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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Boosted lays off ‘a significant portion’ of team as it looks for a buyer

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 03:14 PM PST

Boosted, the startup behind the Boosted Boards and, more recently, the Boosted Rev electric scooter, has laid off “a significant portion” of its team, the company announced today. The company is now actively seeking a buyer.

Boosted attributes the layoffs to the costs of developing, producing and maintaining electric vehicles and the “unplanned challenge with the high expense of the US-China tariff war,” Boosted CEO Jeff Russakow and CTO John Ulmen wrote in a blog post.

“The Boosted brand will continue to pursue strategic options under new ownership,” they wrote.

Boosted, which got its start back in 2012, made its first foray outside of electric skateboards last year with the launch of an electric scooter. Boosted says more than 100,000 riders have traveled tens of millions of miles on the company’s vehicles.

“We are extremely proud of what our company has accomplished, and gratified to see so many happy customers riding their Boosted vehicles every day,” Russakow and Ulmen wrote.

This perhaps should not come as a surprise. For starters, micromobility is a hard business — one that no company can confidently say it has cracked. Meanwhile, The Verge reported earlier this month that the company was at risk of running out of money. On top of that, Boosted reportedly struggled to pay its vendors for the electric scooter.

“To Boosted's customers and community, we'd like to thank you for your passionate support and encouragement over the last nine years,” Ulmen and Russakow wrote. “It's been the thrill of our lives to spend time with you and help shape the future of mobility together. To the Boosted team, you made this company a special place, created multiple generations of incredibly innovative products, and created a compelling global brand; thank you so much for your hard work and dedication over the years.”

SF poised to pass Prop E, which could significantly reduce new supply of startup office space

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 03:11 PM PST

San Francisco is poised to pass a controversial proposition that would almost certainly limit further office space development in the city, perhaps pushing more tech companies and startups to set up their HQs elsewhere.

Prop E‘s passing, which seemed likely Wednesday afternoon following Tuesday’s election, ties office development approval to the city’s ability to meet affordable housing goals, something that the city and its developers haven’t proven themselves all that capable of doing in recent years. Amid skyrocketing rents and a homeless crisis, there’s been ample concerns that the structures in the city are being overstressed, low and moderate income residents are being pushed out and that the influx of tech startups is exacerbating the problem.

San Francisco had already been operating under voter-imposed annual limits for new office space via Prop M, a 1986 ballot measure that has limited annual office space allocations to 875,000 square feet of large office space (defined as a building with more than 50,000 square feet). Prop E ties this office space maximum to regionally determined affordable housing goals, ones aimed much higher than San Francisco has been able to hit in recent years.

In the past decade, SF has built an average of 712 affordable housing units per year, according to the chief economist’s report. In the past 20 years, San Francisco’s annual affordable housing production has popped above 1,000 units only once. The latest goals, set by a state program, pin annual affordable housing production at 2,042 units per year. With Prop E, if San Francisco fell short of that annual goal, only building one-third of those 2,042 units, they would also only be able to allocate one-third of its 875,000 large-space square footage to new large-space projects.

Scarcity in office space has been a consistent issue for startups in SF. Last year, Stripe, one of the world’s most highly valued startups, cemented plans to leave San Francisco, citing the scarcity of office space in the city as part of its decision to leave, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Mayor London Breed did not support Prop E, and the city’s own chief economist estimated Prop E would go on to cost the city tens of millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs per year, limiting the city’s GDP growth by tens of billions over the next 20 years. The report didn’t mince words: “By tying future office development to an affordable housing target that the city has never met, the proposed measure is likely to lead to high office rents, reduced tax revenue, reduced incomes and reduced employment across the city’s economy.”

Proponents of the measure have hopes that tying office space allocation to affordable housing production will push major developers in the city to encourage affordable housing rather than standing in its way. The proposition was supported by the bulk of SF’s Board of Supervisors, many of whom have notably taken efforts to limit affordable housing production in their own districts.

Prop E was sponsored by TodCo, an SF organization that owns nearly 1,000 affordable housing units in the SoMa neighborhood, an area that is often the center of the city’s office space development, affordable housing development and homelessness crisis. In an interview with SF Public Press, TodCo’s director of community engagement Jon Jacobo pushed back on the city’s report, saying, “It’s not a doomsday scenario, instead of 50 percent growth, we’re going to get maybe 38 percent growth.”

The vote to pass Prop E currently has the support of 55% of SF voters with 100 precincts reporting — though there are still a number of mail-in ballots to be counted, which could affect outcomes.

Investors move from coronavirus woes to Biden wins as markets rally on Super Tuesday results

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 02:05 PM PST

While the aftermath of Super Tuesday has left the Democratic Party riven between its more liberal and moderate wings, investors viewed last night’s results as a win for business and markets.

Shaking off the steady beat of bad news about the advance of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 within the U.S., major markets rose on Wednesday following the news of Joe Biden’s surge to the front of the Democratic Primary pack on Super Tuesday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up a whopping 1,173.45 or 4.5% to close at 27,090.86, while the Nasdaq was up 334 or 3.85% to close at 9018.09 and the S&P 500 was up 126.75 or 4.22% to 3130.12.

Biden’s moderate position contrasts with the more liberal policies endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders . Sanders’ positions on how to combat climate change and reshape the healthcare industry diverged sharply from the incrementalism that Joe Biden promoted, both as vice president and on the campaign trail this year.

It’s been a rocky road for the major stock indices, but over the past few days investors’ fears about the economic impact of the coronavirus seem to have stabilized as the U.S. government begins to take more decisive action.

Since hitting their troughs of the year on Friday, the Dow has risen 1,681.50 points, the Nasdaq is up 748.35 points and the S&P 500 is up 265.20 points — buoyed in part by today’s news.

Tech’s biggest companies, including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, all saw their stocks rise on a day that the market soared. Health insurance companies and pharmaceuticals were among the day’s big winners buoyed both by the Biden victory and new congressional cash coming from the U.S. government to finance the development of tests, treatments and potentially vaccines for the new coronavirus.

Despite earnings beat and upbeat forecast, Zoom shares fall after reporting Q4 results

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 01:59 PM PST

Today after the bell, Zoom reported its Q4 earnings. The company’s recorded revenue of $188.3 million and its adjusted per-share profit of $0.15 were ahead of expectations, including $176.55 million in revenue and earnings per share of $0.07, according to Yahoo Finance averages.

Down several points during a broad market rally, Zoom has been a hot company to track in recent months. Its profile was heightened due to its position as an incidental benefactor of the world’s grappling with the novel coronavirus — as more countries and companies stressed staying home and working remotely, respectively, Zoom’s video conferencing tool was expected to see rising usage and demand.

The company’s shares were down sharply after reporting its earnings.

What follows is a dive into Zoom’s Q4 earnings, its expectations for the coming period and what those figures may have to say about the infection and its impacts. We’ll wrap with notes from startups that are building remote-work friendly products, sharing what they are seeing on the ground regarding demand for their services during this bleakly fascinating period of history.

Q4 and the future

Sustainable microgrids are the future of clean energy

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 01:41 PM PST

Across the U.S., sustainable microgrids are emerging as a vital tool in the fight against climate change and increasingly common natural disasters. In the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, the traditional energy grid in many parts of the country is struggling to keep the power flowing, causing outages that slow local economies and ultimately put lives at risk.

Microgrids — power installations that are designed to run independently from the wider electricity grid in emergency situations — have been around for decades, but until the turn of the century, relied almost exclusively on fossil fuels to generate power. While it's taken another 20 years for solar panels and battery storage costs to fall far enough to make truly sustainable microgrids an economic reality, a recent surge in interest and installations have shown that they’ve reached an inflection point and could very well be the future of clean energy.

Take Santa Barbara, where the Unified School District voted unanimously in November to allocate over $500,000 to study and design microgrid installations for schools around the county. A preliminary assessment by the Clean Coalition identified more than 15 megawatts of solar generation potential across 18 school sites.

These solar-plus-battery-storage microgrids would greatly enhance the ability of chosen schools to serve communities during natural disasters or power outages, like the ones induced by California's PG&E electric utility that affected hundreds of thousands of residents last October. The sites will provide a place to coordinate essential emergency services, store perishable food and provide residents with light, power and connectivity in times of distress.

A completed feasibility study for the microgrid installations is expected in June, and while initial estimates put the final cost around $40 million, long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) will allow the school district to have the sites set up for free and paid for over time via its normal electric bill — at a cost no greater than grid power. Agreements like these have only become economically viable in the last few years as renewable energy generation costs have continued to fall, and are a major driver of the microgrid boom.

At the end of January, Scale Microgrid Solutions received a commitment for $300 million in funding from investment firm Warburg Pincus. Microgrids today are typically designed and installed to the unique specifications of individual customers. Scale Microgrid Solutions instead provides modular microgrid infrastructure built using shipping containers that combine solar and battery storage with control equipment and backup gas generation.

These modules enable faster deployment and provide a viable option for customers or institutions seeking microgrid capabilities in the $15 million price range. The first modular microgrids were launched in May 2019 with financing provided by Generate Capital, a financing firm focused on advanced, clean-energy technology investments.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, successive disasters are already proving the value of solar-plus-storage microgrids in Puerto Rico. In 2017, Hurricane Maria catastrophically damaged the centralized electricity grid in the U.S. territory and left many without power for more than a year.

A project funded by the Rocky Mountain Institute, Save the Children and Kinesis Foundation installed solar-plus-battery-storage microgrids at 10 schools in the mountainous central regions of the island, designed to provide energy for on-site libraries, kitchens and water pumps indefinitely during power outages. The installations were completed in December 2019, just weeks before a series of earthquakes that began in January endangered the island’s already sluggish economic recovery. The RMI Island Energy Program told Microgrid Knowledge that while grid power around several of the sites had gone down, the microgrids had continued to operate successfully and provide critical services.

Microgrids go beyond schools though. Several communities are also linking solar-and-storage systems mounted on their homes, employing inverters and controllers that have only become efficient and affordable in the last few years to create “community microgrids” that share power among the participants to supplement or replace grid energy.

In January, Australian startup Relectrify closed $4.5 million in Series A funding to continue refining their inverter and battery-management technology that increases battery lifespan by as much as 30% while reducing operational costs. Relectrify tech also allows large batteries from electric cars — including Tesla's wildly popular offerings — to be repurposed after they are no longer reliable enough for use in EVs, opening up an enormous pool of second-hand batteries to be repurposed for growing microgrid storage demand.

Programs like these are attractive not just because they offer resilience and independence from grid power often produced with fossil fuels, but because they are increasingly the cheaper option for energy consumers. Residential retail energy prices in Puerto Rico were as high as 27 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2019, while the calculated cost from home solar-plus-battery-storage systems fell as low as 24 cents in good conditions.

The cost of solar installations has plummeted 90% in the past decade according to the research firm Wood Mackenzie. At the same time, the early effects of a warming climate and associated natural disasters have started to take a toll on American energy infrastructure already struggling to keep pace with regular maintenance and demand growth. Impacted communities have already seen the value of microgrids and are racing to adopt them, even as many larger utility providers look to natural gas or other partial solutions that rely on the aging centralized power grid.

The greatest impact of these early sustainable microgrids may reach beyond the emergency power they provide to nearby residents. They offer a glimpse of a radically different way for communities and energy consumers to think about how power is produced and used. In community microgrid systems, residents have a concrete, practical connection to their source of energy and are asked to work together with their friends and neighbors to control their energy demand so there is enough to go around.

Such a system stands in stark contrast to the power grid of today, where peak demand facilities are routinely called upon to burn some of the most environmentally harmful fuels to accommodate demand with few if any social or technological limitations. Sustainable microgrids are finally becoming truly affordable, and in the process are beginning to change the way we think about energy consumption and resilience.

Oyo layoffs, Airbnb’s delayed IPO and the long-term quandary of investing in travel startups

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 01:13 PM PST

It's the best and worst of times for travel startups.

Massive growth over the past few decades has made tourism one of the big global industries, covering everything from recreation to business conferences to shopping sprees.

But doubts about the future of the industry are growing — and not just because of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The rise of remote work and the increasing stresses from tourism on urban and environmental systems portends tougher times ahead.

Given the spate of bad news the past few weeks swirling around global tourism startups, I wanted to go over where we are and what the future holds — and why that's going to be so challenging for startups in this space.

US Congress approves $8.3 billion in emergency funding for coronavirus response

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 01:03 PM PST

Congress on Wednesday approved $8.3 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spreading novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which has already sickened 80 people across 13 states and killed nine in the U.S. alone.

More than $3 billion of that funding will go to the research and development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics — and some of that financing will likely find its way into the coffers of startup companies working on technologies to combat the disease.

Another $2.2 billion will fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including $950 million to support state and local health agencies, according to a breakdown of the spending in Politico. About half of the $950 million will be distributed within the next 30 days to help states pay for test kits and services, with no state receiving less than $4 million.

The bill also includes a $300 million carveout to help ensure that all Americans can receive a coronavirus vaccine once it’s developed — regardless of their ability to pay.

Other agencies that are set to receive money as part of the spending bill include the National Institutes of Health, which will receive $836 million, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which will receive a $1.3 billion block of funding.

As part of the spending package, the Food and Drug Administration will receive $61 million to pay for vaccine testing and other efforts, including new spending to boost U.S. manufacturing of critical medical devices and pharmaceuticals whose supply chains are jeopardized by their reliance on components and materials made in China.

Remote care is also getting a boost under the spending plan. Telehealth services will receive a $500 million boost from Medicare spending so that elderly patients can avoid going to emergency facilities and risk potential exposure.

Daily Crunch: Coronavirus prompts more conference cancellations

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 12:25 PM PST

Google cancels its big developer conference, Justin Kan’s legal startup shuts down and Robinhood offers more details about a recent outage. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 4, 2020.

1. Google cancels its 2020 I/O developer conference

After Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference and Google itself moved its Cloud Next event in April to a digital-only conference, this wasn’t a huge surprise, but it provides another sign of how the COVID-19 coronavirus is clearing the 2020 industry calendar.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the steps that Facebook and his family's nonprofit, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are taking to respond to the pandemic. Facebook's response focuses on three areas: providing accurate information, stopping misinformation and providing data for research.

2. $75M legal startup Atrium shuts down, lays off 100

Justin Kan's hybrid legal software and law firm startup Atrium is shutting down today after failing to figure out how to deliver better efficiency than a traditional law firm. The startup has now laid off all its employees; it will return some of its $75.5 million in funding to investors, including Series B lead Andreessen Horowitz . The separate Atrium law firm will continue to operate.

3. Robinhood offers $15 discount, blames outage on record trades

It wasn't the leap year, a coding blip or a hack that caused Robinhood's massive outages earlier this week that left customers unable to trade stocks. Instead, the co-CEOs write that "the cause of the outage was stress on our infrastructure — which struggled with unprecedented load. That in turn led to a 'thundering herd' effect — triggering a failure of our DNS system."

4. India lifts ban on cryptocurrency trading

India's Supreme Court has overturned the central bank's two-year-old ban on cryptocurrency trading in the country in what many said was a "historic" verdict. The Reserve Bank of India had imposed a ban on cryptocurrency trading in April 2018 that barred banks and other financial institutions from facilitating "any service in relation to virtual currencies."

5. The future of gig work could involve unions and co-ops

Behind the scenes, an alternative approach to California’s AB 5 worker protection law has been picking up steam. Called the Cooperative Economy Act, the draft legislation is designed to accomplish much of what AB 5 aims to achieve, such as worker protections and benefits. But it also brings unions and co-ops into the mix. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. VSCO's new editing tool Montage lets you edit and layer both photos and video

VSCO already allowed users to apply photo-like edits to their videos by doing things like applying filters or adjusting the exposure. But Montage is an entirely different sort of video editing experience.

7. Uber sold its food delivery business in India to Zomato for $206M

In January, Uber announced that it had sold the India business of Uber Eats to Zomato for a 9.99% stake in the loss-making Indian food delivery startup. In a regulatory filing, the company has now disclosed that the deal was worth $206 million.

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.

Google Cloud announces four new regions as it expands its global footprint

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 12:18 PM PST

Google Cloud today announced its plans to open four new data center regions. These regions will be in Delhi (India), Doha (Qatar), Melbourne (Australia) and Toronto (Canada) and bring Google Cloud’s total footprint to 26 regions. The company previously announced that it would open regions in Jakarta, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seoul and Warsaw over the course of the next year. The announcement also comes only a few days after Google opened its Salt Lake City data center.

GCP already had a data center presence in India, Australia and Canada before this announcement, but with these newly announced regions, it now offers two geographically separate regions for in-country disaster recovery, for example.

Google notes that the region in Doha marks the company’s first strategic collaboration agreement to launch a region in the Middle East with the Qatar Free Zones Authority. One of the launch customers there is Bespin Global, a major managed services provider in Asia.

"We work with some of the largest Korean enterprises, helping to drive their digital transformation initiatives. One of the key requirements that we have is that we need to deliver the same quality of service to all of our customers around the globe," said John Lee, CEO, Bespin Global. "Google Cloud's continuous investments in expanding their own infrastructure to areas like the Middle East make it possible for us to meet our customers where they are."

Ford is building an all-electric Transit cargo van for the US market

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 11:55 AM PST

Ford said it will produce and sell an all-electric version of its popular Ford Transit cargo van for the North American market starting with the 2022 model year as part of the automaker’s broader bet on electrification.

The all-electric Transit, which will be assembled in the U.S., is part of Ford’s more than $11.5 billion investment in electrification through 2022. Ford’s EV plan includes an all-electric Transit for the European market that it announced in April 2019, the Mustang Mach-E SUV and an electric F-150 truck.

Ford’s decision to include commercial vans in its EV strategy is linked to sales in the U.S. and the company’s outlook on future growth. The company’s U.S. truck and van fleet sales have grown 33% since 2015. Ford said it expects continued growth of van sales in the U.S. as e-commerce and “last-mile” delivery increase.

Ford said it expects electric vehicles to grow to 8% of the industry in 2025 in the United States.

“Commercial vehicles are a critical component to our big bet on electrification,” Ford chief operating officer Jim Farley said in a statement. “As leaders in this space, we are accelerating our plans to create solutions that help businesses run better, starting with our all-electric Transit and F-150. This Ford Transit isn’t just about creating an electric drivetrain, it’s about designing and developing a digital product that propels fleets forward.”

Ford will focus on tech features like in-vehicle internet and driver assistance.

“The world is heading toward electrified products and fleet customers are asking for them now,” Farley said. “We know their vehicles operate as a connected mobile business and their technology needs are different than retail customers. So Ford is thinking deeply on connectivity relationships that integrate with our in-vehicle high-speed electrical architectures and cloud-based data services to provide these businesses smart vehicles beyond just the electric powertrains.”

These built-in “smart” features could help customers optimize fleet efficiency and reduce waste or improve driver behavior, according to Ford, an indication that fleets will be able to access data collected through Ford’s telematics system using an embedded FordPass Connect modem featuring a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot with connectivity for up to 10 devices. Ford said managers can use Ford’s data tools like live map GPS tracking, geofencing and vehicle diagnostics to see key performance indicators at a glance for vehicle and driver.

J.Crew says a hacker accessed some customer accounts

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 11:48 AM PST

Clothing giant J.Crew said an unknown number of customers had their online accounts accessed “by an unauthorized party” almost a year ago, but is only now disclosing the incident.

The company said in a filing on Tuesday with the California attorney general that the hacker gained access to the customer accounts in or around April 2019.

According to the letter, the hacker obtained information found in customers’ online accounts — including card types, the last four digits of card payment numbers, expiration dates and associated billing addresses. Online accounts also store customer order numbers, shipping confirmation numbers and shipment statuses.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed the hacker used a technique known as credential stuffing, where existing sets of exposed or breached usernames and passwords are matched against different websites to access accounts.

The spokesperson said a “small number” of customers were affected but did not say specifically how many.

Companies operating in the state are mandated to warn the state’s attorney general’s office of security incidents involving more than 500 California residents. The letter to the attorney general’s office said it’s a “multi-state” notification, indicating that customers in other states are also affected.

A bigger, unanswered question is why it took J.Crew took almost a year to detect and disclose the incident to regulators and customers.

The spokesperson said “routine web scanning” detected the improper access and that customers were “promptly notified.” It’s not known when the scanning took place or why the account breaches weren’t detected sooner. Under the laws of both California and New York — where J.Crew is headquartered — there’s no specific time period under which a company must disclose a breach, only that customers are notified in “the most expedient time possible and without unreasonable delay.”

J.Crew becomes the latest in a string of companies disclosing security incidents as a result of credential stuffing. Amazon-owned doorbell maker Ring, Chipotle, Spotify and game streaming service Twitch have all seen customers complain of account breaches in the past year.

Messenger hits the Mac App Store in several markets

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 11:36 AM PST

At Facebook’s 2019 F8 developer conference, the company announced plans to introduce desktop apps for its popular communications app Messenger. Now, less than a year later, the Messenger Mac App is beginning to roll out. Though not yet available in the U.S., Messenger for Mac has popped up in the Mac App Store in several non-U.S. markets.

We asked Facebook to confirm whether this signals a broader rollout that will include the U.S.

A company spokesperson responded that this is not yet a full launch.

“We're conducting a small test of the Messenger app for macOS in a couple of markets,” the spokesperson said. “We don't have a date when it will be available as we're still gathering feedback from our users,” they added.

9to5Mac and iPhone Hacks first spotted the app’s launch, referencing a post published to a French tech news site called MacGeneration. However, you can visit the French Mac App Store URL directly to confirm.

We’ve also seen Messenger arrive in a few other international markets, including Mexico, Poland and Australia, for example. (There may be more as well — we haven’t yet clicked through links on every global Mac App Store to confirm them one by one.)

The desktop version of Messenger offers a similar feature set to the mobile client, including support for voice and video chat, in addition to texting. Group chats, calls and video chats are available too. And like the mobile app, users can share files, react with emojis and enable a dark theme to cut down on glare.

The app is built using Electron, not Catalyst. While Electron is a popular way of building apps for the desktop from a web app, but not the most secure by any means.

The app’s arrival comes only days after Facebook introduced its slimmed down and faster Messenger app for iOS. The new mobile app does away with the Discover section to simplify the app’s interface and reorients the Messenger experience around people and Stories, not businesses and apps.

Facebook recently announced it has canceled this year’s F8 conference due to the coronavirus outbreak. That could mean we’ll see more news and launches from Facebook that it would have otherwise waited to reveal.

Quibi closes on $750 million as its date with destiny approaches

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 11:14 AM PST

With just over one month to go until its official launch date, the short-form, subscription streaming service Quibi has closed on $750 million in new financing, according to a report in the company’s private PR firm The Wall Street Journal.

The company declined to disclose exactly who invested in the new round (which is always a great sign) and didn’t comment on how the new investment would effect the company’s valuation.

Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman told the Journal that the new financing was made to ensure that the company would have the financial flexibility and runway to build a long-term business, but it’s likely that companies as diverse as Brandless and WeWork said the same thing about their goals when raising capital, as well.

According to the story in the WSJ, the company’s new investment contains both existing investors, like the Alibaba Group and Hollywood Studios, along with WndrCo, the investment firm and holding company launched by Quibi’s co-founder and Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.

To date, Quibi has raised $1.75 billion.

While the company touts its original approach to storytelling, and its list of marquee talent developing series for the app, the emphasis on short-form has been tried before by other companies (notably TechCrunch’s own parent company)… and the results were less than promising.

The idea that people need to consume short-form stories instead of … maybe just hitting the pause button… is interesting as an experiment to see what kinds of narratives or reality show-style entertainment needs to live behind a paywall rather than on YouTube or TikTok.

Perhaps Quibi will win with its slate of reality and narrative shows (which, to be honest, look pretty fun). The big names that Katzenberg and co-founder Meg Whitman promised are certainly on offer in the roster that is helpfully synopsized in a recent Entertainment Weekly article about the company’s programming.

Quibi, unlike some of the streaming services that it’s going to compete with, doesn’t have a back catalog of titles to tap to pad out the service, so it’s coming to market with a whopping 175 shows in its first year with 8,500 episodes, which run no longer than 10 minutes.

When it launches, there will be 50 shows on offer from the service. A lot depends on the reception of those shows. While many of the titles seem compelling, there are only a couple that seem to have the appeal to break through to the audience that Quibi hopes it can reach, and that will be willing to shell out money for its subscriptions.

The service is also hoping to differentiate itself by dropping new episodes daily — rather than weekly releases common on network television or the season-long binges that Netflix encourages.

The app itself seems to be fairly undifferentiated from the services available from other streamers. As we wrote when the company launched pre-orders for its app in February:

Much has been made about Quibi's potential to reimagine TV by taking advantage of mobile technology in new ways, but the app itself looks much like any other streaming service, save for its last app store screenshot showing off its TurnStyle technology.

The app appears to favor a dark theme common to streaming apps, like Netflix and Prime Video, with just four main navigation buttons at the bottom.

The first is a personalized For You page, where you're presented a feed where you'll discover new things Quibi thinks you'll like.

A Search tab will point you toward trending shows and it will allow you to search by show titles, genre or even mood.

The Following tab helps you keep track of your favorite shows and a Downloads tab keeps track of those you've made available for offline viewing.

Otherwise, Quibi's interface is fairly simple. Shows are displayed with big images that you flip through either vertically on your home feed or both horizontally and vertically as you move through the Browse section.

The company does promote its TurnStyle viewing technology in its app store description, though it doesn't reference the technology by name. Instead, it describes it as a viewing experience that puts you in full control. "No matter how you hold your phone, everything is framed to fit your screen," it says.

In vertical viewing mode, it also introduces controls that appear on either the left or right side the screen — you choose, based on whether you're left or right-handed.

Quibi did not formally announce the app was open for pre-order.

The startup, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, is backed by more than a billion dollars — including a recently closed $400 million round.

Despite the doubt surrounding its success, Quibi managed to sell out of the initial $150 million in available advertising for the service’s first year.

Whether it’s as big of a hit with potential subscribers as with advertisers remains to be seen. The service could still become the Mike Bloomberg campaign of streaming media — a lot of money and no discernible result.

India restores social media access in Kashmir for 2 weeks

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 10:45 AM PST

For the first time in eight months, people in Kashmir can use WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media services without any fear or use of specialized software — though things are not back to normal yet.

India said on Wednesday that it has temporarily lifted the ban on social media services and on the much broader internet, giving some relief to people and tens of thousands of businesses in the Himalayan region for two weeks.

New Delhi imposed a total communications blackout in the India-controlled territory in early August last year after withdrawing the special rights of Jammu and Kashmir. The government said the move was necessary to maintain peace in the region.

The move, which eventually became the biggest internet shutdown and crackdown of social media in any democracy, received wide criticism from human rights activists around the globe, as well as from lawmakers in the U.K. and the U.S.

The region, home to more than 7 million people, faced many challenges without access to the internet. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that at least 150,000 jobs were lost.

India's top court ruled in January that the Narendra Modi -controlled government's move to enforce an “indefinite” communications blackout amounted to abuse of power, and sought an explanation.

In the wake of the order, India opened access to about 300 websites, which did not include social media services, and capped mobile data speeds at 2G level. One analysis had found that more than a third of the whitelisted websites were largely inaccessible.

To bypass the censorship, some users began to use VPN apps on their smartphone, an act that local authority quickly deemed “unlawful” and moved to open cases against hundreds of citizens.

On Wednesday evening (local time), several people in Kashmir confirmed that they were able to access WhatsApp and other social media services again — though there remains restriction on their mobile data speed.

According to a notice issued by the region’s home secretary, the restoration of the internet will remain in effect till March 17.

Lunchr becomes Swile to expand beyond corporate lunch cards

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 10:07 AM PST

Lunchr has rebranded to Swile in order to expand its product offering beyond meal vouchers. The company wants to focus on everything that happens at work but that isn't technically work — money pots for a birthday, paying back your co-workers, creating team-building events and more.

At heart, Swile provides a payment card for your lunch. French companies of a certain size have to support employees in one way or another when it comes to their lunch break. Big companies usually build out a cafeteria, while small companies hand out meal vouchers.

Companies can sign up to Swile so their employees all get a payment card for their meal vouchers. The company tops up everyone's card every month. Just like challenger banks, Swile wants to provide a better user experience. For instance, you can associate a debit card with your account so that your debit card is used if you pay for an expensive lunch above your daily limit.

Currently 200,000 employees across 7,500 companies use a Swile card to pay for lunch.

But paying for lunch is just one of the financial transaction types that you do at work. And Swile wants to capture a bigger chunk of that market.

It starts with two simple features. First, you can pay back your co-workers when they lend you some money. It isn’t limited to lunch money; you can basically associate a debit card with your account, send money and hold money.

Old habits die hard, so it’s going to be hard to convince people to switch from Lydia to Swile. People already use Lydia to send money to their friends, and the company has managed to attract millions of users in France.

Second, many companies need to collect money from the team. It could be for a gift when somebody is leaving the company, it could be in order to buy beers or grab a drink after work on a Friday evening.

Employees can create money pots and invite the team. Given that everybody in your company has already created a Swile account, you don’t need to manually add your co-workers to the app — you just have to find their name in the directory. Swile doesn’t charge any fee on those money pots when you transfer the money to a Swile account or a bank account.

In addition to payment, Swile wants to help you connect more easily with your team. You can create and join events in the app. It could be useful for a birthday party at work, a soccer match, etc.

In the future, Swile also wants to add the ability to message your friends directly in the app — at some point, all apps become messaging apps. Also coming soon, Swile will help you bookmark places and share with your co-workers a map of your favorite places around the office.

Starting in June, even if your company doesn’t use Swile's meal vouchers, you’ll be able to create an account for your team in order to use events, money pots, etc. Basic features will be free and Swile will introduce a premium tier later this year.

Lerer Hippeau’s Ben Lerer shares his priorities for scouring seed deals

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 09:52 AM PST

Enterprise software startups are changing how they infiltrate companies, and investors are taking note.

Last week, I chatted with Lerer Hippeau‘s Ben Lerer after his firm had just led a seed round in Air, a digital asset management platform. I used the opportunity to pick his brain about what he’s searching for in early-stage investments and which trends he believes are shaking up enterprise software.

Below is a chunk of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: What kinds of things are you looking at recently? Anything notable?

Ben Lerer: The market is always shifting, but 40,000 feet up, nothing has changed in that we’re always just focused on investing in people. But, beyond people, there’s certainly been various areas of opportunity that over the years we have had different kinds of focus on. One that I’ve been most focused on traditionally has been a category that would’ve been called direct-to-consumer brands. Now you would probably just call it “future of consumer” or “future of retail.” Now, I think direct-to-consumer is not the entire pie but just a piece of the pie. So generally my focus is doing consumer deals and then sometimes I focus on deals that are not necessarily consumer, but they’re SaaS businesses, often SaaS businesses that my consumer companies are current or potential customers of.

GM reveals ‘Ultium,’ the heart of its EV strategy

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 09:30 AM PST

GM revealed Wednesday a new electric architecture that will be the foundation of the automaker’s future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover that will come to market next summer.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly-announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced or revealed in public on Wednesday, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq .

The Celestiq will be hand-built in the Detroit area, GM President Mark Reuss said, joining a large electric SUV in Cadillac’s future lineup. A pair of future Buick crossovers showed that brand’s styling moving in decidedly Tesla -inspired direction, while a mid-sized Chevrolet crossover hinted at a more affordable option in GM’s otherwise premium-focused future EV lineup.

Using a single architecture for such a wide variety of vehicles provides much-needed scale and capital-efficiency to what has been a small-volume and profitability-challenged EV market. GM sees this scale driving reductions in the cost and complexity of its battery packs, eliminating 80% of the pack wiring compared to the current Chevrolet Bolt and enabling it to drive battery cell costs below the $100/kWh level.

At the heart of the new modular architecture, will be large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint manufacturing venture between LG Chem and GM. The companies announced in December plans to mass produce battery cells for GM’s electric vehicles at a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

While the automaker has used LG Chem as a lithium-ion and electronics supplier for at least a decade, the joint venture marks a shift that aims to accelerate the automaker’s ability to win in the electric vehicle space.

GM’s relationship with LG Chem has produced a new Nickel Cobalt Manganese Aluminium (NCMA) battery cell, which the automaker says will have the lowest cobalt content of any large-format pouch cell. The flat, rectangular pouch cells allow GM to stack batteries vertically, enabling more packaging flexibility and interior space than the cylindrical cells favored by Tesla, Rivian and others.

GM and LG Chem will break ground on the new $2.3 billion joint venture plant this spring, where they will have annual production capacity of 30 gigawatt hours of these cells with room to expand. The two firms said they will work together to eventually drive all cobalt and nickel out of its cell chemistries, develop electrolyte additives that heal cell degradation and explore solid-state cell options.

The initial wave of electric vehicles from GM will be led by an updated version of the Chevrolet Bolt later this year, followed by a Bolt EUV crossover next summer that will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature the hands-free SuperCruise driver assistance system. GM will reveal two new premium electric SUVs later this year, the GMC HUMMER EV that will begin production in 2021 and the Cadillac Lyriq which will follow it to market in 2022.

GM’s new EV architecture enables Level 2 and DC fast charging, with up to 100 miles of range available in the first 10 minutes of charging. But rather than launching its own in-house fast-charging network, GM is aggregating public charger networks like Chargepoint and EVgo into its myChevrolet mobile app and enabling in-app payment at EVgo chargers. GM is also partnering with Qmerit to provide accredited home charger installation because 80% of EV customers charge at home, the company said.

Google Assistant on Android can now read entire web pages to you

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 09:08 AM PST

Just a few weeks back at CES, Google gave a sneak peek of a feature that would let your Android devices read entire web pages aloud to you — perfect for when you don’t have a hand free to scroll but still need to catch up on some text, or for when you just don’t feel like looking at your screen anymore. You'd say, "Hey Google, read this page," and they'd spin up Google Assistant’s neural networks to generate a pretty dang spot-on reading of it.

Today that feature starts rolling out to all Android users.

A few interesting bits:

  • It’ll highlight the text and auto scroll the page as it reads, helping you to keep track of where the reading has gotten in a story. Google had mentioned this feature as a possibility before, but they weren’t certain it would be ready for launch. It’s in!
  • You can tweak the read speed if the defaults are too slow/fast for you. Perfect for those people who listen to podcasts at 3x or whatever.
  • It can translate! If the page you’re asking assistant to read is in a language that isn’t your default, it can automatically translate more than 40 languages into your language of choice.
  • If you’re a webmaster and for some reason don’t want Assistant ever reading a page out loud (like if it contains sensitive information and you don’t want the feature somehow being triggered accidentally), they’ve built a “No page read aloud” HTML meta tag that will disable it on a page-by-page basis.

Google says this feature should work on just about every modern Android phone going back to Android 5 (Lollipop).

Following Disney+’s successful launch, AT&T positions HBO Max as family-friendly

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 09:05 AM PST

AT&T’s upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, is still on track for a May 2020 launch, said president and CEO John Stankey, speaking today at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, where he provided an update to shareholders. Though the HBO brand tends to be associated with adult fare, like “Game of Thrones,” Stankey positioned the new offering as more family-friendly by saying there would be content for children, tweens and parents alike.

HBO has tried in the past to market itself to families. In 2015, it announced a deal with Sesame Workshop to stream the next five seasons of the popular preschooler show “Sesame Street” on its network. It later rolled out a “Kids” section on its app to feature Sesame Workshop shows and other kid-friendly titles. And this past fall, HBO Max and Sesame Workshop expanded their partnership with a new deal that brings four more shows and five more seasons of “Sesame Street,” plus annual specials and its 50-year library to HBO’s new streaming service.

Despite these agreements, HBO isn’t a brand people think of when they want family entertainment. But in the wake of the successful launch of Disney+, the company knows there’s massive potential in catering not only to the adults paying the bills, but to the whole household.

“It’s going to be a content offer[ing] that will have something for everybody in the household. They’re going to look at it and say, I see myself there,” said Stankey, speaking at the event. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a child in the household, a tween in the household, a mother, a father. You’re going to see something in that offering that wants you to say, I resonate with that and that’s relevant.”

He also noted that a beta version of HBO Max has been in testing with a controlled group. The second beta version was just released with new features, including customer profiles and content downloads.

Today, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+ let customers set up profiles for all the users in their household. But while HBO NOW added parental controls and a kids lock feature for mobile, it hasn’t allowed customers to personalize their experience with individual profiles and watchlists. HBO MAX will need this feature if it truly wants to cater to families with children.

The company believes it will have a solid user base for the new service when it launches in May, thanks to its existing customers. HBO NOW customers will be immediately upgraded to HBO MAX if they subscribe through, for example. Meanwhile, the 10 million AT&T customers who already subscribe to HBO by way of DirecTV, AT&T TV or U-Verse TV will get the service free.

In addition, Stankey said it will be distributed through AT&T channels, including AT&T wireless bundles, and via existing HBO partners, like MVPDs (cable or satellite providers). HBO Max also recently announced a deal with its first vMVPD (virtual multichannel video programming distributor), YouTube TV. Similar deals are in the works, as well, Stankey hinted. But he didn’t offer names.

WarnerMedia already revealed most of these details, as well as the HBO Max pricing — $14.99/mo — and much of its content slate. The latter consists of 10,000 hours of content at launch, including the HBO library, Warner Bros. film library and 31 Max Originals series. The service will also be the new streaming home for the 90s classic "Friends," as well as "The Big Bang Theory," for which it paid over $1 billion.

Twitter starts testing its own version of Stories, called ‘Fleets,’ which disappear after 24 hours

Posted: 04 Mar 2020 08:59 AM PST

Twitter is testing its own version of Stories. The company announced today it will begin to trial a new sharing format called “Fleets,” starting in Brazil, which will let users post ephemeral content to its social network for the first time. Unlike Tweets, Twitter’s new Fleets can’t receive Likes, Replies or Retweets. And they’ll disappear entirely after 24 hours.

Fleets aren’t non-public, to be clear; they’re just a little less accessible. You could visit someone’s public Twitter profile and tap to view their Fleets even if you don’t follow them. But their Fleet won’t circulate Twitter’s network, show up in Search or Moments, and it can’t be embedded on an external website.

Twitter is one of the last major social platforms to test out a Stories format. First popularized by Snapchat, you can now find a version of Stories across Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and others. Spotify also recently announced a test of a Stories-like feature and even Microsoft’s Skype gave it a go at one time, as did Match and Bumble.

In Twitter’s case, Fleets are meant to address one of the primary reasons why users don’t tweet: they feel uncomfortable with Twitter’s public nature. On this front, Twitter said at CES in January it would soon test new controls for determining the audience for your Tweets — like public, followers only, and so on. But those tests haven’t yet begun, we understand.

Fleets, meanwhile, represent a simpler and more familiar solution.

In Brazil, testers will see rounded profile icons right at the top of their Timeline on Twitter’s mobile app. This will be immediately recognizable as a Stories feature. The first icon is actually a little thought bubble displaying your own profile photo. Users will simply click on the “+” button to compose their Fleet.

The composer interface is more bare-bones than what you’d find on rival social networking sites. Twitter says that’s to reflect its product’s text-centric nature. However, users are able to add photos, GIFs and videos to a Fleet, even if fancy editing tools are not available.

At launch, consumers will be able to post videos up to 2 minutes and 20 seconds in length (or 512MB). Whitelisted publishers will be able to publish videos up to 10 minutes in length.

Users can also post multiple Fleets, which viewers will move through using gestures.

This is where Twitter’s version of Stories is a little different and potentially cumbersome. To view the multiple Fleets a user has posted, you swipe down instead of advancing through the Fleets horizontally with taps on the sides of the screen. Meanwhile, to move to the next person’s Fleet, you swipe to the left.

But these gestures could change based on user feedback, Twitter says.

Though Fleets don’t move through Twitter’s network the way that Tweets can, viewers can interact with them, in a way. If the poster allows DMs (direct messages), you can reply to the Fleet privately. You’ll also be able to react to a Fleet with an emoji, similar to how Stories work on other social apps.

One of Twitter’s bigger challenges with its take on Stories is figuring out which Fleets will be displayed first on your home screen. On networks like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, users typically follow their friends and a varying range of public figures and brands. But on Twitter, it’s fairly common to find users who follow hundreds and even thousands of other users.

To make a Stories feature compelling on Twitter, the lineup of Fleets will have to be highly personalized to the end user, perhaps by allowing users to designate their “close friends” at some point. (Twitter won’t have any such option at Fleets’ launch, however.)

For now, Twitter says it determines which Fleets to display first based on recency and mutual follows.

Twitter’s test arrives shortly after activist investor Elliott Management Corp. took a stake in Twitter to push for changes at the social network. The investment firm believes Twitter isn’t living up to its potential and its CEO Jack Dorsey — who the firm wants replaced — is distracted by his side projects and by his other CEO job at Square. Twitter is also seen as having lagged behind on innovations. While other social networks have adopted popular features like Stories, Twitter has remained focused only on its core product.

The company says it will use the Brazil test to better understand if Fleets help users become more comfortable sharing on Twitter, a perennial problem for the post-in-public social network. (Last year, Twitter even invented a new metric — mDAUs, or Monetizable Daily Active Users — in order to make its user numbers look more attractive to Wall Street investors, who have been disappointed with Twitter’s slow user growth.)

The public nature of Tweets isn’t Twitter’s real problem, of course. Its that Twitter has allowed online abuse over the years to run rampant on the platform. Twitter today feels like a minefield, not a safe space to share your thoughts.

In addition, Twitter has become associated with a form of aggressive wokeness dubbed “call-out culture” or “cancel culture.” This can sometimes involve adversaries digging through a user’s older tweets in order to hold them accountable for offensive remarks or inappropriate behavior they posted online years ago. Whether warranted or not, cancel culture’s mere existence has made users more hesitant to Tweet and more likely to use a third-party app or service to auto-delete their Tweets if they do.

Of course, users’ hesitancy to post is bad for Twitter’s growth and bad for advertisers, who need a steady stream of user-generated content into which they can insert their marketing messages.

Twitter says Fleets will begin to roll out starting today to Brazilian users on both iOS and Android, following the app’s update. The test will run for a few months before Twitter decides to roll out it out to other global markets.

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