posted about 15 hours ago on techcrunch
The Justice Department have indicted dozens of individuals accused of their involvement in a massive business email scam and money laundering scheme. Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Central District of California, confirmed more than a dozen individuals had been arrested during raids on Thursday — mostly in the Los Angeles area. A total of 80 defendants are allegedly involved in the scheme. News of the early-morning raids were first reported by ABC7 in Los Angeles. The 145-page indictment, unsealed Thursday, said the 80 named individuals are charged with conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud, as well as aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Most of the individuals alleged to be involved in the scheme are based in Nigeria, said the spokesperson. But it’s not immediately known if the Nigerian nationals will be extradited to the U.S., however a treaty exists between the two nations making extraditions possible. U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna said the case was part of an ongoing effort to protect citizens and businesses from email scams. “Today, we have taken a major step to disrupt criminal networks that use [business email scam] schemes, romance scams and other frauds to fleece victims,” he said. “This indictment sends a message that we will identify perpetrators — no matter where they reside — and we will cut off the flow of ill-gotten gains.” These business email compromise scams rely partly on deception and in some cases hacking. Scammers send specially crafted spearphishing emails to their targets in order to trick them into turning over sensitive information about the company, such as sending employee W-2 tax documents so scammers can generate fraudulent refunds, or tricking an employee into making wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by the scammers. More often than not, the scammers use spoofing techniques to impersonate a senior executive over email to trick the unsuspecting victim, or hack into the email account of the person they are impersonating. The FBI says these impersonation attacks have cost consumers and businesses more than $3 billion since 2015. Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerian nationals and residents of California, are accused of running the operation, said prosecutors. The alleged fraudsters are accused of carrying out several hundred “overt” acts of fraud against over a dozen victims, generating millions of dollars worth of fraud over several months. In some cases the fraudsters would hack into the email accounts of the person they were trying to impersonate to try to trick a victim into wiring money from a business into the fraudster’s bank account. Iro and Igbokwe were “essentially brokers” of fraudulent bank accounts, prosecutors allege, by fielding requests for bank account information and laundering the money obtained from victims. The two lead defendants are accused of taking a cut of the stolen money. They then allegedly used illicit money exchanges to launder the money. Several bank accounts run by the fraudsters contained over $40 million in stolen funds. The FBI said the agency has seem a large increase in the number of business email scams in the past year targeting small and large businesses, as well as non-profits. We found a massive spam operation — and sunk its server

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I liked the Lenovo Smart Clock when I reviewed it back in June. It’s a pretty minimalist take on the smart screen designed for the very specific purpose of living next to your bed. The streamlined features are very much by design — rather than the kitchen sink approach, the clock is built around a relatively limited number of Assistant functions, coupled with tailored alarm functionality. Today, Google’s bringing a handful of new features, attempting to walk that line by adding functions without making the bedside product overly distracting. The addition of Google Photos is a no brainer, using the app to double as a small screen digital picture frame while it sits idle. Hey look, a Yorkie. Lenovo Smart Clock review Google’s also bringing one of the best smart screen features to the small display, with the ability to view video from smart cameras. Not a bed feature to have next to your bed. Interesting, while the product is clearly capable of displaying video, Google still isn’t making YouTube available here, for the aforementioned reason of “limiting distractions.” It’s a nice sentiment, but YouTube’s always been Google’s biggest and best weapon in smart screen wars. The company really pulled the rug out from under Amazon by blocking access to the service on Echo devices. Google says it may revisit the feature later, however, depending on user feedback. Also new here is Continued Conversation, which keeps Assistant active for longer, in order to create a more “natural back-and-forth conversation” with the AI. The idea is to lesse the number of times the user has to use the wake word to interact with Assistant. Those features are starting to roll out this week. The Smart Clock will also be available in additional countries including India soon.

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Security is everything — more so than ever in startup land. But with the constant pressures to launch and scale, how do you build a secure startup from the ground up without slowing growth? Whether you’re starting out small or you’re a multinational unicorn, your customers and their data will be your greatest asset. We’re excited to announce three cybersecurity industry experts who know better than anyone how to keep their organizations safe from phishing emails to nation-state attackers — and everything in between. We’ll be joined by Google’s Heather Adkins, IOActive’s Jennifer Sunshine Steffens, and Duo’s Dug Song, who will discuss those startup security questions at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. Adkins, a 16-year Google veteran, runs Google’s information security shop. As an early employee, Adkins built a global team responsible for maintaining the safety and security of Google’s networks, systems and applications as the company has ballooned in size. Her extensive background in network and systems administration has led her to work to build and secure some of the world’s largest infrastructure. Steffens, who has spent over a decade at penetration testing and ethical hacking company IOActive, knows all too well how to build a security company. Her team go into enterprises large and small and find the weak spots in their security in an effort to fix the flaws before bad actors exploit them. Having worked during the early stages at several successful startups, Steffens brings a world of corporate and security knowledge to the table. And, Song, who co-founded security giant Duo, led one of the most successful exits in Silicon Valley security startup history following the company’s $2.35 billion acquisition by Cisco last year. Song is a leading voice in the security community with broad experience in developing security solutions for the enterprises. How do these cybersecurity leaders keep ahead of the bad guys — and the insider threats? Join us on the Extra Crunch stage to find out. Tickets to the show, which runs October 2 to October 4, are available here. Did you know Extra Crunch annual members get 20% off all TechCrunch event tickets? Head over here to get your annual pass, and then email [email protected] to get your 20% off discount. Please note that it can take up to 24 hours to issue the discount code. ( function() { var func = function() { var iframe = document.getElementById('wpcom-iframe-661cf9b1b8f85f5aae09b8946cafadba') if ( iframe ) { iframe.onload = function() { iframe.contentWindow.postMessage( { 'msg_type': 'poll_size', 'frame_id': 'wpcom-iframe-661cf9b1b8f85f5aae09b8946cafadba' }, "https:\/\/tcprotectedembed.com" ); } } // Autosize iframe var funcSizeResponse = function( e ) { var origin = document.createElement( 'a' ); origin.href = e.origin; // Verify message origin if ( 'tcprotectedembed.com' !== origin.host ) return; // Verify message is in a format we expect if ( 'object' !== typeof e.data || undefined === e.data.msg_type ) return; switch ( e.data.msg_type ) { case 'poll_size:response': var iframe = document.getElementById( e.data._request.frame_id ); if ( iframe && '' === iframe.width ) iframe.width = '100%'; if ( iframe && '' === iframe.height ) iframe.height = parseInt( e.data.height ); return; default: return; } } if ( 'function' === typeof window.addEventListener ) { window.addEventListener( 'message', funcSizeResponse, false ); } else if ( 'function' === typeof window.attachEvent ) { window.attachEvent( 'onmessage', funcSizeResponse ); } } if (document.readyState === 'complete') { func.apply(); /* compat for infinite scroll */ } else if ( document.addEventListener ) { document.addEventListener( 'DOMContentLoaded', func, false ); } else if ( document.attachEvent ) { document.attachEvent( 'onreadystatechange', func ); } } )();

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When Mike Fitzsimmons went out to raise his seed round, he negotiated with all the usual suspects. The second-time founder needed a few million to get his cloud SaaS hiring tool, Crosschq, off the ground. And as a repeat CEO, he had options. It was Slack and Airbnb investor Glenn Solomon of GGV Capital, a multi-stage firm with billions under management, that ultimately led the $4.1 million seed round announced earlier this month. Another mega-fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, also participated: “I did take a handful of meetings with pure seed funds and my conclusion was that there was more value in getting in bed with some, frankly, more established funds with more established track records and partners that could add real value,” Fitzsimmons tells TechCrunch. Increasingly, the largest venture capital funds are leading seed deals in fledgling upstarts, offering larger checks, limited dilution and the opportunity to stamp a legacy brand name on a months-old project. The institutional players are raising specialty funds to execute these deals. GGV, for example, raised an $80 million “Discovery Fund” last year, its second of the sort. Sequoia Capital operates a scout program in which its portfolio founders hunt for early-stage talent and invest out of a $180 million fund. Kleiner Perkins re-entered the early-stage market with a whopping $600 million effort announced in January. General Catalyst recently “re-committed” to seed with a new seed-stage program. Even Coatue Management, a hedge fund turned VC, has a newly formed $700 million fund dedicated to early bets. Seed funds beware — today’s fight for equity in Bay Area startups requires muscle and a whole lot of cash. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images). The new normal Nine U.S. venture funds larger than $500 million closed in the first half of 2019, according to PitchBook, with a total of $20.6 billion in new capital introduced to the startup market in that time frame across 103 funds. The capital flood has caused deal sizes and pre-money valuations at all stages to swell. Seed deals today resemble Series A financings of yesterday as deep-pocketed investors are more willing to dole out larger sums of cash at valuations far above the norm. “There is no way to compete with Bill Gurley if Bill Gurley puts down a $5 million term sheet,” Haystack founder and general partner Semil Shah tells TechCrunch, referring to Benchmark’s esteemed general partner. Haystack is currently investing out of a $50 million seed fund, with a portfolio that includes DoorDash, Envoy and Instacart. “The seed funds that need to be on guard and thinking about their strategy are the ones that in their model, need to own 10 to 20% of a company in the Bay Area. They have to adjust where they shop for these types of deals.” Larger funds typically bypass the seed rounds and write sizeable checks to more mature businesses, meaty enough to warrant big returns. As a large fund, a small check won’t move the needle in terms of fund economics, but getting an early piece of the next Slack or Uber makes the small deals worth it. In today’s competitive environment, in which every firm in town campaigns for access to the hottest Series A, seed deals are critical to success. Many of the large funds striking seed deals today have roots in the stage. Recent activity simply represents a push from the big dogs to reclaim territory in one the most valuable stages of equity financing. General Catalyst, which employs a “stage-agnostic” strategy, closed on $1.4 billion for its ninth fund last year. Its funds, for the past decade, have grown subsequently larger. Earlier this year, however, the firm announced a new program and a $25 million pool of capital to double down on the seed level. The program is part of an effort to “recommit” to the seed, explained General Catalyst investors Katherine Boyle and Peter Boyce. “We wanted to tell founders we have a clear process and the ability to move very fast,” Boyle tells TechCrunch. Though General Catalyst collaborates with institutional seed and pre-seed funds in many instances, the team recognizes the benefit of forming alliances with larger funds early on: “You get long-term capital access, which is especially important for companies that may have capital intensity or capital as a moat,” Boyce tells TechCrunch. “As you see more and more companies raising subsequent rounds, it’s often great for both the founders and us to invest along the whole journey,” he added. “Being true life cycle investors, that’s an advantage. It saves founders time and allows us to further deepen our relationship.” The new pedigree Today’s talent pool, packed with alums of billion-dollar venture-backed companies, has lured late-stage funders to the early stage. These experienced founders often have their pick of term sheets from top VCs that are hoping to get a slice of The Next Big Thing. Some funds have even formed with the mission of backing unicorn spin-outs specifically. Wave Capital, for example, initially sought to invest only in members of the “Airbnb mafia.” They’ve since broadened their scope. “If you worked five years at Stripe, it’s almost better than having an ivy league degree,” Haystack’s Shah said. “If you leave Airbnb and are seen as an emerging leader, you can probably raise $300,000 because your colleagues will support you.” The new wave of talent in the Bay Area is savvy to the VC fundraising process, privy to valuation negotiations, aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working with different types of funds — not to mention they have access to wealthy former colleagues amped on their vision. For them, raising capital comes as much less of a challenge. For these founders in particular, there are more perks associated with choosing a big fund over a specialty seed firm. Larger funds can re-invest when the company begins its Series A fundraising process, facilitate introductions to its portfolio companies (often potential customers), provide instant credibility in the form of brand recognition (which can be priceless in the hiring process) and, perhaps most importantly, write less dilutive, larger checks. For the less-seasoned founders, taking capital from a seed fund can be a much safer option. The best seed funds connect companies to experts in the specific plights of a first-time founder or an early-stage startup, like founder break-ups, the struggle of signing your first customers or making early, key hires. Plus, seed funds tend to have smaller, more focused portfolios. As such, their partners may have a bigger stake in the game. “All the funds say the same crap, but ultimately it’s about who actually does the work and it does become really clear who on the cap table has done the work and knows how to be a good investor at the stage,” Fika Ventures, a $76 million enterprise and B2B-focused seed fund, general partner Eva Ho tells TechCrunch. “When we put money in, we really care about the outcome of that deal. I think that gives us really good incentive alignment with the companies.” In addition to a potential lack of attention from partners at larger funds, doing business with a big player comes with other risks. If, say, GGV decides it doesn’t want to participate in Crosschq’s Series A financing, it may lead other investors to believe the company hasn’t lived up to its expectations. This can make it very difficult for that company to successfully raise its next round. Working with a seed fund eliminates this risk. A seed fund can’t be expected to participate in a startup’s next round due to its limited fund size. This is one reason startups decline offers from mega-funds. A recent Y Combinator standout, Glide, chose First Round Capital as its lead investor after reviewing multiple term sheets, sources tell TechCrunch. Sequoia offered the company, which helps users create apps from a Google Sheet, a $1.5 million investment on a $16 million pre-money valuation, a high price for a company of that stage. Glide declined the offer and went with the seed firm First Round instead. Glide did not respond to a request for comment. Sequoia declined to comment. The steep and rising valuations characteristic of deals for Y Combinator’s latest graduates is representative of the overall trend. As hype climbs and investors swallow higher costs, more companies are rolling out the accelerator with valuations north of $30 million and little to show for it. New strategies Not all startups have multiple prospective lead investors vying for a position on their cap table, particularly those who haven’t just “graduated” from Stripe or Airbnb or completed the hot accelerator program Y Combinator. And not all funds have the ability to compete with the Sequoias of the world. More activity from big funds challenges seed investors to get creative, deploy new tricks, work a little harder. “I don’t see it as a negative,” Haystack’s Shah said. “Founders should have choices. If they want to raise a round pre-launch at a $40 million valuation and take money from a big VC, he or she should accept the consequences of doing that if things get less rosy down the road.” To navigate today’s dog-eat-dog environment, Fika’s Ho says the firm has looked to other geographies where deals are less competitive, valuations more reasonable and talent just as strong. Chris Farmer, the founder of a $165 million data-focused seed fund called SignalFire, says they’ve also doubled down on alternative strategies. SignalFire makes 15 seed deals and an additional five to 10 pre-seed and “exploratory seed” deals per year. The latter, Farmer explains, allows them to be first in line when a seasoned entrepreneur is considering diving into a new project: “We will see people who are about to hit a vesting milestone and who will almost certainly start another company,” Farmer tells TechCrunch. Innovative strategies, including pre-idea seed rounds and investing in second-tier markets, may rescue seed funds crushed under the weight of Sequoia, Coatue and others. Funds that fail to think differently may not survive the competition. “There will be a lot of fallout in the market,” says Farmer. GGV managing partner Glenn Solomon (second from right) Spotlight: GGV Capital Many of the large firms have for years been partnering with seed-stage companies, but the pace of those investments has sped up. Accel, for example, made a seed bet in Slack years ago, a huge win for the fund, and now does more than 15 seed investments per year. Sequoia, another mega-fund with previous seed investments in Dropbox, Airbnb and Stripe, has invested in at least six seed-stage companies in the past year, including Re:Store, Oso Security, Evervault and Veil. GGV Capital implemented a seed strategy in late 2013, about 14 years after it was founded. Its first bet was on a Chinese AI company called Lingochamp, which raised $72 million in a U.S. IPO last year. GGV has since done 43 more seed deals, added a Sequoia-like scout program and launched a leadership development program for early-stage founders called “Founders + Leaders.” Covertly, GGV and others are mimicking the seed approach to nurturing founders. Still, GGV makes no promise to its seed companies to reinvest at the Series A. Of its 44 total seed deals, it went on to lead or co-lead 16 follow-on financings, the firm said. When asked about the prospect of signaling risk, or the risk generated when a startup accepts seed funding from a top-tier VC and that VC doesn’t go on to lead, GGV’s Solomon was unperturbed. It’s not like founders are expecting to fail, he explained. “Most founders with whom we work are very savvy and know the pros and cons of working with one specific firm or type of firm,” Solomon said. “In the list of things that a founder needs to worry about, the ‘signal risk’ is very low on most founders’ lists.” While not everyone is in agreement when it comes to the assets and liabilities associated with teaming with a small, focused fund versus a billion-dollar giant, there was one consistent theme throughout each interview conducted for this story: It’s all about the partner. Marc Andreessen, co-founder and managing partner of the billion-dollar venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz It’s all about the partner At the end of the day, it’s the individual person at a fund that founders are attracted to and with whom they establish a long-lasting, collaborative relationship with, ideally. Jude Gomila, the co-founder and CEO of Golden, a high tech digital information platform that recently raised a $5 million seed round led by Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from Cyan Banister of Founders Fund, SV Angel and Gigafund, sums this up. “The support from Marc has been phenomenal on an operational level and it didn’t matter what entity he was a part of,” Gomila tells TechCrunch. “And if you look at Founders Fund and Cyan, once again, it didn’t matter if she was an angel or part of a fund from my perspective.” The primary value proposition a venture capital firm has is its partner. Its resources and services, while still important, are secondary. The real winners of the fight for seed will be the venture funds with the sharpest investors, able to win over founders through sheer commitment, experience or specific expertise. “Does the partner share your vision? Can they help you get there faster? Asks GGV’s Solomon. “When there’s competition, the best founders are looking at that, they aren’t thinking about fund size.”

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AmazonFresh, one of two main grocery delivery services Amazon today operates, is expanding to new markets, the retailer announced this morning. The service will now be available to Prime members in Houston, Minneapolis, and Phoenix. Notably, this list includes a test market for Walmart’s new grocery subscription service, Delivery Unlimited; Target’s corporate headquarters; and an early test market for Walmart’s online grocery business, respectively. Members in these cities will have access to tens of thousands of grocery items, including fresh fruits and produce, meat, seafood, and other everyday essentials, all of which can be delivered for free in two hours. Free delivery requires a $35 minimum order, or a $9.99 delivery fee will apply if the order totals less than $35. Meanwhile, a faster, 1-hour delivery option is also available for an additional $7.99 fee. With the launch, AmazonFresh is available in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. “We’re thrilled to introduce AmazonFresh to Prime members in Houston, Minneapolis and Phoenix,” said Stephenie Landry, Vice President of AmazonFresh and Prime Now, in a statement. “Prime members tell us they want their stuff even faster. We’re happy to deliver on that ask and can’t wait for customers in Houston, Minneapolis and Phoenix to take advantage of one- and two-hour delivery from AmazonFresh,” she added. Amazon’s strategy with online grocery is a bit mixed. Today, Prime members can opt for deliveries through Prime Now, which delivers from Whole Foods markets as well as Amazon fulfillment centers, and in some areas, from local grocers. Prime Now is covered in the cost of an Amazon Prime subscription, while AmazonFresh requires an additional $14.99 per month additional fee. It’s not clear why someone would choose AmazonFresh over Prime Now —  if both were available — given the cost. The only reason may be that AmazonFresh offers a better selection in some markets. But consumers aren’t only choosing between these two options. They can also shop from Walmart’s online grocery, Instacart, Shipt, and others. Amazon recently pushed back against an industry report that claimed AmazonFresh was struggling. The retailer argued that it’s still investing in the service, expanding it to new markets, and pointed out that it never exited entire markets — it only pulled back in some zip codes. That said, AmazonFresh has grown far slower than Prime Now, with availability in 18 markets as of this news, versus Prime Now’s nearly 100. In addition to the convenience of shopping online or in the app, AmazonFresh also works with Alexa. Customers can say things like “Alexa, order milk from Fresh,” and Alexa will add a choice for milk to their shopping cart.

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posted about 15 hours ago on techcrunch
Alex Williams Contributor Alex Williams is the founder and publisher of The New Stack, which publishes explanations and analysis of at-scale, distributed technologies for developers, DevOps and other IT professionals. More posts by this contributor Neo4j, A Graph Database For Building Recommendation Engines, Gets A Visual Overhaul Billionaire Jewelry King Launches TaskWorld, A Management Tool All About Performance Once considered the most boring of topics, enterprise software is now getting infused with such energy that it is arguably the hottest space in tech. It’s been a long time coming. And it is the developers, software engineers and veteran technologists with deep experience building at-scale technologies who are energizing enterprise software. They have learned to build resilient and secure applications with open-source components through continuous delivery practices that align technical requirements with customer needs. And now they are developing application architectures and tools for at-scale development and management for enterprises to make the same transformation. “Enterprise had become a dirty word, but there’s a resurgence going on and Enterprise doesn’t just mean big and slow anymore,” said JD Trask, co-founder of Raygun enterprise monitoring software. “I view the modern enterprise as one that expects their software to be as good as consumer software. Fast. Easy to use. Delivers value.” The shift to scale out computing and the rise of the container ecosystem, driven largely by startups, is disrupting the entire stack, notes Andrew Randall, vice president of business development at Kinvolk. In advance of TechCrunch’s first enterprise-focused event, TC Sessions: Enterprise, The New Stack examined the commonalities between the numerous enterprise-focused companies who sponsor us. Their experiences help illustrate the forces at play behind the creation of the modern enterprise tech stack. In every case, the founders and CTOs recognize the need for speed and agility, with the ultimate goal of producing software that’s uniquely in line with customer needs. We’ll explore these topics in more depth at The New Stack pancake breakfast and podcast recording at TC Sessions: Enterprise. Starting at 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 5, we’ll be serving breakfast and hosting a panel discussion on “The People and Technology You Need to Build a Modern Enterprise,” with Sid Sijbrandij, founder and CEO, GitLab, and Frederic Lardinois, enterprise writer and editor, TechCrunch, among others. Questions from the audience are encouraged and rewarded, with a raffle prize awarded at the end. Traditional virtual machine infrastructure was originally designed to help manage server sprawl for systems-of-record software — not to scale out across a fabric of distributed nodes. The disruptors transforming the historical technology stack view the application, not the hardware, as the main focus of attention. Companies in The New Stack’s sponsor network provide examples of the shift toward software that they aim to inspire in their enterprise customers. Portworx provides persistent state for containers; NS1 offers a DNS platform that orchestrates the delivery internet and enterprise applications; Lightbend combines the scalability and resilience of microservices architecture with the real-time value of streaming data. “Application development and delivery have changed. Organizations across all industry verticals are looking to leverage new technologies, vendors and topologies in search of better performance, reliability and time to market,” said Kris Beevers, CEO of NS1. “For many, this means embracing the benefits of agile development in multicloud environments or building edge networks to drive maximum velocity.” Enterprise software startups are delivering that value, while they embody the practices that help them deliver it. The secrets to speed, agility and customer focus Speed matters, but only if the end result aligns with customer needs. Faster time to market is often cited as the main driver behind digital transformation in the enterprise. But speed must also be matched by agility and the ability to adapt to customer needs. That means embracing continuous delivery, which Martin Fowler describes as the process that allows for the ability to put software into production at any time, with the workflows and the pipeline to support it. Continuous delivery (CD) makes it possible to develop software that can adapt quickly, meet customer demands and provide a level of satisfaction with benefits that enhance the value of the business and the overall brand. CD has become a major category in cloud-native technologies, with companies such as CircleCI, CloudBees, Harness and Semaphore all finding their own ways to approach the problems enterprises face as they often struggle with the shift. “The best-equipped enterprises are those [that] realize that the speed and quality of their software output are integral to their bottom line,” Rob Zuber, CTO of CircleCI, said. Speed is also in large part why monitoring and observability have held their value and continue to be part of the larger dimension of at-scale application development, delivery and management. Better data collection and analysis, assisted by machine learning and artificial intelligence, allow companies to quickly troubleshoot and respond to customer needs with reduced downtime and tight DevOps feedback loops. Companies in our sponsor network that fit in this space include Raygun for error detection; Humio, which provides observability capabilities; InfluxData with its time-series data platform for monitoring; Epsagon, the monitoring platform for serverless architectures and Tricentis for software testing. “Customer focus has always been a priority, but the ability to deliver an exceptional experience will now make or break a “modern enterprise,” said Wolfgang Platz, founder of Tricentis, which makes automated software testing tools. “It’s absolutely essential that you’re highly responsive to the user base, constantly engaging with them to add greater value. This close and constant collaboration has always been central to longevity, but now it’s a matter of survival.” DevOps is a bit overplayed, but it still is the mainstay workflow for cloud-native technologies and critical to achieving engineering speed and agility in a decoupled, cloud-native architecture. However, DevOps is also undergoing its own transformation, buoyed by the increasing automation and transparency allowed through the rise of declarative infrastructure, microservices and serverless technologies. This is cloud-native DevOps. Not a tool or a new methodology, but an evolution of the longstanding practices that further align developers and operations teams — but now also expanding to include security teams (DevSecOps), business teams (BizDevOps) and networking (NetDevOps). “We are in this constant feedback loop with our customers where, while helping them in their digital transformation journey, we learn a lot and we apply these learnings for our own digital transformation journey,” Francois Dechery, chief strategy officer and co-founder of CloudBees, said. “It includes finding the right balance between developer freedom and risk management. It requires the creation of what we call a continuous everything culture.” Leveraging open-source components is also core in achieving speed for engineering. Open-source use allows engineering teams to focus on building code that creates or supports the core business value. Startups in this space include Tidelift and open-source security companies such as Capsule8. Organizations in our sponsor portfolio that play roles in the development of at-scale technologies include The Linux Foundation, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and the Cloud Foundry Foundation. “Modern enterprises … think critically about what they should be building themselves and what they should be sourcing from somewhere else,” said Chip Childers, CTO of Cloud Foundry Foundation . “Talented engineers are one of the most valuable assets a company can apply to being competitive, and ensuring they have the freedom to focus on differentiation is super important.” You need great engineering talent, giving them the ability to build secure and reliable systems at scale while also the trust in providing direct access to hardware as a differentiator. Is the enterprise really ready? The bleeding edge can bleed too much for the likings of enterprise customers, said James Ford, an analyst and consultant. “It’s tempting to live by mantras like ‘wow the customer,’ ‘never do what customers want (instead build innovative solutions that solve their need),’ ‘reduce to the max,’ … and many more,” said Bernd Greifeneder, CTO and co-founder of Dynatrace . “But at the end of the day, the point is that technology is here to help with smart answers … so it’s important to marry technical expertise with enterprise customer need, and vice versa.” How the enterprise adopts new ways of working will affect how startups ultimately fare. The container hype has cooled a bit and technologists have more solid viewpoints about how to build out architecture. One notable trend to watch: The role of cloud services through projects such as Firecracker. AWS Lambda is built on Firecracker, the open-source virtualization technology, built originally at Amazon Web Services . Firecracker serves as a way to get the speed and density that comes with containers and the hardware isolation and security capabilities that virtualization offers. Startups such as Weaveworks have developed a platform on Firecracker. OpenStack’s Kata containers also use Firecracker. “Firecracker makes it easier for the enterprise to have secure code,” Ford said. It reduces the surface security issues. “With its minimal footprint, the user has control. It means less features that are misconfigured, which is a major security vulnerability.” Enterprise startups are hot. How they succeed will determine how well they may provide a uniqueness in the face of the ever-consuming cloud services and at-scale startups that inevitably launch their own services. The answer may be in the middle with purpose-built architectures that use open-source components such as Firecracker to provide the capabilities of containers and the hardware isolation that comes with virtualization. Hope to see you at TC Sessions: Enterprise. Get there early. We’ll be serving pancakes to start the day. As we like to say, “Come have a short stack with The New Stack!”

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We’ve long known that 5G rollout wouldn’t happen overnight. But now that carriers have gotten things started, they’ve been confronted with pushback against the next-gen wireless technology’s limitations. Among the bigger issues is spotty coverage indoors — you know that place where most of us spend most of our time? Verizon’s looking to address the issue by partnering with Boingo — a name that ought to prove familiar for anyone who’s attempted to get on WiFi at an airport. The carrier (which is, incidentally, also our parent company) says it’s teaming with the wireless provider to expand coverage in hard to reach spots, including stadiums, offices, hotels and those aforementioned airports. “Verizon and Boingo are working together to architect a hyper-dense network designed for large and small indoor spaces as part of Verizon’s ongoing 5G network expansions,” per the carrier. There are still plenty of questions, including how quickly and when those rollouts will start. One assumes they begin in cities where Verizon has already begun to deliver 5G in places. That list now includes 10 cities, with greater Phoenix joining the others. The usual caveats of 5G apply here, with the tech still be limited to certain areas/neighborhoods. Those are as follows, Initially, Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband service will be concentrated in Downtown Phoenix around several well-known landmarks, including: Phoenix Convention Center, Talking Stick Resort Arena, The Orpheum Theatre, CityScape, and Chase Field. It will also be available in Tempe, on the Arizona State University campus. Tomorrow Verizon also adds another 5G device to its portfolio with its limited time exclusive on the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Densify has been a company that helps engineers buy cloud resources in a cost-effective way, but the company wanted to show this this cloud spending data to finance as well. This week it announced a new product called Cloud Cost Intelligence (CCI), which has been designed to give finance teams greater visibility into a company’s cloud spend. Densify CEO Gerry Smith says that the new product aims to bring the customer’s understanding of cloud spend to the part of the business that actually pays the bills. “What we’ve done is we’ve advanced our product, so that the same intelligence that the engineer uses [to select cloud resources], is now available on the finance side of the house,” Smith told TechCrunch. He says they found that at many customers, there is a disconnect between the engineers who are buying the resources and the finance team, who is responsible for paying the bill. Ultimately, they need to understand what they are buying, so they can give engineering what they need without overpaying for the required resources. Screenshot: Densify Smith explained that often what happens is that finance is charged with negotiating with the cloud vendors without any real knowledge of the engineering requirements. For example, if an engineering team buys a certain type of configuration on a regular basis, the finance team can see this in CCI and maybe get a better price on that by promising to buy a certain amount of those configurations, or they could find that there is updated configuration available that provides a similar set of resources for a lower cost, something engineering may not be aware of. “CCI allows the finance person to do a better job than just looking at a bill. He or she can now understand the choices and alternatives and why one is better than the other. So It allows the finance person to do more than just allocate costs. It allows them to add value to the engineer, so that they can buy [more cost-effective] reserved instances, for example,” Smith explained. Densify is based near Toronto in Canada and has raised $38.2 million, according to Crunchbase. The company actually began life back in 1999 as Cirba. Originally, it provided data center analytics solutions for storage supply and demand “Their first optimization product was Densify. They ended up rebranding the company and focusing solely on optimization in 2017,” a company spokesperson explained. Densify announces new tool to optimize container management in the cloud

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
SpotHero, the Chicago-based company that has developed an on-demand parking app, has raised $50 million in a Series D round led by Macquarie Capital. Union Grove Venture Partners participated in the round, along with existing investors including Insight Venture Partners, Global Founders Capital, OCA Ventures, AutoTech Ventures and others, according to the company. SpotHero has raised $118 million to date. SpotHero said Thursday that this new capital will be used to grow into new markets and expand in its existing ones, build out its digital platform and strengthen partnerships with mobility companies. SpotHero, which has operations in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, initially set out to develop software that connects everyday drivers to parking spots in thousands of garages across North America. SpotHero has expanded its focus in the eight years since its founding. The company has added other services as urban density has increased and on-street parking has become more jumbled and confused thanks to an increase in traffic, ride-hailing and on-demand delivery services that take up valuable curb space. It has locked in more than 900 distribution partnerships and integrations including Google Assistant, for voice-enabled parking and Waze in-app navigation to parking. Other partners include Hertz and car2go for fleet parking, WeWork, for commuter parking and Moovit, for multi-modal parking. Most recently, SpotHero launched a new service dubbed “SpotHero for Fleets” that targets shared mobility and on-demand services. The service aims to be a one-stop shop for car-sharing and commercial fleets to handle all that goes into ensuring there is access and the right number of designated parking areas on any given day within SpotHero’s large network of 6,500 garages across 300 cities. That means everything from managing the relationships between garage owners and the fleet companies to proper signage so car-sharing customers can find the vehicles, as well as flexible plans that account for seasonal demands on businesses. Under the new service, customers are able to source and secure parking inventory in high-traffic areas across multiple cities and pay per use across multiple parking facilities on one invoice to streamline payments.  The company has signed on car-sharing companies and other commercial fleets, although it’s not naming them yet.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Bose’s portable speaker offerings have tended toward the cheaper end of the spectrum — bringing colorful competition for companies like JBL. With the dryly named Portable Home Speaker, however, the company looks to split the difference between portable and premium. And it’s certainly priced for the latter. The $349 speaker looks to something of a high end take on the dearly departed Amazon Tap. It’s pretty small for the price, with a large handle up top so it can be moved from room to room, accordingly. Bose continues to take the diplomatic approach, using built in mics for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. There’s also AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect functionality built in, covering pretty much all of its bases outside of Bixby — that means, sadly, that it might not be able to talk to your fridge. There are a handful of physical buttons up top, as well, including the every important mic-off. The device has an IPX4 water rating, which means it will handle some splashing or light rain, but don’t dunk the thing. It’s also pretty clear from the press materials that the speaker’s not designed to live outdoors, though the occasional picnic table should be fine. The Portable Home Speaker arrives in stores on September 19. It’s already got plenty of competition, of course, and Sonos is set to add to the list with its own bluetooth speaker rumored to be in the works.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Spotify’s battle with Apple Music is continuing to heat up. On Monday, the company introduced upgrades to its Premium Family plan which now offers parental controls and other exclusive features, like a family playlist. Today, Spotify is going head-to-head with Apple on its free trial offer. Previously, new users to the Spotify Premium subscription could try the service free for a month. Now it’s 3 months — the same as Apple Music. The company notes this is not a limited-time promotion, the way some of those Spotify-Hulu bundles have been in the past. Instead, this is the new standard for how Premium trials will operate, and is rolling out today worldwide. The 3-month trial will be offered across all of Spotify’s Premium plans, including its Individual and Student plans, where available, and the Family and Duo plans — the latter which is still in testing, and not globally available. The trials are offered directly on Spotify’s website, not through in-app purchases or carrier billing plans. “This has been a huge week for Spotify Premium with two milestones — we’re rolling out an upgraded Family plan and we’re offering the first 3 months of Premium for free to customers that have not tried Premium before,” said Spotify Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström, in a statement. “These moments show our commitment to providing our Premium subscribers with the best experience and allowing more listeners around the world access to all that Premium has to offer,” he said. Since launch, Apple has offered longer, three-month free trials to interested subscribers. Initially, this was a point of contention between the tech company and artists because artists weren’t being paid royalties during the trial period. Taylor Swift used her clout to change that back in 2015, pushing Apple to pay artists during trials, at rates that were similar to Spotify and others. That said, issues around music rights and royalties are still a point of contention between artists and streamers. This week, Eninem sued Spotify over copyright infringement, claiming the service hasn’t paid him but for a fraction of streams of his music. While trial length is not the only factor involved in increasing conversions, a longer trial does allow a customer to become familiar with the service’s features and make it a more of a habit. And in the case of Apple Music and Spotify, it gives the service’s algorithms more time to personalize playlists and recommendations based on the user’s listening history. The change to Spotify’s free trials follows a subscriber miss on its latest earnings, when it added 8 million subscribers — below estimates of 8.5 million. This figure includes those on a free trial, so by extending the trial period Spotify can bump these numbers up. In total, Spotify said it had 232 million monthly active users and 108 million paying subscribers at the end of June. Apple Music, by comparison, announced 60 million subscribers in June. An April report by The WSJ also put it ahead in the key U.S. market.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Making the VR experience simple and portable was the main goal of the Oculus Quest, and it definitely accomplishes that. But going from things in the room tracking your headset to your headset tracking things in the room was a complex process. I talked with Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer (“Schrep”) about the journey from “outside-in” to “inside-out.” When you move your head and hands around with a VR headset and controllers, some part of the system has to track exactly where those things are at all times. There are two ways this is generally attempted. One approach is to have sensors in the room you’re in, watching the devices and their embedded LEDs closely — looking from the outside in. The other is to have the sensors on the headset itself, which watches for signals in the room — looking from the inside out. Both have their merits, but if you want a system to be wireless, your best bet is inside-out, since you don’t have to wirelessly send signals between the headset and the computer doing the actual position tracking, which can add hated latency to the experience. Facebook and Oculus set a goal a few years back to achieve not just inside-out tracking, but make it as good or better than the wired systems that run on high-end PCs. And it would have to run anywhere, not just in a set scene with boundaries set by beacons or something, and do so within seconds of putting it on. The result is the impressive Quest headset, which succeeded with flying colors at this task (though it’s not much of a leap in others). Review: Oculus Quest could be the Nintendo Switch of VR What’s impressive about it isn’t just that it can track objects around it and translate that to an accurate 3D position of itself, but that it can do so in real time on a chip with a fraction of the power of an ordinary computer. “I’m unaware of any system that’s anywhere near this level of performance,” said Schroepfer. “In the early days there were a lot of debates about whether it would even work or not.” Our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking. The term for what the headset does is simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM. It basically means building a map of your environment in 3D while also figuring out where you are in that map. Naturally robots have been doing this for some time, but they generally use specialized hardware like lidar, and have a more powerful processor at their disposal. All the new headsets would have are ordinary cameras. “In a warehouse, I can make sure my lighting is right, I can put fiducials on the wall, which are markers that can help reset things if I get errors — that’s like a dramatic simplification of the problem, you know?” Schroepfer pointed out. “I’m not asking you to put fiducials up on your walls. We don’t make you put QR codes or precisely positioned GPS coordinates around your house. “It’s never seen your living room before, and it just has to work. And in a relatively constrained computing environment — we’ve got a mobile CPU in this thing. And most of that mobile CPU is going to the content, too. The robot isn’t playing Beat Saber at the same time it’s cruising though the warehouse.” It’s a difficult problem in multiple dimensions, then, which is why the team has been working on it for years. Ultimately several factors came together. One was simply that mobile chips became powerful enough that something like this is even possible. But Facebook can’t really take credit for that. More important was the ongoing work in computer vision that Facebook’s AI division has been doing under the eye of Yann Lecun and others there. Machine learning models frontload a lot of the processing necessary for computer vision problems, and the resulting inference engines are lighter weight, if not necessarily well understood. Putting efficient, edge-oriented machine learning to work inched this problem closer to having a possible solution. Most of the labor, however, went into the complex interactions of the multiple systems that interact in real time to do the SLAM work. “I wish I could tell you it’s just this really clever formula, but there’s lots of bits to get this to work,” Schroepfer said. “For example, you have an IMU on the system, an inertial measurement unit, and that runs at a very high frequency, maybe 1000 Hz, much higher than the rest of the system [i.e. the sensors, not the processor]. But it has a lot of error. And then we run the tracker and mapper on separate threads. And actually we multi-threaded the mapper, because it’s the most expensive part [i.e. computationally]. Multi-threaded programming is a pain to begin with, but you do it across these three, and then they share data in interesting ways to make it quick.” Schroepfer caught himself here; “I’d have to spend like three hours to take you through all the grungy bits.” Part of the process was also extensive testing, for which they used a commercial motion tracking rig as ground truth. They’d track a user playing with the headset and controllers, and using the OptiTrack setup measure the precise motions made. Testing with the OptiTrack system. To see how the algorithms and sensing system performed, they’d basically play back the data from that session to a simulated version of it: video of what the camera saw, data from the IMU, and any other relevant metrics. If the simulation was close to the ground truth they’d collected externally, good. If it wasn’t, the machine learning system would adjust its parameters and they’d run the simulation again. Over time the smaller, more efficient system drew closer and closer to producing the same tracking data the OptiTrack rig had recorded. Ultimately it needed to be as good or better than the standard Rift headset. Years after the original, no one would buy a headset that was a step down in any way, no matter how much cheaper it was. “It’s one thing to say, well my error rate compared to ground truth is whatever, but how does it actually manifest in terms of the whole experience?” said Schroepfer. “As we got towards the end of development, we actually had a couple passionate Beat Saber players on the team, and they would play on the Rift and on the Quest. And the goal was, the same person should be able to get the same high score or better. That was a good way to reset our micro-metrics and say, well this is what we actually need to achieve the end experience that people want.” the computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems. It doesn’t hurt that it’s cheaper, too. Lidar is expensive enough that even auto manufacturers are careful how they implement it, and time-of-flight or structured-light approaches like Kinect also bring the cost up. Yet they massively simplify the problem, being 3D sensing tools to begin with. “What we said was, can we get just as good without that? Because it will dramatically reduce the long term cost of this product,” he said. “When you’re talking to the computer vision team here, they’re pretty bullish on cameras with really powerful algorithms behind them being the solution to many problems. So our hope is that for the long run, for most consumer applications, it’s going to all be inside-out tracking.” I pointed out that VR is not considered by all to be a healthy industry, and that technological solutions may not do much to solve a more multi-layered problem. Schroepfer replied that there are basically three problems facing VR adoption: cost, friction, and content. Cost is self-explanatory, but it would be wrong to say it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the years. Playstation VR established a low-cost entry early on but “real” VR has remained expensive. Friction is how difficult it is to get from “open the box” to “play a game,” and historically has been a sticking point for VR. Oculus Quest addresses both these issues quite well, being at $400 and as our review noted very easy to just pick up and use. All that computer vision work wasn’t for nothing. Content is still thin on the ground, though. There have been some hits, like Superhot and Beat Saber, but nothing to really draw crowds to the platform (if it can be called that). “What we’re seeing is, as we get these headsets out, and in developers hands that people come up with all sorts of creative ideas. I think we’re in the early stages — these platforms take some time to marinate,” Schroepfer admitted. “I think everyone should be patient, it’s going to take a while. But this is the way we’re approaching it, we’re just going to keep plugging away, building better content, better experiences, better headsets as fast as we can.”

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
The dessert naming scheme was one of the best-loved legacies from Google past (though some were notably better than others). Every time the company got ready to release a new version of the mobile operating system, speculation would mount about which sweet foodstuff on which the company would ultimately settle. But while P offered confections a plenty, Q has been far less straightforward. Quiche was questionable, at best — ditto for quesadillas and quinoa. With that giant question mark waiting for it with the next release, the company’s opted instead to abandon the beloved naming scheme. Of course, Google’s reasoning is far more diplomatic than, “we couldn’t think of anything that started with ‘Q.’” Instead, it says that the desserts simply weren’t universal enough for the 2.5 billion active devices it has deployed around the world. [W]e’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. For example, L and R are not distinguishable when spoken in some languages. So when some people heard us say Android Lollipop out loud, it wasn’t intuitively clear that it referred to the version after KitKat. It’s even harder for new Android users, who are unfamiliar with the naming convention, to understand if their phone is running the latest version. We also know that pies are not a dessert in some places, and that marshmallows, while delicious, are not a popular treat in many parts of the world. 15 names that would have been better than Android Pie Of course, universality is an unclear concept in the online age. And hey, look at Apple, which has gone far more regional with its California-themed desktop OSes. Honestly, however, it may be better to avoid the letter Q altogether in the a political climate that reads like the backdrop to a back spy novel. It’s just too bad the company had to take Raisinettes, Skittles and Twizzlers with it. Also new is a slight rebrand of Android itself, with the text shifting from Android Green to black. “It’s a small change, but we found the green was hard to read, especially for people with visual impairments,” the company writes. “The logo is often paired with colors that can make it hard to see—so we came up with a new set of color combinations that improve contrast. “

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
The CareVoice, a Shanghai-based health insurance software startup with ambitions to expand throughout Asia, announced today that it has raised about $10 million in Series A funding. The investment was led by LUN Partners Group and an undisclosed global investment manager that specializes in financial services, with participation from DNA Capital and returning investors SOSV and Artesian Capital. It will be used on research and development and to grow The CareVoice’s business in Hong Kong, which it entered last year. After that, the company plans to expand into other markets in Asia. Founded in 2014, The CareVoice started as an app that let patients leave reviews about medical providers before focusing on software like its flagship product, an SaaS solution that makes healthcare and insurance products more accessible to customers on mobile, with the goal of increasing sales and retention. There are several other startups in China focused on simplifying the process of buying health insurance, like Instony, Datebao, eBaoTech and Bowtie, but a representative for The CareVoice says it focuses less on sales tools and is instead building an end-to-end platform for insurers that can integrate with their existing solutions. The startup is currently used by 15 insurance providers in China and Hong Kong, including Ping An and AXA. While The CareVoice’s focus has been on improving the enrollment process, customer experience and how claims are processed, it is currently developing 10 new insurance products with health insurance partners, essentially rebranding traditional insurance policies and making them easier to access. The CareVoice also recently released a platform for insurers called CareVoiceOS, designed to enable insurers to create more customized plans and connect to other online healthcare services, and launched a new unit called StartupCare that allows startups to give founders and employees health benefits.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Remediant, a startup that helps companies secure privileged access in a modern context, announced a $15 million Series A today led by Dell Technologies Capital and ForgePoint Capital. Remediant’s co-founders, Paul Lanzi and Tim Keeler, worked in biotech for years and saw a problem first-hand with the way companies secured privileged access. It was granted to certain individuals in the organization carte blanche, and they believed if you could limit access, it would make the space more secure and less vulnerable to hackers. Lanzi says they started the company with two core concepts. “The first concept is the ability to assess or detect all of the places where privileged accounts exist and what systems they have access to. The second concept is to strip away all of the privileged access from all of those accounts and grant it back on a just-in-time basis,” Lanzi explained. If you’re thinking that could get in the way of people who need access to do their jobs, as former IT admins, they considered that. Remediant is based a Zero Trust model where you have to prove you have the right to access the privileged area. But they do provide a reasonable baseline amount of time for users who need it within the confines of continuously enforcing access. “Continuous enforcement is part of what we do, so by default we grant you four hours of access when you need that access, and then after that four hours, even if you forget to come back and end your session, we will automatically revoke that access. In that way all of the systems that are protected by SecureOne (the company’s flagship product) are held in this Zero Trust state where no one has access to them on a day-to-day basis,” Lanzi said. Remediant SecureONE Dashboard. Screenshot: Remediant The company has bootstrapped until now, and has actually been profitable, something that’s unusual for a startup at this stage of development, but Lanzi says they decided to take an investment in order to shift gears and concentrate on growth and product expansion. Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director at investor Dell Technologies Capital says it’s not easy for security startups to rise above the noise, but he saw something in Remediant’s founders. “Tim, and Paul came from the practitioners viewpoint. They knew the actual problems that people face in terms of privileged access. So they had a very strong empathy towards the customer’s problem because they lived through it,” Jeevankumar told TechCrunch. He added that the privileged access market hasn’t really been updated in two decades. “It’s a market ripe for disruption. They are combining the just-in-time philosophy with the Zero Trust philosophy, and are bringing that to the crown jewel of administrative access,” he said. The company’s tools are installed on the customer’s infrastructure, either on-prem or in the cloud. They don’t have a pure cloud product at the moment, but they have plans for a SaaS version down the road to help small and medium sized businesses solve the privileged access problem. Lanzi says they are also looking to expand the product line in other ways with this investment. “The basic philosophies that underpin our technology are broadly applicable. We want to start applying our technology in those other areas as well. So as we think toward a future that looks more like cloud and more like DevOps, we want to be able to add more of those features to our products,” he said.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) have teamed up to build a new supercomputer, which will serve NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and develop models and simulations of the landing process for Artemis Moon missions. The new supercomputer is called ‘Aitken,’ named after American astronomer Robert Grant Aitken, and it can run simulations at up to 3.69 petaFLOPs of theoretical performance power. Aitken is custom-designed by HPE and NASA to work with the Ames modular data centre, which is a project it undertook starting in 2017 to massively reduce the amount of water and energy used in cooling its supercomputing hardware. Aitken employs second generation Intel Xeon processors, Mellanox InfiniBand high-speed networking, and has 221 TB of memory on board for storage. It’s the result of four years of collaboration between NASA and HPE, and it will model different methods of entry, descent and landing for Moon-destined Artemis spacecraft, running simulations to determine possible outcomes and help determine the best, safest approach. This isn’t the only collaboration between HPE and NASA: The enterprise computer maker built a new kind of supercomputer able to withstand the rigors of space for the agency, and sent it up to the ISS in 2017 for preparatory testing ahead of potential use on longer missions, including Mars. The two partners then opened that supercomputer for use in third-party experiments last year. HPE also announced earlier this year that it was buying supercomputer company Cray for $1.3 billion. Cray is another long-time partner of NASA’s supercomputing efforts, dating back to the space agency’s establishment of a dedicated computational modelling division and the establishing of its Central Computing Facility at Ames Research Center.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
If you’re like me, chances are good you just distractedly clicked on this article while scrolling through your feed in, or while waiting for, a Lyft. Maybe, like me, you need that app to get to back-to-back meetings in different locations today, as you’re well on your way to at least a 60-hour workweek between the various things you do. Maybe you’re exhausted. Maybe the ride you just took, zoning out on your phone in an Uber on Quiet Mode, was actually a lifesaver. And as you settle into each new driver’s backseat, en route to each new destination in your crazy busy life, maybe, like me, you find yourself somewhat unwittingly implicated in one of the most contentious ethical struggles of this generation – a struggle with profound implications for the future of work. Yesterday, California-based advocacy organizations Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance announced that a caravan of Uber and Lyft drivers will drive from SoCal through San Francisco to Sacramento, next Monday, August 26 through Wednesday, August 28th. Over 200 drivers in more than 75 cars plan to drive south to north, with more drivers joining along the way, to take dramatic action in advocating for California State Legislature bill AB5, and for a drivers union.  With AB5 almost certain to pass the CA Senate, this coming week presents a crucial moment in the history of gig work and tech more broadly: an opportunity for drivers to demonstrate the efficacy of 21st century labor modes of organizing, even as Uber and Lyft continue ramping up efforts to kill AB5, drop pay rates, and generally mistreat drivers. For the first time, drivers will use their sole work tool, their cars, to demonstrate publicly (and likely disruptively, though I have no knowledge of the precise actions planned at this time) at key locations like outside Uber’s HQ in downtown San Francisco and the Capitol steps in Sacramento. I recently had the chance to speak with Annette Rivero, one of the drivers and an organizer of the protest efforts. At the time we spoke, I didn’t know anything about Annette, not even whether she would allow me to use her last name. But this 37-year-old mother of five, a straight-A student and full-time-plus Lyft/Uber driver, told me the story of her life and career, without hesitation, even as it raised what I worried could be the possibility of retaliation against her and her colleagues. As Annette opened up to me about drivers work conditions and their mental and physical health struggles, I found myself thinking that her family’s story puts human faces on and likely represents the trendline of an industry that, in only a decade, has moved a hundred billion dollars and given new meaning to the word “disrupt.” I hope everyone with a stake in these issues – whether you work in tech or VC or just occasionally use your smartphone to summon a ride – will read her words and think about where all of us are headed, together. Annette Rivero. Image via Annette Rivero Greg Epstein: Annette, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me for this TechCrunch series exploring technology and ethics, and what it might mean to use technology ethically and humanistically today. Can you share your full name or is that not something that you’re comfortable sharing? Either way is fine. Annette Rivero: My name’s Annette Rivero. Epstein: How old are you? Rivero: I am 37. Epstein: And what do you do for your work that you’re connected with what we’re speaking about? Rivero: I drive for both Uber and Lyft . Epstein: How long have you been doing that? Rivero: About two years. Epstein: Full-time, or how does your schedule work? Rivero: Right now I’m driving full-time, so I drive about eight to nine hours and I try to drive every day. Epstein: Seven days a week? Rivero: Yes. Epstein: You’ve been trying to do that for a long time? Rivero: All summer I’ve been really trying. I mean, of course things happen and there’s always one or two days maybe where I don’t get to, but it’s definitely my goal because I only make $150 a day. So, if I miss a day, I try to work longer on the other days. Epstein: That’s about 60 hours a week or so. Rivero: Yeah. Epstein: Wow. You’re a very hard worker, Annette. Rivero: Oh, thanks. Epstein: And you live somewhere in California? Rivero: I live in San Jose, so South Bay area. Epstein: So, you’re driving 60 hours a week or so, working for a tech company not far from the global epicenter of tech. Rivero: That’s right. Epstein: You must get a fair number of tech people in your car with you. Rivero: Yes, I do. Epstein: I’ll ask you more about yourself in a moment, but please tell me what you’re involved in and how we got connected for this interview. Rivero: Around April, or May, I got involved with a group called Gig Workers Rising. I was very frustrated with some of the things going on between me and Uber. I was looking for somebody I could confide in, exchange stories, because I felt very alone, so I signed up with their Facebook group. They invited all their new members to a conference call, which I joined, and then from there they invited us to do a health survey to talk about the problems that we have with our health as far as rideshare goes. From there I’ve been at pretty much every action and meeting. What we’re trying to do is let everyone know what’s going on. What the drivers are going through, the decreases in pay in contradiction to the increases in rates, and really let people know that they’re kind of manipulating the system to gain profits, but they’re taking those profits from people by paying extremely low rates. Epstein: You mentioned a health survey: how are you doing health-wise? Rivero: [When] that was all happening, I was extremely stressed; my anxiety was through the roof and I was probably pretty depressed because my situation was looking very bleak. They had already cut the surge at the end of last year, which probably cut rates about 40% at least. Then in the beginning of this year they cut the bonuses. A combination of those things cut the money I was making per week by two thirds. I was making about $1,500 working probably less than 40 hours. And now I work about 60 hours and I’m making barely a thousand dollars. I do feel better [now], but I think I feel better because I have a community of drivers that I work with and I talk to on a daily basis. And I am working on this project to bring light to the situation. I feel more empowered than I did before. Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera Epstein: Feeling empowered and being connected with people who are working together for the same cause is, generally speaking, a positive factor in health. I’m glad to hear that. Rivero: Yeah. Epstein: Can you tell me about the demonstration you’re about to participate in? Rivero: Right now we’re preparing for an action to unite all the drivers in California from the north end to the south end and in the middle, which is something we haven’t been able to demonstrate yet. But [we are] going to show it’s not just one area. We may have differences but we have one thing that’s the same and that is dissatisfaction with the way things are going with rideshare right now. Everything that’s going on is not okay and all drivers across the state have just had it. They’re just done with what’s going on. So, without giving too many details, we will be in pretty big cities throughout the state and we will be making sure that we’re seen. Epstein: At this point it’s been announced you’ll be stopping in L.A., San Francisco and Sacramento. Rivero: As far as what we will do in those cities, we want to keep that under wraps. But yes, we are caravaning from LA to Sacramento, and at each stop we will take an action, not just with the [driver] community but other important people in those cities. Epstein: Sounds like whatever actions you and your colleagues are going to take are going to be the sorts of things that have never quite happened before. People interested in this issue are probably going to want to see what you all are going to do next week, huh? Rivero: Yeah, definitely. And our message is definitely focused on not just legislators but the Senate and then Governor Newsom, because they’re our next targets — to get their attention, let them know what’s going on and how we feel. We know they’ve already heard some, but we’re trying to really drill it in. Epstein: Gig Workers Rising is working specifically on this bill, California AB5, with regard to the status of employees and independent contractors and what rights and obligations companies like Uber and Lyft have towards contractors like yourself. What do you want to say about the bill in particular? Rivero: All [AB5] is doing is defining even more what it means to be an employee and what it means to be an independent contractor. It doesn’t do anything else in my opinion. If there was something on the table about creating the appropriate protections, that applied more to gig workers for lack of a better word, I’m sure everybody would be looking at that. But there isn’t, so this is what we have. And instead of having people working without protections and for extremely low labor costs, we have to do something. Because there’s a lot of people out there who are barely making it, barely surviving, can’t even put food on the table, can’t even afford healthcare. And these companies should be held accountable for it. They should be held responsible for it. It’s their responsibility as a business owner to give back to the community, not just take from the community. Redefining these two things is just going to help make that happen. Epstein: I don’t mind saying I completely agree with you. If these companies want to exist, they don’t just have a right to exist purely to make their executives rich. We, the people, can take that right away from them by forcing them to shut down, unless they can show that their business model is actually decent for the human beings involved in it. Rivero: Right. I wish more people felt the way you just worded that. People just don’t understand the power they have. Epstein: Would you feel comfortable sharing a bit more about yourself, like who you are beyond working for Lyft and Uber, and how you got involved in driving for them originally? Rivero: I basically worked in healthcare for about 14 years. I’m one of those people where I work hard and it doesn’t matter how much money I make, as long as the work makes me feel good. I work really hard. Throughout the years, I’ve learned many things about healthcare billing. So, I got to a place where I was doing various things in one position, but didn’t feel like I was getting paid what I should have been paid, even though that’s contradictory to what I just said. I felt like I could be a manager and make more money so I can take care of my kids, send them to school. And my parents are getting older. So I was thinking, I can also help both of my parents start to retire, because they’re not getting younger and they’re getting sicker. So, I made a very scary decision to leave my job at Stanford where I was making about $80,000 a year. I decided to go back to school. Some people call me crazy, but I just feel like I’m worth more than that, and I think I could’ve made more than that. So I went back to school full-time to get my degree in business management. Annette Rivero. Image via Annette Rivero Epstein: When was this? Rivero: This was about two and a half years ago. Epstein: So, you were making $80,000 a year or so working in the healthcare system at Stanford University Hospital, essentially? Before that had you gone to college or no? Rivero: No. Epstein: And you grew up in the San Jose area, or somewhere else? Rivero: Half of my life, I grew up in San Jose and then the other half I grew up in a small town called Hollister, an hour South of here. I always wanted to go back to school and it was just such a big thing for me and then I just felt like it was now or never. Because the situation I was in, we lived in an apartment that was affordable and I had money saved up. It wasn’t impossible. But once I started driving about six months in, or maybe within those first six months, I started to notice a subtle decrease in pay, and it was so subtle, you could hardly tell. Epstein: You started driving while you were going to school full-time, to put yourself through school? Rivero: Mm-hmm. Epstein: Wow. Rivero: I only had to work about six hours a day. Epstein: Only! You were working six hours a day and then you would go to class or study? Rivero: Yeah. And I was only working like four, maybe five days, making more money then than I’m making now. And the classes I did take, I did get straight A’s, so thank you. It was possible. It’s not like something I made up or fabricated. And a lot of people were doing it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who drove and were going to school or went on elaborate vacations, making extra money off of Uber and Lyft. But you can’t do that now. It’s not possible. Epstein: You were driving five, six hours a day, studying and getting straight A’s, and did you have a family? Rivero: One of our kids is already grown, but we have four that we’re raising. Epstein: What does your partner do during the day? Rivero: He is a warehouse manager for a plumbing company; he works anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day. Epstein: You are obviously both extremely hard workers, trying to better your lives. This is very impressive. Rivero: Thank you. Epstein: Tell me how it started to get worse. Rivero: To break it down a little bit, when you first start on, they give you really great bonuses. Then, little by little, they make changes to your bonus amount. They’ll either lower the amount that you receive or they’ll increase the rides. So gradually you don’t notice, but the amount extra you’re getting per ride is lowering. After that, [rates] started to decrease, and surge rates changed. What they used to do is a multiplier So, if there is a ride I usually do that I can make $8 off of and there was a surge during that time, then it would say ‘times two.’ That means I would make $16 off of that ride. Today, they put a dollar amount instead; let’s say they just put $2. That means that I’m only going to make an extra $2 on that eight, from making $16 during surge to $10 during surge. And a majority of rides are during those times of surge, before work and school, when everyone’s trying to get somewhere, after work and school when everyone’s trying to get home, or on weekends when everybody’s partying. Epstein: Which means drivers like you have to work at some of the times when it would be most convenient to be with your families. I just last week did another column largely about the effects of people having to be constantly available that way. Rivero: Right. I can’t always work those times because I need to be with my family. So, instead of making a little more money during those times when it’s busier, I have to work slow times and make less money. But the reason we’re making less money is because the system is oversaturated with drivers, and that’s been done intentionally. They were giving out really large bonuses to get drivers on board. I recruited my dad and made $500 for recruiting him. They’re constantly having new drivers recruited and now they have so many drivers, they don’t have to pay a surge anymore. Because there’s more than enough drivers on the road at all times. Which brings me to another point, which is they’re charging riders for high demand rates when it’s not even necessary because they have so many drivers on the road. They don’t need to charge high rates. There’s somebody around the corner. Epstein: I stopped using Uber for ethical reasons, but I use Lyft. I live someplace where it’s really hard to get from my house to work with public transportation and I work three or more jobs while spending a lot of time with my young kid, so I’m constantly running from one place to another and I definitely don’t have time to park a car. it’s amazing: no matter where I am, or when, there’s always a car within a few minutes. And I take all these rides and almost never get the same driver twice. And I go to other cities or states, even remote areas: there are Lyft drivers everywhere. It’s amazing how many people, like yourself, they’ve put out onto the road. What is that like for you? What have you heard from colleagues or friends through Gig Workers Rising, about what this is like for them? Rivero: A couple of friends can’t afford their medication. One of them has high blood pressure. I could lose a friend because he can’t afford his high blood pressure medicine, because he doesn’t make enough. But he doesn’t qualify for Medi-Cal because we have to file all that money we’re paying Uber and Lyft on our taxes. It looks like we’re making all this money, but we’re not. I have another friend who had kidney failure last year because drivers don’t want to drink water. They don’t want to have to stop to go to the bathroom because then that stops them from making money. Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera Epstein: What do you do about stopping to go to the bathroom, Annette? Rivero: When I drop the kids off in the morning at 7:15, I’ll have one coffee and I’ll probably have to go to the bathroom once. So I’ll stop either at a Starbucks, a grocery store, or a Target. Then I don’t eat until I get home, which is when I pick up the kids at 3:45 and then I take them home. Epstein: So, you’re driving around all that time on one or two coffees, no water, and no food? Rivero: That’s right. Epstein: First of all, I’m concerned for you. It’s not particularly healthy to sit in a car for eight or nine hours a day. Do you stretch much? Rivero: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll get out of the car. When people need help, I’ll get out and help them. If I’m- Epstein: I’m always telling my drivers to get up and stretch because it’s really bad for a person to sit without even stretching their legs for eight, nine hours a day. But then… I say this with a smile and I actually really trust you, you seem like an amazing person. But, are you being safe out there? I mean, all those hours without eating or hydrating, that doesn’t seem like the best mindset to be driving in. Rivero: I have a goal, every day, to make $150. [Recently,] at the end of [the night] I needed 30 more dollars, and I was like, “Okay, I’m tired and I want to stop.” But I wasn’t at the point where I was dangerously tired. When I say dangerously tired, I mean I have a migraine, my eyes are getting blurry, or I’m so tired I’ve made a mistake, like I was at the light and I could have turned right but I just wasn’t paying attention. Something small like that. I’ve never caused an accident. I’m not irresponsible in that way, but I notice the subtle things about myself when I know it’s time to go home. But yeah, without a doubt there are drivers out there who are driving beyond that moment when they realize they shouldn’t be driving. They’re driving anywhere from 10, maybe 14, maybe even 16 hours a day. And the ones sleeping in their car don’t really sleep. How do you sleep in your car? Epstein: Are a lot of drivers sleeping in their cars, in your experience? Rivero: I know a lot of drivers sleep in their car. Epstein: How do you know that? Rivero: Well, friends. My dad sleeps in his car. My dad’s too proud to come sleep at my house, but he’ll stay in his car. And he’s not sleeping. Epstein: Why? Because he doesn’t have someplace to go? Rivero: He lives in Los Banos, about an hour and a half away. Not only that, he can’t really afford the gas to keep going back and forth every night. Epstein: Right — if you’re driving Lyft or Uber, almost by definition you can’t afford to live in a high rent area, but of course most rides are in high rent areas. So almost by design, most of the drivers are living far away from where they’re working, and when you get them so exhausted that they can’t drive home, it sounds like they’re essentially living out of their cars for how many days a week. Rivero: Exactly. I also know another person who, from the loneliness of sleeping in their car and just the loneliness of not talking to anybody, because drivers don’t talk to each other really. He became- Epstein: Yeah. And there’s even this new… What is the mode again for Uber? Rivero: Oh, the quiet mode? Epstein: Can I just say that I find that disgusting? You’re going to make me work for how much? And then you’re going to act like you have the right to just tell me I’m a nuisance to you and don’t talk to you? Rivero: I understand sometimes people want to just not say anything, but it’s the way that it’s been done that’s terrible. It’s really about why can’t people communicate and just say, “You know what? I’m so sorry but I’m exhausted today. I had a really long day,” or whatever. You don’t even have to explain. You just have to say, “Do you mind if we just not conversate right now? Just not up for it.” Epstein: Yes. Suck it up and use your words to say that you don’t want to use your words, bro. Rivero: Exactly. And that’s how we’re treated on a daily basis from, not all riders, but there are riders that treat us that way. Epstein: Anyway, I interrupted you earlier. We were talking about you and other drivers risking their health, some people risking the health of others on the road. People certainly putting their mental health at risk is something that I hear here: there’s a lot of loneliness, isolation. Rivero: The person I was talking about that was lonely actually had a drug addiction: coke. And the coke was initially to stay awake, then became a bad habit because they were lonely and depressed and then they couldn’t stop. Epstein: And that person’s still out there driving? Rivero: Not at the moment. Money all went to the coke and they couldn’t pay the bills. Got a ticket, lost a license. Epstein: Still, what I’m hearing is that these kinds of situations that people are being put into make that kind of story, and its dangers, more likely. Rivero: Yes. Yes. Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera Epstein: So, now you’re part of a group taking action to try to bring about some change. What do you most want people to think about and feel when they see you and your fellow drivers, your fellow gig workers, your fellow human beings driving across the state of California and demonstrating next week? Rivero: I want everybody to think about where they work and to imagine that one day they walk in and their boss tells them, “We’re going to make you an independent contractor today. Congratulations. You get to set your own schedule. You get to have the flexibility you want, but we’re no longer going to pay you your benefits, your retirement plan, or anything else we gave you as an employee.” Because I have security guards in my building at home, who are independent contractors, who I thought were employees collecting benefits. Companies like Bench, who provide accounting and bookkeeping services, [have] admitted they want to provide the cheapest and fastest service possible. What that’s going to do is put businesses out of business in [those industries], and they’re not going to be the last. So, I want people to think about their jobs; they could be next if we don’t put a stop to [the current practices of] Uber and Lyft, because they’re the example of where we’re going. Epstein: There are certainly many billions of dollars involved in Uber and Lyft and a lot of relatively wealthy people feel that they have something riding on the success of those companies. Is there anything else that you want to share in gearing up for these actions next week? Rivero: Just that AB5 doesn’t take away anybody’s flexibility, it’s the companies that take away the flexibility. Because I know that that’s something that everyone’s stuck on right now, and it’s a lie. There’s no truth to it. Epstein: The last question I ask at the end of all of my TechCrunch interviews about technology and ethics is, how optimistic are you about our shared human future? About the future that we all share together, as human beings? Rivero: That’s a day by day question because I feel like things change so much. Some days it just feels like we go five steps back. Right now, in my world, we’ve gone way back. It’s just evolving. So I really can’t give a defined answer. Epstein: That’s a good answer, regardless. Thank you very much.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Google today announced a new long-term initiative that, if fully realized, will make it harder for online marketers and advertisers to track you across the web. This new proposal follows the company’s plans to change how cookies in Chrome work and to make it easier for users to block tracking cookies. Today’s proposal for a new open standard extends this by looking at how Chrome can close the loopholes that the digital advertising ecosystem can use to circumvent that. And soon, that may mean that your browser will feature new options that give you more control over how much you share without losing your anonymity. Over the course of the last few months, Google started talking about a ‘Privacy Sandbox’ which would allow for a certain degree of personalization while still protecting a user’s privacy. “We have a great reputation on security. […] I feel the way we earned that reputation was by really moving the web forward,” Justin Schuh, Google’s engineering director for Chrome security and privacy told me. “We provide a lot of benefits, worked on a lot of different fronts. What we’re trying to do today is basically do the same thing for privacy: have the same kind of big, bold vision for how we think privacy should work on the web, how we should make browsers and the web more private by default.” Here is the technical side of what Google is proposing today: to prevent the kind of fingerprinting that makes your machine uniquely identifiable as yours, Google is proposing the idea of a privacy budget. With this, a browser could allow websites to make enough API calls to get enough information about you to group your into a larger cohort but not to the point where you give up your anonymity. Once a site has exhausted this budget, the browser stops responding to any further calls. Some browsers also already implement a very restrictive form of cookie blocking. Google argues that this has unintended consequences and that there needs to be an agreed-upon set of standards. “The other browser vendors, for the most part, we think really are committed to an open web,” said Schuh, who also stressed that Google wants this to be an open standard and develop it in collaboration with other players in the web ecosystem. “There’s definitely been a lot of not intentional misinformation but just incorrect data about how sites monetize and how publishers are actually funded,” Schuh stressed. Indeed, Google today notes that its research has shown that publishers lose an average of 52 percent of their advertising revenue when their readers block cookies. That number is even higher for news sites. Google strengthens Chrome’s privacy controls In addition, blocking all third-party cookies is not a viable solution according to Google because developers will find ways around this restriction by relying on fingerprinting a user’s machine instead. Yet while you can opt out of cookies and delete them from your browser, you can’t opt out of being fingerprinted since there’s no data stored on your machine (unless you regularly change the configuration of your laptop, the fonts you have installed and other identifiable traits that make your laptop uniquely yours). What Google basically wants to do here is change the incentive structure for the advertising ecosystem. Instead of trying to circumvent a browser’s cookie and fingerprinting restrictions, the privacy budget, in combination with the industry’s work on federated learning and differential privacy, this is meant to give advertisers the tools they need without hurting publishers, while still respecting the users’ privacy. That’s not an easy switch and something that, as Google freely acknowledges, will take years. “It’s going to be a multi-year journey,” said Schuh. “What I can say is that I have very high confidence that we will be able to change the incentive structures with this. So we are committed to taking very strong measures to preserve user privacy, we are committed to combating abuses of user privacy. […] But as we’re doing that, we have to move the platform forward and make the platform inherently provide much more robust privacy protections.” Most of the big tech companies now understand that they have a responsibility to help their users retain their privacy online. Yet at the same time, personalized advertising relies on knowing as much as possible about a given user and Google itself makes the vast majority of its income from its various ad services. It sounds like this should create some tension inside the company. Schuh, however, argued that Google’s ad side and the Chrome team have their independence. “At the end of the day, we’re a web browser, we are concerned about our users base. We are going to make the decisions that are most in their interest so we have to weigh how all of this fits in,” said Schuh. He also noted that the ad side has a very strong commitment to user transparency and user control — and that if users don’t trust the ads ecosystem, that’s a problem, too. For the time being, though, there’s nothing here for you to try out or any bits being shipped in the Chrome browser. For now, this is simply a proposal and an effort on the Chrome team’s part to start a conversation. We should expect the company to start experimenting with some of these ideas in the near future, though. Just like with its proposed changes to how advertisers and sites use cookies, this is very much a long-term project for the company. Some users will argue that Google could take more drastic measures and simply use its tech prowess to stop the ad ecosystem from tracking you through cookies, fingerprinting and whatever else the adtech boffins will dream up next. If Google’s numbers are correct, though, that would definitely hurt publishers and few publications are in a position to handle a 50 percent drop in revenue. I can see why Google doesn’t want to do this alone, but it does have the market position to be more aggressive in pushing for these changes. WebKit’s new anti-tracking policy puts privacy on a par with security Apple, which doesn’t have any vested interest in the advertising business, has already made this more drastic move with the latest release of Safari. Its browser now blocks a number of tracking technologies, including fingerprinting, without making any concessions to advertisers. The results of this for publishers is in line with Google’s cookie study. As far as the rest of Chrome’s competitors, Firefox has started to add anti-fingerprinting techniques as well. Upstart Brave, too, has added fingerprinting protection for all third-party content, while Microsoft’s new Edge currently focuses on cookies for tracking prevention. By trying to find a middle path, Chrome runs the risk of falling behind as users look for browsers that protect their privacy today — especially now that there are compelling alternatives again.  

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Earlier this year, the world turned very sour on a group of rich and famous parents who were exposed for having paid big money to get their not-so-academic offspring into competitive universities, using tactics like cheating on tests and more to get those offers. But even if you put illegal manoeuvres to one side, money and power have (frustratingly) long played roles in gaming the system to access higher learning. Now, a startup that’s created an alternative route for those who are smart and willing to put in the work to get into those hallowed halls has raised some funding as it continues to grow. New Zealand’s Crimson Education, which has built a tech platform and consulting service to help students identify top schools and what they need to do in terms of academic and other activity to get in, has closed a $5 million round of funding. With this latest investment, the company is now valued at $245 million post-money, a big jump on the $160 million (NZ$220 million) valuation Crimson had in 2016 when Tiger Global invested $30 million. This latest is a small but strategic round: the money is coming from Solborn Investment, the VC arm of the Korean holding company Solborn, and it’s specifically aimed at helping Crimson build out its business in that country (Korea has a huge population of young people who are very keen to study outside the country.) The startup has raised $42 million to date, and from what we understand it’s quietly gearing up to raise another round to double down on another new market for the company: students in the US, looking for better guidance to get into schools in the US. The leap in Crimson’s valuation is due to the startup’s success, both in terms of student achievements and the business model that has been built around this. The company currently works with 1,500 tutors and has had 20,000 students use its platform to date. There have been more than 60 offers of places at Ivy League schools to Crimson students; a further 160+ to Oxford, Cambridge and other competitive schools; and over 500 successful applications to the top 50 universities in the US. As for the business model, pricing varies depending on the stage of the student (it offers programs for kids as young as 11), and what that student does — eg straight SAT tutoring or a full-service program that includes identifying schools, getting the right qualifications in order and applying — but in either case, it’s lucrative for Crimson. The average revenue per student in the US ranges between $5,000 and $10,000. Tutoring starts at $80 per hour, and $2,000 per module for the younger program. These costs are not small — you might even say it sounds like an extra year or two of college education — and indeed some 15% of students get some form of financial aid to use Crimson. Ivy League dogfooding Crimson was started in 2014 after one of the founders, Jamie Beaton, decided he wanted to apply to top schools beyond his native New Zealand. He eventually ended up at Harvard, and on the way he identified a gap in the market for international students who wanted to do the same but found navigating how to map one country’s educational system and experience onto another’s. So, he decided to build his own experience and methods into a business with two equally ambitious co-founders (Sharndre Kushor, pictured below with Beaton, and Fangzhou Jiang). He was still a student at Harvard when the startup was incorporated, hence the “Crimson” of the name. The company today is based around not just a network of human tutors, but a set of proprietary algorithms to identify what a student needs to do and the likelihood of achieving it, an app, a popular YouTube channel, a Q&A board, and a “philanthropy” arm which is focused on providing financial aid to people to use Crimson, and to help Crimson students access and get scholarships and other financial aid to study. Initially focused on international students who need help navigating the waters of applying to schools elsewhere, it turns out that domestic students need and want the same kind of advice and help, too. Beaton is now 24, and unsurprisingly he has become something of a poster child for Crimson because of his own grit-and-determination success. But to be clear, Beaton was not your average high school student, and he isn’t even your average over-achiever. Before he turned 18, he’d done some 10 A-Levels (somewhat akin to AP exams in the US, but more rigorous. Focused on the whole of your last two years of school and mandatory, most people take only three focused on what they eventually want to major in in undergrad). Beaton had made the effort to engage outside tutors to work with for all the subjects that his New Zealand high school could not accommodate, and engaged others to help him prepare for US-specific exams like the SAT, as well as work through the application process for the many schools whose admissions applications he filled out. And since his undergrad years at Harvard, where he studied applied mathematics, he received a masters at Harvard in the subject, then an MBA and a masters of education at Stanford, and is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford studying public policy. So as the company continues to grow, it will be worth watching how it navigates its brand, its message, and the inevitable involvement of more than the early adopting high-achievers who have used Crimson to date. That is to say, the company naturally attracts parents and kids who — even if they are only fractionally as self-motivated as Beaton seems to be — will already have a lot of focus and academic ability and may therefore be predisposed to succeeding through the platform. How will that change as it grows in popularity, and how will Crimson measure its success? In answer to the question, Beaton said that there is already a lot of academic analysis in place to make sure that Crimson is not effectively an echo chamber, providing help to those who are already well along the way to academic success. “When we bring a student on board we do a lot of academic assessments,” Beaton said. “We then look at baseline achievement level, and we can use that to track our contribution.” Similarly, the aim is not just for prestigious schools — even though that is essentially what it is right now — it’s to find the right school and right subject for the right person. If Crimson can capture that sucessfully, there is a lot of potential for the company to transcend the university admissions use case and provide an effective platform to replace those slightly stilted, standardised careers quizzes that exist today to help wayward teenagers figure out what they might want to do, and how to get there. “This is about helping to unlock future opportunities and providing advice,” Beaton said. “You can’t just push students into something.”

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Apple is getting ready for its usual fall iPhone launch event, which is rumored to be happening September 10, though the event hasn’t been officially confirmed this year. A new report from Bloomberg offers a preview of the lineup of hardware products it’s looking to debut this year. There are new iPhones, of course, including a new iPhone Pro model that replaces the XS line and adds a third, wider angle rear camera (which has been rumored previously), and a refreshed iPhone XR at the entry level that will also get a second, optical zoom camera. These new iPhone Pros would pack a lot of other updates besides, though they’ll look visually similar beyond the changed camera module. They’ll offer wireless charging for AirPods with the Qi-enabled wireless charging case, for instance, for a quick top-up when you’re the road, and they’ll also get new matte finishes on some models vs. the glossy look common to all iPhone models today. Updated Face ID will offer unlocking at more angles, and they’ll pack “dramatically” better water resistance, as well as improved shatter resistance to shrive drops. Also new this year, though not necessarily debuting at the same event, will be a new MacBook Pro with a display size somewhere over 16-inches, which Bloomberg reports will still manage to be similar overall in physical footprint to the current 15-inch MacBook Pros, thanks to a new bezel. There are also plans to roll out new AirPods, with a higher price tag but also added water resistance and noise cancelling features that the current AirPods lack. On the iPad side, Apple will refresh its iPad Pro this year, with updated versions of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models that will get spec bumps, plus better cameras, but otherwise remain the same in terms of form factor. The entry-level iPad will also get an update, with a screen size increase from 9.7-inches to 10.2-inches, which could mean that it also slims down its bezel and does away with the dedicated Home button, though the Bloomberg doesn’t make mention of how it will actually change to accommodate the larger display size. Apple Watch will also be updated, with the same case design introduced last year, but with at least new case finishes, which have leaked via the watchOS 6 update as coming in titanium and ceramic. Other planned updates in the report include details about the iPhone to follow in 2020, which it says will a rear-facing 3D camera, as well as 5G network support. The HomePod will also apparently get a sequel next year – a smaller version that will likely be a lot more affordable vs. the current $300 speaker.

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posted about 20 hours ago on techcrunch
Challenger bank N26 is announcing two things this week. First, the company lets you share sub-accounts with other N26 users in just a few taps. Second, after a limited beta test, the company is officially launching in the U.S. with open registration. Shared Spaces could be seen as an alternative to joint accounts. The feature could be particularly useful for groups with more than 2 persons and situations that temporarily require a shared account. For instance, you could use Shared Spaces for a vacation, to split bills with your roommates, etc. Only a small subset of the company’s user base can access the feature for now. N26 plans to gradually roll out Shared Spaces to all users. The company is building this feature on top of Spaces. This feature has been around for a while. It lets you create a sub-account and set aside some money in that separate sub-account. You can set savings goal and transfer money on a regular basis. Shares Spaces is basically a multiplayer version of Spaces. When a user creates a Space, they can invite up to 10 other N26 users to that Space. While the original user remains the owner of the Space, other users can freely deposit and withdraw money from the shared account. Sending an invite is the equivalent of granting a power of attorney on a Space. The admin of the Shared Space is the only person who can add and remove participant to the Shared Space. So it’s not technically a joint account as joint accounts have multiple owners. Interestingly, N26 is launching this as a premium feature. You need a premium N26 account in order to create a Shared Space, such as an N26 You subscription (€9.90 per month) or an N26 Metal subscription (€16.90 per month). You can invite free users, but free users are limited to two active Spaces. Those limitations will most certainly foster premium subscriptions. Unfortunately, you can’t spend money from a Shared Space directly for now. Your card and bank transfers remain tied to your main N26 account. You have to tap on a transaction and tap on “Pay back from a space” to get your money back from a Shared Space. N26 co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me that there could be a feature that lets you attach different cards to different Spaces in the future. When it comes to the U.S., N26 started accepting customers in the U.S. in early July. And it looks like it’s been working well as anyone in the U.S. can now download the app and open a bank account. N26 is also launching MoneyBeam in the U.S., a Venmo-like feature that lets you instantly send money to other N26 users. N26 is also launching perks in the U.S. You’ll get small discounts on some monthly subscriptions if you pay with your N26 card. Current partners include Aaptiv, Blinkist, Luminary and Tidal. I already coved the U.S. launch back in July, so head over to my previous article to learn more.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
Zomato, one of India’s biggest food delivery startups, has major ambitions. It is increasingly expanding its reach in the country to serve dozens of new cities and towns every few weeks. It is investing heavily in building cloud kitchens to quickly meet demand for certain food items. And it is internally working on “Project Kisan”, something which has not been reported earlier, to procure raw material directly from farmers and fishermen to better control the supply of items to restaurants. It also wants to deliver food by drones in the coming future. To boost its usage, Zomato is also trying to bring Zomato Gold, a two-year-old subscription program as part of which it allows customers dining in at a restaurant to access a number of discounted deals on food and drinks, to customers who prefer to eat at home, sources familiar with the matter have told TechCrunch in recent weeks. Zomato Gold is already a hit with a customer. The company expects Gold, which has amassed more than 800,000 customers, to bring in $20 million to $25 million in revenue by end of this year. But before Zomato goes about extending the program, Zomato Gold’s foundations have come under severe scrutiny from a number of restaurant partners in India who say that the startup’s offering is hurting their bottom line and brand image. More than 2,000 of the 6,500 partners of Zomato Gold have opted out of the program in recent days. The disruption occurred over the weekend after the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), a trade body that represents more than 500,000 restaurants in the country, kick started a #LogOut campaign against Zomato and other dining startups such as Nearbuy, Dineout, EazyDiner, and Magicpin. Image: Manish Singh / TechCrunch Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, quickly acknowledged the resistance and admitted that the company has made mistakes. “Somewhere, we have made mistakes and things haven’t gone as planned. This is a wake up call that we need to do 100x more for our restaurant partners than we have done before,” Zomato, which operates in two dozen countries, and other food startups and restaurant partners met earlier this week to reach a conclusion. That also did not go as planned. “Over the past two days, NRAI has held extensive meetings with all restaurant aggregators and we were bemused to learn that the aggregators were promoting deep discounts to stay competitive amongst each other. While one aggregator gave 1+1 (one drink or food item free on purchase of another drink or food item), the other had to adopt a 50% discount scheme in order to stay relevant,” Rahul Singh, President of the NRAI, said in a statement. Singh alleged that restaurants have to bear the cost of deep discounts that food aggregators offer on their platforms. “Restaurants do not get any share of the proceeds that aggregators generate from guests as subscription fees,” he added. Zomato, on its part, assured that it will bring changes to its Gold program by mid-September to introduce measures to prevent over usage by customers. But late Wednesday, NRAI rejected the proposal calling it insufficient and said restaurants will continue to stay off Zomato. The restaurant association said the problem is deep discounting that Zomato is bandying out through its Gold program and the startup’s proposed changes don’t really address that. “It’s a tweak in the drug, which doesn’t solve the addiction. Since the launch in November 2017, this program has been shifting goalposts. What started as an exclusive invite only privilege, became a marketplace for bargain hunters, a word admitted by the Zomato founder in recent tweets. This Gold has lost its sheen. We stand united in the cause to obviate the deep discounting phenomenon and will therefore #stayloggedout,” the NRAI said in a statement. Restaurants have also complained that if they do not accept Zomato Gold program, customers are disappointed and leave bad ratings on the platform, which significantly hurts their sales. Zomato makes most of its revenue from promoting listings on its platform. A Zomato spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company was committed to making some changes to its program, but declined to comment further.

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posted about 22 hours ago on techcrunch
Commerce and marketing are radically changing these days. Consumers are increasingly looking for brands they identify with, while at the same time, the cost of acquiring users is increasing year-over-year for marketers. For brands, that math makes marketing complicated: they want to reach the right customers with the most efficient acquisition channels in order to drive the best return. Toronto-headquartered Drop thinks it has a formula — and one that might put some dollars (Canadian and U.S.) in consumers’ pockets. Drop is a mobile app that scans your credit card purchases and then proceeds to give you offers on things you might want to spend. Those offers have now led to a big offer from VCs, to the tune of a $44 million series B round of capital led by Onsi Sawiris of HOF Capital . In addition, the Royal Bank of Canada joined the round as a strategic investor. NEA leads $21m round for Drop, a rewards app for millennials When we last caught up with CEO and founder Derrick Fung, Drop had recently raised its series A from NEA. In the interim, the startup has continued to grow rapidly, providing customers $19 million in rewards and helping to drive $350 million in sales to 300 merchant partners, according to the company. Fung said that “our thesis … from two years ago is generally the same: consumers, especially this new generation of consumers, are all looking for new ways to save money and improve their financial health.” Meanwhile, “with retailers, they’re all hungry to find more cost-effective ways to market. And I’d say more than ever before, Facebook, Google, and the traditional platforms are just very expensive.” Drop offers consumers ways to gain points and spend them, such as this offer from Warby Parker. (Via Drop) Drop wants to take those digital ad dollars and turn them into much more direct engagement with actual consumers. “What we’ve introduced, which we think is very unique, is instead of displaying ads, we are essentially cutting the consumer in on the deal. […] That’s what makes our platform more cost effective, because the consumer actually gets something in return.” While Drop is now available in the U.S. and Canada on both iOS and Android, Fung says that the company’s next two markets will be Australia and the United Kingdom. The loyalty space has heated up in the last few years with different strategic plays. Bumped, an app that pays consumers in the stock of the companies they shop at, has raised capital from Canaan. Meanwhile, New York City-based Lolli has taken a similar approach but pays out bitcoin instead. Despite those new entrants, Fung believes that Drop’s current focus on points is the right call. “I’d say that based on research we’ve done, points is still the most favorite reward for consumers,” he said. Canopy Labs Relaunches To Help Businesses Understand Their “Fuzzy” Customer Funnels Since the company’s last fundraise, it acquired YC-backed Canopy Labs, which offered a service that helped companies evaluate customer journeys on their sites. The acquisition was designed to accelerate Drop’s machine learning capabilities to better match merchants and consumers as the company expands the depth of its two-sided marketplace. The company currently has 77 employees across its Toronto and New York offices, and expects to double that count in the next 18 to 24 months. In addition to HOF and RBC, the round was joined by previous investors NEA, Sierra, and White Star Capital.

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posted about 23 hours ago on techcrunch
Lasst die Spiele beginnen, startup founders — let the games begin! In case you haven’t heard, the application window for the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019 is wide open and waiting for you. Don’t miss the chance to launch your early-stage startup on an international stage in front of some of tech’s most influential movers and shakers. Grab this opportunity and apply to compete today. What’s at stake? How does $50,000 sound? How does intense investor interest and global media exposure sound? Pretty darned good, amirite? Keep in mind that it won’t cost you anything to apply or to participate in the Startup Battlefield. No fees, no equity — no kidding. All participants benefit from the exposure, and they all become part of the Startup Battlefield alumni community. Since 2007, 857 startups have launched their dreams on the Startup Battlefield stage and gone on to collectively raise $8.9 billion while producing 112 exits. Companies like Vurb, Dropbox, Mint, Yammer and many more. Is your startup the next big name? Here’s how the world-famous pitch competition works. The application process is simple, but very competitive. Veteran TechCrunch editors closely review every application looking for high-potential startups. They’ll select approximately 15-20 companies to compete If your startup makes the cut, you’ll receive free pitch coaching from TechCrunch in the form of six rigorous weeks. The Battlefield team will help you fine-tune your pitch, demo and presentation skills. Come the big day, you’ll be ready to slay. Startup Battlefield consists of two rounds. Each team has six minutes to pitch to a world-class panel of judges — followed by a six-minute Q&A session. The founders who make it through to the second round will present again to a fresh set of judges. One remarkable startup will win the day, the Disrupt Cup, serious bragging rights and, oh yes, that $50,000 prize. All teams benefit, and we’re not just saying that to make you feel better. The event takes place in front of a huge audience filled with investors, media and tech icons — and we record and live-stream the whole shooting match around the world. Participating in the Startup Battlefield can change the trajectory of your business. You’ll get to exhibit in Startup Alley for the entire show. Imagine starting conversations with potential investors or partners with, “We competed in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield.” You’ll have their attention. The Startup Battlefield takes place at Disrupt Berlin 2019 on 11-12 December. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to debut your early-stage startup to the world and take it to new heights. Apply to Startup Battlefield today. Lasst die Spiele beginnen! Pro Tip: You can use the same application to apply for the TC Top Picks program. If you make the cut, you’ll receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, VIP treatment and lots of media and investor exposure. Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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posted 1 day ago on techcrunch
ThredUp, the 10-year-old fashion resale marketplace, has a lot of big news to boast about lately. For starters, the company just closed on $100 million in fresh funding from an investor syndicate that includes Park West Asset Management, Irving Investors and earlier backers Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, Upfront Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Redpoint Ventures. The round brings ThredUP’s total capital raised to more than $300 million, including a previously undisclosed $75 million investment that it sewed up last year. A potentially even bigger deal for the company is a new resale platform that both Macy’s and JCPenney are beginning to test out, wherein ThedUp will be sending the stores clothing that they will process through their own point-of-sale systems, while trying to up-sell customers on jewelry, shoes, and other accessories. It says a lot that traditional retailers are coming to see gently used items as a potential revenue stream for themselves, and little wonder given the size of the resale market, estimated to be a $24 billion market currently and projected to become a $51 billion market by 2023. We talked yesterday with ThredUp founder and CEO James Reinhart to learn more about its tie-up with the two brands and to find out what else the startup is stitching together. TC: You’ve partnered with Macy’s and JCPenney. Did they approach you or is ThredUp out there pitching traditional retailers? JR: I think [the two companies] have been thinking about resale for some time. They’re trying to figure out how to best serve their customers. Meanwhile, we’ve been thinking about how we power resale for a broader set of partners, and there was a meeting of the minds six months ago We’re positioned now where we can do this really effectively in-store, so we’re starting with a pilot program in 30 to 40 stores, but we could scale to 300 or 400 stores if we wanted. TC: How is this going to work, exactly, with these partners? JR: We have the [software and logistics] architecture and the selection to put together carefully curated selections of clothing for particular stores, including the right assortment of brands and sizes, depending on where a Macy’s is located, for example. Macy’s then wraps a high-quality experience around [those goods]. Maybe it’s a dress, but they wrap a handbag and scarves and jewelry around the dress purchase. We feel [certain] that future consumers will buy new and used at the same time. TC: Who is your demographic, and please don’t say everyone. JR: It is everyone. It’s not a satisfying answer, but we sell 30,000 brands. We serve lots of luxury customers with brands like Louis Vuitton, but we also sell Old Navy. What unites customers across all brands is they want to find brands that they couldn’t have afforded new; they’re trading up to brands that, full price, would have been too much, so Old Navy shoppers are [buying] Gap [whose shopper are buying] J. Crew and Theory and all the way up. Consistently, what we hear is [our marketplace] allows customers to swap out their wardrobes at higher rates than would be possible otherwise, and it feels to them like they’re doing it in a more [environmentally] responsible way. TC: What percentage of your shoppers are also consigning goods? JR: We don’t track that closely, but it’s typically about a third. TC: Do you think your customers are buying higher-end goods with a mind toward selling them, to defray their overall cost? I know that’s the thinking of CEO Julie Wainwright at [rival] The RealReal. It’s all supposed to be a kind of virtuous circle of shopping. JR:  We like to talk about buying the handbag, then selling it, but plenty of people will also buy a second-hand Banana Republic sweater because it’s a value [and because] fashion is the second-most polluting industry on the planet. TC: How far are you going to combat that pollution? I’m just curious if you’re in any way try to bolster the sale of hemp, versus maybe nylon, clothes for example. JR: We aren’t driving material selection. Our thesis is: we want to stay out of the fashion business and instead ensure there’s a responsible way for people to buy second hand. TC: For people who haven’t used ThredUp, walk through the economics. How much of each sale does someone keep? JR: On ThredUp, it isn’t a uniform payment; it depends instead on the brand. On the luxury end, we pay [sellers] more than anyone else — we pay up to 80 percent when we resell it. If it’s Gap or Banana Republic, you get maybe 10 or 15 or 20 percent based on the original price of the item. TC: How would you describe your standards? What goes into the reject pile? JR: We have high standards. Items have to be in like-new or gently used condition, and we reject more than half of what people send us. But I think there’s probably more leeway for the Theory’s and J.Crew’s of the world than if you’re buying a Chanel dress. TC: Unlike some of your rivals, you don’t sell to men. Why not? JR: Men’s is a small market in secondhand. Men wear the same four colors — blue, black, gray and brown — so it’s not a big resale market. We do sell kids’ clothing, and that’s a big part of our market. TC: When Macy’s now sells a dress from ThredUp, how much will you see from that transaction? JR: We can’t share the details of the economics. TC: How many people are now working for ThredUp? JR: We have less than 200 in our corporate office in San Francisco, and 50 in Kiev, and then across four distribution centers — in Phoenix; Mechanicsburg [Pa.]; Atlanta; and Chicago — we have another 1,200 employees. TC: You’ve now raised a lot of money in the last year. How will it be used? JR: On our resale platform [used by retailers like Macy’s] and on building our tech and operations and building new distribution centers to process more clothing. We can’t get people to stop sending us stuff. [Laughs.] TC: Before you go, what’s the most under-appreciated aspect of your business? JR: The logistics behind the scenes. I think for every great e-commerce business, there are incredible logistics [challenges to overcome] behind the scenes. People don’t appreciate how hard that piece is, alongside the data. We’re going to process our 100 millionth item by the end of this year. That’s a lot of data.

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