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Today — February 25th 2020Your RSS feeds

Amazon opens its first cashierless grocery store

By Sarah Perez

Amazon today is opening its first grocery store to pilot the use of the retailer’s cashierless “Just Walk Out” technology that has previously powered 25 Amazon Go convenience stores in a handful of major U.S. metros. Based in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, the new Amazon Go Grocery store allows customers to shop for everyday grocery items like fresh produce, meat, seafood, bakery items, household essentials, dairy, easy-to-make dinner options, beer, wine and spirits and more.

The store is 7,700 square feet in the front of the house and 10,400 square feet overall, making it the largest use of Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology to date.

As with Amazon Go convenience stores, shoppers first use the Amazon Go app to scan in as they enter the store, then shop as usual. Cameras and sensors track the items removed from the shelves which are then added to the shopper’s virtual cart. When the customer exits the store, their cart is checked out automatically using their payment card on file.

The end result is a grocery store with no lines or waiting. Meanwhile, store staff are freed up to take care of other aspects of the business — like restocking shelves and customer service.

This model has been working for Amazon’s convenience stores, where customers come in to grab items quickly. But grocery shopping presents a new challenge for Amazon’s cashierless technology. Grocery shoppers tend to examine items more closely — often picking up fresh produce, giving it a squeeze, then putting it back. They may push the produce around on the shelf to find one they like. Or they comparison shop, by picking up two products to compare labels, then put one in the cart and another back on the shelf — sometimes in an incorrect spot. They even discard items on different isles instead of walking back to return it to the proper area when they change their minds.

In traditional grocery stores, this wouldn’t be an issue — if another shopper later grabbed the misplaced item, it could still be rung up properly. Amazon’s technology may struggle to determine what that item was, however.

The Seattle store is located at AVA Capital Hill (610 E. Pike Street). Its hours of operation are 7 AM – 11 PM Sunday through Thursday, and 7 AM – midnight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to the typical grocery items, the store promises also a mix that includes organic brands, special finds, and are favorites. Local vendors in the debut assortment include La Parisienne, Donut Factory, Tony’s Coffee, Seattle Bagel Bakery, Lopez Island Creamery, Ellenos Yogurt, Uli’s Famous Sausage, Beecher’s, Eat Local, Sri Bella, Carso’s Pasta Company, and Theo’s Chocolate.

Reports that Amazon was looking to launch its own grocery store business, separate from Whole Foods, began to circulate last year. But it was unconfirmed at the time whether or not Amazon’s grocery plans included the use of its cashierless, A.I.-driven technology, or if the new stores would be more conventional grocery stores designed also to serve as hubs for Amazon’s grocery-delivery business.

It seems Amazon is interested in testing out how well its cashierless technology can scale, but it’s not yet clear how many cashierless stores it wants to open in the months and years ahead.

CircleCI-AWS GovCloud partnership aims to bring modern development to US government

By Ron Miller

Much like private businesses, the United States government is in the process of moving workloads to the cloud, and facing a similar set of challenges. Today, CircleCI, the continuous delivery developer service, announced a partnership with AWS GovCloud to help federal government entities using AWS’s government platform to modernize their applications development workflows.

“What this means is that it allows us to run our server offering, which is our on-prem offering, and our government customers can run that on dedicated pure cloud resource [on AWS GovCloud],” CircleCI CEO Jim Rose told TechCrunch.

GovCloud is a dedicated, single tenant cloud platform that lets government entities build FedRAMP-compliant secure cloud solutions (other cloud vendors have similar offerings). FedRAMP is a set of government cloud security standards every cloud vendor has to meet to work with the federal government

CircleCI builds modern continuous delivery/continuous integration (CI/CD) pipelines for development teams pushing changes to the application in a rapid change cycle.

“What GovCloud allows us to do is now provide that same level of security and service for government customers that wanted us to do so in an on prem environment in a dedicated single tenant environment [in the cloud],” Rose explained.

While there are a number of steps involved in building cloud applications, Rose said they are sticking to their core strength around building continuous delivery pipelines. As he says, if you have a legacy mainframe application that changes once every year or two, using CircleCI wouldn’t make sense, but as you begin to modernize, that’s where his company could help.

“[CircleCi comes into play] when you get into more modern cloud applications that are changing in some cases hundreds of times a day, and the sources of change for those applications is getting really diverse and managing that is becoming more complex,” Rose said.

This partnership could involve working directly with an agency, as it has done with the Small Business Administration (SBA), or it might involve a systems integrator, or even AWS, inviting them to be part of a larger RFP.

Rose says he realizes that working with the government can sometimes be controversial. Companies from Chef to Salesforce to Google have run afoul with employees who don’t want to work with certain agencies like DoD or ICE. He says his company has tended to focus on areas where agencies are looking to improve citizen interactions and steered away from other areas.

“From our perspective, given that we’re not super involved in a lot of those areas, but we want to get in front of it, both commercially, as well as on the government side, and determine what falls within the fence line and what’s outside of it,” he said.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

These leaders are coming to Robotics + AI on March 3. Why aren’t you?

By Emma Comeau

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI brings together a wide group of the ecosystem’s leading minds on March 3 at UC Berkeley. Over 1000+ attendees are expected from all facets of the robotics and artificial intelligence space – investors, students, engineerings, C-levels, technologists, and researchers. We’ve compiled a small list of highlights of attendees’ companies and job titles attending this year’s event below.

ATTENDEE HIGHLIGHTS

  • ABB Technology Ventures, Vice President
  • Amazon, Head, re:MARS Product Marketing
  • Amazon Web Services, Principal Business Development Manager
  • Autodesk, Director, Robotics
  • AWS, Principal Technologist
  • BMW, R&D Engineer
  • Bosch Venture Capital, Investment Principal
  • Capital One, President of Critical Stack
  • Ceres Robotics Inc, CEO
  • Deloitte, Managing Director
  • Facebook AI Research, Research Lead
  • Ford X, Strategy & Operations
  • Goldman Sachs, Technology Investor
  • Google, Vice President
  • Google X, Director, Robotics
  • Greylock, EIR
  • Hasbro, Principal Engineer
  • Honda R&D Americas Inc., Data Engineer
  • HSBC, Global Relationship Manager
  • Huawei Technologies, Principal System Architect of Corporate Technology Strategy
  • Hyundai CRADLE, Industrial Design
  • Intel, Hardware Engineer
  • Intuit, Inc., Software Engineer
  • iRobot, CTO
  • John Deere, Director, Precision Ag Marketing and Innovation
  • Kaiser Permanente, Director
  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries (USA), Inc., Technical Director
  • LG Electronics, Head of Engineering
  • LockHeed Martin, Engineering Manager
  • Moody’s Analytics, Managing Director
  • Morgan Stanley, Executive Director
  • NASA, Senior Systems Architect
  • Nestle, Innovation Manager
  • NVIDIA, Senior Systems Software Engineer
  • Qualcomm Ventures, Investment Director
  • Samsung, Director, Open Innovations & Tech Partnership
  • Samsung Ventures, Managing Director
  • Shasta Ventures, Investor
  • Softbank Ventures Asia, Investor
  • Surgical Theater, SVP Engineering
  • Takenaka Corporation, Senior Manager, Technology Planning
  • Techstars, Managing Director
  • Tesla, Sr. Machine Learning Engineer
  • Toyota Research Institute, Manager, Prototyping & Robotics Operations
  • Uber, Engineering Manager
  • UPS, Director of Research and Development

STUDENTS & RESEARCHERS FROM:

  • Columbia University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Northwestern University
  • Santa Clara University
  • Stanford University
  • Texas A&M University
  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UCLA
  • USC
  • Yale University

Did you know that TechCrunch provides a white-glove networking app at all our events called CrunchMatch? You can connect and match with people who meet your specific requirements, message them, and connect right at the conference. How cool is that!?

Want to get in on networking with this caliber of people? Book your $345 General Admission ticket today and save $50 before prices go up at the door. But no one likes going to events alone. Why not bring the whole team? Groups of four or more save 15% on tickets when you book here.

How much should a startup spend on security?

By Zack Whittaker

One of the questions I frequently ask startup founders is how much they’re spending on security. Unsurprisingly, everyone has a different answer.

Startups and small companies are invariably faced with the prospect that they’re either not spending enough or are spending too much on something that’s hard to quantify in terms of value. It’s a tough sell to sink money into an effort to stop something that might one day happen, particularly for bootstrapped startups that must make every cent count — yet we’re told security is a crucial investment for a company’s future.

Sorry to break it to you, but there is no easy answer.

The reality is that each company is different and there is no single recommended dollar amount to spend. But it’s absolutely certain that some investment is required. We know because we see a lot of security incidents here at TechCrunch — hacks, breaches and especially data exposures, often a result of human error.

We spoke to three security experts — a head of security, a security entrepreneur and a cybersecurity fellow — to understand the questions facing startups.

Know and understand your threat model

Every company has a different threat model — by that, we mean identifying risks and possible ways of attack before they happen. Companies that store tons of user data may be a greater target than companies that don’t. Each firm needs to evaluate which kind of risks they face and identify weaknesses.

Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Richard Smith

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Facebook backs Indian education startup Unacademy

By Manish Singh

Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing education startups, has just received the backing of a major technology giant: Facebook.

The social juggernaut has participated in the four-year-old Indian startup’s Series E financing round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

General Atlantic is leading the round, the size of which is about $100 million, the sources said. It wasn’t immediately clear to us exactly how big of a check Facebook has cut, but a source said it was under $20 million. The round values the startup, which had raised $90 million prior to the ongoing round, at over $350 million, the source said.

Unacademy is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. It allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail.

A year ago, the startup launched a subscription service that offers students access to all live classes. Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, tweeted earlier this month that the subscription service had become a $30 million ARR business.

This is the second time Facebook is investing in an Indian startup. Last year, it participated in social commerce Meesho’s $125 million financing round led by Prosus Ventures.

Facebook and Unacademy did not respond to a request for comment.

Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market.

“Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.

Indian newspaper Mint first reported in December that Unacademy was in talks with General Atlantic and GGV Capital to raise as much as $100 million. TechCrunch understands that GGV Capital, which earlier this month invested in edtech startup Vedantu, is not participating in Unacademy’s funding round.

Vedantu and Unacademy compete with Byju’s, an Indian startup that counts General Atlantic as an investor and is valued at $8 billion. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Byju’s, but has sold at least some of its stake, according to a regulatory filing analyzed by business outlet Entrackr.

As India’s startup ecosystem begins to mature, it has started to attract corporate giants. Google, Amazon and Twitter also have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.

Cloud spending said to top $30B in Q4 as Amazon, Microsoft battle for market share

By Ron Miller

We all know the cloud infrastructure market is extremely lucrative; analyst firm Canalys reports that the sector reached $30.2 billion in revenue for Q4 2019.

Cloud numbers are hard to parse because companies often lump cloud revenue into a single bucket regardless of whether it’s generated by infrastructure or software. What’s interesting about Canalys’s numbers is that it attempts to measure the pure infrastructure results themselves without other cloud incomes mixed in:

As an example, Microsoft reported $12.5 billion in total combined cloud revenue for the quarter, but Canalys estimates that just $5.3 billion comes from infrastructure (Azure). Amazon has the purest number with $9.8 billion of a reported $9.95 billion attributed to its infrastructure business. This helps you understand why in spite of the fact that Microsoft reported bigger overall cloud earnings numbers and a higher growth rate, Amazon still has just less than double Microsoft’s market share in terms of IaaS spend.

That’s not to say Microsoft didn’t still have a good quarter — it garnered 17.6% of revenue for the period. That’s up from 14.5% in the same quarter a year ago. What’s more, Amazon lost a bit of ground, according to Canalys, dropping from 33.4% in Q4 2018 to 32.4% in the most recent quarter.

Part of the reason for that is because Microsoft is growing at close to twice the rate as Amazon — 62.3% versus Amazon’s 33.2%.

Meanwhile, number-three vendor Google came in at $1.8 billion for pure infrastructure revenue, good for 6% of the market, up from 4.9% a year ago on growth rate 67.6%. Google reported $2.61 billion in overall cloud revenue, but that included software. Despite the smaller results, it was a good quarter for the Mountain View-based company.

The Station: Lucid Motors spy shot and the birth of an AV startup

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hello again — or perhaps for the first time. This is Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch and your host here at The Station. This weekly newsletter will also be posted as an article after the weekend — that’s what you’re reading now. To get it first, subscribe for free. Please note that there will not be a newsletter February 22.

It was a drama-filled week with a hearing on the hill in D.C. about autonomous vehicle legislation that got a bit tense at times. Meanwhile, Uber tipped its hat to the past, EV startup Lucid started to lift the veil on its Air vehicle (scroll down for a spy shot!) and micromobility prepared for headwinds in Germany.

Before I ride off into the sunset for my vacation, one reminder for y’all. Don’t forget to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome back to micromobbin’, a regular feature in The Station by reporter Megan Rose Dickey. Before we get into her micromobility insights, a quick note that shared scooters are facing a fight in Germany that has prompted companies to unite over their “shared” cause. (Get it?)

Micromobility vehicles, first legalized in Germany last June, have flooded the marketplace and caused a backlash in cities like Berlin, where at least six apps, including Bird, Circ (now owned by Bird), Lime, Tier, Uber Jump and Voi operate. As the Financial Times first reported, amendments to the country’s Road Traffic Act would give individual cities the power to heavily restrict the areas in which e-scooters can be parked or ban them altogether.

Now back to Dickey’s micromobbin’.

Swiftmile, the startup that wants to become the gas station for electric micromobility vehicles, announced its move into advertising this week. Swiftmile already supplies cities and private operators with docks equipped to park and charge both scooters and e-bikes. Now, the company is starting to integrate digital displays that attach to its charging stations to provide public transit info, traffic alerts and, of course, ads.

“It adds tremendous value because it’s a massive market,” Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “Tons of these corporations want to market to that group but you cannot do that on a scooter, nor should you. So there’s a massive audience that wants to market to that group but also cities like us because we’re bringing order to the chaos.”

Meanwhile, Bird unveiled more details about its loyalty program, called Frequent Flyer. It’s currently in the pilot phase, which means it’s only available in select markets. But the benefits for riding five times in 28 days include no start fees for rides between 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday and the ability to reserve your Bird in advance for up to 30 minutes at no cost.

— Megan Rose Dickey

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We don’t just hear things. We see things too. This week in a little bird — the place where we share insider news, not gossip — I’m going to share two spy shots of a production version of Lucid Motors’ upcoming Air electric vehicle. See below.

The photos of the production version of the Lucid Air were taken during an event hosted for some of the vehicle’s first reservation holders. (I wasn’t there, but luckily some readers of The Station were.) By the way, we also hear that reservations are in the “low four figures.”

Lucid Air production reveal

You’ll notice that the production version of the Air is nearly identical to the beta version. Unfortunately, we don’t see the interior. But reports suggest it falls in the understated luxury category and without giant screens.

Lucid is preparing for one of the more important moments in its history as a company. The production version of Air will be unveiled in April at the New York Auto Show. In the run-up to the auto show, Lucid is revealing more information about the vehicle, including a recent video that suggested the vehicle had a real-world range of more than 400 miles. Lucid has hit that 400-mile range in simulated testing, but how it operates on the roads is what really matters.

What’s impressive, if those numbers bear out, is that it was accomplished with a 110-kWh battery pack. That’s an improvement from back in 2016 when Lucid said it would need a 130-kWh battery pack to achieve that range. In my past conversations with CEO Peter Rawlinson — and one wild ride with him behind the wheel of an early Air prototype in Vegas — it’s clear he is obsessed with battery efficiency. That apparently hasn’t waned.

Car and Driver, which was at this special event, noted in its report that Rawlinson has a goal to get to five miles per kilowatt-hour. Right now, Tesla can lay claim to the most efficient electric vehicle with the upcoming Model Y at a claimed 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour.

And late Friday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the Tesla Model S now has an estimated EPA range above 390 miles or ~630 km.

Inside the beltway

It got a little prickly on Capitol Hill during a House panel hearing this week that aimed to tackle how best to regulate autonomous vehicles. Watch the hearing to see it all unfold. Here’s a handy link to it.

A quick history lesson: The SELF DRIVE ACT was unanimously passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. AV START, a complementary bill introduced in the Senate, failed to pass because Democrats said it didn’t go far enough to address safety and liability issues.

A bipartisan group revived efforts to come up with legislation that would address Democrat concerns and give auto manufacturers and AV developers greater freedom to deploy vehicles that lack controls like a steering wheel or pedals, which are currently required by federal law.

There was some level of public agreement between the traditional auto manufacturers and AAJ over the issue of accountability. But there is still a huge divide between organizations like the Consumer Technology Association and safety advocates and trial lawyers over the issue of forced arbitration.

Groups like the American Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, want to ban forced arbitration in any autonomous vehicle bill.

Meanwhile, CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro submitted testimony that was clearly opposed to limiting the use of arbitration. The CTA argues that arbitration reduces the cost of litigation and provides more timely remedies.

People who were in the room told me they were surprised by how unwavering Shapiro’s comments were, and suggested that it wasn’t in step with how some auto manufacturers view the issue.

Following the hearing, the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committees circulated seven sections to industry groups covering issues such as crash-data sharing and cybersecurity, according to reporting by Bloomberg Government. There was one missing provision. Any guesses? Yup, the provision dealing with forced arbitration. That has caused some Democrats to abandon the bill.

There are two ways for this bill to survive in this congressional session — by unanimous consent, meaning everyone agrees to it, or by being attached to another bill. The first option is highly unlikely. And the second is just as slim, as there are limited opportunities in the Senate to attach self-driving legislation to another bill.

Adventures in ride hailing

Two items to mention that illustrate how the world of ride hailing continues to evolve.

First up is Uber. The company is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The pilot is launching in Arizona, followed by other yet unnamed states. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s not quite like calling a taxi dispatcher, though. You’ll still need a phone that can receive SMS or text messages to get information on the driver and their ETA.

Now let’s jump over to Nigeria where new regulations in the country’s commercial center of Lagos are creating some chaos.

Lagos has started to restrict where shared motorcycles, called okadas, can operate. That is affecting motorcycle-taxi businesses like ORide, Max .ng and Gokada.

In a statement via email, ORide’s senior director of Operations, Olalere Ridwan, said the rules entail “a ban on commercial motorcycles…in the city’s core commercial and residential areas, including Victoria Island and Lagos Island.”

The motorcycle taxi limitations have also thrown off Lagos’s disorderly transit grid — overloading other mobility modes (such as mini-buses) and forcing more people to pound pavement and red-dirt to get to work, according to reporter Jake Bright.

Google’s axe sparks a spin-off

Google bookbot-cartken

I wanted to highlight one of our ONMs, otherwise known as original news manufacturers. Ba dum bump.

Freelancer Mark Harris is back with a scoop on Google’s short-lived Bookbot program and how its death sparked a new and still-in-stealth startup called Cartken.

Bookbot was a robot created within Google’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products. The plan was to pilot an autonomous robot in Mountain View that would pick up library books from users and bring them back to the library. Apparently, it was well received. But it was killed off far before its nine-month pilot was slated to end. Bookbot’s demise followed Google’s decision to scale back efforts to compete with Amazon in shopping.

But Bookbot appears to be back, albeit in a slicker form and with a broader use case than a library book shuttle. Engineers working on Bookbot as well as a logistics expert who was once in charge of operations at Google Express left the company to form Cartken in fall 2019.

Check out Harris’ deep dive into Bookbot, Google’s shift away from shopping and Cartken.

TC Sessions: Mobility savings

You might have heard or read here in this newsletter that TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Now here’s my discount deal for you. To get 10% off tickets, including early-bird, use code AUTO. The early-bird sale ends April 9. Early-bird tickets are available now for $250 — that’s $100 savings before prices go up. Students can book a ticket for just $50. Book your tickets today.

So far, we’ve announced:

  • Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber
  • Boris Sofman, who is leading Waymo’s autonomous trucking efforts
  • Nancy Sun, Ike Robotics chief engineer and co-founder
  • Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan
  • Porsche North America CEO Klaus Zellmer
  • Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility

Expect more announcements each week leading up to the May 14th event.

Smart speaker sales reached new record of 146.9M in 2019, up 70% from 2018

By Sarah Perez

Global smart speaker sales hit a record high last year with shipments of 146.9 million units, up 70% over 2018, according to a recent report on the state of the smart speaker market from Strategy Analytics. Though Amazon still leads in the U.S. by a wide margin, its portion of the worldwide market is now declining as Chinese vendors gain traction.

However, Amazon’s Echo brand continues to lead smart speaker sales worldwide with a 26.2% share in 2019. But that’s a drop from Amazon’s 33.7% share in 2018. Amazon’s decline wasn’t Google’s gain, either, in terms of market share. Instead, second-place Google dropped from 25.9% in 2018 to 20.3% last year.

That said, Amazon and Google in 2019 retained their leadership in both North America and Europe, where they accounted for more than three-quarters of all smart speaker sales.

Meanwhile, Chinese vendors Baidu, Alibaba and Xiaomi all increased their respective shares in 2019. And Apple remained in sixth place with only a 4.7% share.

The figures were somewhat better when looking at Q4 2019 alone, thanks to the holiday shopping season, when vendors slashed prices on entry-level smart speakers to encourage purchases and ran other holiday sales. In the quarter, Amazon led with 15.8 million units shipped, followed by Google with 13.9 million, then Chinese brand Baidu with 5.9 million in third.

Sales of smart speakers in Q4 totaled 55.7 million units, the highest ever to date. This was driven by the strong holiday sales in both the U.S. and Europe in the quarter. In addition, Google’s smart speaker business improved following a combination of new product introductions, improved component supply and strong promotional activity, the analyst firm said.

“Consumer appetite for smart speakers remained undimmed during the all-important Q4 period as newly launched devices with improved feature sets and audio performance helped drive record quarterly shipments,” said David Watkins, director at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Consumers across the world were once again enticed by scarcely believable deals from leading brands such as Google, Amazon, Baidu, and Alibaba, while Google, in particular, stepped up its giveaway promotional activity in partnership with brands such as YouTube and Spotify.”

Despite the impacts to supply and demand currently being caused by coronavirus (Covid-19), Strategy Analytics believes 2020 will be another record year for smart speakers.

The full report is available here.

PhotoSquared app exposed customer photos and shipping labels

By Zack Whittaker

Popular photo printing app PhotoSquared has exposed thousands of customer photos, addresses, and orders details.

At least ten thousand shipping labels were stored in a public Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage bucket. There was no password on the bucket, allowing anyone who knew the easy-to-guess web address access to the customer data. All too often, these AWS storage buckets are misconfigured and set to “public” and not “private.”

The exposed data included high-resolution user-uploaded photos and generated shipping labels, dating back to 2016 and was updating by the day. The app has more than 100,000 users, according to its Google Play listing.

It’s not known how long the storage bucket was left open.

One of the customer orders, including photos and the customer’s shipping address. The exposed storage bucket also had thousands of shipping labels. (Image: TechCrunch)

Security researchers provided the name of the exposed bucket to TechCrunch. We matched a number of shipping labels against existing public records, and contacted PhotoSquared on Wednesday to warn of the exposure.

Keith Miller, chief executive of Strategic Factory, which owns Photosquared, confirmed that the data was no longer exposed, but Miller declined to say if it planned to inform customers or regulators under data breach notification laws.

At the time of writing, PhotoSquared has made no reference to the security lapse on its website or its social media accounts.

7-month-old Simsim secures $16M for its social commerce in India

By Manish Singh

Simsim, a social commerce startup in India, said on Friday it has raised $16 million in seven months of its existence as it attempts to replicate the offline retail experience in the digital world with help from influencers.

The Gurgaon-based startup said it raised $16 million across Seed, Series A, and Series B financing rounds from Accel Partners, Shunwei Capital, and Good Capital. (The most recent round, Series B, was of $8 million in size.)

“Despite e-commerce players bandying out major discounts, most of the sales in India are still happening in brick-and-mortar stores. There is a simple reason for that: Trust,” explained Amit Bagaria, co-founder of Simsim, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The vast majority of Indians are still not comfortable with reading descriptions — and that too in English, he said.

Simsim is taking a different approach to tackle this opportunity. On its app, users watch short-videos produced in local languages by influencers who apply beauty products or try out dresses and explain the ins-and-outs of the products. Below the video, the items appear as they are being discussed and users can tap on them to proceed with the purchase.

“Videos help in education users about the category. So many of them may not have used face masks, for instance. But it becomes easier when the community influencer is able to show them how to apply it,” said Rohan Malhotra, Managing Partner at Good Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Influencers typically sell a range of items and users can follow them to browse through the past catalog and stay on top of future sales, said Bagaria, who previously worked at the e-commerce venture of financial services firm Paytm .

“This interactiveness is enabling Simsim to mimic the offline stores experience,” said Malhotra, who is one of the earliest investors in Meesho, also a social commerce startup that last year received backing from Facebook and Prosus Ventures.

“The beauty to me of social commerce is that you’re not changing consumer behavior. People are used to consuming on WhatsApp — and it’s working for Meesho. Over here, you are getting the touch and feel experience and are able to mentally picture the items much clearer,” he said.

Simsim handles the inventories, which it sources from manufacturers and brands, and it works with a number of logistics players to deliver the products.

“Several Indian cities and towns are some of the biggest production hubs of various high-quality items. But these people have not been able to efficiently sell online or grow their network in the offline world. On Simsim, they are able to work with influencers and market their products,” said Bagaria.

The platform today works with more than 1,200 influencers, who get a commission for each item they sell, said Bagaria, who plans to grow this figure to 100,000 in the coming years.

Even as Simsim, which has been open to users for six months, is still in its nascent stage, it is beginning to show some growth. It has amassed over a million users, most of whom live in small cities and towns, and it is selling thousands of items each day, said Bagaria.

He said the platform, which currently supports Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and English, will add more than a dozen additional languages by the end of the year. In about a month, Simsim also plans to start showing live videos, where influencers will be able to answer queries from users.

A handful of startups have emerged in India in recent years that are attempting to rethink the e-commerce market in the nation. Amazon and Walmart, both of which have poured billions of dollars in India, have taken a notice too. Both of them have added support for Hindi in the last two years and have made several more tweaks to their platforms to expand their reach.

Judge temporarily halts work on JEDI contract until court can hear AWS protest

By Ron Miller

A sealed order from a judge today has halted the $10 billion, decade long JEDI project in its tracks until AWS’s protest of the contract award to Microsoft can be heard by the court.

The order signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith of the US Court Federal Claims stated:

The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

The judge was not taking this lightly, adding that Amazon would have to put up $42 million bond to cover costs should it prove that the motion was filed wrongfully. Given Amazon’s value as of today is $1.08 trillion, they can probably afford to put up the money, but they must provide it by February 20th, and the court gets to hold the funds until a final determination has been made.

At the end of last month, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court could rule on its protest. It is worth noting that in protests of this sort, it is not unusual to stop work until a final decision on the award can be made.

This is all part of an ongoing drama that has gone for a couple of years since the DoD put this out to bid. After much wrangling, the DoD awarded the contract to Microsoft at the end of October. Amazon filed suit in November, claiming that the president had unduly influenced the process.

As we reported in December, at a press conference at AWS re:Invent, the cloud arm’s annual customer conference, AWS CEO Andy Jassy made clear the company thought the president had unfairly influenced the procurement process.

“I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

Earlier this week, the company filed paperwork to depose the president and Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper.

The entire statement from the court today halting the JEDI project:

**SEALED**OPINION AND ORDER granting [130] Motion for Preliminary Injunction, filed by plaintiff. The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

Pursuant to RCFC 65(c), plaintiff is directed to PROVIDE security in the amount of $42 million for the payment of such costs and damages as may be incurred or suffered in the event that future proceedings prove that this injunction was issued wrongfully.

As such, on or before 2/20/2020, plaintiff is directed to FILE a notice of filing on the docket in this matter indicating the form of security obtained, and plaintiff shall PROVIDE the original certification of security to the clerk of court. The clerk shall HOLD the security until this case is closed.

On or before 2/27/2020, the parties are directed to CONFER and FILE a notice of filing attaching a proposed redacted version of this opinion, with any competition-sensitive or otherwise protectable information blacked out. Signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith.

Astranis raises $90 million for its next-gen satellite broadband internet service

By Darrell Etherington

YC-backed Astranis has raised $90 million of new combined debt and equity funding in a Series B round led Venrock, with a sizeable contribution by existing investor (and lead of their 2018 round) Andreessen Horowitz. The funding will be used to help the company launch its first commercial satellites, which will be the bedrock of its future internet service offering, aimed at connecting the massive market of underserved populations around the world.

Astranis emerged from stealth in 2018 when it announced $13.5 million in funding led by Andreessen, and revealed its plan to offer low-cost, reliable internet using geostationary satellites – a different strategy from the increasingly numerous entrants in the satellite internet race who plan to deploy large constellations of satellites into low Earth orbit that don’t stay at a fixed point relative to a specific location on Earth, but that instead hand off their connection via a kind of relay system through ground stations to offer continued service.

The geostationary model that Astranis is embracing is somewhat more similar to the existing way of offering internet connectivity from space, which employs very large communications satellite parked in geostationary orbit fairly far away from Earth. Astranis’ novel approach uses small satellites, however – spacecraft roughly 20 times smaller than the traditional variety, weigh in at around 770 lbs vs. over 14,000 lbs for the legacy kind.

Astranis has made it possible to use smaller satellites thanks in large part to its proprietary ultra-sideband software-defined radio tech, which can provide more bandwidth on much smaller and less complicated hardware, using digital vs. analog technologies. These not only save a tone of space, but can be built and launched with a turnaround time of just months, compared to many years for the large, geostationary telecommunications spacecraft of yore.

As mentioned, this is a combined debt and equity round, including $40 million of equity funding with participating by Y Combinator and others in addition to Venrock and Andreessen. The remaining $50 million of debt facility comes from TriplePoint Capital. Astranis will be looking to this year and next as the time to grow its internet service provider partnerships, as well as built out its relationships with governments and the rest of the industry.

Astranis signed an agreement with launch provider SpaceX last year for a ride for their first commercial satellite, with the aim of having that mission take place sometime as early as the fourth quarter of 2020. The company has raised $108 million to date, but has deep-pocketed competitors eyeing the same opportunity with different technologies, including SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper.

Nearly 70% of US smart speaker owners use Amazon Echo devices

By Sarah Perez

Amazon’s dominant position in the U.S. smart speaker market will continue through this year and the next, with rivals like Google and Apple only making slight dents in Amazon Echo market share, according to a report published today by eMarketer. The analyst firm estimates Amazon will easily hold onto its top spot through 2021, when nearly 70% of total U.S. smart speaker owners will continue to use an Amazon Echo device.

Specifically, 69.7% of U.S. smart speaker users will use an Echo in 2020, down slightly from 72.9% last year. In 2021, the number will drop a bit further, with then 68.2% of U.S. smart speaker owners using an Echo device. Meanwhile, 31.7% of smart speaker owners in 2020 will use a Google-branded device, and only 18.4% will use some other brand — like Apple HomePod, Sonos One or Harmon Kardon Invoke, for example. (The percentages total more than 100% because some smart speaker owners do own more than one brand, the report notes.)

These figures indicate the challenges ahead for Apple HomePod, Google Home and others in claiming a significant portion of the U.S. smart speaker market.

After all, once a consumer buys their first device, they’re not as likely to change brands for their next one. Instead, the first device gives the company — like Amazon — a foot in the door to prove their smart speaker’s usefulness. When the customer is readying to expand by adding a new device for the bedroom or kitchen, perhaps, they typically return to buy the same brand again as devices are designed to work together across the home.

That’s not always the case, but it’s more often than not.

Amazon is keenly aware of this trend and has been practically giving away its entry-level device, the Echo Dot. The low-end device is currently selling on the retailer’s site for $29.99, and is often found on sale. During Amazon’s annual Prime Day sale, the retailer slashes Alexa device prices even further — making the Echo Dot a Prime Day bestseller for several years now.

Outside the U.S., however, Amazon’s Echo may not have the same advantages, the report notes.

The Echo is less competitive in some markets because it supports fewer non-English languages than major competitors, like the Google Home.

That said, the U.S. remains a key market for smart speaker adoption, so Amazon’s strengths here should not be discounted.

“Since Amazon first introduced the Echo, it has built a convincing lead in the U.S. and continues to beat back challenges from top competitors,” said Victoria Petrock, a principal analyst at eMarketer. “We had previously expected Google and Apple to make more inroads in this market, but Amazon has remained aggressive. By offering affordable devices and building out the number of Alexa skills, the company has maintained Echo’s appeal,” she added.

The firm also said it expects the number of U.S. smart speaker users to continue to rise over the next several years, but growth will slow. Currently, 28.9% of internet users also use a smart speaker. Next year, that number is expected to reach 30.5%.

This year, the number of smart speaker users in the U.S. will grow by 13.7% to reach 83.1 million. But in 2021, growth will dip into the single digits, eMarketer forecasts.

That doesn’t necessarily mean those users aren’t using voice assistants, however. Instead, smart speakers will only be one way in which consumers interact with technology via voice. Over time, consumers will also begin to use voice assistant built into other devices, like vehicles, appliances, other smart home devices and more. And let’s not forget that both Google and Apple offer smartphone voice assistants — Google Assistant and Siri, respectively — whose usage numbers dwarf Echo adoption.

There are some half a billion plus Siri-capable devices out there, and half a billion Google Assistant users. In other words, people interacting with a voice assistant today are probably doing it on their iOS or Android phone, not by talking to Alexa. But on the flip side, it’s fairly remarkable that Amazon was able to create a new market for its Echo speakers, given the massive lead in voice assistants held by its rivals.

The eMarketer report is not the first to estimate Amazon has claimed a 70% market share in the smart speaker market — a report last year by CIRP also said the same.

Amazon wants to depose president and secretary of Defense as part of JEDI protest

By Ron Miller

Today, AWS made public its Motion to Supplement the Record in its protest of the JEDI contract decision. As part of that process, the company has announced it wants to depose President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

When Amazon announced at the end of last year that it was protesting the DoD’s decision to award the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract to Microsoft, the company made clear that it was not happy with the decision. The company believes that the president steered the contract away from Amazon because of personal political differences with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.

“President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to use his position as President and Commander in Chief to interfere with government functions – including federal procurements – to advance his personal agenda. The preservation of public confidence in the nation’s procurement process requires discovery and supplementation of the administrative record, particularly in light of President Trump’s order to ‘screw Amazon.’ The question is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the DoD to pursue his own personal and political ends,” an AWS spokesperson said in a statement.

This is consistent with public statements the company has been making since the DoD made the surprise decision in October to go with Microsoft. It had been widely believed that Amazon would win the contract, and there was much wrangling and complaining throughout the procurement process that the contract had been designed to favor Amazon, something that the DoD repeatedly denied.

At AWS re:Invent at the end last year, AWS CEO Andy Jassy made it clear he was unhappy with the decision and that he believed the president showed bias. “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal,” Jassy said last year.

Sources say that the DoD gave Amazon a written debriefing after the decision to award the contract to Microsoft, but the company is particularly upset that the department has failed to respond in a timely fashion to requests for additional information and questions, as required by law.

Sony to pull out of MWC over coronavirus outbreak

By Natasha Lomas

Japanese electronics firm Sony is the latest phone maker to announce it’s withdrawing from the Mobile World Congress (MWC) tradeshow, citing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

“As we place the utmost importance on the safety and wellbeing of our customers, partners, media and employees, we have taken the difficult decision to withdraw from exhibiting and participating at MWC 2020 in Barcelona, Spain,” Sony wrote in a press release.

MWC is due to take place in Barcelona between February 24-27.

Sony said it will now run a press conference planned for the event via its official Xperia YouTube channel at the scheduled time of 8:30 AM (CET) on February 24.

“Sony would like to thank everyone for their understanding and ongoing support during these challenging times,” it added.

In recent days, a number of companies have announced they’re pulling out or scaling back their presence at the conference as a result of concerns about the spread of the virus, including Amazon, Ericsson, LG, NVIDIA and ZTE.

The World Health Organization dubbed the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus a global emergency late last month.

At the time of writing, the majority of infections and deaths from the virus remain in China, where the virus was first identified in the town of Wuhan in the Hubei province.

Several Chinese tech companies, including ZTE and Xiaomi, have said they will make changes to their participation in MWC related to coronavirus concerns, such as placing limits on staff travelling from China or requiring they self isolate in the period before attending.

Yesterday the organizers of MWC, the GSMA, also announced stringent rules to try to safeguard attendees, including a ban on travellers from Hubei and a requirement that all travellers who have been in China must be able to prove they have been outside the country 14 days prior to the event.

Attendees will also be required to self-certify they have not been in contact with anyone affected, the GSMA said. Temperature screening will also be implemented at the event.

Last year the annual mobile tech conference drew almost 110,000 attendees from 198 countries.

“While further planning is underway, we will continue to monitor the situation and will adapt our plans according to developments and advice we receive. We are contending with a constantly evolving situation, that will require fast adaptability,” the GSMA also said.

Attendance at MWC has regularly broken 100,000 in recent years, but 2020’s conference seems likely to mark a break with business as usual as companies face pressure to rethink their travel priorities.

Amazon withdraws from MWC over coronavirus-related concerns

By Catherine Shu

Amazon is the latest company to cancel its plans for the Mobile World Congress, which will take place later this month in Barcelona, over coronavirus-related concerns.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said “due to the outbreak and continued concerns about novel coronavirus, Amazon will withdraw from exhibiting and participating in Mobile World Congress 2020, scheduled for Feb. 24-27 in Barcelona, Spain.”

Other companies that have cancelled or scaled back their plans for MWC due to the outbreak include LG, NVIDIA and Ericsson. The event’s organizer, GSMA, recently issued a new statement about precautions it is taking, including a ban on visitors from Hubei province, where the epidemic is believed to have begun.

 

The vast majority of people affected by coronavirus are in China, where there have been 908 deaths and 40,171 confirmed infections, as of the time this article was posted. The outbreak has also led to a wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia across the world.

The CIA wants to upgrade its cloud tech without DoD’s JEDI drama

By Ron Miller

The CIA is ready to update its cloud technology, and multiple reports this week indicated that the agency has begun a multi-billion procurement process. A CIA spokesperson was tight-lipped when asked to confirm.

That could be because an agency used to working in secret, simply wants to avoid all the attention that the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud procurement process got, and quietly go about its business. As we’ve learned, when you’re dealing with large cloud vendors like Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, and the contract involves billions, fireworks tends to follow.

What we do know is that the CIA’s plan is part of a process known as Commercial Cloud Enterprise (C2E). In a March 2019 presentation (pdf) by the Directorate of Digital Innovation, a division of the CIA, the department outlined its vision for C2E. It would be broad and include infrastructure, platform and software cloud services supporting a broad range of users with a variety of security clearances and a worldwide presence. The price tag: “tens of billions.”

The procurement process would be in two phases. In the first phase, they would pursue multiple vendors to provide “foundational cloud services.” In Phase 2, the department would layer on platform and software services on top of that Phase 1 foundation.

“The principal C2E Program objective is to acquire cloud computing services directly from commercial cloud service providers with established records for innovation and operational excellence in cloud service delivery for a large customer base,” the department stated in the presentation.

It’s worth noting that it’s been almost a year since this presentation and things have likely changed. In fact, Bloomberg Government reported this week that the RFP has dropped the platform and software services component. According to Nextgov, the draft RFP was released this week with a final request for proposals coming in the spring and a decision due in September.

The intelligence community also outlined its broader cloud strategy for the foreseeable future in a document (pdf) published by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) last June called ‘The Strategic Plan to Advance Cloud Computing in the Intelligence Community.’ It outlines in broad strokes a plan for a US intelligence technology future centered on the cloud, and concludes that with the explosion of data, a future in the cloud is imperative to help deal with all of it:

Information is exploding in volume and velocity and challenging our ability to expeditiously collect, analyze, and draw conclusions from disparate data sets. Additional manpower will not close the resulting gap; we must leverage leading edge technology. The future IC cloud environment presented herein will effectively function as a force multiplier to enhance our effectiveness and address mission challenges.

The CIA was an early adherent of the cloud when it chose Amazon to build a $600 million private cloud in 2013. That was a big win at the time for Amazon and the broader cloud services transition, because it wasn’t as mainstream then as it is now. The Atlantic called it a “radical departure for the risk-averse intelligence community” in a 2014 article.

Cloud technology has certainly evolved in the seven years since the CIA last did this exercise, and it makes sense that it would want to update a system this old, which is really ancient history in technology terms. The CIA likely sees the same cloud value proposition as the private sector around flexibility, agility and resource elasticity, and wants the intelligence community to reap the same benefits of that approach. Certainly, it will help store, process and understand an ever-increasing amount of data, and put machine learning to bear on it as well.

By now, we know all about the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud contract procurement story. Over a two year period from the time the Pentagon chose the cutesy Star Wars-influenced name for the $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all project, the procurement has been a drama-filled free-for-all. Even now, months after Microsoft was declared the winner, Amazon is protesting the decision, putting that award in doubt.

This is not the way government technology procurement typically goes. It’s mostly out of the public spotlight, covered by the government trade press, but largely ignored by mainstream tech publications. Perhaps that explains why the CIA, in need of a cloud update, has decided to be a bit more discrete about its plans.

Netflix begins streaming in AV1 on Android

By Manish Singh

Netflix announced this week that it has started to stream titles in AV1 on Android in what could significantly help the two-year-old media codec gain wider adoption.

The world’s biggest streaming giant said on Wednesday that by switching from Google’s VP9 — which it previously used on Android — to AV1, its compression efficiency has gone up by 20%.

At the moment, only “select titles” are available to stream in AV1 for subscribers “who wish to reduce their cellular data usage by enabling the ‘Save Data’ feature,” the American firm said.

Netflix hasn’t shared much about the benefit AV1 will provide to customers, but the new media codec’s acceptance nonetheless sends a message by itself.

Tech giants, including Google, have spent years developing and improving media codecs as consumption of data skyrocketed and low-cost devices began to sell like hotcakes. But they just can’t seem to settle on one media codec and universally support it.

Think of Safari and YouTube, for instance. You can’t stream YouTube videos in 4K resolution on Safari, because Apple’s browser does not support Google’s VP9. And Google does not support HEVC for 4K videos on YouTube.

AV1 is supposed to be the savior media codec that gets universal support. It’s royalty-free and it works atop of open-source dav1d decoder that has been built by VideoLAN, best known for its widely popular media player VLC and FFmpeg communities. It is sponsored by the Alliance for Open Media.

Who are the members of Alliance for Open Media? Nearly all the big guys: Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Nvidia, ARM, Facebook, Microsoft, Mozilla, Samsung and Tencent, among others.

But that’s not to say there aren’t roadblocks in the adoption of AV1. Compared to HEVC — the format that AV1 is supposed to replace in popularity — encoding in AV1 was noticeably slower a year ago, as per some benchmark tests.

Adoption of AV1 by various browsers, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Safari is yet to support it.

Netflix’s announcement suggests that things have improved. The streaming giant said its goal is to support AV1 on all of its platforms. “In the spirit of making AV1 widely available, we are sponsoring an open-source effort to optimize 10-bit performance further and make these gains available to all,” it said in a blog post.

Watch OneWeb launch 34 satellites for its broadband constellation live

By Darrell Etherington

One of the various companies looking to deploy a globe-spanning broadband internet satellite constellation is adding 34 more satellites to its existing operations in space. OneWeb will launch that many satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan with a liftoff time set for 4:42 PM EST (1:32 PM PST) today. The new satellites will join OneWeb’s six already in orbit, which launched last February.

In total, OneWeb hopes to eventually operate at least 650 satellites in low-Earth orbit, the combined network of which will be used to provide internet service to customers on the ground. Launch provider Arianespace will be flying as many as 19 more missions on behalf of OneWeb to fill out its constellation goals between now and the end of 2021, and will look to begin offering connectivity in a pilot testing capacity by sometime later this year, with full commercial service coming online next year, too.

OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in funding last year, raising its total overall funding to $3.4 billion, to help cover the cost of their mass manufacturing and deployment phase, and a significant portion of its funding has come from SoftBank. This launch will put it in good stead to begin its first tests later this year, but the competition for constellation-based broadband internet service is intensifying, with SpaceX already having put up 240 satellites for its own Starlink project, with a lot more launches of 60 satellites each set for this year. SpaceX, of course, is also its own launch provider which simplifies delivery.

Meanwhile, Amazon is undertaking a similar project, currently codenamed ‘Kuiper,’ but it has yet to begin putting any hardware in orbit for its endeavor. OneWeb is targeting maritime, aviation, enterprise and government customers – as are other smaller startup companies, like Swarm Technologies and Kepler. Speed to market is definitely a factor as these operators begin to come online, but the potential market is massive and spans multiple industries, so there will likely be more than one winner when this ultimately shakes out.

OneWeb’s launch will be available via the YouTube stream above closer to launch time, so check back for updates.

 

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