your crazy karaoke skills and get ready for other party games, activities and photo ops.

It's also a chill way to broaden your network, see a handful of exhibiting startups (wow, those demo tables sold out fast) and maybe even meet a future investor, partner or mentor. Startup magic happens at TechCrunch parties. Is this your year for magic?

Wanna know who else will be in the house? Check out some of the companies ready to meet, greet and network in a casual setting.

Here are the party particulars:

  • When: Friday, February 7, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Galvanize, 44 Tehama St., San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Ticket price: $85

It's just not a TechCrunch party without door prizes, and we will not disappoint. You could win TC swag or win tickets to Disrupt SF, our flagship event coming in September 2020.

Speaking of Disrupt SF 2020, here's another way to go gratis. It takes a big team to pull off a party of this magnitude. Volunteer to help us throw this party and you'll earn a pass to our flagship Disrupt event. Pretty sweet.

Startup fans, don't miss out on one of the great Silicon Valley traditions. Buy your ticket to the 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize, right now before they're gone for good.

Is your company interested in sponsoring the 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

The better everyday camera — Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 Pro?

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 09:56 AM PST

I need a new phone.

A big chunk of my time on the iPhone was spent taking pictures, so I’m heavily basing the next smartphone on its camera capabilities. After playing around with the Pixel 4 for
Brian’s review, I’m considering switching teams.

Price-wise, it would make sense to compare the iPhone 11 with the Pixel 4, as they both start at around $700, but I'm interested in the best Google and Apple have to offer.

Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro

There are a lot of fancy terms between the two — slow sync, true tone flash, phase detection, etc. I really don’t care. I just want to know which one is better as an everyday camera. To that end, here are some pictures in various settings and lighting situations (all images are clickable to view in high-res):

Landscape/cityscape

Brooklyn from Manhattan, right after the rain.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro (.5x)

Portrait

Arman suffused in pinkish-red light, backlit with afternoon window light. Both were shot from the same distance. 

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Food

Hotpot in incandescent lighting.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Japanese and Mexican in low light.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Group selfie

One of these guys is an Emmy award winner.

Pixel 4 iPhone 11 Pro comparison group selfie

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Low lighting

I always find venue lighting unnatural, and unflattering. Also, put your phone down and enjoy the show.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Pixel 4 yields brighter images, but the iPhone 11 Pro kept the bar's ambiance. Plus shooting super-wide on humans adds a certain quirkiness.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro (.5x)

Really low lighting with moving objects. In this case, a dog.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro (.5x)

Street photography: Manhattan skies were too cloudy that night to see stars.

L: Pixel 4, R: iPhone 11 Pro

Digital zoom

Both cameras have 10x digital zoom. Digital zoom is garbage and I don’t recommend ever using it, except to creep on your friends.

Hi Brandon.

iPhone 11 Pro (1x)

HI BRANDON.

iPhone 11 Pro (10x)

Conclusion

Pixel 4’s photo editing tools are superior, though its image quality is slightly better than the iPhone 11 Pro by just a smidgen. The difference was so subtle that I had to check several times to make sure I labeled the images correctly. It really boils down to aesthetics. I’ve left commentary minimal for the most part so you can scrutinize the images and decide for yourself.

iPhone 11 Pro (.5x)

The two things that ultimately kept me with Apple: the super-wide lens and the immediacy of sharing high-res images via Airdrop. Until Google releases their version, texting a download link to the high-res image is just an extra unnecessary step I don’t care for.

GM adds automated lane changes to its hands-free Super Cruise driving system

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 09:56 AM PST

GM has improved its hands-free driving assistance system Super Cruise, adding a feature that will automatically change lanes for drivers of certain Cadillac models, including the upcoming 2021 Escalade.

This enhanced version of Super Cruise, which will include better steering and speed control, puts it back in competition with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system (specifically the Navigate on Autopilot feature), which is considered the most capable on the market today.

The improved version will be introduced starting with the 2021 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 sedans, followed by the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicles are expected to become available in the second half of 2020. 

Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they're paying attention. Unlike Tesla's Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

The automatic lane change feature in Super Cruise will still require the driver to keep their eyes on the road. When the system is engaged, the driver can engage the turn signal to indicate a desire to change lanes. Once the system has determined that the lane is open, the vehicle will merge. Meanwhile, the gauge cluster will display messages to the driver such as “looking for an opening” or “changing lanes.”

GM’s new digital vehicle platform, which provides more electrical bandwidth and data processing power, enabled engineers to add to Super Cruise’s capabilities. The company also improved its rear-facing sensors and software to be able to better track vehicles approaching from the rear, Super Cruise chief engineer Mario Maiorana said.

The new version of Super Cruise will change lanes for the driver on highways where the feature is allowed. The user interface and hands-free driving dynamics have also been improved, according to Maiorana.

Super Cruise, which launched in 2017, was limited to just one model — the full-size CT6 sedan — and restricted to divided highways. That began to change last year when GM announced plans to expand where Super Cruise would be available. A software update expanded the thousands of miles of compatible divided highways in the United States and Canada . Super Cruise is now available on more than 200,000 miles of highways.

The automaker has also started to make the system available in more models. GM is expanding Super Cruise as an option on all Cadillac models this year. GM has said the Super Cruise system will start hitting its other brands such as Chevrolet, GMC and Buick after 2020.

Virgin Orbit teams with ISI on rapid response satellite launch services for intelligence customers

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 09:53 AM PST

Small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit is teaming up with Israel’s ImageSat International (ISI) to develop a launch services that would be able to deliver small satellite-based Earth observation on remarkably short notice, basically anywhere in the world. This is a service aimed specifically at national security and intelligence customers, and combines the benefits of ISI’s remote sensing expertise and capabilities, with Virgin Orbit’s ability to launch on relatively short notice from basically any allied spaceport facility using its LauncherOne system.

LauncherOne uses a two-stage rocket to deliver small satellites (those weighing up to 660 lbs) to low-Earth orbit, after being deployed by a modified aircraft that takes off like a traditional jumbo jet. The LauncherOne vehicle then deploys from a high altitude, reducing the fuel costs of launch and making it possible to deliver small payloads to space for as little as $12 million per launch.

Because of its unique design, Virgin Orbit and ISI suggest that this is an optimal way to serve the needs of intelligence and defense customers who might have a need for satellite-based observation arise suddenly, and require immediate fulfilment in order to deal with a time-limited situation. It’s true that agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) specifically seek vendors who can fulfil needs with a fast turnaround time, and specifically introduced a program called ‘Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket’ (RASR) to source these. Launch startup Rocket Lab announced that its first mission this year would be part of that program, and it’s a likely target for this cooperation between Virgin Orbit and ISI as well.

By offering essentially launch-on-demand capabilities combined with a full range of high-resolution imaging satellites, and analytics services for the resulting data, this definitely has the potential to be an appealing product for the national security industry. Virgin Orbit still has to clear the key hurdle of actually demonstrating a successful orbital launch, but that should take place sometime this year if all goes to plan.

As Bird buys Circ, a rewind of scooter VC, M&A and financial reporting

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 09:39 AM PST

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

While the IPO cycle reprices former unicorns and concern imbues the private market with profit warnings, it turns out that there is still appetite for scooter startups. Even more, there’s hunger for both combinations in the space (not a surprise), and for scooter startup shares (which may be).

As TechCrunch reported yesterday, Bird, an American scooter startup worth several billion dollars, consumed one of its European rivals and raised $75 million in the process. Circ, the formerly independent scooter shop, was struggling to have enough cash on hand and had undergone layoffs, despite having raised €55 million a year ago (that round was announced in January 2019).

The subsumption of Circ comes after other scooter companies underwent layoffs themselves, and in some cases, struggled to raise fresh capital. Tie all of that to the fact that 2019 brought several sharply negative financial reports from Big Scooter, and the result is a milieu that’s been hard to track from a purely financial perspective; this is all the more complicated when we take product and geography into the mix, of course. This morning we’ll fix that by racing through what’s happened since mid-2018 in Scooterdom in accounting terms.

Timeline

What follows is a financial highlights reel, naturally, but one that should provide us with a good overview of the ebb and flow of the world of scooters and micromobility over the last six quarters or so:

Securiti.ai scores $50M Series B to modernize data governance

Posted: 28 Jan 2020 09:05 AM PST

Securiti.ai, a San Jose startup, is working to bring a modern twist to data governance and security. Today the company announced a $50 million Series B led by General Catalyst, with participation from Mayfield.

The company, which only launched in 2019, reports it has already raised $81 million. What is attracting all of this investment in such a short period of time is that the company is going after a problem that is an increasing pain point for companies all over the world because of a growing body of data privacy regulation like GDPR and CCPA.

These laws are forcing companies to understand the data they have, and find ways to be able to pull that data into a single view, and, if needed, respond to customer wishes to remove or redact some of  it. It’s a hard problem to solve with customer data spread across multiple applications, and often shared with third parties and partners.

Company CEO and founder Rehan Jalil says the goal of his startup is to provide an operations platform for customer data, an area he has coined PrivacyOps, with the goal of helping companies give customers more control over their data, as laws increasingly require.

“In the end it’s all about giving individuals the rights on the data: the right to privacy, the right to deletion, the right to redaction, the right to stop the processing. That’s the charter and the mission of the company,” he told TechCrunch.

You begin by defining your data sources, then a bot goes out and gathers customer data across all of the data sources you have defined. The company has links to more than 250 common modern and legacy data sources out of the box. Once the bot grabs the data and creates a central record, humans come in to review the results and make any adjustments and final decisions on how to handle a data request.

It has a number of security templates for different kinds of privacy regulations, such as GDPR and CCPA, and the bot finds data that must meet these requirements and lets the governance team see how many records could be in violation or meet a set of criteria you define.

Securiti.ai data view. Screenshot: Securiti.ai (cropped)

There are a number of tools in the package, including ways to look at your privacy readiness, vendor assessments, data maps and data breaches to look at data privacy in broad way.

The company launched in 2019, and in just five months has already grown to 185 employees, a number that is expected to increase in the next year with the new funding.