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Should you hire an in-house designer or a contractor?

By Katherine Gustafson

Editor’s note: This post is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

During a decade as the manager of the in-house design team at open source technology company Red Hat, Chris Grams learned that brand design is best when informed by a company’s culture and community.

He felt a natural push toward an open, collaborative attitude, distinct from how many companies approached design at that time. It was the early 2000s, and most companies saw their interactions with customers as a one-way street. In open source, it was an intersection.

“You almost break down the company and the community of people who surround the brand,” says Grams, currently head of marketing at Tidelift, an open source software management firm, and author of The Ad-Free Brand. “Now it feels like pretty standard operating procedure for the best brands that have the best relationship with their communities.”

This shift has a large influence on the question of when you should hire an in-house designer versus a contractor to do your branding design.

Three reasons to go in-house

After leaving Red Hat in 2009, Grams helped start New Kind, a branding agency that provides contract design services mostly to tech companies. This new vantage point allowed him to see drawbacks and advantages for companies in outsourcing design versus bringing it in-house.

One of the key benefits of in-housing is the designer’s intimacy with the deeply held values and culture of the company, which makes their branding work feel more authentic.

“The internal agency’s power really reveals itself when people are deeply part of the mission of the company,” says Grams. “It comes through in the work. You get an amazing work product.”

The second benefit, especially for tech companies, is the depth of understanding in-house designers can develop about the company’s products and services. And the third is that a dedicated in-house designer can be directed as needed to respond to pressing priorities.

“You can have them stop on a dime,” says Grams. “Say a competitor comes out with a big launch and you need to have something out within 24 hours. You can work on it right away.”

These are real benefits, but they may not outweigh the advantages of contracting out your design to a high-quality agency

The benefits of using an agency

A major benefit of an agency is that you can hire people with a level of expertise and variety of skills that would be out of reach for an in-house team. When Grams was at New Kind, for example, “we had a combined 30 years of experience with open source branding work,” he says

An agency can also provide the bandwidth to take on non-priority tasks such as a rebrand or a special series that in-house teams are often too work-strapped to take on.

Hiring an agency also has advantages in terms of flexibility and cost. The ability to customize the timing and amount of design work to your needs can be less expensive over time, even if each working hour is more expensive.

“You can ramp down and ramp up with an agency,” says Grams. “It’s impossible to do that with people… You’re paying that extra margin to have that flexibility.”

There’s a lot to think about, but Grams advises prioritizing the need for your design to be authentic to your culture… or not.

“I think the biggest thing is the power of your culture, frankly,” says Grams. “If you have a company where culture is not an asset, I would not build an in-house design team… But if you’re building a mission-driven organization or an organization where culture is super important, that’s where I would take an extra-long look at building an internal agency.”

Zoom addresses CFO’s past workplace conduct ahead of IPO

By Kate Clark

Zoom, the only profitable unicorn in line to go public, priced its initial public offering at between $28 and $32 per share Monday morning. The video conferencing business plans to trade on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ZM.”

Zoom, valued at $1 billion in 2017, initially filed to go public in March. According to its amended IPO filing, the company will raise up to $348.1 million by selling 10.9 million Class A shares. The offering will grant Zoom a fully diluted market value of $8.7 billion, a more than 8x increase to its latest private market valuation.

Although the company has garnered praise for its stellar financials — Zoom posted $330 million in revenue in the year ending January 31, 2019, a remarkable 2x increase year-over-year, with a gross profit of $269.5 million — the road to IPO hasn’t been without hiccups.

The company’s founder and chief executive officer Eric Yuan last night published an open letter concerning the conduct of Zoom’s chief financial officer Kelley Steckelberg. According to the letter, Zoom was recently informed by an anonymous source that Steckelberg had an “undisclosed, consensual relationship” during her tenure at a previous employer.

Steckelberg was most recently the CEO of the online dating site Zoosk; before that, she was a senior director in consumer finance at Cisco . The letter does not specify where the relationship took place, when or with whom.

Losing a CFO mere days before an IPO would have been a major loss for Zoom. CFOs often become the face of the IPO, handling the grueling tasks associated with crafting an IPO prospectus, leading the roadshow and more, while also maintaining day-to-day financial operations.

Yuan writes that the Zoom’s board of directors conducted a full investigation into the matter and determined that Steckelberg would stay on as Zoom’s CFO: “Kelly expressed regret for what transpired at her former employer, took ownership for the situation, and made clear to us that she had learned valuable lessons from the experience,” Yuan wrote.

“We appreciated Kelly’s openness and candor during this process. It is clear that this matter related only to circumstances at her former employer,” he continued. “It is clear that this matter related only to circumstances at her former employer. During Kelly’s tenure at Zoom, she has been an incredible contributor, as well as a model steward of our culture, values, and high standards since joining the Company.”

We reached out to Zoosk for comment. Zoom declined to comment further.

Zoom, expected to make the final call on its IPO price next Wednesday, will likely price at the top of range and see a clean pop on its first day on the markets given its clean track record and positive financials. The business was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, an early engineer at WebEx, which sold to Cisco for $3.2 billion in 2007. Before launching Zoom, he spent four years at Cisco as its vice president of engineering.

Zoom has raised $145 million to date from investors including Emergence Capital, which owns a 12.2 percent pre-IPO stake, Sequoia Capital (11.1 percent pre-IPO stake); Digital Mobile Venture (8.5 percent), a fund affiliated with former Zoom board member Samuel Chen; and Bucantini Enterprises Limited (5.9 percent), a fund owned by Li Ka-shing, a Chinese billionaire and among the richest people in the world.

Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are leading its offering.

A new study of MLB pitch calls makes a strong case for robotic umpires

By Brian Heater

Boston University grad students analyzed more than four million pitches from 11 seasons of Major League Baseball (2008-2018), and the findings aren’t great for human umpires. According to the study, umps made 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls in 2018. That works out to 14 blown calls per game and 1.6 per inning.

It’s not a huge number, compared to the 162 games each of the league’s 30 teams play in a given regular season, but it’s enough to give pause — and to confirm the suspicions that many irate spectators have had for years.

The study notes that the average age of MLB umps is 46, with with an average of 13 years’ experience. Each season, umps call around 4,200 pitches behind the plate. Interestingly, the findings suggest that younger, less experienced umpires tend to outperform vets.

The frequency of incorrect calls, perhaps unsurprisingly, tends to vary based on the nature of the play. Again, anyone who’s followed the game with any sort of frequency likely already had their suspicion that umps favor either the pitcher or batter, based on who’s leading in a count.

“Research results demonstrate that umpires in certain circumstances overwhelmingly favored the pitcher over the batter,” according to the study. “For a batter with a two-strike count, umpires were twice as likely to call a true ball a strike (29 percent of the time) than when the count was lower (15 percent).”

Notably, the news comes a month after the MLB announced that it would be exploring the use of robotic umps Atlantic League minors, with an eye on potentially implementing the technology in the majors at some point. The subject has gained prominence in recent years as baseball broadcasts now include a visualization of the strike zone.

To cut down on spam, Twitter cuts the number of accounts you can follow per day

By Sarah Perez

Twitter just took another big step to help boot spammers off its platform: it’s cutting the number of accounts Twitter users can follow, from 1,000 per day to just 400. The idea with the new limits is that it helps prevent spammers from rapidly growing their networks by following then unfollowing Twitter accounts in a “bulk, aggressive or indiscriminate manner” – something that’s a violation of the Twitter Rules.

Follow, unfollow, follow, unfollow. Who does that? Spammers. So we’re changing the number of accounts you can follow each day from 1,000 to 400. Don’t worry, you’ll be just fine.

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) April 8, 2019

A number of services were recently banned from Twitter’s API for doing this same thing.

Several companies had been offering tools that allowed their customers to automatically follow a large number of users with little effort. This works as a growth tactic because some people will follow back out of courtesy, without realizing they’ve followed a bot.

The companies also offered tools to mass unfollow the Twitter accounts of those who didn’t return the favor by following the bot back. Other automated tools were often provided, as well –  like ones for creating those annoying auto-DMs, for example.

Twitter at the beginning of the year suspended a good handful of apps for violating its rules around “following and follow churn.” But booting the companies only addressed those that aimed profit by providing spammy automations as a service that others could use.

To really take on the spammers, the limits around how many people Twitter users can follow also had to be changed at the API level.

However, some people believe Twitter hasn’t gone far enough with today’s move.

In response to Twitter’s tweet about the new limits, several have responded to ask why the number “400” was chosen, as that still far more than a regular Twitter user would need to follow in a single day. Some users said it took years to get to the point of following hundreds of people. Meanwhile, the business use case for following 400 people is somewhat debatable, since DMs can be left open and companies can tweet a special URL to send customers to their inbox to continue a conversation – no following or unfollowing needed on either side.

While smaller businesses may still employ mass following techniques to attract customers, this at least puts more of a cap on those efforts.

These new limits and the spam dealer crackdown aren’t the only changes Twitter has taken in recent months to tackle the spam problem on its platform.

The company also updated its reporting tools to allow users to report spam, like fake accounts; and it introduced new security measures around account verification and sign-up, alongside other changes focused on more proactively identifying spammers. Last summer, Twitter also purged accounts it had previously locked for being spammy from people’s follower metrics.

Combined, the series of actions is designed to make spamming Twitter less attractive and considerably more difficult to scale. This impacts not only those who use spam for capital gain but also the new wave of fake news peddlers looking to topple democracies and disrupt elections – something that now has the U.S. government considering increased regulations for social media.

Partnering with Visa, emerging market lender Branch International raises $170 million

By Jake Bright

The San Francisco-based startup Branch International, which makes small personal loans in emerging markets, has raised $170 million and announced a partnership with Visa to offer virtual, pre-paid debit cards to Branch client networks in Africa, South-Asia and Latin America. 

Branch — which has 150 employees in San Francisco, Lagos, Nairobi, Mexico City and Mumbai — makes loans starting at $2 to individuals in emerging and frontier markets. The company also uses an algorithmic model to determine credit worthiness, build credit profiles and offer liquidity via mobile phones.

“We’ll use [the money] to deepen existing business in Africa. Later this year we’ll announce high-yield savings accounts…in Africa,” says Branch co-founder and chief executive Matt Flannery.

The $170 million round from Foundation Capital and its new debit card partner, Visa, will support Branch’s international expansion, which could include Brazil and Indonesia, according to Flannery. Branch launched in Mexico and India within the last year. In Africa, it offers its services in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania.

A potential Branch customer

The Branch-Visa partnership will allow individuals to obtain virtual Visa accounts with which to create accounts on Branch’s app. This gives Branch larger reach in countries such as Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people — where cards have factored more prominently than mobile money in connecting unbanked and underbanked populations to finance.

Founded in 2015, Branch started operating in Kenya, where mobile money payment products such as Safaricom’s M-Pesa (which does not require a card or bank account to use) have scaled significantly. M-Pesa now has 25 million users, according to sector stats released by the Communications Authority of Kenya. Branch has more than 3 million customers and has processed 13 million loans and disbursed more than $350 million, according to company stats.

Branch has one of the most downloaded fintech apps in Africa, per Google Play app numbers combined for Nigeria and Kenya, according to Flannery.

Already profitable, Branch International expects to reach $100 million in revenues this year, with roughly 70 percent of that generated in Africa, according to Flannery.

In addition to Visa and Foundation Capital, the $170 Series C round included participation from Branch’s existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Trinity Ventures, Formation 8, the IFC, CreditEase and Victory Park, while adding new investors Greenspring, Foxhaven and B Capital.

Branch last raised $70 million in 2018. The company’s overall VC haul and $100 million revenue peg register as pretty big numbers for a startup focused primarily on Africa. Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia, which also announced its NYSE IPO last month, generated $140 million in revenue (without profitability) in 2018.

Startups building financial technologies for Africa’s 1.2 billion population have gained the attention of investors. As a sector, fintech (or financial inclusion) attracted 50 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion funding to African startups in 2018, according to Partech.

Branch’s recent round and plans to add countries internationally also tracks a trend of fintech-related products growing in Africa, then expanding outward. This includes M-Pesa, which generated big numbers in Kenya before operating in 10 countries around the world. Nigerian payments startup Paga announced its pending expansion in Asia and Mexico late last year. And payment services such as Kenya’s SimbaPay have also connected to global networks like China’s WeChat.

Spotify’s new ad metrics show what listeners do after they click

By Sarah Perez

Spotify is launching new analytics tools to help artists and their teams better understand how well their ads are working. The company today says it’s rolling out new streaming conversion metrics that will show how Spotify listeners reacted to a particular ad campaign — whether they clicked through to listen, saved the music or added it to a playlist, for example.

The new tools also can detail whether the campaign did better with existing fans who have been streaming the music already, or if an ad worked to hook new fans.

The conversion metrics are being introduced to the Spotify Ad Studio. First launched in 2017, the ad studio is a self-serve platform that allows artists and their labels to share their music by way of short (30-second or less) audio ads that are played for the free users on the Spotify app. These ads are served during ad breaks between songs, and offer an image and URL for a single of the artist’s choosing.

Artists also can use the platform to create ads for concerts, merchandise and other non-music content.

Before, the Ad Studio’s metrics offered general insights — like the age, gender or genre preferences of the audience being served the ad, for example, and how many clicks the ad was seeing.But labels and their artist teams have been asking for more.

They didn’t want to just see who was clicking and how many clicks, but also what happened next — including whether ads were working to turn listeners into fans who take some action, like saving a song or adding it to a playlist. Those sorts of actions indicate the user plans to listen again. This is particularly important to emerging artists who are trying to grow their fan base and rely on ads to get the word out.

“This is the reporting we’ve been wanting to see,” said Jimmy Brunetti, VP of Marketing at independent label services company Croshal Entertainment Group, in a release. “I really like how it gives us an indication about how our ads drive deeper actions. That’s promising for an artist, especially newer artists with room to grow.”

“With Spotify’s new advertising capabilities, we’re getting insight into not just how our campaign is resulting in streams, but deeper actions for an artist like how those listeners are turning into fans and adding a song to their playlist or hearting a song. Those are the holy grail of metrics for an artist to know,” added Conor Clarke, CEO and co-founder of Wavo, a music marketing agency that worked with Rich the Kid.

Using the new tools, the agency said they were able to see that 38 percent of people who heard the ad went on to listen to the artist, and nearly 20 percent of those listeners streamed his music for the first time that month.

The new ad tools are the latest of several releases focused on giving artists more control. This, in turn, helps to keep artists using Spotify as their main platform for reaching music listeners, growing their fan base and boosting their popularity — and more broadly, their revenues.

In September 2018, Spotify announced indie artists could upload their own tracks. It then launched a playlist submission feature that would help artists flag their songs for editorial consideration, and took a stake in music distribution service DistroKid to make cross-platform uploads easier.

More recently, the company turned some of the programmed playlists over to its personalization algorithms — meaning users would each see their own version of things like “Happy Hits” or “Dance Party,” for example. As a result, artists can now grab a custom URL pointing to these personalized versions of the playlist in order to share the playlist on social media and elsewhere.

RightHand Robotics debuts a new pick and place system

By Brian Heater

Reliable pick and place systems have long been a kind of Holy Grail among industrial robotics. The job of moving products in and out of bins is high among the jobs that many warehouse and fulfillment centers are looking to automate.

For a few years now, RightHand Robotics has been one of the more exciting startups in the space. The company has managed to drum up $34 million in funding from investors like Menlo Ventures, GV and Playground Global. This week at the ProMat conference in Chicago, the company unveiled RightPick2, the second generation of its piece-picking solution.

The news comes as the company notes that the previous version of its platform has crossed the 10 million pick threshold. This latest version features a number of upgrades on both the hardware and software fronts.

That list includes the fifth generation of the industrial gripper, which is capable of lifting up to 2 kg, coupled with new depth-sensing cameras from Intel and an improved arm from Universal Robots. That’s coupled with improvements to the system’s RightPick.AI vision/motion control software.

The results, as evidenced in the above demo, are pretty impressive. The system is speedy, fluid and capable of picking up a versatile array of different products, while capturing barcodes for order fulfillment in the process.

When to ditch that nightmare customer (before they kill your startup)

By Arman Tabatabai
Joe Procopio Contributor
Joe is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Joe is currently building Spiffy, and previously sold Automated Insights, sold ExitEvent, and built Intrepid Media. Find more about Joe at or @jproco on Twitter.

Three million dollars. That’s the largest amount of money I’ve ever walked away from in terms of a customer contract that I decided we shouldn’t take. 

It sucked. It was, at the time, more than half of the total amount of funds we had raised and it also represented just a shade more than the previous year’s revenue. It was a Fortune 500 company and the market leader in their industry. This was pocket money to them — which was part of the problem.

Good entrepreneurs spend a lot of time worrying about customers. We worry about the customers we have, the ones we don’t have, the ones we lost, and the ones we’re in danger of losing. We worry so much about where the next customer is going to come from that we never think twice about whether we should take on, or keep, a customer that’s more trouble than they’re worth.

The Customer is King

As entrepreneurs, we need to be unflinchingly customer-first. We are the drivers, but the customers are holding the map. We should spend copious amounts of time listening, usually through data, to figure out our next move. We should know the risks when we go off-road, not only the setbacks that come with making the wrong choice, but the fact that we’ll hear about it from all sides until we right the ship.

Daily Crunch: Pinterest sets IPO range

By Anthony Ha

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

1. Pinterest sets IPO range at $15-17, valuing it at $10.6B vs previous valuation of $12.3B

Social media platform Pinterest filed an updated S-1, where it set the price range at $15-17 per share, which would value the company between $10 billion and $11.3 billion.

That’s a tough (or, you might argue, conservative) picture, valuing the company at around $2 billion less than its valuation as a private startup when it last raised funding in 2017.

2. To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself

Evan Spiegel has finally found a way to fight back against Mark Zuckerberg’s army of clones. His plan is to let other apps embed the best parts of Snapchat, rather than building their own half-rate copies.

3. Grab plans to raise $2B more this year to fund an acquisition spree in Southeast Asia

Fresh from closing a near-$1.5 billion raise from SoftBank’s Vision Fund as part of a huge, multi-billion Series H deal, Grab said today that it plans to extend the round to $6.5 billion to amp up its battle with Go-Jek.

Cinema tickets and popcorn, illustration

Photo: KTSDESIGN/Getty Images

4. Sinemia faces consumer pushback and a class action suit over a battery of complaints

Earlier this week, we spoke to CEO Rifat Oguz about the service’s ongoing issues. He told us, “As CEO, I can say, we’re still learning.”

5. Gizmodo Media Group acquired by private equity firm Great Hill Partners

Gizmodo Media Group started as part of Gawker Media, and was acquired by Univision following Gawker’s legal defeat (in a lawsuit brought by Terry Bollea) and subsequent bankruptcy.

6. Klaviyo raises $150M Series B after building company the old-fashioned way

Co-founder Andrew Bialecki wrote in a blog post that the founders decided to bootstrap for the first several years because they felt it was the right way to build a business — that, and they had no idea how to raise money.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The Equity team has thoughts on Lyft’s plummeting stock price, while Original Content reviews the Theranos documentary, “The Inventor.”

Roblox hits milestone of 90M monthly active users

By Sarah Perez

Kids gaming platform Roblox, most recently valued at over $2.5 billion, has reached a new milestone of 90 million monthly active users, the company said on Sunday. That’s up from the 70 million monthly actives it claimed at its last funding round — a $150 million Series F announced last fall. The sizable increase in users is credited to Roblox’s international expansion efforts, and particularly its more recent support for the French and German languages.

The top 150 games that run on the Roblox platform are now available in both languages, along with community moderation, customer support and parental resources.

The gaming company also has been steadily growing as more kids join after hearing about it from friends or seeing its games played on YouTube, for example. Like Fortnite, it has become a place that kids go to “hang out” online even when not actively playing.

The games themselves are built by third-party creators, while Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games generate from the sale of virtual goods. In 2017, Roblox paid out $30 million to its creator community, and later said that number would more than double in 2018. It says that players and creators now spend more than a billion hours per month on its platform.

Roblox’s growth has not been without its challenges, however. Bad actors last year subverted the game’s protections to assault a child’s in-game avatar — a serious problem for a game aimed at kids, and a PR crisis, as well. But the company addressed the problem by quickly securing its platform to prevent future hacks of this kind, apologized to parents, banned the hackers and soon after launched a “digital civility initiative” as part of its broader push for online safety.

Months later, Roblox was still surging.

International expansion was part of the plan when Roblox chose to raise additional funding, despite already being cash-flow positive.

As CEO David Baszucki explained last fall, the idea was to create “a war chest, to have a buffer, to have the opportunity to do acquisitions,” and “to have a strong balance sheet as we grow internationally.”

The company soon made good on its to-do list, making its first acquisition in October 2018 when it picked up the app performance startup, PacketZoom. It also followed Minecraft’s footsteps into the education market, and has since been working to make its service available to a global base of users.

On that front, Roblox says Europe has played a key role, with millions of users and hundreds of thousands of game creators — like those behind the Roblox games “Ski Resort” (Germany), “Crash Course” (France) and “Heists 2 (U.K.).

In addition to French and German, Roblox is available in English, Portuguese and Spanish, and plans to support more languages in the coming months, it says.

But the company doesn’t want to face another incident or PR crisis as it moves into new countries.

On that front, Roblox is working with digital safety leaders in both France and Germany, as part of its Digital Civility Initiative. In France, it’s working with e-Enfance; and in Germany, it’s working with Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). Roblox also added USK’s managing director, Elisabeth Secker, to the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board.

“We are excited to welcome Roblox as a new member to the USK and I’m honored to join the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board,” said Elisabeth Secker, Managing Director of the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK), in a statement. “We are happy to support Roblox in their efforts to make their platform not only safe, but also to empower kids, teens, and parents with the skills they need to create positive online experiences.”

Sonos partners with Ikea and announces $99 speaker

By Romain Dillet

Ikea and Sonos are partnering on a new range of connected speakers that will be available in August 2019. The Symfonisk speakers aren’t just cheap Ikea speakers with a Sonos logo. You’ll be able to control the speakers from the Sonos app just like a normal Sonos product.

Ikea and Sonos showcased two different models for now — a bookshelf speaker that will cost $99 and a table lamp speaker that will retail for $179. They will be available in black or white. The idea is to hide those speakers in shelves and lamps so you’re surrounded by speakers without even noticing them.

You can use the bookshelf speaker horizontally or vertically. But you also can mount a speaker on an Ikea Kungfors rack. It can act as a standalone shelf if you want to put a plant or some decoration on top of it.

The table lamp is quite straightforward. This object combines both light and sound. It looks like an Amazon Echo Plus or an Apple HomePod with a lamp on top. If you live in a tiny apartment, you could save some valuable space by replacing two objects with one.

The best part is that those new speakers will integrate with other Sonos speakers just like any Sonos product. For instance, you can pair two speakers to create stereo separation or pair them with a Sonos Beam to create a good sound system for your TV.

If you wanted to add a Sonos speaker in your bathroom but didn’t want to spend $200 on a Sonos One, you could consider a bookshelf speaker to hide in a corner. It might not be as powerful as a Sonos One, but customers will benefit from more options.

The Symfonisk line connects to your Wi-Fi network. This way, you can use the normal Sonos app, control music from Spotify’s app using Spotify Connect and send music to your speakers with AirPlay 2.

Today’s new speakers don’t have any microphone, so you won’t be able to control your music with Amazon Alexa directly.

Here’s the first official preview of Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today launched the first official version of its Edge browser with the Chromium engine for Windows 10. You can now download the first developer and canary builds here. The canary builds will get daily updates and the developer builds will see weekly updates. Over time, you’ll also be able to opt in to the beta channel and, eventually, the stable channel.

The company first announced this project last December and the news obviously created quite a stir, given that Microsoft was abandoning its own browser engine development in favor of using an open-source engine — and one that is still very much under the control of Google. With that, we’re now down to two major browser engines: Google’s Chromium and Mozilla’s Gecko.

I used the most recent builds for the last week or so. Maybe the most remarkable thing about using Microsoft’s new Chromium-based Edge browser is how unremarkable it feels. It’s a browser and it (with the exceptions of a few bugs you’d expect to see in a first release) works just like you’d expect it to. That’s a good thing, in that if you’re a Windows user, you could easily use the new Edge as your default browser and would be just fine. On the other hand — at least at this stage of the project — there’s also very little that differentiates Edge with Chromium from Google’s own Chrome browser.

That will change over time, though, with more integrations into the Windows ecosystem. For now, this is very much a first preview and meant to give web and extensions developers a platform for testing their sites and tools.

There are a few points of integration with Microsoft’s other services available already, though. Right now, when you install the Edge preview builds, you get the option to choose your new tab layout. The choices are a very simple new tab layout that only presents a search bar and a few bookmarks and a variation with a pretty picture in the background, similar to what you’d see on Bing. There is, however, also another option that highlights recent news from Microsoft News, with the option to personalize what you see on that page.

Microsoft also says that it plans to improve tab management and other UI features as it looks at how it can differentiate its browser from the rest.

In this first preview, some of the syncing features are also already in place, but there are a few holes here. So while bookmarks sync, extensions, your browsing history, settings, open tabs, addresses and passwords do not. That’ll come in some of the next builds, though.

Right now, the only search engine that’s available is Bing. That, too, will obviously change in upcoming builds.

Microsoft tells me that it prioritized getting a full end-to-end browser code base to users and setting up the engineering systems that will allow it to both push regular updates outside of the Windows update cycle and to pull in telemetry data from its users.

Most of the bugs I encountered were minor. Netflix, though, regularly gave me trouble. While all other video services I tried worked just fine, the Netflix homepage often stuttered and became unresponsive for a few seconds.

That was the exception, though. In using the new Edge as my default browser for almost a week, I rarely ran into similar issues, and a lot of things “just work” already. You can read PDFs in the browser, just like you’d expect. Two-factor authentication with a Yubikey to get into Gmail works without an issue. Even complex web apps run quickly and without any issues. The extensions I regularly use, including LastPass, worked seamlessly, no matter whether I installed them from the Google store or Microsoft’s library.

I also ran a few benchmarks and, unsurprisingly, Edge and the latest version of Chrome tend to score virtually the same results. It’s a bit too early in the development process to really focus on benchmarks, but the results are encouraging.

With this release, we’re also getting our first official look at using extensions in the new Edge. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft will offer its own extension store, but with the flip of a switch in the settings, you’ll also be able to install and use extensions from third-party marketplaces, meaning the Chrome Web Store. Extension developers who want to add their tools to the Microsoft marketplace can basically take their existing Chrome extensions and use those.

Microsoft’s promise, of course, is that it will also bring the new Edge to Windows 7 and Windows 8, as well as the Mac. For now, though, this first version is only available on 64-bit versions of Windows 10. Those are in the works, but Microsoft says they simply aren’t quite as far along as the Windows 10 edition. This first release is also English-only, with localized versions coming soon.

While anybody can obviously download this release and give it a try, Microsoft stressed that if you’re not a tech enthusiast, it really isn’t for you. This first release is very much meant for a technical audience. In a few months, though, Microsoft will surely start launching more fully featured beta versions and by that time, the browser will likely be ready for a wider audience. Still, though, if you want to give it a try, nobody is stopping you today, no matter your technical expertise.

A powerful spyware app now targets iPhone owners

By Zack Whittaker

Security researchers have discovered a powerful surveillance app first designed for Android devices can now target victims with iPhones.

The spy app, found by researchers at mobile security firm Lookout, said its developer abused their Apple-issued enterprise certificates to bypass the tech giant’s app store to infect unsuspecting victims.

The disguised carrier assistance app once installed can silently grab a victim’s contacts, audio recordings, photos, videos, and other device information — including their real-time location data. It can be remotely triggered to listen in on people’s conversations, the researchers found. Although there was no data to show who might have been targeted, the researchers noted that the malicious app was served from fake sites purporting to be cell carriers in Italy and Turkmenistan.

The app is one of several under the so-called “stalkerware” umbrella, apps that can be surreptitiously installed on a victim’s phone to spy on their activity, location and messages in real-time.

Researchers linked the app to the makers of a previously discovered Android app, developed by the same Italian surveillance app maker Connexxa.

The Android app, dubbed Exodus, ensnared hundreds of victims — either by installing it or having it installed. Exodus had a larger feature set and expanded spying capabilities by downloading an additional exploit designed to gain root access to the device, giving the app near complete access to a device’s data, including emails, cellular data, Wi-Fi passwords and more, according to Security Without Borders.

Screenshots of the ordinary-looking iPhone app, which was silently uploading a victim’s private data and real-time location to the spyware company’s servers. (Image: supplied)

Both of the apps use the same backend infrastructure, while the iOS app used several techniques — like certificate pinning — to make it difficult to analyze the network traffic, Adam Bauer, Lookout’s senior staff security intelligence engineer, told TechCrunch.

“This is one of the indicators that a professional group was responsible for the software,” he said.

Although the Android version was downloadable directly from the Google’s app store, the iOS version was not widely distributed. Instead, Connexxa signed the app with an enterprise certificate issued by Apple to the developer, said Bauer, allowing the surveillance app maker to bypass Apple’s strict app store checks.

Apple says that’s a violation of its rules, which prohibits these certificates designed to be used strictly for internal apps to be pushed to consumers.

It follows a similar pattern to several app makers, as discovered by TechCrunch earlier this year, which abused their enterprise certificates to develop mobile apps that evaded the scrutiny of Apple’s app store. Every app served through an app store has to be certified by Apple or they won’t run. But several companies, like Facebook and Google, used their enterprise-only certificates to sign apps given to consumers. Apple said this violated its rules and banned the apps by revoking enterprise certificates used by Facebook and Google, knocking both of their illicit apps offline, but also every other internal app signed with the same certificate.

Facebook was unable to operate at full capacity for an entire working day until Apple issued a new certificate.

The certificate Apple issued to Connexa. (Image: supplied)

But Facebook and Google weren’t the only companies abusing their enterprise certificates. TechCrunch found dozens of porn and gambling apps — not permitted on Apple’s app store — signed with an enterprise certificate, circumventing the tech giant’s rules.

After they researchers disclosed their findings, Apple revoked the app maker’s enterprise certificate, knocking every installed app offline and unable to run.

The researchers said they did not know how many Apple users were affected.

Connexxa did not respond to a request for comment. Apple did not comment.

Online university degree provider 2U acquires Trilogy for $750M to expand into tech bootcamps and training

By Ingrid Lunden

As more universities turn to offering online degrees to expand their student bodies by way of cyberspace, one of the pioneers in enabling that trend has made an acquisition to expand into new territory around skills training and continuing education. 2U, which helps build online degree programs for a number of top universities, is paying $750 million to acquire Trilogy Education, which creates online and in-person “boot camps” — continuing education programs — in collaboration with universities to train those already in the workforce with tech skills in areas like coding, data analytics, UX/UI, and cybersecurity.

The deal, which is expected to close in the next 60 days, is coming in a combination of cash and shares — $400 million in cash and $350 million in newly issued shares of 2U common stock — the company said. It’s a decent exit for Trilogy, which was valued at $545 million (according to Pitchbook) when it raised $50 million in June 2018. Its investors include Highland Capital, Macquarie and Exceed, among others.

2U, meanwhile, has a market cap of $3.85 billion an is publicly traded on Nasdaq.

The acquisition helps 2U consolidate its university footprint, which will get bumped up to 68 from its previous 36. And it presents an obvious opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell: those who are already jumping into building degree programs can diversify into more skills training, while those who have yet to build full degree services but have created skills training programs now might consider how to parlay that experience into degrees — all from one provider, 2U. This also opens more generally a bigger window for 2U to expand into the continuing education market, which it estimates is worth some $366 billion.

It also helps it better compete with other companies that have already built a dual-track approach to online education, building degrees as well as short courses, like Coursera (Udacity and Udemy are among those that have focused on further education).

“[Trilogy Education] is a natural strategic fit and growth driver for 2U that will extend our reach across the career curriculum continuum, deepen our relationships with new and existing partners, drive marketing efficiencies, and open a more direct corporate training and enterprise sales channel for the company. We expect the addition of Trilogy to accelerate our path to $1 billion in revenue by one year from 2022 to 2021,” 2U Co-Founder and CEO Christopher “Chip” Paucek said in a statement. ​“Increasingly, universities are attempting to add practical, technical skills to their degrees. We simply future-proof the degree by adding this type of technical competency.”

The presence of commercial companies building educational courses for non-profit universities, and taking a cut in the process, has seen more than a little controversy. The business spin that is put on education through these programs not only calls into question how and what schools (and their partners) prioritise in the curriculum, but they raise issues around how higher education is priced, and who profits from these degrees — which sometimes can still cost over $60,000, despite no physical time in classrooms. (There is an excellent dive into the issue here in the Huffington Post, featuring an interview with the co-founder of 2U, John Katzman, who also founded the Princeton Review.)

To be fair, some of the issues around higher education — such as the exorbitantly high cost in some countries, and the fact that it still feels like a largely elitist endeavor with the odds of students gaining acceptance and achieving in top universities still in favor of too-small a privileged subset of families — cannot be completely tied to the development of online learning courses powered by for-profit companies.

And you could also argue that this was bound to be the next step, given how technology has evolved across all of education, and the fact that ed tech is not a core competency for many institutions.

One of the potential positives that comes out of online degree programs is that it gives opportunities to a much wider group of would-be students, and mass market is something that Trilogy knows: it has to date already provided courses for 20,000 people and 1,200 instructors across 120 programs, it says, with an emphasis on practical skills to bring up local workforces, and working with universities to build these courses and connecting with big companies — customers include Google, Microsoft, and Bank of America — to deliver them.

“By joining forces with 2U, Trilogy Education can empower universities to reach more students, in more places, throughout more of their lives, while driving positive economic ​impact in their local regions,” Trilogy Education CEO and Founder Dan Sommer said in a statement. “Trilogy and 2U share a belief that universities are critical to lifelong learning and to meeting the workforce development needs of local economies both domestically and internationally, and we’re proud to further our mission and continue this important work as part of the 2U family.

Phone shipments expected to rebound in 2020

By Brian Heater

After a couple of few rocky years, 2020 will mark a rebound for phone shipments, according to new projections from Gartner. But device makers aren’t out of the woods just yet. 2021’s number find things dipping yet again.

The analyst firm sees the category experiencing a 0.5 percent decline for 2019. That comports with recent numbers, which have the space experiencing negative growth over the past couple of years for the first time since firms started keeping tracking of these things.

Next year’s expected growth to  marks a potential bright spot, owing to upgrade cycles, but device makers should be bracing for slowed growth overall for the next couple of years. In 2021, things are said to drop down even further.

Premium costs, slowed economic growth in places like China and less incentive to upgrade are are driving the stagnation here. Gartner believes the average lifetime of a premium handset will increase from 2.6 to 2.8 years by 2023. It seems like a rounding error, but it’s enough to make an impact.

I’d anticipate that the coming push to 5G will help drive some growth along the way. Gartner, on the other hand, seems understandably more cautious about foldables, despite the form factor being all the rage at MWC last month.

“We expect that users will use a foldable phone as they do their regular smartphone, picking it up hundreds of times a day, unfolding it sporadically and typing on its plastic screen, which may scratch quickly depending on the way it folds,” Gartner research director Roberta Cozza says in a release tied to the study. “Through the next five years, we expect foldable phones to remain a niche product due to several manufacturing challenges. In addition to the surface of the screen, the price is a barrier despite we expect to decline with time. Currently priced at $2,000, foldable phones present too many trade-offs, even for many early technology adopters.”

Fair enough. Things do look better for the category long term, with foldable numbers up to 30 million units (around five percent of the market) by 2023.

Gizmodo Media Group acquired by private equity firm Great Hill Partners

By Anthony Ha

Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion have a new owner — private equity firm Great Hill Partners.

As part of the deal, digital media executive Jim Spanfeller is becoming CEO of (and an investor in) the renamed G/O Media. Spanfeller previously led as CEO and also founded Spanfeller Media Group, the company behind the Daily Meal.

“This opportunity comes at a time when the entire digital media category is beginning to be recognized again for its unique ability to meet the diverse content and delivery needs of consumers and advertisers,” Spanfeller said in a statement. “As the largest player in our space, G/O Media is in an ideal position to capitalize on this dynamic, and I am excited to collaborate with a great team that boasts an incredible track record to further expand our reach, add value to our advertisers and enrich our visitors’ lives.”

According to the announcement, G/O Media Group sites reach around 100 million unique visitors each month. The Gizmodo Media Group includes Deadspin, Jezebel, Kotaku, Lifehacker and others, as well as Gizmodo itself. They started out as part of Gawker Media, and were acquired by Univision following Gawker’s legal defeat in a lawsuit by Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan), and its subsequent bankruptcy.

The acquisition was part of a larger effort by Univision to a reach an English-language audience — it also acquired its initial stake in The Onion at around the same time. Since then, however, Univision took a write-down on its English-language assets and was reportedly looking to sell them.

The Wall Street Journal, which first reported that Great Hill was in talks to acquire the Gizmodo portfolio, now says the firm is expected to pay “much less” than the $135 million that Univision paid in 2016. Great Hill previously worked with Vivek Shah to acquire publisher Ziff Davis, which was then sold to j2 Global.

Meanwhile, the Gawker website was acquired separately by Bustle owner Bryan Goldberg. It’s struggled to get off the ground, however, with its writing staff resigning earlier this year.

New iPhones sport three-camera arrays in latest rumors

By Brian Heater

One thing we count on for sure in this unpredictable world of ours: the will, indeed, be new iPhones. Another thing that’s looking — at the very least — pretty likely is the inclusion of a three-camera array. A number of different rumors from different sources are currently circling around the addition of a third lens for 2019 models.

New reports from “reliable sources” in the Chinese supply chain (by way of 9 to 5 Mac by way of Macotakara, a Japanese Apple blog) have the three-camera system popping on on models with 6.1 inch and 6.5 inch OLED screens, marking another real estate for the base level model of the flagship.

The larger camera configuration (which may well induce minor trypophobia among some users) is said to be a driving factor in the decision to increase screen size). We’re still very much in the “grain of salt” portion of the Apple rumor cycle, through as 9 to 5 notes, the source has had a solid track record with these sorts of rumors before.

All of that, one assumes, would also come with a price increase for the handset, which has been pushing the $1,000 mark for a couple of years now. And all of this in a year when the company’s still not quite ready to pull the trigger on 5G. All signs currently point to a 2020 date on that one.

Europe to pilot AI ethics rules, calls for participants

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission has announced the launch of a pilot project intended to test draft ethical rules for developing and applying artificial intelligence technologies to ensure they can be implemented in practice.

It’s also aiming to garner feedback and encourage international consensus building for what it dubs “human-centric AI” — targeting among other talking shops the forthcoming G7 and G20 meetings for increasing discussion on the topic.

The Commission’s High Level Group on AI — a body comprised of 52 experts from across industry, academia and civic society announced last summer — published their draft ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI in December.

A revised version of the document was submitted to the Commission in March. It’s boiled the expert consultancy down to a set of seven “key requirements” for trustworthy AI, i.e. in addition to machine learning technologies needing to respect existing laws and regulations — namely:

  • Human agency and oversight: “AI systems should enable equitable societies by supporting human agency and fundamental rights, and not decrease, limit or misguide human autonomy.”
  • Robustness and safety: “Trustworthy AI requires algorithms to be secure, reliable and robust enough to deal with errors or inconsistencies during all life cycle phases of AI systems.”
  • Privacy and data governance: “Citizens should have full control over their own data, while data concerning them will not be used to harm or discriminate against them.”
  • Transparency: “The traceability of AI systems should be ensured.”
  • Diversity, non-discrimination and fairness: “AI systems should consider the whole range of human abilities, skills and requirements, and ensure accessibility.”
  • Societal and environmental well-being: “AI systems should be used to enhance positive social change and enhance sustainability and ecological responsibility.”
  • Accountability: “Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure responsibility and accountability for AI systems and their outcomes.”

The next stage of the Commission’s strategy to foster ethical AI is to see how the draft guidelines operate in a large-scale pilot with a wide range of stakeholders, including international organizations and companies from outside the bloc itself.

The Commission says the pilot phase will launch this summer. It’s asking companies, public administrations and organisations to sign up to its forum on AI, the European AI Alliance, and receive notification when the pilot starts.

Members of its AI high-level expert group will also present and explain the guidelines to relevant stakeholders in Member States. Members of the group are due to present their work in detail during the third Digital Day in Brussels tomorrow.

Here’s how the Commission explains its plan for the pilot in an official communication on “building trust in human-centric artificial intelligence”:

This work will have two strands: (i) a piloting phase for the guidelines involving stakeholders who develop or use AI, including public administrations, and (ii) a continued stakeholder consultation and awareness-raising process across Member States and different groups of stakeholders, including industry and service sectors:

  1. (i)  Starting in June 2019, all stakeholders and individuals will be invited to test the assessment list and provide feedback on how to improve it. In addition, the AI high- level expert group will set up an in-depth review with stakeholders from the private and the public sector to gather more detailed feedback on how the guidelines can be implemented in a wide range of application domains. All feedback on the guidelines’ workability and feasibility will be evaluated by the end of 2019.
  2. (ii)  In parallel, the Commission will organise further outreach activities, giving representatives of the AI high-level expert group the opportunity to present the guidelines to relevant stakeholders in the Member States, including industry and service sectors, and providing these stakeholders with an additional opportunity to comment on and contribute to the AI guidelines.

Commenting in a statement, VP for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, said: “The ethical dimension of AI is not a luxury feature or an add-on. It is only with trust that our society can fully benefit from technologies. Ethical AI is a win-win proposition that can become a competitive advantage for Europe: being a leader of human-centric AI that people can trust.”

“Today, we are taking an important step towards ethical and secure AI in the EU,” added Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, in another supporting statement. “We now have a solid foundation based on EU values and following an extensive and constructive engagement from many stakeholders including businesses, academia and civil society. We will now put these requirements to practice and at the same time foster an international discussion on human-centric AI.”

Following the pilot phase, in early 2020, the Commission says the expert AI group will review the assessment lists for the key requirements, building on feedback received. It says it will then build on the review — evaluating the outcome and proposing any next steps.

By fall 2019 it also intends to launch a set of networks of AI research excellence centres. Networks of digital innovation hubs are also slated to be set up with a goal of fostering discussions between Member States and stakeholders to develop and implement a model for data sharing and making best use of common data spaces.

The plans fall under the Commission’s AI strategy of April 2018, which aims to increase public and private AI investments to at least €20BN annually over the next decade, making more data available, fostering talent and ensuring trust.

Klaviyo raises $150M Series B after building company the old-fashioned way

By Ron Miller

Klaviyo, a Boston-based email marketing firm founded in 2012, went about building its email marketing business the old-fashioned way. First it built a profitable company, then it went looking for funding to accelerate the growth. Today, it announced a massive $150 million Series B with the entire sum coming from Summit Partners.

The company had raised just $8.5 million before today’s announcement. Co-founder Andrew Bialecki wrote in a blog post announcing the funding that they decided to bootstrap for the first several years because they felt it was the right way to build a business — that, and they had no idea how to raise money.

“We came from families that started small businesses from scratch and ran them for decades. They may not have been huge, but they were real, lasting businesses. We wanted to try to build something like that. The second reason is much less idealistic. We had no idea how to raise money,” he wrote in the blog post.

What is the company doing to warrant such a huge investment? It has created an email marketing platform, which in and of itself is not that special, but what the company has done that it feels is different is build a platform where the data lives with the messaging. This enables them to build highly customized messages quickly.

Screenshot: Klaviyo

Bialecki says there are two problems with email marketing tools today. The first is they aren’t really very smart. Most companies are still sending the same message to everyone, regardless of whether they are a new customer or a repeat one. Secondly, while they are probably measuring things like open rates and click-through rates, most platforms aren’t measuring the most important metric of all, and that’s revenue generated as a result of the email campaign.

To be fair, many companies are building highly customized email marketing campaigns based on analytics. In fact, he admits that many people ask if this isn’t a solved problem. Clearly, there are many companies selling email marketing solutions, but he says his company’s approach is different. “Our point of view is that there’s a ton of noise about this, a lot of marketing about marketing companies saying they solve these problems, but they don’t actually,” he said.

He believes the reason for that is simple. “They just don’t store all the customer data themselves. They delegate that job to data warehouses, customer data platforms or some other [platforms]. Then they try to connect them up and it’s a really bad experience.”

He said having all the data stored on the company’s platform lets their users respond much more quickly to changing situations and to deliver email that’s more personalized and in context of the user’s actual experience.

Michael Medici, a managing director at Summit Partners, who is joining the company board as part of this investment, says the company is a combination of product vision and technical expertise. “Klaviyo continues to change the playing field in commerce, allowing companies of all sizes to harness the power of data-driven customer engagement activity to grow sales – and the results are impressive,” he said in a statement.

The company is growing in leaps and bounds. It currently has 12,000 customers. To put that into perspective, it had just 1,000 at the end of 2016 and 5,000 at the end of 2017.

The company certainly understands that marketing is just one channel, but the goal up until now was to concentrate on email marketing, and get that right. Moving forward with the big investment, the company can accelerate growth and expand the platform into other areas like mobile and websites.

“We think the big change coming is to own all of those channels. Right now, businesses are forced to choose between going through some intermediary like Google or Facebook for ads, or selling on a marketplace like Amazon. If you’re a consumer business, we think you can go directly to customers,” he said.

He adds, “Our mentality is that we’re going to be a self-sustaining business, and we want to be here for decades.” With this kind of money, it certainly has the runway to be around for the foreseeable future.

Sources: Y Combinator’s growth fund to back challenger bank Monzo

By Steve O'Hear

Just 5 months after announcing £85 million in Series E funding, Monzo is already gearing up to raise additional funding, which would double its valuation.

As reported in the Sunday Times yesterday, the U.K. challenger bank is close to raising £100 million in further funding in a new round led by an unnamed U.S. investor. If the deal goes through, it will reportedly give Monzo a pre-money valuation of £2 billion, up from £1 billion in October.

Now TechCrunch has learned that the new U.S. backer is Y Combinator.

According to multiple sources within investor circles on both sides of the pond, the Silicon Valley accelerator and venture capital fund plans to invest in Monzo out of its growth fund, the vehicle it typically uses to double down on fast-growing companies within its alumni.

Notably, Monzo isn’t a graduate of YC. However, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield’s previous startup, the payments company GoCardless, did go through the accelerator program, making Blomfield himself an alumni.

Monzo declined to comment. Y Combinator couldn’t be reached at the time of publication and I’ll update this post should I hear back.

Meanwhile, the news that Y Combinator is lining up to invest in Monzo makes a lot of sense in a number of ways beyond Blomfield’s previous ties to the accelerator. The challenger bank already boasts a plethora of U.S. investors, such as U.S. venture capital firm General Catalyst, Thrive Capital and Stripe.

And, as TechCrunch reported exclusively, Monzo has quietly begun working on a U.S. launch. This includes setting up a small team states-side to begin laying the groundwork to bring a version of Monzo to North America. It will initially be powered by a U.S. banking partner while Monzo works on the necessary regulatory licenses to go it alone.

Monzo continues to grow at a clip here in the U.K., too. To date, the challenger bank claims more than 1.7 million customers since it launched in 2015.