posted 2 days ago on techcrunch
Spotify’s lack of full lyrics support and its minimal attention to voice are beginning to become problems for the streaming service. The company has been so focused on the development of its personalization technology and programming its playlists, it has overlooked key features that its competitors – including Apple, Google, and Amazon – today offer and are now capitalizing on. For example, in the updated version of Apple Music rolling out this fall with iOS 12, users won’t just have access to lyrics in the app as before, they will also be able to perform searches by lyrics instead of only by the artist, album, or song title. And Apple Music is actually playing catch up with Amazon on this front. Amazon Music, which has quietly grown to become the third largest music streaming service, allows users to view the lyrics as songs play, and ties that to its Alexa voice platform. Amazon Music users with an Alexa device can also search for songs by lyrics just by saying “play the song that goes…”. The company has been offering this capability for close to two years. While it had originally been one of Alexa’s hidden gems, today asking Alexa to pull up a song by its lyrics is considered a standard feature. Though Google has lagged behind Apple, Spotify and Amazon in music, its clever Google Assistant is capable of search-by-lyrics, too. And as an added perk, it can also work like Shazam to identify a song that’s playing nearby. With the rise of voice-based computing, features like asking for songs with verbal commands or querying databases of lyrics by voice are now expected features. And where’s Spotify on this? It has launched lyrics search only in Japan so far, and refuses to provide a timeline as to when it will make this a priority in other markets. Even tucked away in the app’s code are references to lyrics tests only in the non-U.S. markets of Thailand and Vietnam. Spotify is testing viewing lyrics within mobile app. For some reason, the code suggests this feature might be rolled out to Japan, Thailand and Vietnam pic.twitter.com/7fQbIZgR5k — Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) June 1, 2018 Those tests have been underway since the beginning of the year, we understand from sources. But the attention being given to these tests is minimal – Spotify isn’t even measuring user engagement with the lyrics feature at this point. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wasn’t even aware his team was working on these lyrics tests, we heard, which implies a lack of management focus on this product. Meanwhile, competitors like Apple and Amazon have dedicated lyrics teams. We asked Spotify multiple times if it was currently testing lyrics in the U.S. You can see one person who claims they gained access here, for example. But the company never responded to our questions. Image credit: Imgur via Reddit user spalatidium Some Spotify customers who largely listen to popular music may be confused about the lack of a full lyrics product in the app. That’s because Spotify partnered with Genius in 2016 to launch “Behind the Lyrics,” which offers lyrics and music trivia on a portion of its catalog. But you don’t see all the song’s lyrics when the music plays because they’re interrupted with facts and other background  information about the song, the lyrics’ meaning, or the artist. That same year, Spotify also ditched its ties with Musixmatch, which had been providing its lyrics support, as the two companies could no longer come to an agreement. There was expectation from users that lyrics would return at some point – but only “Behind the Lyrics” emerged to fill the void. Demand for a real lyrics feature remains strong, though. Users regularly post on social media and Reddit about the topic. Hey @Spotify Could you make it possible to show the lyrics while playing a song somehow?Not, that i do not apreciate some trivia, but i would enjoy your App more if i could sing the text right ^^" Thank you — Felycitas Black (@FelycitasBlack) August 15, 2018 Remember when @spotify had a pretty good song lyrics feature but then their third party lyric provider told them to fuck off so they removed it and never bothered to replace it? — Daria (@imhkr) August 14, 2018 guys shall we open a petition to have back the lyrics on @Spotify? #wewannasingalong — alessia (@cheekyprofile) August 10, 2018 I miss the days when @Spotify had lyrics available for songs — Raikar (@Raikar_tv) August 12, 2018 A request for lyrics’ return is also one of the most upvoted product ideas on Spotify’s user feedback forum. It has 9,237 “likes,” making it the second-most popular request. (The idea has been flagged “Watch this Space,” but it’s been tagged like that for so long it’s no longer a promise of something that’s soon to come.) There is no internal solution in the works, we understand, and it’s not working on a new deal with a third-party at this time.   The lack of lyrics is becoming a problem in other areas, as well, now that competitors are launching search-by-lyrics features that work via voice commands. In fact, Spotify was late, in general, to address users’ interest in voice assistance – even though a primary use case for music listening is when you’re on the go – like, in the car, out walking or jogging, at the gym, biking, etc. It only began testing a voice search option this spring, accessible then through a new in-app button. Now rolled out to mobile users on Spotify Premium, the voice search product works via a long-press on the Search button in the app. You can then ask Spotify to play music, playlists, podcasts, and videos. But the feature is still wonky. For one thing, hiding it away as a long press-triggered option means many users probably don’t know it exists. And secondly, it doesn’t address the primary reason users want to search by voice: hands-free listening. Meanwhile, iPhone/HomePod users can tell Siri to play music with a hands-free command; Google Assistant/Google Home users can instruct the helper to play their songs – even if they only know the lyrics. And Amazon Music’s Alexa integration is live on Echo speakers, and available hands-free in its Music app. Even third-party music services like Pandora are tapping into the voice platforms’ capabilities to provide search by lyrics. For example, Pandora Premium launched this week on Google Assistant devices like the Google Home, and offers search-by-lyrics powered by Google Assistant. Spotify can’t offer search-by-lyrics, much less search-by-lyrics using voice commands, because it doesn’t even have a fully functional lyrics feature. Voice and lyrics aren’t the only challenges Spotify is facing going forward. Spotify also lacks dedicated hardware like its own Echo or HomePod. Given the rise of voice-based computing and voice assistants, the company has the potential to cede some portion of the market as consumers end up buying into the larger ecosystems provided by the main tech players: Siri/HomePod/Apple Music vs. Google Assistant/Google Home/Google Play Music (or YouTube Music) vs. Alexa/Echo/Amazon Music (all promoted by Prime). For now, Spotify works with partners to make sure its service performs on their platforms, but Apple isn’t playing nice in return. Elsewhere, Spotify may play but won’t be as fully functional as the native solutions. With Spotify as the default service on Echo devices, for example, Alexa can’t always figure out commands that instruct it to play music by lyrics, activity, or mood – commands that work well with Amazon Music, of course. Other cracks in Spotify’s dominance are starting to show, as well.  Amazon Music has seen impressive growth, thanks to adoption in four key Prime markets, U.S., Japan, Germany and the U.K.. With now 12% of the music streaming market, it has become the dark horse that’s been largely ignored amid discussions of the Amazon vs Spotify battle. But it’s not necessarily one to count out just yet. YouTube Music, though brand new, has managed to snag Lyor Cohen as its Global Music Head, while Spotify’s latest headlines are about losing Troy Carter. Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook just announced during the last earnings call that Apple Music has moved ahead of Spotify in North America. He also warned against ceding too much control to algorithms, in a recent interview, making a sensible argument for maintaining music’s “spiritual role” in our lives. “We worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft,” Cook mused. Apple was late to music streaming, having been so tied to its download business. But it has the luxury of time to get it right, knowing that its powerful iPhone platform offers anything it launches a built-in advantage. (And it’s poised to offer TV shows as a part of its subscription, too.) Despite these concerns, Spotify doesn’t need to panic yet – it still has more listeners, more paying customers, and more consumer mindshare in the music streaming business. It has its popular playlists and personalization features. It has its RapCaviar. But it will need to plug its holes to keep up where the market is heading, or risk losing customers to the larger platforms in the months ahead.

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It reminds me of something out of Blade Runner. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit futuristic – a bit unreal. Maybe it’s because I’m looking at an ad somewhere I never expected to see one, like the skyscraper-height ads of Ridley Scott’s future. Grabb-It turns a car’s side rear window into a full color display, playing location-aware ads to anyone who might be standing curbside. They’re currently aiming to work with rideshare/delivery drivers, enabling them to make a bit of extra coin while doing the driving they’re already doing. As the driver crosses town, the ads can automatically switch to focus on businesses nearby. Near the ball park? It might pitch you on tickets for tonight’s game. Over in The Mission? It could play an ad about happy hour at the bar behind you. So how’s it work? I couldn’t figure it out at first glance – but once they opened the car door, it all clicked. The key: projection. It turns your window into a rear projection TV on wheels, of sorts. Grabb-It applies a material to the inside of a car’s right rear window to act as a projection surface. The material is thin enough that the window can still be opened — but, in what might annoy some passengers, not thin enough that you can see much through it. They mount a small projector inside the car and point it toward the window, blasting an image bright enough to see from the outside. I saw it running in a dim below-ground parking lot and outside in direct sunlight, and the image was surprisingly clear in both cases. The end result is quite neat to see (which is something I’m really not used to saying about tech meant to show me ads.) Because the projection material is custom cut for each car, the image can cover pretty much the entire surface of the window glass. It gives the illusion of a display custom built for the contours of the car. It’s meant to only run when the driver is between rides. Once a passenger hops in the car, the projector is shut off – because, well, no one wants a projector blasting light in their face on the way to their next meeting. While the company is working on its own hardware kit, the build I saw was an early iteration running a small off-the-shelf projector. Even at this stage, it’s a pretty effective demo. While this prototype requires the driver to manually toggle the projector by remote control, Grabb-It’s founders tell me their eventual hardware will automatically detect when the rear doors open and cut the projector on-the-fly. The image juddered a bit as the idling engine vibrated, though that seems like something that could be improved with better dampening. I am a bit wary of the distraction factor; will a fully animated ad playing on the car next to you work out to eyes off the road ahead? While Grabb-It tells me they’re working with the proper authorities to ensure it’s all road-legal, I imagine people might contest it as more cars utilizing the tech hit the roads. Grabb-It says they’ll cover the cost of installation for drivers – and if a driver decides to remove it, it’s just a matter of unmounting the projector and peeling the projection material from the window. The company tells me it’s currently testing with around 25 drivers around San Francisco, with earnouts working out to around $300 a month for those driving 40 hours a week. It’s not enough to pay the bills on its own, but it’s a solid chunk of change for something that will, if all goes to plan, be entirely automated. Grabb-It is part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2018 class, and has raised around $100k outside of YC.

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Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott of all US technology during a speech in the country’s capital city of Ankara. “Every product that we buy in foreign currency from outside, we will produce them here and sell abroad,” said Erdogan during the speech. “We will boycott the electronics products of the U.S.” Erodagan continued to suggest that for every Apple iPhone Turkish citizens could use a Korean Samsung phone instead. An ironic statement given the importance the iPhone had in helping him quell a military coup in the country in 2016 that sought to remove him from power. In what became a swiftly ended (though still deadly with over 200 casualties) coup, Erodagan used Facetime to call his supporters to the streets. This announcement follows a tense week in Turkey where the country’s currency, the lira, fell more than 25 percent according the New York Times. As the country struggles with increasing economic turmoil on its own soil, it continues to butt heads with the Trump administration as well. Despite their history as allies, diplomatic tensions between the two countries have been rising this past year. Last fall, a visa ban between the two was enacted following the arrests of two US mission staff in Turkey for suspected connections to the 2016 coup. While the visa ban was lifted in late December, this summer diplomatic tensions have continued to rise over the detention of a US pastor in the country for alleged connections to the same coup. Last week, Trump announced an increase in tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium in a tweet saying: I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time! In addition to its tech boycott, Turkey also retaliated yesterday with its own increased tariffs on US goods, including cars and alcohol.

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LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social networking platform for the working world with over 500 million users, is making a significant change as it continues to look for ways to make its platform more useful (and used). The company is relaunching Groups by rolling it into its main app by the end of the month after quietly pulling the standalone app earlier this year, and it will be streamlining the service by cutting out several features, including an ability for Group administrators to pre-moderate comments; and a way to email send Group posts as emails to the whole group, while also adding in new features like threaded replies and the ability to post video and other media. An announcement detailing the changes was sent out to a select Groups power users earlier today, and we have confirmed the details with LinkedIn directly. Mitali Pattnaik, the product manager for Groups, said that some of the discontinuations — such as the ability to approve posts before they are live — are temporary and will make their way back to the app in some form over time. The moves come nearly three years after LinkedIn tried another approach to put some more wind into Groups’ sails. In 2015, the company hived off an updated version of Groups into its own standalone app. Included in the changes, Groups were made private with the aim of reducing some of the spam that people were posting. The bigger idea was that, with some 2 million Groups already on LinkedIn, users would be able to dedicate more time to posting, reading and managing (if they were admins) those groups, and creating new groups, once they were in their own app. And on the part of LinkedIn, it would help the company focus on developing features specifically tailored to the Groups experience. But the move did not go down well. In the wake of the changes, reports started to surface about how the moves stifled usage of groups, turning the platform into what some were calling a ghost town. And LinkedIn itself, it seems, was finding it a challenge to continue updating the app, even as LinkedIn itself was getting enhanced with new features. “Being a standalone app, Groups was not able to take advantage of the overall LinkedIn ecosystem,” Pattnaik said. “Everything from the news feed to notifications to search, these things move at a fast pace, and the minute the apps got separated the main app innovated at a much faster pace and became more advanced than the standalone Groups app.” LinkedIn then quietly pulled the Groups app in February this year, as it announced plans to integrate the feature. It’s not clear what kind of impact the last three years have had on the product. These days company does not comment on how many groups there are, nor how much they are used, except to say that there are “over 2 million” and that more than half of all LinkedIn members are at least in one group. (The person who oversaw Groups’ move to becoming a standalone app is also no longer at the company.) LinkedIn’s main app, on the other hand, has seen session time rise by 41 percent year-on-year, “growing consecutively for several quarters.” The removal of the standalone app is in line with how another social network has evolved its own Group effort. Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook announced that it too was killing off its Groups app so that it could integrate the feature closer with the core app experience. In both the case of LinkedIn and Facebook, the idea is somewhat the same: while we have our wider networks of friends and Pages that we follow on both platforms, sometimes there is value in communities that are focused around more specific interests, and ultimately, that might turn out to be the lever that brings more people in and out of using the main service. On a product iteration level, it seems that LinkedIn is not the only one that found it hard to keep up with changes across two platforms that essentially rested of many of the same mechanics. As part of being rebuilt on LinkedIn’s platform, Groups will be getting a number of new features — essentially tapping into new features that LinkedIn has rolled out over the last several quarters on its own app but hadn’t built for the (previously standalone) Groups platform. For starters, conversations taking place in Groups will now appear in-stream on the LinkedIn feed, rather than in a separate tab. When group members are replying to posts, there will now be threaded replies, which will let people respond directly to comments within the thread. Groups are also going to have a rich media infusion: users will be able to edit posts and share videos and other non-text formats. This is a very long overdue feature, considering how central video and rich media like GIFs have been on other platforms in getting people engaged in a service, and also considering that LinkedIn’s been showing video in its feed for a while now. “Since video launched on LinkedIn, Groups have been asking for this,” she said. It also looks like LinkedIn will also be pushing a lot more Group activity into your notifications tab, while alongside this, it’s sunsetting the e-mail blast. That might not be such a bad thing: while it did help admins get information out (especially when Groups updates were essentially hidden from the average LinkedIn user), Pattnaik admitted that the email feature “can be abused” by those simply looking to promote themselves. Admins are also getting a few new controls. They will be able to pin important items to the top of a Groups’ individual feed, and Pattnaik said that LinkedIn is working on a way to collapse those pinned notifications after they’ve been viewed by the member so that they don’t continue to take up space. They will also be able to approve and remove members by way of the app, as well as send out messages when necessary. [gallery ids="1691948,1691949,1691950"] LinkedIn, it seems, hopes that people will be able to use the LinkedIn app to discover more Groups that they can join — when Groups choose to have themselves “listed” and discoverable — but one thing that won’t be changing with the new version is that those users will still have to get permission from admins before they can join.  While Groups have a lot in common with how groups of employees might communicate using a messaging app like Slack (or stablemate Yammer, or Facebook’s Workplace) LinkedIn says that it has no plans at the moment to develop Groups into something that could be used in this way. The reason for this, Pattnaik says, is that for the moment LinkedIn isn’t focused on developing a way to verify whether a person is actually an employee at a particular company. “We are always evaluating ways to verify identity across the site, such as verification processes to help detect fake profiles,” a spokesperson said. It has made some small steps in building products for company-only teams, however, for example Elevate to share content among coworkers. In the meantime, the company is also continuing to develop other products beyond the main app. Just today, Sales Navigator got a quarterly refresh with more tools to update on deals, stronger integration with CRM apps and more.

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With Android Pie now available (on a handful of devices, at least), Google’s prepping the launch of its low-powered counterpart. Android 9 Pie (Go edition) — the successor to the more pithily named Android Go — will be hitting arriving on devices this fall. Like Android Oreo (Go Edition), the latest OS is a stripped down version of its latest full operating system, designed to run on devices with 1GB of RAM. The more modest hardware requirements make it a compelling match for low-cost devices and thus a solid option for developing markets. Among other things, it will offer faster boot times than standard Android and will free up space on the phone’s storage. There are new security features on board as well, along with a dashboard for monitoring data consumption. There are a number of updates to individual Go apps, too, including the ability to read sites’ content aloud in Google Go and navigation in Maps Go. According to Google, the Android (Go edition) is currently available on 200 devices in more than 120 countries.

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Holy hackathon, people. Here’s an exciting update on the judges and semi-finalists who are set to make the Virtual Hackathon — at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2018 on September 5-7 — an event that redefines “epic.” Since June, more than 1,000 developers, programmers, hackers and tech makers all over the world have been hard at work on their most creative hacks, and we recruited an impressive panel of judges — check out their bona fides below — to help us narrow the field. There were so many incredible hacks, but only 30 semi-finalist slots. We don’t envy the judges, but they rose to the challenge. The semi-finalists (see below) represent the 30 highest-scoring teams, and they’ll go on to demo their projects at Disrupt SF 2018. From that field of 30, the judges will thin the herd down to 10 finalists, and those teams will demo their product to the world on The Next Stage at Disrupt. Only one team will emerge from the pack with a hack so awesome that they simply must be named champion of the first TechCrunch Disrupt Virtual Hackathon — and pocket the $10,000 grand prize. It’s an event you won’t want to miss. We’re honored to have such an impressive panel of judges from Slack, Pinterest, Color, Google and Cloudflare — some of the top companies in tech. John Agan John Agan leads Slack’s partner engineering team to support and grow the partner ecosystem. He works with top partners across the globe to build new, innovative integrations on the Slack platform and drive overall growth and improvement in the Slack app ecosystem. Prior to joining Slack, John was the global director of solutions engineering at GitHub and the principal UX engineer of Analytics Cloud at Salesforce. Sha Sha Chu Sha Sha Chu has 15 years of experience as a developer and engineering leader. She currently serves as the Android platform technical lead at Pinterest, where she guides the overall technical direction of the Pinterest app for Android. Previously, Sha Sha worked in the games industry, shipping several console and PC titles for franchises like James Bond, The Lord of the Rings and The Sims during her time at EA. She also contributed to development on one of the first major cloud gaming platforms with OnLive. Sha Sha holds a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. Wendy McKennon Wendy McKennon, vice president of product at Color, oversees product quality and user experience. She spent several years at Google as a team leader and as an individual contributor on products such as Google Maps, Wallet and AdWords. Prior to her time at Google, she worked at Method Design and Yahoo. Wendy holds a degree in symbolic systems from Stanford University. Marily Nika Based in San Francisco, Marily Nika currently works on Google Assistant. She’s also a founder in the edtech space and a board member for two startups. Marily holds a doctorate in computer science, and loves new tech and fresh ideas. She’s participated in 30 hackathons to date, emceed TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathons in London and Berlin, delivered three TEDx talks and received international recognition — including the Woman of the Year 2018 Award (FDM Group) and WISE Influence Award 2015 for empowering the #womenintech community. You can find Marily on Twitter @marilynika. Jennifer Taylor Jennifer Taylor, head of products at Cloudflare, leads the delivery of world-class, cloud-based performance, security and content delivery solutions for companies of all sizes. Previously she was a senior vice president of product management for search at Salesforce, where she built enterprise search experiences that connect people with relevant information they need to produce business results. She led Salesforce’s Data.com, which helps customers sell faster and smarter using a foundation of intelligent insights. She also shaped the direction of Salesforce Chatter, the company’s powerful collaboration software. Prior to Salesforce, Jennifer held a variety of senior product management and marketing roles at Facebook and Adobe. Earlier in her career, Jennifer worked as a product manager at Macromedia (acquired by Adobe) for Dreamweaver — the popular graphical Web development tool — and she worked as an associate at Vector Capital. And here, ladies and gentlemen, are the 30 semi-finalist Virtual Hackathon teams that will demo their products at Disrupt SF 2018 — but only 10 of them will move on to demo their hack on The Next Stage. Loro Pulse Wellsheet Smart Folios Rivis Wavy faceStylr Janus Who’s Up? Citymixr Check-In Cheque-Out Warmly ourBlock SeeThru Price Transparency Marketplace GeoWorx Splitsies Linda HEARTPartner Blindsight – Virtual Eyes Through Haptic Feedback TalkTalk ProblemPal Proliferate Bocabot Crohn’s AI CAR-O-KE Pricepoint Airship bot UPayBro PruPay Candid In addition to the overall best in show prize from TechCrunch, we had amazing participation for our sponsors, like Visa, who gave out a slew of cash and an Oculus VR headset to the hack teams that used their API the best. Check out all the crazy projects and sponsor contests on the hackathon page.

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While the potential for entertainment in virtual and augmented reality has grabbed the most headlines, these new platforms promise radical transformations across industries and the very way that people interact with their world. And no company is doing more to develop the toolkit for how to build applications for these new interactions than 6D.AI. At our inaugural TC Sessions: AR/VR event on UCLA’s world-famous campus on October 18, join 6D.AI co-founder and chief executive Matt Miesnieks and head of developer relations, Bruce Wooden, as they discuss 6D’s big vision of using smartphone cameras to build a cloud-based map of the world’s three-dimensional data. The company’s goal is nothing short of supercharging augmented reality content in a way that could actually make it useful to people. Miesnieks certainly knows about the need for applications to drive adoption in a new ecosystem. After a career in the trenches developing mobile software infrastructure for companies like Samsung and Layar, Miesnieks made the jump to AR software infrastructure in 2009. A founding partner of the firm Super Ventures, which exclusively invests in augmented reality startups, Miesnieks was drawn to 6D and its vision as soon as he saw it demonstrated in the labs at Oxford University. Wooden, 6D’s head of developer relations, has his own storied career in the world of augmented reality. He was a co-founder of Altspace (which was sold to Microsoft) and SVVR, the world’s largest virtual reality community. “We want to be a platform that informs AR app developers of the real world without the real world — the structure of the real world, what’s going on in the real world, who else is in the real world — and let them build intelligent apps on top of that,” Miesnieks has said of his company’s mission. TC Sessions: AR/VR on October 18 at UCLA is a single-day event designed to facilitate in-depth conversations, hands-on demos and networking opportunities with the industry leaders, content creators and game changers bringing innovation to the masses. Purchase your Early Bird tickets here for just $99 and you’ll save $100 before prices go up! Students get a special rate of just $45 when they book here.

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If you’ve made any payments with a chip card, you’ve probably had awkward moments — those long seconds after you’ve inserted the card and everyone behind you is (literally or metaphorically) tapping their foot, waiting for the card to be processed. Well, Square has been working on this problem for a while now. Last fall, for example, CEO Jack Dorsey said the company had gotten the processing time down to under three seconds. Today, the company is announcing that it’s shaved even more time off, and that Square Readers can now process chip cards in two seconds. To achieve this, it says it’s worked closely with payment partners — and it’s also streamlined the process so that you can remove your card as soon as it’s read, without waiting for the response from the card issuer. In contrast, when the Wall Street Journal timed chip cards in over 50 transactions a couple years ago, it found that the average processing time was 13 seconds. Those extra seconds might not sound like much in theory, but again, if you’re in a hurry or you’ve got a line of people behind you, the wait can be painful. Plus, it sounds like this can make a real difference for businesses. In the announcement, Regan Long, co-founder and brewmaster at Local Brewing Co., said that with his brewery’s location near the Giants’ AT&T Park in San Francisco, there’s usually “a rush of customers all ready to close out their open beer tabs at the same time.” “With Square’s chip card reader update, we’ve cut processing time in half — helping us keep customers happy and on their way to catch the first pitch,” he added. In addition to faster chip card processing, Square is making another speed-related announcement: With the latest update, Square’s free point-of-sale app will allow sellers to skip collecting signatures if they choose.

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Andy Rachleff, who cofounded the venture firm Benchmark back in 1995 and has more recently been leading the wealth management firm Wealthfront and teaching at Stanford, is widely sought out for his startup advice. It has become harder to come by, though, given the demands on Rachleff’s time. Most notably, Rachleff has had to dial back his work at Stanford toone course during one quarter of the year — a class that we can only guess is heavily oversubscribed by students. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy the work. Right now, he’s helping two longtime friends, AppDynamics cofounder Jyoti Bansal and VC John Vrionis, with a new kind of accelerator program they are launching today (more on that here). In a quick call to discuss that program earlier this week, he also fielded a few questions from us about the current state of early-stage startup investing and how founders can best navigate it. We asked him, for example, about how a glut of seed-stage investment has impacted the way that startups are raising money — often in pre-seed, then seed, then post-seed rounds, before raising Series A funding. We wondered if, nomenclature aside, he felt things had changed fundamentally. As it turns out, he does not. “While the structure and characters involved are very different than 10 years ago, the steps you need to go through are no different,” said Rachleff. “The whole point is to understand what an investor at the next round expects. You have to determine whether or not you’re ready [for that next meeting], and try to achieve product-market fit as fast as possible before you get to it.” Indeed, Rachleff suggested that he thinks it unwise for founders to raise seed rounds serially. “When companies raise seed funding, [that money] is to prove the dogs want to eat the dog food. If they can’t [prove that], and they have to ask for more seed funding,” the startup becomes “less compelling” to later investors. We asked him about some of the biggest mistakes that founders make, and he said that many of these center on who founders approach for funding, how they pace the rate at which they approach investors, and how, exactly, they pitch their startups. On that last point, said Rachleff, “People think data is a way to compel people, but it’s the story that compels people, and that has never changed, whether you’re talking about political campaigns or business presentations.” (We asked for more details, but he half-kiddingly suggested that founders will need to hear about the importance of narratives via that aforementioned accelerator program.) We also asked Rachleff about some now-famous research he prepared some time around 2006 that suggested that every year, about 15 U.S. startups are created that eventually reach $100 million in annual revenue. His point at the time was that VCs can only succeed by getting behind those companies. (It’s largely the premise around which the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz was launched, cofounder Marc Andreessen had told this editor when the firm’s first fund was getting off the ground back in 2009.) We wondered: is that number still 15 so many years later? Rachleff noted that he hasn’t updated his research, but he said he doesn’t “think it’s much bigger in the U.S. I do think the number is larger with Chinese companies, but here, I bet you it hasn’t changed or maybe it’s 20 companies each year that at some point reach $100 million in annual revenue.” Before we jumped off the phone, Rachleff had a question for us, which is why there aren’t more articles about seed-funded companies going out of business. (Maybe he thinks this would keep more people from pursuing half-baked ideas.) “Thousand of companies are raising seed funding — 10 times the amount of companies that were starting with a Series A” during the go-go dot com era of the late ’90s, he said. “But when I ask investor friends what’s happening to them all, the best answer I get is that a small number of them are successful, a slightly larger portion get acqui-hired, and the largest portion keeps raising money to keep the hope alive.” Some of them “get to $1 million to $2 million in revenue to reach breakeven,” Rachleff continued, but, alas, that’s no reason for celebration. If a startup has raised outside funding and “there’s no money to grow into a business, that’s a failure.”

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Airbnb this morning announced the launch of A Fair Share. The initiative promises to donate $10 million to seven organizations, including The New York Immigration Coalition, New York Mortgage Coalition, New York State Rural Housing Coalition Inc., Win, GMHC, CSNYC and Abyssinian Development Corporation. It’s not all just a goodwill gesture, however. As The New York Times notes, the generosity comes as the popular subletting service is looking to raise the profile of NY Assembly Bill A7520, which would go a ways toward helping legitimize the service within the confines of the country’s largest metropolitan area. “We wanted to make the point of what the impact of tax collection and remittances would be if we were able to collect on behalf of our community here,” Airbnb public policy manager Josh Meltzer told the paper. The service handily points out that the donation would be a fraction of the $100 million in tax revenues that could be raised for the state, should the bill go through. But Airbnb has proven unpopular among many tenants for the impacts it has on neighborhoods. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill aimed at curbing illegal short term rentals, requiring services like Airbnb to include addresses and names of hosts in listings. City Council, meanwhile, also recently struck a blow to ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft by capping the issue of new licenses.

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With so much money being stuffed into Silicon Valley companies these days, it’s hard to stand out as an investor, but John Vrionis and Jyoti Bansal have what they think is a winning approach — one that’s a win for startup founders, too. A little background first. Back in May, Bansal, who sold his company AppDynamics to Cisco for $3.7 billion last year, announced that he was teaming up with Vrionis, who’d spent the previous 12 years with Lightspeed Venture Partner. What they created together is a new venture firm called Unusual Ventures. It launched publicly with a $160 million debut fund and a mission of also creating a startup education program. Fast forward a few months, and the firm will today begin accepting applications for a seven-week accelerator program that promises founders seven different three-hour-long sessions — one each week for seven weeks — with veterans of the startup industry. In return, they receive a convertible note that can range from $250,000 to $1 million, depending on the stage of the company. Called Unusual Academy, the idea is to help these teams reach so-called product-market fit faster than they could otherwise. It also aims to prevent them from taking on too much seed funding, which can scare off Series A investors who sometimes see a glut of seed funding as a sign that a startup can’t figure out what it’s doing. For its first batch, Unusual will be looking to work with between six and 10 companies, mostly of the business-to-business variety, and no team is too nascent, according to Vrionis. “It can be anything from a notebook idea, to a company that has already raised $7 million in funding,” he says. Unusual Ventures says it will later choose a second cohort of companies that are more consumer-facing, though plans for that next batch haven’t been firmed up just yet. It is a bit gimmicky? Yes. But given the talent Vrionis and Bansal have assembled to help startups, it’s also compelling. For example, one of the startup veterans who will spend three hours with select startups is Andy Rachleff, one of the co-founders of the storied venture firm Benchmark. Rachleff — who has for years taught entrepreneurship at Stanford while also heading up the wealth advisory startup Wealthfront — will spend three hours offering his insights on fundraising, time that some startup founders might kill for. Another instructor is Adam Grant, the Wharton psychology and management prof and best-selling author, who will spend several hours with Unusual’s companies talking about culture and leadership. A third is Bansal himself, who will be advising the startups on how to recruit early customers and devise a strong early sales process. “Jyoti is the best I ever saw at finding early customers,” says Vrionis, who was an early supporter of Bansal when he launched AppDynamics. (Lightspeed wrote one of its first checks.) “People want him involved in their startups.” Unusual Academy’s lessons will be held, for now, in a space in Redwood Shores, Calif., so it’s probably ideal only for Bay Area-based founders who can travel to the different lessons over the seven-week period, which kicks off in October. Eventually, says Vrionis, the hope beyond organizing a consumer track is to host the startups in other cities, or, at least, to let them log on remotely to hear from the advisors it assembles. If you’re a B2B startup interested in applying for the program, just click over here.

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Dating and networking app Bumble today announced the launch of Bumble Fund, a new vehicle focused on early stage investments specifically aimed at helping diverse, female entrepreneurs raise capital for their businesses. Sarah Jones Simmer, Bumble Chief Operating Officer, will lead Bumble Fund’s investment strategy along with Bumble Senior Advisor, Sarah Kunst, the company says. “Investing in and empowering women in business is something that our founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd is deeply passionate about and is at the very core of what Bumble stands for,” said Jones Simmer, in a statement about the fund’s launch. “Through Bumble Fund we’ll look not only to support those women leaders who have been largely ignored, but we’ll also demonstrate why those investments build smart, successful businesses.” Bumble Fund’s initial commitments include one of the winners of Bumble’s first “Bizz Pitch” competition, Sofia Los Angeles, a swimwear company founded by Anasofia Gomez. Its other commitments so far include Mahmee, a health care platform for coordinating prenatal and postpartum care; Female Founders Fund, another early stage fund for backing female talent; BeautyCon, the digital media company and festival operator focused on the beauty industry; and venture fund Cleo Capital, also focused on female founders. The new fund will make investments that range from $5,000 to $250,000, in companies that are headed by women and focus on women’s interests. Bumble has committed over a million so far, it says. The team will also work to identify new, potential investments via Bumble’s own Bumble Bizz platform – the dating app’s business networking platform available within its flagship mobile app. The company will also find new founders to back through its future Bumble Bizz pitch competitions, it says. The move could help bring more attention to Bumble Bizz, while giving the company a stake in promising companies. Bumble, however, only spoke of the need for more investment in female founders, not the other bottom line advantages to its own operations. In a blog post, Bumble shared the fact that startups headed by women had only received 2% of all venture capital last year. “For black, Latinx, and other women from underrepresented groups, that statistic is even more bleak,” the post explained. “Black women are both the most educated and most entrepreneurial demographic in the U.S., but received only 0.2% of all venture funding for their startups last year,” it noted. Bumble, whose app now has over 37 million users worldwide and has an 85% female workforce, says it wants to help solve the problem of women being “largely ignored by the venture capital establishment” with this fund.

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SAP, the German-based enterprise software giant, has unveiled the New York-based cohort from its SAP.io Foundry accelerator programs focused on women-led technology companies. The first program was launched in San Francisco in July 2017, and while the company has launched additional accelerator programs in Berlin and Tel Aviv (with plans for a Paris accelerator in the Fall), it’s SAP’s San Francisco and New York programs that have a specific focus on women and founders of color, according to Vanessa Liu, a vice president in charge of the New York program. “The first one launched last summer, with San Francisco that was in July. Berlin launched in the fall with TechStars as a partner, Tel Aviv launched with The Junction,” Liu said.  The partnerships with Techstars in Berlin and The Junction in Tel Aviv were designed solely to gain exposure to those markets, while the San Francisco and New York programs focused on diversity — as well as building out the SAP network among startups. The Foundry accelerator programs are independent from the company’s $35 million Foundry fund, according to Liu. Companies that progress through the program give up no equity and receive no capital. Rather, the companies involved get access to the SAP network of partners and customers and the companies various technical and support services, Liu said. “This is more about how do you work together with SAP and customers like GE, Coca Cola, and Stanley Black & Decker,” said Liu.  For the New York cohort that demoed their wares yesterday, eight of the nine companies that participated were also based in New York, with one group of founders making the trek up from Georgia for the program. And while there’s been no instance yet where companies that graduate from the accelerator receive a capital commitment later from the Foundry fund, Liu did not rule out the possibility. That Foundry fund typically will invest between a quarter of a million and one million dollars into companies focused on machine learning, big data, and other enterprise software related applications. Checks are typically $250,000 at the seed stage increasing to $1 million as a company grows into a Series A investment. In some ways, Liu said, the Foundry fund was a way for SAP to build on the work it had done with startups through its (now independent) Sapphire Ventures fund. That had been the vehicle SAP had previously used to connect with the startup world and early stage tech companies and entrepreneurs. “We’re definitely not the first to market,” said Liu. “But we’re looking at it not just only in making investments and thinking about how to do that but it’s also about cultivating investments and making sure that we do that right.” For the Foundry accelerator programs in the U.S. doing it right means focusing on gender and racial diversity. The criteria for the program is that at least one c-suite executive and member of the founding team be female. And of the nine companies in the cohort, only two companies were admitted where women were not serving in the chief executive role, Liu said. These are the executives and companies that went through the SAP.io Foundry Accelerator in New York. Tongtong Gong, founder and COO of Amberdata, a provider of monitoring and analytics for blockchain infrastructure and smart contract applications. Margaret Martin, founder and CEO of CN2, a software service that transforms the CAD, 3D and 2D content they create everyday into compelling mobile X-Reality (AR+VR=XR) applications. Ariadna Quattoni and Paul Nemirovsky, founders of DMetrics, which enables non-developers to build machine learning algorithms to extract insights from any text, in mere hours, and with zero coding. Kate Brandley Chernis, co-founder & CEO of Lately, is selling a machine learning-based marketing dashboard to provide more consistent marketing messages across large platforms. Shirley Chen, founder & CEO of Narrativ, sells a contextually relevant smart linking and ad placement technology Lisa Xu, co-Founder & CEO of Nopsec, a provider of threat prediction and cyber risk remediation solutions for enterprises to prevent security breaches. Jade Huang, co-founder & CEO of StyleSage,  which enriches product listings with attributes and then maps those products to eCommerce sites. Jag Gill, founder & CEO of Sundar, a software service connecting apparel brands and retailers with suppliers of textiles, raw materials and garments. Susan Danziger, Co-founder and CEO of Ziggeo, an embeddable video recorder/player that captures video and provides insights.

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Descartes Labs, a New Mexico-based geospatial analytics startup, today announced that its platform is now out of beta. The well-funded company already allowed businesses to analyze satellite imagery it pulls in from NASA and ESA and build predictive models based on this data, but starting today, it is adding both weather data to its library, as well as commercial high-resolution imagery thanks to a new partnership with Airbus’ OneAtlas project. As Descartes Labs co-founder Mark Johnson, who you may remember from Zite, told me, the team now regularly pulls in 100 terabytes of new data every day. The company’s clients then use this data to predict the growth of crops, for example. And while Descartes Labs can’t disclose most of its clients, Johnson told me that Cargill and teams at Los Alamos National Labs are among its users. While anybody could theoretically access the same data and spin up thousands of compute nodes to analyze it and build models, the value of a service like this is very much about abstracting all of that work away and letting developers and analysts focus on what they do best. “If you look at the early beta customers of the system, typically it’s a company that has some kind of geospatial expertise,” Johnson told me. “Oftentimes, they’re collecting data of their own and their primary challenge is that the folks on their team who ought to be spending all their time doing science on the datasets — the majority of their time, sometimes 80 plus percent of their time — they are collecting the data, cleaning the data, getting the data analysis ready. So only a small percentage of their work time is spent on analysis.” So far, Descartes Labs’ infrastructure, which mostly runs on the Google Cloud Platform, has processed over 11 petabytes of compressed data. Thanks to the partnership with Airbus, it’s now also getting very high-resolution data for its users. While some of the free data from the Landsat satellites, for example, have a resolution of 30m per pixel, the Airbus data comes in at 1.5m per pixel across the entire world and 50cm per pixel over 2,600 cities. Add NOAA’s global weather data to this, and it’s easy to imagine what kind of models developers could build based on all of this information. Many users, Johnson tells me, also bring their own data to the service to build better models or see While Descartes Labs’ early focus was on developers, it’s worth noting that the team has now also built a viewer that allows any user (who pays for the service) to work with the base map and add layers of additional information on top. Johnson tells me that the team plans to add more datasets over time, though the focus of the service will always remain on spatial data.

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As summer comes to a close and the leaves begin to brown, the gaming world goes through its own sort of transition. A handful of new titles prep for launch, including Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. But unlike previous CoD titles, Black Ops 4 represents a counter-attack on the world’s biggest game, Fortnite Battle Royale. For the first time, Call of Duty is ditching a campaign and opting to introduce a new Battle Royale mode to the first-person shooter. It’s a risky approach, which could potentially put off long-time CoD players and likewise disappoint the Fortnite crowd who have already invested time and money in an already-dominant Battle Royale game. Time shall surely tell, but luckily we’ll get a sneak peek at the new Black Ops 4 Battle Royale, called Blackout, in September. Prepare accordingly.#Blackout pic.twitter.com/X70KVQ75gU — Call of Duty (@CallofDuty) August 14, 2018 Activision and Treyarch confirmed that Blackout will be available via a limited beta on September 10 for the PS4. The companies did not confirm if or when the Blackout beta will be playable on other platforms. Thus far, we know very little about how Blackout will work. Here’s what we do know: The game can be played in solos, duos, or quads. Treyarch built its biggest CoD map ever, which is 1,500x bigger than Nuketown. There will also be vehicles within the Black Out mode. To participate in the beta, users need to pre-order Black Ops 4.

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A few months ago, Google announced Google One, its new subscription program for getting more Google Drive storage and other perks. Over the course of the last few weeks, Google slowly rolled existing Drive subscribers over to a Google One membership and starting today, new users can sign up for a One subscription, too. Google One plans start at 100 GB for $1.99. There’s also a 200 GB tier for $2.99 and a 2 TB option for $9.99. If you need even more storage space, Google will happily sell you 10 TB, 20 TB and 30 TB plans for between $99.99 and $299.99 per month. One nice feature of these new plans is that you can share your storage allotment with up to five family members. While storage is the main feature here, Google also promises additional perks. The most important of these may be access to live 24/7 support. These Google experts at the other end of the line will help you with figuring out any question you may have about a Google product. Another perk here is that you get deals on hotels when you search for them in Google Maps. Recently, Google also gave all One members credits on Google Play and the company today said that it’ll soon offer members deals for purchases in the Google Store and through Google Express, too. It’s worth noting that One is very much a consumer product. For businesses, Google’s G Suite remains the way to get additional service and features. For now, Google One is only available in the U.S., but it’ll roll out to more countries soon.

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XYZPrinting may have finally cracked the color 3D printing code. Their latest machine, the $1,599 da Vinci Color Mini is a full color printer that uses three CMY ink cartridges to stain the filament as it is extruded, allowing for up to 15 million color combinations. The printer is currently available for pre-order on Indiegogo for $999. The printer can build objects 5.1″ x 5.1″ x 5.1″ in size and it can print PLA or PETG. A small ink cartridge stains the 3D Color-inkjet PLA as it comes out, creating truly colorful objects. “Desktop full-color 3D printing is here. Now, consumers can purchase an easy-to-operate, affordable, compact full-color 3D printer for $30,000 less than market rate. This is revolutionary because we are giving the public access to technology that was once only available to industry professionals,” said Simon Shen, CEO of XYZprinting. The new system is aimed at educational and home markets and, at less than a $1,000, it hits a unique and important sweet spot in terms of price. While the prints aren’t perfect, being able to print in full color for the price of a nicer single color 3D printer is pretty impressive.

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RunSafe, a Mclean Virginia startup, got started doing research for DARPA on how to defend critical infrastructure. They built a commercial product based on that initial research that they claim eliminates an entire class of attacks. Today, the company released a product called Alkemist that enables customers to install the solution without help from RunSafe. RunSafe co-founder and CEO Joe Saunders says that the product began with the DoD research and a simple premise: “If you assume hardware in the supply chain is compromised, can you still build trusted software on top of untrusted hardware. And so we came up with techniques that we have since greatly expanded to protect the software from compromise. We eliminate an entire class of attacks and greatly reduce the attack surface for software across critical infrastructure,” he told TechCrunch. Saunders uses a data center cooling system as an example. If someone were able to control the cooling systems, they could cause the whole data center to overheat in order to shut it down. RunSafe is designed to prevent that from happening whether it’s a data center, a power plant or water works. The way they do this is by hardening the software binary so malware and exploitations can’t find the tools they need to execute across the infrastructure. In the data center example, that means the attacker could find their way in, and attack a single machine, but couldn’t replicate the attack across multiple machines. “They’re looking for functions and memory and different things that they can use in their exploitation. What we do is we make it very difficult for the attack tool to find that information, and without the ability to find the memory or the functions, they can’t execute their attack,” he said. He says that they do this by making every instance “functionally identical but logically unique” by relocating where functions and memory exist at a low level in the software. “When an exploit is looking for memory or function to exploit the software product, it can’t locate them,” Saunders said. And that makes it practically impossible to move across the system, he explained. He points out this is a far different approach from how most security vendors approach the problem. “Other solutions that are leveraging intrusion detection or monitoring or analytics are detecting when there’s a compromise, but they’re not solving the problem — you still can be breached and the exploit can still execute. We’re eliminating the exploit,” he said. The company works with hardware manufacturers to install their solution at the factory before they get deployed, and with customers like data center operators to protect their critical infrastructure. Prior to the release of Alkemist, the installation required some hand-holding from RunSafe. With today’s release, the customer can install the product themselves and that could increase their customer base. RunSafe launched at the end of 2015 and released the first version of the product last year. They currently count a dozen customers and are protecting hundreds of thousands machines across their customer base and expect to cross one million protected machines by the end of the year, according to Saunders. The company has raised $2.4 million in seed investment.

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The company that owns MoviePass lost a ton of money last quarter. Unsurprising, I realize, but in context, it’s actually a bit of a mind boggling. The more austerely named Helios and Matheson Analytics had one heck of a tough quarter, posting a $126.6 million operating loss, as compared to a loss of $2.7 million a year prior. If one chose to simply look at adoption rates, as MoviePass is no doubt hoping from its shareholders, things have been sunshine and lollipops over that same time period, with the movie subscription service growing to three million users. That, of course, ignores the on-going fiscal tire fire that has been the company last several months. It’s probably not worth listing all of that right now, but suffice it say, the summer of MoviePass hasn’t gone as planned, instead being plagued by movie blocks, bugs, ever-changing pricing structures and some very irate customers. Late last month, the service borrowed $5 million to end one of multiple outages. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, a shareholder has filed suit against the company, as its stock price has also felt the burn. Again, not particularly surprising. The suit claims, in part that the “defendants carried out a plan, scheme and course of conduct which was intended to and did, deceive the investing public and cause the plaintiff and other members of the class to purchase Helios common stock at artificially inflated prices.” MoviePass, meanwhile, has continued to paint the picture of an an enthusiastic user base and a company working to leverage that into something resembling a profit. “Our community has shown an immense amount of enthusiasm over the past year,” CEO Mitch Lowe recently said in a statement, “and we trust that they will continue to share our vision to reinvigorate the movie industry.”

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What do you get when you connect a bunch of filmmakers with a bunch of programmers? Something like Flowbox. Flowbox, which began life as a unique object-oriented programming language for visual effects, has grown into something truly powerful in the moviemaking industry. Run by Mikołaj Valencia​, Michał Urbańczyk​, Paweł Pietraszko, and Mat Bujalski, this Polish company is currently working with a number of big studios to add VFX to huge productions. “Flowbox is an industrial strength image processing platform incorporating many recent innovations in computer graphics field,” said Valencia. “It delivers semi-automated rotoscopy, one of the most tedious manual labor used in 25 precent of all video content processing. It allows for huge time savings.” The team is working on adding other tools to the toolchain as well including color correction and image composition. The system is unique in that it uses a visual interface to change the video. It also supports distributed computing which speeds up the compositing system immensely. The idea was born in 2010 as a reaction to the poor tools available to filmmakers at the time. “The idea for the Flowbox project was initiated in 2010 by Wojciech Daniło, by this time as Senior Technical Director at Alvernia Studios (the most modern film studio in Poland),” said Valencia. “His job was to design and create solutions for visual effects for international productions like Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Vamps of Sigourney Weaver. That’s when he discovered the problems faced by his associates and how limited and inflexible the leading tools were.” The company has raised $1 million so far including an infusion from Innovation Nest. The app’s high-tech approach to rotoscoping could be just the thing filmmakers need to unlock the true potential of their already powerful tools.

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Microsoft today will begin to allow Alexa device owners to summon its own virtual assistant, Cortana, through their Echo devices, as well as call for Alexa via Cortana. The integration between the two voice computing platforms was previously announced and briefly demoed on stage in May at Microsoft’s Build 2018 event in Seattle. But the companies at the time hadn’t given a timeline as to when the integrations between the two assistants would be available to the public. Now, the companies are taking the first steps towards that goal with a public preview of their Alexa-Cortana collaboration. Customers who want to test out this new feature will be able to try it starting today, August 15, Microsoft says. The integration will continue to roll out in the days ahead, so you may not immediately gain access, we should note. Initially, customers will be able to call up Microsoft’s Cortana through their Echo devices and enable Amazon’s Alexa on Windows 10 devices and on Harman Kardon Invoke speakers. Later, it will arrive on mobile platforms like iOS and Android. Once enabled, the integration will allow Cortana users to ask Alexa to shop Amazon, manage their Amazon orders, and use some of Alexa’s third-party skills. Alexa users, meanwhile, will gain access to Cortana’s knowledge about productivity features including calendar management, their day at a glance, and their email. For example, Echo device owners can say to Cortana things like “What new emails do I have?,” “What is on my calendar today?,” and “Add ‘order flowers’ to my to-do list.” And Windows device users can click the microphone button or say “Hey Cortana, open Alexa,” followed by queries like “What are today’s shopping deals?,” “Set the temperature to 72 degrees,” or “Open Jeopardy.” The companies say that more skills and features will be added in time. “With this public preview, we want users to engage with the experience and provide feedback so our teams can continue to improve the experience,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “Our goal is to create a seamless integration and this is our first step towards achieving that goal.” When Microsoft and Amazon first discussed making their assistants work together, there was some skepticism about how it would all work. Some people feared the voice commands would be awkward, or believed the integrations were unnecessary. However, when the companies demoed the integrations live at Build, it was clear they had thought about the user experience. Launching Cortana via an Echo was as simple as saying so: “open Cortana.” That made it feel more like using a third-party skill. You could then issue commands without having to keep saying “Cortana each time.” The same was true for the reverse, when talking to Alexa on a Microsoft device. At the event, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had also stressed the values of a more open system, saying “We want to make it possible for our customers to get the most out of their personal digital assistants – not be bound to some walled garden.” Getting their virtual assistants to work together isn’t the only way the two companies have teamed up. Alexa is also shipping on some Microsoft PCs, for example. Cortana, however, isn’t making much of a leap beyond the Windows platform, which has allowed other voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant to gain traction in the voice-powered devices space.

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Oracle, a company not exactly known for having the best relationship with the open source community, is releasing a new open source tool today called Graphpipe, which is designed to simplify and standardize the deployment of machine learning models. The tool consists of a set of libraries and tools for following the standard. Vish Abrams, whose background includes helping develop OpenStack at NASA and later helping launch Nebula, an OpenStack startup in 2011, is leading the project. He says as his team dug into the machine learning workflow, they found a gap. While teams spend lots of energy developing a machine learning model, it’s hard to actually deploy the model for customers to use. That’s where Graphpipe comes in. He points out that it’s common with newer technologies like machine learning for people to get caught up in the hype. Even though the development process keeps improving, he says that people often don’t think about deployment. “Graphpipe is what’s grown out of our attempt to really improve deployment stories for machine learning models, and to create an open standard around having a way of doing that to improve the space,” Abrams told TechCrunch. As Oracle dug into this, they identified three main problems. For starters, there is no standard way to serve APIs, leaving you to use whatever your framework provides. Next, there is no standard deployment mechanism, which leaves developers to build custom ones every time. Finally, they found existing methods leave performance as an afterthought, which in machine learning could be a major problem. “We created Graphpipe to solve these three challenges. It provides a standard, high-performance protocol for transmitting tensor data over the network, along with simple implementations of clients and servers that make deploying and querying machine learning models from any framework a breeze,” Abrams wrote in a blog post announcing the release of Graphpipe. The company decided to make this a standard and to open source it to try and move machine learning model deployment forward. “Graphpipe sits on that intersection between solving a business problems and pushing the state of the art forward, and I think personally, the best way to do that is by have an open source approach. Often, if you’re trying to standardize something without going for the open source bits, what you end up with is a bunch of competing technologies,” he said. Abrams acknowledged the tension that has existed between Oracle and the open source community over the years, but says they have been working to change the perception recently with contributions to Kubernetes and the Oracle Functions Project as examples. Ultimately he says, if the technology is interesting enough, people will give it a chance, regardless of who is putting it out there. And of course, once it’s out there, if a community builds around it, they will adapt and change it as open source projects tend to do. Abrams hopes that happens. “We care more about the standard becoming quite broadly adopted, than we do about our particular implementation of it because that makes it easier for everyone. It’s really up to the community decide that this is valuable and interesting.” he said. Graphpipe is available starting today on the Oracle GitHub page.

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As the world shifts to a cloud native approach, the way you secure applications as they get deployed is changing too. Twistlock, a company built from the ground up to secure cloud native environments, announced a $33 million Series C round today led by Iconiq Capital. Previous investors YL Ventures, TenEleven, Rally Ventures, Polaris Partners and Dell Technologies Capital also participated in the round. The company reports it has received a total of $63 million in venture investment to date. Twistlock is solving a hard problem around securing containers and serverless, which are by their nature ephemeral. They can live for fractions of seconds making it hard track problems when they happen. According to company CEO and co-founder Ben Bernstein, his company came out of the gate building a security product designed to protect a cloud-native environment with the understanding that while containers and serverless computing may be ephemeral, they are still exploitable. “It’s not about how long they live, but about the fact that the way they live is more predictable than a traditional computer, which could be running for a very long time and might have humans actually using it,” Bernstein said. Screenshot: Twistlock As companies move to a cloud native environment using Dockerized containers and managing them with Kubernetes and other tools, they create a highly automated system to deal with the deployment volume. While automation simplifies deployment, it can also leave companies vulnerable to host of issues. For example, if a malicious actor were to get control of the process via a code injection attack, they could cause a lot of problems without anyone knowing about it. Twistlock is built to help prevent that, while also helping customers recognize when an exploit happens and performing forensic analysis to figure out how it happened. It’s is not a traditional Software as a Service as we’ve come to think of it. Instead, it is a service that gets installed on whatever public or private cloud that the customer is using. So far, they count just over 200 customers including Walgreens and Aetna and a slew of other companies you would definitely recognize, but they couldn’t name publicly. The company, which was founded in 2015, is based in Portland, Oregon with their R&D arm in Israel. They currently have 80 employees. Bernstein said from a competitive standpoint, the traditional security vendors are having trouble reacting to cloud native, and while he sees some startups working at it, he believes his company has the most mature offering, at least for now. “We don’t have a lot of competition right now, but as we start progressing we will see more,” he said. He plans to use the money they receive today to help expand their marketing and sales arm to continue growing their customer base, but also engineering to stay ahead of that competition as the cloud-native security market continues to develop.

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It’s a story that any urban millennial can (and will) complain about. You are looking for a non-caffeinated beverage, so you walk into a juice shop only to be shocked at the $13 price point for a couple of apricots and kale mixed in a blender. Yes, there is an intentional premium signaling going on, but there is also a much deeper challenge that goes all the way back to the ground where that kale came from. Farms are throwing away produce that doesn’t meet the aesthetic standards of grocery stores, and that means perfectly edible and delicious vegetables are completely lost. Some studies show that a majority of all food weight is lost before it even leaves the farm. Yet, there are no easy ways to sell those loose leaves of romain — at least, not yet. San Francisco-based Full Harvest is building a B2B marketplace that connects large-scale farms with companies like retail juice franchises, who seek excess produce in order to make their products more affordable. The marketplace, which TechCrunch has discussed before, has closed an $8.5m series A round led by Spark Capital, with agriculture-focused venture shop Cultivian Sandbox Ventures joining the round. Full Harvest is the brainchild of Christine Moseley, who worked for more than a decade in the logistics and food industries, including a stint at retail juice chain Organic Avenue. As she was thinking about potential startups, she learned about the incredible food waste that takes place every day in America. While spending time at a farm “knee-deep in romaine,” she saw farmers throwing away lettuce that would have been perfect for her former employer. “They were leaving 75% behind on the ground, and after all of those water resources were spent,” Moseley said. For farmers, “they are really dictated by what those big grocery stores are demanding, because consumers are becoming pickier and pickier, so the supermarkets are getting more picky,” she continued. Full Harvest then is designed to bridge the gap, connecting farms to businesses that don’t need the same aesthetics. The startup focuses on vegetable farms greater than 1000 acres and fruit farms larger than 100 acres and then connects them to customers. The company has developed a set of quality standards to make buying and selling more fluid, and it is focused on “the foundational large-volume items that these food and beverage companies buy,” Moseley said. Today, the company brokers 40 items. Moseley says that buyers and sellers both need better pricing. For farmers, many of whom are struggling with their own economics, a marketplace allowing them to get some value for produce they are currently throwing away could be a critical source of incremental revenue. For buyers, lower prices could mean cheaper product prices, increasing profits and driving sales to consumers. Excess produce is the focus of several startups. Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest are focused on the B2C market of delivering excess produce straight to consumers. In comparison, Full Harvest doesn’t work with consumers at all, and instead focuses on large commercial buyers. A series A venture round is by no means uncommon today, but it is rarer for solo founders, rarer still for female founders, and even rarer in the agricultural space. Moseley said that she was “pleasantly surprised” that being a solo female founder in a space like agriculture wasn’t the focus of her investors, and that they instead focused on “execution and market opportunity.” At the start, “It’s a lot to handle on your own,” Moseley said, but “now we are scaling, and it’s gotten very manageable.” Spark’s John Melas-Kyriazi and Cultivian’s Dan Phillips will join Full Harvest’s board. In addition to the two funds, Jenny Fleiss, Jon Scherr, and Adam Zeplain joined the round along with former seed investor Wireframe Ventures.

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posted 3 days ago on techcrunch
This appears to be the Fitbit Charge 3 and, if it is, several big changes are in the works for Fitbit’s premier fitness tracker band. The leak comes from Android Authority which points to the changes. First, the device has a full touchscreen rather than a clunky quasi-touchscreen like the Charge 2. From the touchscreen, users can navigate the device and even reply to notifications and messages. Second, the Charge 3 will be swim-proof to 50 meters. Finally, and this is a bad one, the Charge 3 will not have GPS built-in meaning users will have to bring a smartphone along for a run if they want GPS data. Price and availability was not reveled but chances are the device will hit the stores in the coming weeks ahead of the holidays. This is a big change for Fitbit. If the above leak is correct on all points, Fitbit is pushing the Charge 3 into smartwatch territory. The drop of GPS is regrettable but the company probably has data showing a minority of wearers use the feature. With a full touchscreen, and a notification reply function, the Charge 3 is gaining a lot of functionality for its size.

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