FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Microsoft announces the next perpetual release of Office

By Frederic Lardinois

If you use Office, Microsoft would really, really, really like you to buy a cloud-enabled subscription to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365). But as the company promised, it will continue to make a stand-alone, perpetual license for Office available for the foreseeable future. A while back, it launched Office 2019, which includes the standard suite of Office tools, but is frozen in time and without the benefit of the regular feature updates and cloud-based tools that come with the subscription offering.

Today, Microsoft is announcing what is now called the Microsoft Office LTSC (Long Term Servicing Channel). It’ll be available as a commercial preview in April and will be available on both Mac and Windows, in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

And like with the previous version, it’s clear that Microsoft would really prefer if you just moved to the cloud already. But it also knows that not everybody can do that, so it now calls this version with its perpetual license that you pay for once and then use for as long as you want to (or have compatible hardware) a “specialty product for specific scenarios. Those scenarios, Microsoft agrees, include situations where you have a regulated device that can’t accept feature updates for years at a time, process control devices on a manufacturing floor and other devices that simply can’t be connected to the internet.

“We expect that most customers who use Office LTSC won’t do it across their entire organization, but only in specific scenarios,” Microsoft’s CVP for Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, writes in today’s announcement.

Because it’s a specialty product, Microsoft will also raise the price for Office Professional Plus, Office Standard, and the individual Office apps by up to 10%.

“To fuel the work of the future, we need the power of the cloud,” writes Spataro. “The cloud is where we invest, where we innovate, where we discover the solutions that help our customers empower everyone in their organization – even as we all adjust to a new world of work. But we also acknowledge that some of our customers need to enable a limited set of locked-in-time scenarios, and these updates reflect our commitment to helping them meet this need.”

If you have one of these special use cases, the price increase will not likely deter you and you’ll likely be happy to hear that Microsoft is committing to another release in this long-term channel in the future, too.

As for the new features in this release, Spataro notes that will have dark mode support, new capabilities like Dynamic Arrays and XLOOKUP in Excel, and performance improvements across the board. One other change worth calling out is that it will not ship with Skype for Business but the Microsoft Teams app (though you can still download Skype for Business if you need it).

YC-backed Queenly launches a marketplace for formalwear

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Queenly, a marketplace for formalwear, launched into a world where its core product of dresses and gowns had a massive competitor, bigger and more elusive than Poshmark: quarantine.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the fancy in-person events that one might attend, such as award shows, pageants, proms and weddings to be canceled to limit spread. But despite the fact that you might be rocking sweats over slacks, Queenly co-founders Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou say that they had half a million in sales last year, and over 100,000 people visit their website everyday.

“So many women bought dresses to just dress up and feel normal at home, when everything else around the world was not,” Bantigue said. “It helped them feel grounded and stabilize themselves in this crazy chaotic pandemic environment.” The canceled events have also found new homes, such as Zoom weddings, Twitch pageants, socially distant proms and graduation car parades. The co-founder added that content creators on TikTok and YouTube have also bought Queenly dresses.

Pandemic growth added a surprising dimension to Queenly’s business, and the Bay Area startup is currently partaking in the Y Combinator winter cohort to navigate it. So far, it has raised $800,000 to date from investors including Mike Smith, former COO of Stitch Fix, Thuan Pham, former CTO of Uber, and Kelly Thompson, former COO of Samsclub.com and Walmart.com. The goal, the co-founders tell me, is to become the StockX for formalwear.

Queenly is a marketplace for buying and selling formal dresses, from wedding dresses to pageant gowns. The 50,000 dresses on the platform are either new or resale, and sellers get paid 80% of the price that the gowns go for.

Part of the company’s biggest sell, according to the co-founders, is its algorithm that matches buyers to dresses. Before Queenly, Zhou was a former software engineer at Pinterest who helped build content creation flows and the back end of the platform. She took the same focus that her and her Pinterest co-workers had on data-driven search and development and applied it to Queenly.

The search engine can go deeper than a normal dress search on Macy’s can, which might create options based on size, color and cut. In contrast, Queenly can help offer more diverse insights with a larger range of sizes, silhouette options and different shades of the same color.

Last week, a seller sold her wedding dress with a tag that says the dark mesh on the dress is for a darker skin tone. Queenly is beta-testing a feature that lets you search medium skin tone sheer options or dark skin tone sheer options. The team says that skin-tone filters are one of the important long-term goals of their search engine.

“These are just some things that we know because we’re women, and we know how to build this product for women,” Zhou said. “As opposed to if this was a male founder, they would not know that that would even be something that women would search for.”

Currently, there are over 50,000 dresses for sale on the Queenly platform, ranging from $70 to $4,000 and going up to size 32.

Image Credits: Queenly

With these search insights, Queenly says that it is able to sell dresses within two weeks, claiming that some users say that their same dresses spent five months on the Poshmark platform.

The diversity of dresses, from a price and range perspective, is one of the ways that Queenly stays competitive with large retail brands like Nordstrom.

“Buying and carrying inventory is very capital intensive for any startup,” Bantigue said. “As female minority founders it was hard for us to raise in the beginning.” As a result, the startup doesn’t keep a physical inventory of dresses, but instead relies on users to help get dresses from owner to buyer. If a dress is under $200, Queenly sends a prepaid shipping label to the seller to mail directly to the end buyer. If a dress is over $200, Queenly gets the dress sent directly to the company, does light dry cleaning and authentication, and then sends it right to the user.

Bringing the users into the transaction process adds a layer of risk because it depends on people to do things for the startup to be successful. The incentive here is that sellers make 80% of their sale price, and Queenly pockets the other 20%.

The startup’s biggest cost is shipping. To limit these costs, Queenly currently doesn’t accept or honor any returns, unless the dress upon arrival is not what was described in the sales post.

While this is a sensical business decision, it could be a hurdle for the startups’ clientele. Sizes are complicated and inconsistent, so the inability to return a dress might stifle a customer’s appetite to buy in the first place.

“We were actually worried about this before, but for two years now we [have not] had a complaint about sizing,” Bantigue said.

The co-founders say that many buyers are comfortable tailoring a dress post-purchase, and sellers are required to post pictures so expectations are set pre-purchase. There have been no cases of counterfeit brands to date, Bantigue said.

Queenly’s next plan is to bring on boutique stores and dress designers for Queenly partners, a program started to help small boutique businesses digitize their inventory through the Queenly platform.

“For years, the formalwear industry has been mostly offline, with only big name players being available online,” Bantigue said. “We want to change this.”

Apple TV+ arrives on Google TV devices, starting with Chromecast

By Sarah Perez

Google announced today the Apple TV+ streaming service has now arrived on the Google TV platform, starting with Chromecast with Google TV. It will also become available on Google TVs from both Sony and TCL, with expansions to other Android TV-powered devices in the months to come, Google says.

Google TV was first introduced last September as the new way Google will refer to its interface for Chromecast, where it combines streaming services, live TV via YouTube TV, and other Google offerings into one user interface — making it more competitive with similar offerings from Apple and Amazon. Today, the platform supports a wide range of top streaming services, like Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, Prime Video, CBS All Access, Hulu, Soing, and others, including, of course, YouTube.

With the added support for Apple TV+, users who already have subscriptions will be able to tune into its original programming, which includes movies, documentaries and series like “Ted Lasso,” “For All Mankind,” “Servant,” “The Morning Show,” “Dickinson,” and others. The app also provides access to the user’s library of movies and shows purchased from Apple, recommendations, and supports Family Sharing. The latter allows up to 6 family members to share a subscription to Apple TV+ and Apple TV channels.

Following the app’s launch on Google TV, users in the U.S. will be able to browse Apple’s Originals in Google TV’s personalized recommendations and surface its content in search results. Users can also ask Google Assistant to open the Apple TV app or they can request an Apple Original title by name. And they’ll be able to add Apple TV+ programming to the Google TV Watchlist. Google says these features will arrive in the “coming months,” however, instead of at launch.

The launch makes Google TV one of the last of the major streaming device platforms to support Apple’s streaming service, which is otherwise broadly available.

Apple TV+ had debuted in November 2019 for Apple customers, and later rolled out to non-Apple platforms including, that same year, Roku devices and Amazon’s Fire TV platform. Today, it’s also now available across a variety of smart TVs by Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony; gaming consoles including PlayStation (PS4 & PS5) and Xbox (One, Series X, Series S): and via the web.

 

Google launches the first developer preview of Android 12

By Frederic Lardinois

Almost exactly a year after Google announced the first developer preview of Android 11, the company today released the first developer preview of Android 12. Google delayed the roll-out of Android 11 a bit as the teams and the company’s partners adjusted to working during a pandemic, but it looks like that didn’t stop it from keeping Android 12 on schedule. As you would expect from an early developer preview, most of the changes here are under the hood and there’s no over-the-air update yet for intrepid non-developers who want to give it a spin.

Image Credits: Google

Among the highlights of the release so far — and it’s important to note that Google tends to add more user-facing changes and UI updates throughout the preview cycle — are the ability to transcode media into higher quality formates like the AV1 image format, faster and more responsive notifications and a new feature for developers that now makes individual changes in the platform togglable so they can more easily test the compatibility of their apps. Google also promises that just like with Android 11, it’ll add a Platform Stability milestone to Android 12 to give developers advance notice when final app-facing changes will occur in the development cycle of the operating system. Last year, the team hit that milestone in July when it launched its second beta release.

“With each version, we’re working to make the OS smarter, easier to use, and better performing, with privacy and security at the core,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “In Android 12 we’re also working to give you new tools for building great experiences for users. Starting with things like compatible media transcoding, which helps your app to work with the latest video formats if you don’t already support them, and easier copy/paste of rich content into your apps, like images and videos. We’re also adding privacy protections, refreshing the UI, and optimizing performance to keep your apps responsive.”

Image comparison from AVIF has landed by Jake Archibald

Obviously, there are dozens of developer-facing updates in Android 12. Let’s look at some in detail.

For the WebView in Android 12, Google will now implement the same SameSite cookie behavior as in Chrome, for example. Last year, the company slowed down the roll-out of this change, which makes it harder for advertisers to track your activity across sites,  in Chrome, simply because it was breaking too many sites. Now, with this feature fully implemented in Chrome, the Android team clearly feels like it, too, can implement the same privacy tools in WebView, which other apps use to display web content, too.

As for the encoding capabilities, Burke notes that, “with the prevalence of HEVC hardware encoders on mobile devices, camera apps are increasingly capturing in HEVC format, which offers significant improvements in quality and compression over older codecs.” He notes that most apps should support HEVC, but for those that can’t, Android 12 now offers a service for transcoding a file into AVC.

Image Credits: Google

In addition, Android 12 now also supports the AV1 Image File Format as a container for images and GIF-like image sequences. “Like other modern image formats, AVIF takes advantage of the intra-frame encoded content from video compression,” explains Burke. “This dramatically improves image quality for the same file size when compared to older image formats, such as JPEG.”

As with every Android release, Google also continues to tinker with the notification system. This time, the team promises a refreshed design to “make them more modern, easier to use, and more functional.” Burke calls out optimized transitions and animations and the ability for apps to decorate notifications with custom content. Google now also asks that developers implement a system that immediately takes users from a notification to the app, without an intermediary broadcast receiver or service, something it recommended before.

Android 12 will now also offer better support for multi-channel audio with up to 24 channels (a boon for music and other audio apps, no doubt), spatial audio, MPEG-H support, and haptic-coupled audio effects with the strength of the vibration and frequency based on the audio (a boon for games, no doubt). There’s also improved gesture navigation and plenty of other optimizations and minor changes across the operating system.

Google also continues to drive its Project Mainline forward, which allows for an increasing number of the core Android OS features to be updated through the Google Play system — and hence bypasses the slow update cycles of most hardware manufacturers. With Android 12, it is bringing the Android Runtime module into Mainline, which will then let Google push updates to the core runtime and libraries to devices. “We can improve runtime performance and correctness, manage memory more efficiently, and make Kotlin operations faster – all without requiring a full system update,” Burke says. “We’ve also expanded the functionality of existing modules – for example, we’re delivering our seamless transcoding feature inside an updatable module.”

You can find a more detailed list of all of the changes in Android 12 here.

Image Credits: Google

Developers who want to get started with bringing their apps to Android 12 can do so today by flashing a device image to a Pixel device. For now, Android 12 supports the Pixel 3/3 XL, Pixel 3a/3a XL, Pixel 4/4 XL, Pixel 4a/4a 5G and Pixel 5. You can also use the system image in the Android Emulator in Google’s Android Studio.

Wholesale marketplace Abound raises $22.9M

By Anthony Ha

Abound, an online marketplace that helps independent retailers stock their shelves with new products from up-and-coming brands, is announcing that it has raised $22.9 million in its first institutional round of funding.

CEO Bill Shope founded the company with Niklas de la Motte and Drew Sfugaras. He told me that small retailers are constantly on the hunt for new products, which means attending trade shows several times a year. Abound, on the other hand, allows them to find those products through an online shopping experience, with wholesale prices (a.k.a. discounts of up to 50 percent), free returns and, in some cases, Net 60 sale terms (meaning retailers don’t have to pay until 60 days after the invoice).

The startup actually began as a community connecting manufacturer’s representatives and retailers, but Shope said the team “kept seeing the limits of that model,” while some retailers were asking to buy from the brands directly. So the team decided to support that experience, starting out by recruiting 50 brands with an offer of free consulting — as long as they were willing to be one of the brands on the marketplace when it launched in October 2019.

Of course, the retail environment changed dramatically in the following months, as the pandemic forced stores to close and/or adopt social distancing measures. Shope said the startup saw a dramatic, short-term decline in sales — but things quickly bounced back and kept growing as “all the trade shows got canceled.”

Partly, that’s because Abound also supports e-commerce retailers, but Shope noted that “the brick and mortars that were succeeding had a very powerful hybrid model,” where they continued to operate a physical store while also quickly launching websites and adding features like curbside pickup.

Abound screenshot

Image Credits: Abound

Abound says that since the beginning of 2020, it has added 180,000 new products in categories like baby and kid products, beauty, food and drink, home and living, jewelry and more. And monthly sales volume has increased 20-fold.

“From a retail perspective, I don’t think there’s any going back [to pre-COVID buying models,]” Shope said. After all, even before the pandemic, independent retailers had to compete with giants like Amazon and Walmart. “You’re not going to beat them on convenience products. The store that’s helping consumers discover new brands, or donating 10 percent of profits to charities — those are types of stories and products you need to have to draw consumers into your store.”

The funding was led by Left Lane Capital, with participation from RiverPark Ventures, All Iron Ventures and branding firm Red Antler. This will allow Abound to grow the team, expand internationally and continue developing the product.

In a statement, Left Lane Managing Partner Harley Miller said:

My family has been in independent retail for the last 20 years. Growing up, I attended many industry events, so I have long understood how under-optimized the wholesale buying and selling experience is. With the cancellation of most major trade shows in 2020 and 2021, emerging brands and independent retailers have been seeking new distribution channels to support their business ambitions. Abound offers an exciting and unique alternative to the legacy wholesale model at a time when small businesses need it most.

Fintech Marqeta expands into credit card space days after filing for an IPO

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Marqeta is expanding into the consumer credit card space to help other brands launch credit card programs. 

The move comes just days after the payment card issuing company reportedly filed confidentially for an initial public offering, making it the latest fintech to make a move to the public markets.

The value of the IPO is expected to be around $10 billion, according to Reuters. Marqeta — which is working with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase on the offering — is reportedly hoping to complete the IPO by April.

Oakland, California-based Marqeta raised $150 million last May at a $4.2 billion valuation, TechCrunch previously reported. Then in October, Mastercard put an undisclosed amount of money in Marqeta.

The company, which provides the tools for financial services platforms of all stripes to provide cards, wallets and other payment mechanisms, counts Cash App, Affirm, DoorDash, and Instacart among its customers. At the end of 2020, Marqeta says it had issued 270 million cards through its platform, up from 140 million at the end of 2019. The company, which has over 550 employees, is live in 35 countries.

Now, Marqeta is partnering with another startup, Deserve, on its new credit card initiative.

As Deserve CEO Kalpesh Kapadia explains it, his company’s technology and open API platform will power Marqeta’s program management services, including origination, underwriting, bank and bureau Integration, customer service, compliance and risk management. 

Marqeta founder and CEO Jason Gardner described Marqeta’s expansion into building new credit products as a “major milestone” for the company in building out a “truly comprehensive card issuing platform, able to support any card type.”

“This technology is complex, and we saw that this barrier to market had created an opportunity for us to take what we’ve learned helping customers innovate in the prepaid and debit space and adapt that to credit,” he told TechCrunch.

Marqeta is banking on the notion that any business currently issuing a card is looking, or currently working, on a credit card.

“These innovators want to launch modern card products but having to rely on legacy technology, which allows much less options for flexibility and personalization, has slowed down innovation,” Gardner added.

It’s also betting that consumers want more from credit cards than just paying for a purchase.

Image Credits: Marqeta

“They want seamless digital experiences, rewards that match their lifestyle, and personalized apps that track financial health, but there’s been little innovation that speaks to this,” he said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating touchless payments — as more people avoided in-person interaction and shopping — the demand for more digital financial offerings has exploded.

With its new initiative, Marqeta aims to be able to help its customers launch new customized credit card products “in a fraction of the time, with more flexible controls and features.”

 

For example, they will have what Marqeta describes as a modern credit system of record that can adjust account parameters, such as rewards, APR and credit lines, in real time based on custom rules. Customers will have the ability to instantly activate cardholders upon approval and provision cards directly into digital wallets.

Gardner called Menlo Park-based Deserve “an ideal first strategic partner” in its expansion into the credit card market.

“We plan to offer program management services for customers using our credit card issuing platform through an ecosystem of partners,” he said. “They are a good DNA fit for what we’re trying to accomplish – with a strong belief in the power of open APIs to increase speed to market, and also targeting innovators looking to build truly modern card products. They’re experienced in the credit card space, which has a unique set of requirements, and have a unique approach to underwriting.”

For its part, Deserve says its B2B business has been growing in recent years, with it currently adding one prospect every week and one new partner to its business every month. More than 1.5 million consumers have applied and interacted with its platform over the past three years and the company is currently serving hundreds of thousands of customers (directly and indirectly), with tens of millions of dollars transacting every month on its platform, according to Kapadia.

Deserves also manages the entire credit card infrastructure for companies like Sallie Mae in the cloud, whereby consumers applying for and using Sallie Mae credit cards are engaging with Deserve behind the scene. It also provides origination services to companies such as BankMobile. Other fintechs such as Opploans, BlockFi and Earnest use its entire credit card infrastructure to launch their credit products. 

The credit market is dominated by legacy technologies, high cost of operations and lack of customization and speed,” Kapadia told TechCrunch. “Marqeta’s leading card-issuing platform paired with Deserve’s digital card expertise will enable further innovation in the credit industry and provide consumers with superior card experiences.”

 

 

Jamaica’s immigration website exposed thousands of travelers’ data

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse by a Jamaican government contractor has exposed immigration records and COVID-19 test results for hundreds of thousands of travelers who visited the island over the past year.

The Jamaican government contracted Amber Group to build the JamCOVID19 website and app, which the government uses to publish daily coronavirus figures and allows residents to self-report their symptoms. The contractor also built the website to pre-approve travel applications to visit the island during the pandemic, a process that requires travelers to upload a negative COVID-19 test result before they board their flight if they come from high-risk countries, including the United States.

But a cloud storage server storing those uploaded documents was left unprotected and without a password, and was publicly spilling out files onto the open web.

Many of the victims whose information was found on the exposed server are Americans.

The data is now secure after TechCrunch contacted Amber Group’s chief executive Dushyant Savadia, who did not comment when reached prior to publication.

The storage server, hosted on Amazon Web Services, was set to public. It’s not known for how long the data was unprotected, but contained more than 70,000 negative COVID-19 lab results, over 425,000 immigration documents authorizing travel to the island — which included the traveler’s name, date of birth and passport numbers — and over 250,000 quarantine orders dating back to June 2020, when Jamaica reopened its borders to visitors after the pandemic’s first wave. The server also contained more than 440,000 images of travelers’ signatures.

Two U.S. travelers whose lab results were among the exposed data told TechCrunch that they uploaded their COVID-19 results through the Visit Jamaica website before their travel. Once lab results are processed, travelers receive a travel authorization that they must present before boarding their flight.

Both of these documents, as well as quarantine orders that require visitors to shelter in place and several passports, were on the exposed storage server.

Travelers who are staying outside Jamaica’s so-called “resilient corridor,” a zone that covers a large portion of the island’s population, are told to install the app built by Amber Group that tracks their location and is tracked by the Ministry of Health to ensure visitors stay within the corridor. The app also requires that travelers record short “check-in” videos with a daily code sent by the government, along with their name and any symptoms.

The server exposed more than 1.1 million of those daily updating check-in videos.

An airport information flyer given to travelers arriving in Jamaica. Travelers may be required to install the JamCOVID19 app to allow the government to monitor their location and to require video check-ins. (Image: Jamaican government)

The server also contained dozens of daily timestamped spreadsheets named “PICA,” likely for the Jamaican passport, immigration and citizenship agency, but these were restricted by access permissions. But the permissions on the storage server were set so that anyone had full control of the files inside, such as allowing them to be downloaded or deleted altogether. (TechCrunch did neither, as doing so would be unlawful.)

Stephen Davidson, a spokesperson for the Jamaican Ministry of Health, did not comment when reached, or say if the government planned to inform travelers of the security lapse.

Savadia founded Amber Group in 2015 and soon launched its vehicle-tracking system, Amber Connect.

According to one report, Amber’s Savadia said the company developed JamCOVID19 “within three days” and made it available to the Jamaican government in large part for free. The contractor is billing other countries, including Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, for similar implementations, and is said to be looking for other government customers outside the Caribbean.

Savadia would not say what measures his company put in place to protect the data of paying governments.

Jamaica has recorded at least 19,300 coronavirus cases on the island to date, and more than 370 deaths.


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849. You can also send files or documents using our SecureDrop. Learn more.

Microsoft offers new accessibility testing service for PC and Xbox games

By Devin Coldewey

As gaming has grown from niche to mainstream over the past decades, it has also become both much more, and much less accessible to people with disabilities or other considerations. Microsoft aims to make the PC and Xbox more inclusive with a new in-house testing service that compares games to the newly expanded Xbox Accessibility Guidelines.

The Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Service, as it’s called, is live now and anyone releasing a game on Windows or an Xbox platform can take advantage of it.

“Games are tested against the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines by a team of subject matter experts and gamers with disabilities. Our goal is to provide accurate and timely feedback, turned around within 7 business days,” said Brannon Zahand, senior gaming accessibility program manager at the company.

It’s not free (though Microsoft did not specify costs, which probably differ depending on the project), so if you want to know what the reports look like without diving in cash in hand, talk to your account rep and they can probably hook you up with a sample. But you don’t need final code to send it in.

“As game accessibility is much easier to implement early in a game’s development, we encourage game developers to submit as soon as they have a representative build that incorporates core UI and game experiences,” said Zahand. “That said, developers who already have released their products and are keeping them fresh with new updates and content may also find this testing valuable, as often there are relatively small tweaks or feature additions that can be made as part of a content update that will provide benefits for gamers with disabilities and others who take advantage of accessibility features.”

The guidelines themselves were introduced in January of last year, and include hundreds of tips and checks to include or consider when developing a game. Microsoft has done the right thing by continuing to support and revise the guidelines; The “2.0” version published today brings a number of improvements, summarized in this Xbox blog post.

Generally speaking the changes are about clarity and ease of application, giving developers more direct and simple advice, but there are also now many examples from published games showing that yes, this stuff is not just theoretically possible.

Image of an options screen for a Forza racing game where many aspects of the game have their own difficulty setting.

Seems obvious to do this now. Image Credits: Microsoft

Everything from the UI to control methods and difficulty settings is in there, and they actually make for compelling reading for any interested gamer. Once you see how some games have created granular difficulty settings or included features or modes to improve access without affecting the core of the game, you start to wonder why they aren’t everywhere.

There are also more nuts and bolts tips, such as how best to structure a menu screen or in-game UI so that a screen reader can access the information.

Some argue that adding or subtracting some features can interfere with the way a game is “meant” to be played. And indeed one does struggle to imagine how famously difficult and obtuse games like the Dark Souls series could integrate such changes gracefully. But for one thing, that is a consideration for very smart developers to work out on their end, and for another, these options of which we speak are almost all able to be toggled or adjusted, as indeed many things can be even in the most hardcore titles. And that’s without speaking to the lack of consideration for others in different circumstances evinced in such a sentiment.

Microsoft has made several moves towards accessibility in gaming in recent years, the most prominent of which must be the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which lets people plug in all manner of assistive devices to work as joysticks, buttons, and triggers — making it much easier for much wider spectrum of people to play games on the company’s platforms.

Microsoft’s Dapr open-source project to help developers build cloud-native apps hits 1.0

By Frederic Lardinois

Dapr, the Microsoft-incubated open-source project that aims to make it easier for developers to build event-driven, distributed cloud-native applications, hit its 1.0 milestone today, signifying the project’s readiness for production use cases. Microsoft launched the Distributed Application Runtime (that’s what “Dapr” stand for) back in October 2019. Since then, the project released 14 updates and the community launched integrations with virtually all major cloud providers, including Azure, AWS, Alibaba and Google Cloud.

The goal for Dapr, Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich told me, was to democratize cloud-native development for enterprise developers.

“When we go look at what enterprise developers are being asked to do — they’ve traditionally been doing client, server, web plus database-type applications,” he noted. “But now, we’re asking them to containerize and to create microservices that scale out and have no-downtime updates — and they’ve got to integrate with all these cloud services. And many enterprises are, on top of that, asking them to make apps that are portable across on-premises environments as well as cloud environments or even be able to move between clouds. So just tons of complexity has been thrown at them that’s not specific to or not relevant to the business problems they’re trying to solve.”

And a lot of the development involves re-inventing the wheel to make their applications reliably talk to various other services. The idea behind Dapr is to give developers a single runtime that, out of the box, provides the tools that developers need to build event-driven microservices. Among other things, Dapr provides various building blocks for things like service-to-service communications, state management, pub/sub and secrets management.

Image Credits: Dapr

“The goal with Dapr was: let’s take care of all of the mundane work of writing one of these cloud-native distributed, highly available, scalable, secure cloud services, away from the developers so they can focus on their code. And actually, we took lessons from serverless, from Functions-as-a-Service where with, for example Azure Functions, it’s event-driven, they focus on their business logic and then things like the bindings that come with Azure Functions take care of connecting with other services,” Russinovich said.

He also noted that another goal here was to do away with language-specific models and to create a programming model that can be leveraged from any language. Enterprises, after all, tend to use multiple languages in their existing code, and a lot of them are now looking at how to best modernize their existing applications — without throwing out all of their current code.

As Russinovich noted, the project now has more than 700 contributors outside of Microsoft (though the core commuters are largely from Microsoft) and a number of businesses started using it in production before the 1.0 release. One of the larger cloud providers that is already using it is Alibaba. “Alibaba Cloud has really fallen in love with Dapr and is leveraging it heavily,” he said. Other organizations that have contributed to Dapr include HashiCorp and early users like ZEISS, Ignition Group and New Relic.

And while it may seem a bit odd for a cloud provider to be happy that its competitors are using its innovations already, Russinovich noted that this was exactly the plan and that the team hopes to bring Dapr into a foundation soon.

“We’ve been on a path to open governance for several months and the goal is to get this into a foundation. […] The goal is opening this up. It’s not a Microsoft thing. It’s an industry thing,” he said — but he wasn’t quite ready to say to which foundation the team is talking.

 

Astra hires longtime Apple veteran Benjamin Lyon as Chief Engineer

By Darrell Etherington

New Space startup Astra, which is currently focused on commercial rockets, but which plans to eventually build satellites, too, has hired one of Apple’s key engineering leaders to head its own engineering efforts. Benjamin Lyon spent over two decades at Apple, where he worked on everything from the iPhone, to input devices and sensor hardware, to special projects: the department at Apple working on autonomous vehicle technology.

“When I’ve looked at what to do next at Apple, it has always been this combination of ‘What is the most impactful thing that I can do for humanity?’ – the iPhone was very much one of these,” Lyon told me in an interview. “Phones were awful [at the time], and if we could fundamentally come up with a new interface, that would completely change how people interact with devices.”

Creating a mobile device with an interface that was “completely flexible and completely customizable to the application” was what seemed so transformative to Lyon about the iPhone, and he sees a direct parallel in the work that Astra is doing to lower the barrier of access to space through cheap, scalable and highly-efficient rocketry.

“Astra me feels very, very much like redefining what it means for a phone to be smart,” Lyon said. “I think the Astra vision is this magical combination of fundamentally taking the rocket science out of space. How do you do that? Well, you better have a great foundation of a team, and a great foundation of core technologies that you can bring together in order to make a compelling series of products.”

Foundations are the key ingredient according not only to Lyon, but also to Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, who explained why an experienced Apple engineer made the most sense to him to lead a rocket startup’s engineering efforts.

“We did not want anyone from aerospace – I’ll just I’ll say that out of the gate,” Kemp told me. “Aerospace has not figured out how to build rockets at scale, or do anything profitably – ever. So I found no inspiration from anyone I talked to who had anything to do with with any of the other space-related companies. We do feel that there are people that are at SpaceX and Blue Origin who are really good at what they do. But in terms of the culture that we’re trying to establish at Astra, if you look back at Apple, and the things that that Benjamin worked on there over many decades, he really took on not only designing the the thing, but also designing the thing that makes the thing, which was more important than the thing itself.”

Kemp’s alluding to Apple’s lauded ability to work very closely with suppliers and move fundamental component engineering in-house, crafting unique designs for things like the system-on-a-chip that now powers everything from the iPhone to Macs. Apple often designs the processes involved in making those fundamental components, and then helps its suppliers stand up the factories required to build those to its exacting specifications. Astra’s approach to the space industry centers around a similar approach, with a focus on optimizing the output of its Alameda-based rocket factory, and iterating its products quickly to match the needs of the market while keeping pricing accessible.

And Astra’s definition of ‘iteration’ matches up much more closely with the one used by Silicon Valley than that typically espoused by legacy aerospace companies – going further still in questioning the industry’s fundamentals than even watershed space tech innovators like SpaceX, which in many ways still adheres to accepted rocket industry methods.

“You don’t do the iPhone X at iPhone 1 – you start with the iPhone 1 and you work your way to the iPhone X,” Lyon told me. “You’re going to see that with Astra as well, there’s going to be this amazing evolution, but it’s going to be tech company-rate evolution, as opposed to an ‘every 20 years’ evolution.”

That sentiment lines up with Astra and Kemp’s approach to date: The company reached space for the first time late last year, with a rocket that was the second of three planned launches in a rapid iteration cycle designed to achieve that milestone. After the first of these launches (Rocket 3.1 if you’re keeping track) failed to make space last September, Astra quickly went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design to come back for its successful attempt in December (Rocket 3.2) – an extremely fast turnaround for an aerospace company by any measure. The company is now focused on its Rocket 3.3 launch, which should only require software changes to achieve a successful orbit, and put it on track to begin delivering commercial payloads for paying customers.

Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.

Astra’s rocket is tiny compared to the mammoth Starship that SpaceX is currently developing, but that’s part of the appeal that drew Lyon to the startup in the first place. He says the goal of “design[ing] a rocket to match the application,” rather than simply “design[ing] a rocket to end all rockets” makes vastly more sense to serve the bourgeoning market.

“And that’s just the beginning,” he added. “Then you’ll take the next step, which is if you look at the technology that’s in a satellite, and a bunch of the smart technology that’s in a rocket, there’s a tremendous amount of duplication there. So, get rid of the duplication – design the rocket and the satellite together as one system.”

Eventually, that means contemplating not only launch and satellite as a single challenge, but also managing “the entire experience of getting to space and managing a constellation” as “a single design problem,” according to Lyon, which is the level of ambition at Astra that he views as on par with that of Steve Jobs at Apple at the outset of the iPhone project.

Ultimately, Astra hopes to be able to provide aspiring space technology companies with everything they need so that the actual space component of their business is fully handled. The idea is that startups and innovators can then focus on bringing new models and sensing technologies to Astra, worrying only about payload – leaving launch, integration and eventually constellation management to the experts. It’s not unlike what the App Store unlocked for the software industry, Lyon said.

“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in aerospace, which is to really scale the production of rockets, and also focus on the overall economics of the business,” Kemp explained about additional advantages of having Lyon on board. “As we become a public company, in particular, we have very aggressive EBITDA targets, and very aggressive production targets, much the same way Apple does. We also want to have a new rocket every year, just like [the iPhone] and so to some degree, we found every aspect of Benjamin’s ethos aligned with our values, and the culture that we’re creating here at Astra of relentless, constant innovation and iteration.”

Notable Health seeks to improve COVID-19 vaccine administration through intelligent automation

By Sophie Burkholder

Efficient and cost-effective vaccine distribution remains one of the biggest challenges of 2021, so it’s no surprise that startup Notable Health wants to use their automation platform to help. Initially started to help address the nearly $250 billion annual administrative costs in healthcare, Notable Health launched in 2017 to use automation to replace time-consuming and repetitive simple tasks in health industry admin. In early January of this year, they announced plans to use that technology as a way to help manage vaccine distribution.

“As a physician, I saw firsthand that with any patient encounter, there are 90 steps or touchpoints that need to occur,” said Notable Health medical director Muthu Alagappan in an interview. “It’s our hypothesis that the vast majority of those points can be automated.”

Notable Health’s core technology is a platform that uses robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing (NLP), and machine learning to find eligible patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. Combined with data provided by hospital systems’ electronic health records, the platform helps those qualified to receive the vaccine set up appointments and guides them to other relevant educational resources.

“By leveraging intelligent automation to identify, outreach, educate and triage patients, health systems can develop efficient and equitable vaccine distribution workflows,” said Notable Health strategic advisor and Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board Member Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, in a press release.

Making vaccine appointments has been especially difficult for older Americans, many of whom have reportedly struggled with navigating scheduling websites. Alagappan sees that as a design problem. “Technology often gets a bad reputation, because it’s hampered by the many bad technology experiences that are out there,” he said.

Instead, he thinks Notable Health has kept the user in mind through a more simplified approach, asking users only for basic and easy-to-remember information through a text message link. “It’s that emphasis on user-centric design that I think has allowed us to still have really good engagement rates even with older populations,” he said.

While the startup’s platform will likely help hospitals and health systems develop a more efficient approach to vaccinations, its use of RPA and NLP holds promise for future optimization in healthcare. Leaders of similar technology in other industries have already gone on to have multi-billion dollar valuations, and continue to attract investors’ interest.

Artificial intelligence is expected to grow in healthcare over the next several years, but Alagappan argues that combining that with other, more readily available intelligent technologies is also an important step towards improved care. “When we say intelligent automation, we’re really referring to the marriage of two concepts: artificial intelligence—which is knowing what to do—and robotic process automation—which is knowing how to do it,” he said. That dual approach is what he says allows Notable Health to bypass administrative bottlenecks in healthcare, instructing bots to carry out those tasks in an efficient and adaptable way.

So far, Notable Health has worked with several hospital systems across multiple states in using their platform for vaccine distribution and scheduling, and are now using the platform to reach out to tens of thousands of patients per day.

Citadel ID raises $3.5M for API-delivered income and employment verification

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Citadel ID announced a combined $3.5 million raise for its income and employment verification service. The startup provides an API to customer companies, allowing them to rapidly verify details of consumer employment.

The capital came from a blend of venture firms and angels. On the firm side, Abstract and Soma VC were in there, along with ChapterOne. Brianne Kimmel put capital in as well, according to the startup. And denizens with work histories at companies like Zynga (Mark Pincus), Stripe (Lachy Groom), Carta (Henry Ward), and others also put cash into the fundraise.

Citadel was founded back in June of 2020, before raising capital, snagging its first customer, and shipping its product all inside of the same year.

The idea for Citadel ID came when co-founder Kirill Klokov worked at Carta, the cap-table-as-a-service startup that recently built an exchange for the trading of private stock. Klokov discovered while working on the tech side of the company how hard it was to verify certain data, like employment and income and identity.

As Carta deals with money, stock, and the collection and distribution of both, you can imagine why having having a quick way to verify who worked where, and since when, mattered to the company. But Klokov came to realize that there wasn’t a good solution in the market for what Carta needed, sans building integrations to a host of payroll managers by hand and dealing with lots of data with varying taxonomies. That or using an in-the-market product, like Equifax’s The Work Number, which the founder described as expensive and offering relatively low coverage.

To fill the market void Klokov helped found Citadel ID, quickly building integrations into payrolls managers where there were hooks for code, and working around older login systems when needed. Citadel ID’s service allows regular folks to provide access to their employment data to others, allowing for the verification of their income (a rental group, perhaps), or employment (Carta, perhaps) quickly.

Per the startup the market demand for such verifications is in the hundreds of millions every year in the United States. So, Citadel should have plenty of market space to grow into. Citadel ID has around 20 customers today, it told TechCrunch, and charges on a per verification basis.

Finally, while Citadel also offers data via its website and not merely through its API, the startup still fits inside the growing number of startups we’ve seen in recent quarters foregoing traditional SaaS, and instead offering their products via a developer hook (sometimes referred to as a ‘headless’ approach). API-delivered startups are not new, after all Twilio went public years ago. But their model of product delivery feels like its gaining momentum over managed software offerings.

Let’s see how quickly Citadel ID can scale before it raises its Series A.

Valoreo closes on $50M to roll up LatAm e-commerce brands

By Mary Ann Azevedo

A new breed of startups is acquiring and growing small but promising third-party merchants, and building out their own economies of scale.

And while there are a number of such startups based in the U.S. and Europe, none had emerged in the Latin American market. Until now.

Valoreo, a Mexico City-based acquirer of e-commerce businesses, announced Tuesday that it has raised $50 million of equity and debt financing in a seed funding round.

The dollar amount is large for a seed round by any standards, but most certainly ranks among the highest ever raised by a Latin American startup — further evidence of increased investor interest in the region’s burgeoning venture scene

Upper90, FJ Labs, Angel Ventures, Presight Capital and a slew of angel investors participated in the round. Those angels included David Geisen, head of Mercado Libre Mexico; BEA Systems’ co-founder Alfred Chuang; and Tushar Ahluwalia, founder of Razor Group, a European marketplace aggregator, among others.

Founded in late 2020, Valoreo aims to invest in, operate and scale e-commerce brands as part of its self-described mission “to bring better products at more affordable prices” to the Latin American consumer.

“We were substantially oversubscribed and were therefore able to select investors that not only provide capital, but also additional know-how in key areas,” said co-founder Alex Gruell.

Valoreo joins the growing number of startups focused on rolling up e-commerce brands.

The company’s model is similar to that of Thrasio — which just raised another $750 million–  and Perch in the U.S. But Valoreo says its approach has been tailored to “the specific needs of the Latin American market and is specifically focused on the Latin American end customer.”

Another new company in the space called Branded recently launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding. Others in the space include Berlin Brands Group, SellerX, Heyday and Heroes.

But as my colleague Ingrid Lunden points out, “the feverish pace of fundraising in the area of FBA roll-ups feels very much like a bubble in the market — not least because none of these still-young companies have yet to prove that the strategy to buy up and consolidate these sellers is a useful and profitable one.”

How it works

Valoreo (which the company says is an extension of the Spanish word “valor,” meaning to add value), acquires merchants that operate their own brands and primarily sell on online marketplaces such as Mercado Libre, Amazon and Linio. The company targets brands that offer “category-leading products” and which it believes have “significant growth potential.” It also develops brands in-house to offer a broader selection of products to the end customer.

Like Thrasio, Valoreo says it’s able to help entrepreneurs who may lack the resources and access to capital to take their businesses to the next level.

Co-founder and co-CEO Stefan Florea says the company takes less than five weeks typically from its initial contact with a seller to a final payout. 

Then, the acquired and developed brands are integrated into the company’s consolidated holding. By tapping its team of “specialists” in areas such as digital marketing and supply chain management, it claims to be able to help these brands “reach new heights” while giving the entrepreneurs behind the companies “an attractive exit,” or partial exit in some cases.

We have different structures, always taking into account the personal objectives of the seller,” Stefan Florea added.

Generally Valoreo acquires the majority of the business, with the purchase price typically being a combination of an upfront cash payment and a profit share component so sellers can still earn money.

Looking ahead, Valoreo plans to use its new capital mostly to acquire and develop “interesting” brands, as well as build out its current team of 10 while expanding its infrastructure and operations.

The company is currently focused on the Mexican and Brazilian markets, but is planning its expansion into other Latin American countries where it has strong local support systems, such as Colombia, according to co-founder Martin Florea.

Our mission is to be a pan-Latin American player providing value to the entire region,” Martin Florea said. “Latin America in general and Mexico in particular are in a distinct situation which provides phenomenal opportunities for e-commerce merchants on the one hand but also presents particular challenges on the other hand.”

Those challenges, according to Martin Florea, include limited access to growth capital, a lack of specialized expertise in certain areas (such as supply chain management), limited opportunities to sell their business and pursue new ventures, as well as operational burdens and the lack of capacities to expand into new countries and marketplaces.

Valoreo emphasizes it is not out to compete with Mercado Libre, Amazon and other regional marketplaces but instead wants to partner with them.

“Without these platforms, this opportunity would not exist,” Martin Florea said.

Hernán Fernández, founder and managing partner of Angel Ventures, believes Valoreo “will add a lot of value” to the Latin American e-commerce landscape, which is experiencing both market growth and the fragmentation of the seller space.

Jüsto co-founder and CEO (and Valoreo investor) Ricardo Weder notes that the e-commerce market is at an inflection point in Latin America. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth. However, it is a much more fragmented and crowded market compared to other regions, such as the United States.

This, Valoreo believes, provides an opportunity for consolidation.

“There are still many consumers that are not aware of the great variety of outstanding local brands that sell innovative products on marketplaces online,” Stefan Florea said. “In the U.S. or Europe e-commerce is the new way of shopping, offering an even greater range of products and brands than offline shopping. We firmly believe it will not take long until end-customers in Mexico and across Latin America discover all the benefits that e-commerce offers.”

Travel startup GetYourGuide secures $97M revolving credit facility

By Ingrid Lunden

Many countries hit hard by Covid-19 are beginning to see a glimmer of optimism from the arrival of vaccinations. Now, a promising travel startup that saw its growth arrested by the arrival and persistence of the pandemic is announcing a $97 million financing facility to help it stay the course until it can finally resume normal business.

GetYourGuide, the Berlin startup that curates, organizes and lets travelers and others book tours and other experiences, has secured a revolving credit facility of €80 million ($97 million at current rates). The financing is being led by UniCredit, with CitiGroup, Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank and KfW also participating.

CFO Nils Chrestin said in an interview that the funding will let GetYourGuide come “sprinting out of the gates” when consumers are in a better position to enjoy travel experiences again.

The capital could be used potentially for normal business expenses, for acquisitions or investments, or other strategic initiatives, such as more investment into the company’s in-house Originals tour operations or new services to book last-minute experiences, he added.

And even if a lot of tourism has really slowed down, there are still people taking short-distance trips or buying activities in the cities where they live (and are not leaving). While some metro areas like London are essentially only open for booking well in advance (when the hope is lockdown restrictions might be eased), other cities like Rome or Amsterdam have activities available for booking today.

GetYourGuide’s latest financing news underscores how some startups — specifically those whose business models have not lended themselves well to pandemic living — are getting more creative with their approaches to staying afloat.

GetYourGuide has raised more than $600 million in equity capital since 2009, with its Series E of $484 million in 2019 (before the pandemic) valuing it at well over $1 billion.

But more recently, the startup backed by the likes of SoftBank, Temasek, Lakestar, and others has been shoring up its position with alternative forms of finance.

In October, GetYourGuide closed a convertible note of $133 million. While it has yet to raise the equity round that would covert that note — it could be up to 18 months before another equity round is closed, CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck told me at the time — this latest revolving debt facility is giving the startup another efficient route to accessing money.

Unlike equity rounds (or notes that can convert into equity), revolving debt facilities are non-dilutive, flexible lines of credit, where companies can quickly draw down funds as needed up to the full value of the facility. After repaying with interest, they can re-draw up to the same limit again.

In that regard, revolving debt facilities are not unlike credit cards for consumers, and similarly, they are a sign of how banks rate GetYourGuide, and perhaps the travel industry more generally, as strong candidates for paying back, and eventually bouncing back.

“We are very happy to help GetYourGuide continue its growth trajectory during this extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in”, says Jan Kupfer, head of corporate and investment banking, Germany, at UniCredit, in a statement. “The successful financing also shows once again our unique tech advisory approach, where we combine our deep tech expertise with the broad product range of a pan-European commercial bank.”

“Extraordinary situation” is perhaps an understatement for the rough year that travel businesses have had.

There do remain parts of the industry that have yet to make the leap to digital platforms — experiences, the focus of GetYourGuide, is very much one of them — and that makes for very interesting and potentially big businesses.

But between government-imposed travel restrictions, and people reluctant to venture far, or mix and mingle with others, startups like GetYourGuide have essentially found themselves treading water until things get moving again.

Last October, GetYourGuide said it had passed 45 million ticket sales in aggregate on its platform, but that figure was only up by 5 million in 10 months. As we pointed out at the time, that speaks both to a major slowdown in growth and to the struggles that companies like it are facing, and it is very likely far from the projections the startup had originally made for its expansion before the pandemic hit.

It’s not the only one: air travel, hotels, and other sectors that fall into the travel and tourism industries have largely been stagnating or in freefall or decline this year. Many believe that those who will be left standing after all of this will have to collectively brace themselves for potentially years of financial turmoil to come back from it.

Interestingly, Airbnb presents an alternative reality, at least for the moment. It appears to have captured investors’ attention and since going public in December has been on a steady upswing.

Analysts may say that there hasn’t been a lot of news coming out about the company to merit that rise, but one explanation has been that the optimism has more to do with its longer-term potential and for how tech-savvy routes to filling travel needs will indeed be the services that people will use before the rest.

That could be part of the pitch for GetYouGuide, too. Chrestin said that the company believes that travel in the U.S. market, a key region for the startup, is looking like it might rebound in Q2 or Q3. Yet even if it doesn’t, the company has the runway to wait longer.

Chrestin noted that GetYourGuide has “reinvented internal processes” and is operating much more efficiently now. “If it weren’t for the global hardship this crisis is causing, we would look back and say it was quite transformational,” he said.

“The company is very well capitalized and fully funded to profitability. Even if the current travel volume stayed like this for three years, we would not run out of capital,” he continued. “We have sufficient capital even for that scenario, but we don’t think that will happen.”

Tony Florence, the head of NEA’s tech practice, on building breakthrough brands

By Connie Loizos

Tony Florence isn’t as well known to the public as other top investors like Bill Gurley or Marc Andreessen, but he’s someone who founders with SaaS and especially marketplace e-commerce companies know — or should. He’s responsible for the global tech investing activities for NEA, one of the world’s biggest venture firms in terms of assets under management (it closed its newest fund with $3.6 billion last year).

Florence has also been involved with a long list of e-commerce brands to break through, including Jet, Gilt, Goop, Casper, Letgo, and Moda Operandi.

It’s because we talked earlier this week with one of his newer e-commerce bets, Maisonette, that we wanted to ask him about brand building more than a year into a pandemic that has changed the world in both fleeting and permanent ways. We wound up talking about how customer acquisition has changed; what he thinks of the growing number of companies trying to roll up third-party sellers on Amazon; and how upstarts can maintain momentum when even younger companies become a shiny new fascination for customers.

Note: one topic that he couldn’t and wouldn’t comment on is the future of one founder who Florence has backed twice, Marc Lore, who stepped down from Walmart last month to begin building what he recently told Vox is a multi-decade project to build “a city of the future.” (More on this to come, evidently.)

Part of our chat with Florence, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows:

TC: You’ve funded a number of very different businesses that have managed to grow even as Amazon has eaten up more of the retail market. Is there any sector or vertical you wouldn’t back because of the company?

TF: You have to be thoughtful about Amazon. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular area that you either can ignore or feel like you’re completely comfortable and open to, given the scale of their platform. At the same time, there are founding principles and fundamentals that we think about as they relate to companies being able to compete and operate successfully.

TC: And these are what? You’ve backed Marc Lore, Philip Krim (of Casper), Sylvana and Luisana of Maisonette. Do they have something in common?

TF:  Sometimes [founders] come at the problem organically; they’re living it [and want to solve it]. Other times, somebody like Marc sees a business opportunity and just attacks it. But there are commonalities. These are folks who are very customer centric, who are focused on good, fundamental unit economics, and who are obsessive about their people, their teams. It takes a village to build a young successful company, and all of those founders you mentioned are great at recruiting world-class people. There’s a sense of vision and mission and culture.

When you wake up and decide to do something, the majority of people you talk to just want to tell you the reasons why it can’t work, so it also takes a certain [wherewithal] to have such conviction around what you’re doing that you’re kind of all in on it, and you’re going to break through no matter what.

TC: Maisonette was going to open a brick-and-mortar store but put a pin in that plan because of COVID. Will we go back to seeing direct-to-consumer brands opening real-world locations when this is over? Has the pandemic permanently changed that calculation?

TF: Leading up to the pandemic, a lot of the young DTC companies that were direct-to-consumer brands, and even the traditional e-commerce marketplaces, were experimenting with offline. Some of it was out of necessity, frankly. Sometimes [customer acquisition costs] became so expensive that it was actually cheaper for them to go offline. In other cases, it was done because the customer wanted that closed loop experience, as with [mattress maker] Casper.

A lot of companies [opened these stores] in a contained way and it worked really well. It’s very accretive financially to the overall business contribution, margin wise. It was accretive for the overall customer experience. And in many cases, it didn’t cannibalize anything. It just expanded the [total addressable market].

We’re spending a lot of time right now continuing to think through what are the permanent changes that are going to come out of the pandemic, but I would say the omnichannel model has really has started to take shape and succeed if you look at big retailers like Walmart and Target, so I think there will be an omnichannel dynamic to many of these companies that we’re talking about. Also, over the last 12 months, the cost of acquisition and the efficacy of marketing has swung back in the favor of these young companies. It’s improved to a point where we don’t really even need to think about offline.

TC: I know it had become expensive to acquire customers digitally because it was so crowded out there. Did it become less crowded?

TF: There were very few platforms that these companies could use pre pandemic that weren’t oversaturated . . . it was just very competitive, and that would bid up the cost of acquisition. In the last 12 months, you’ve seen big parts of that market go away. With airlines and financial services and a lot of the spend going way down, it’s become a lot cheaper for companies to market digitally.

TC: Still, it feels at times that it’s hard to maintain a brand’s momentum over time; there’s always some new outfit nipping at its heels. How does a brand keep itself fresh and relevant in 2021?

TF: There’s a hits dynamic — a fad dynamic — in the consumer space, so that’s always a challenge. You [compete by] continually reinventing and adding [to your offerings]. You see that in social categories, you see that in marketplaces [where they add] managed services and other components [like] payments, and you clearly see it in the way some of the direct-to-consumer companies continue to add new products to the mix.

You focus on the core aspects of your brand and its mission and vision and make sure that the customers really feel that. There’s a community dynamic that has really occurred the last four or five years around e-commerce companies. Glossier is a great example of a company that built a great community around a core set of product offerings, and that has really propelled that company beyond its core customer customer base.

There’s also a contextual commerce opportunity. Goop is a great example this; Gwyneth [Paltrow] brilliantly came up with [an effective way] to merge content and commerce, and that’s something a lot of companies in the commerce space have started to invest in.

TC: Content, community and not necessarily speed, so focusing on what Amazon does not. Can I ask: do you think Amazon needs to be reigned in?

TF: If you’re competing with them [in the] cloud market or a commerce market, they’re a very formidable competitor, and you got to take them very, very seriously. They’re at a scale that’s just incredibly impressive. But I do think you’re seeing a lot of innovation around the edges and companies finding areas that Amazon maybe can’t focus on or isn’t focusing on.

TC: What do you think of these Amazon Marketplace roll-ups that we’re seeing? There’s been at least a half of dozen of them already, including Thrasio, which announced $750 million this week. All are raising money hand over first.

TF: We haven’t made an investment in the area, though we’re watching very closely. It can be a very capital intensive strategy to execute on because you’re buying brands and then bringing them onto the platform to consolidate and grow, but there’s just an enormous long tail to the e-commerce space and this is an opportunity to consolidate that.

TC: Like, an infinite opportunity? How many roll-ups can the market support?

TFL I do think that we’ll see a handful of these companies get to decent scale. The question will be whether you’ve got more of an arbitrage going on [by] buying companies and generating synergies or there’s some fundamental bigger breakthrough. If you could use AI [and] machine learning to understand how to better serve customers and think about customer acquisition a little bit better, that would be really interesting. If there are real economies of scale to the supply chains [or] baseline infrastructure, that would certainly be interesting.

It’s early on. It remains to be seen how this is gonna play out.

Pictured above, left to right: NEA’s global managing director, Scott Sandell, and Florence, who is the head of global tech investing activities at NEA and who works alongside Mohamad Makhzoumi, who oversees the firm’s healthcare practice.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Financial forecasting startup Springbox AI launches its apps and raises $2M

By Mike Butcher

Springbox AI, an AI-powered financial forecasting application designed to replace financial market investment service and aimed at the average financial markets trader, has launched on iOS and Android.

It’s been built by a team of founders who previously worked at Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas. It’s so far raised $2M in funding from private investors in Europe.

The app costs $49 a month, and includes a range of tools including market forecasting; live market screening of stocks, forex, and futures markets; and trading news.

Springbox AI Co-Founder Kassem Lahham said: “Most brokers focus their marketing by selling investors the dream or the myth of easy-money, resulting in 96% of self-traders losing money and quitting. Using Springbox AI traders will have access to an app that will help them succeed, focused on the data.”

Springbox competes with trading apps like eToro, but eToro focuses on social trading and following a strong investor from the community. Springbox is designed for slightly more sophisticated traders, say the founders.

18 Great Wireless Chargers to Refuel Your Phone (or Watch)

By Julian Chokkattu, Simon Hill
Stop fumbling for cables in the dark. These WIRED-tested stands and pads will make recharging your iPhone or Android phone hassle-free.

White House, dark mode: Biden admin refreshes presidency’s website, vows accessibility

By Devin Coldewey

WhiteHouse.gov, the official website for all presidential actions and efforts, is among the first things to be changed up under the freshly inaugurated President Biden. A fashionable dark mode appeared, as well as a large text toggle for straining eyes, and the webmaster has committed to making the whole site conform to the latest accessibility guidelines.

The look isn’t so very different from the previous administration’s site — they’re both fairly modern and minimal experiences, with big photos up front and tidy lists of priorities and announcements once you drill down into a category.

Animation showing dark and light modes on whitehouse.gov

Image Credits: White House

But one big design change implemented by the new administration that many will appreciate is the inclusion of a dark mode, or high contrast mode, and a large type toggle.

Dark modes have been around forever, but became de rigeur when Apple implemented its own system-wide versions on iOS and macOS a while back. It’s just easier on the eyes in many ways, and at any rate it’s nice to give users options.

The WhiteHouse.gov dark mode changes the headline type from a patriotic blue to an eye-friendly off-white, with links a calming Dijon. Even the White House logo itself goes from a dark blue background to full black with a white border. It’s all very tasteful, and if anything seems like a low-contrast mode, not high.

The large type mode does what it says, making everything considerably bigger and easier to tap or click. The toggles, it must be said, are a bit over-prominent, but they’ll probably tweak that soon.

More important is the pledge in the accessibility section:

This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.

Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria.

The WCAG guidelines are a set of best practices for designing a website so that its content can be easily accessed by people who use screen readers, need captions for audio or can’t use a mouse or touchscreen easily. The guidelines aren’t particularly hard to meet, but as many have pointed out, it’s harder to retrofit a website to be accessible than to design it for accessibility from the start.

One thing I noticed was that many of the photos on the White House website have alt text or visible captions attached — these help visually impaired visitors understand what’s in an image. Here’s an example:

Screenshot showing the alt text of a photo of VP Kamala Harris and her family

Image Credits: White House

 

 

 

 

Normally that alt text would be read out by a screen reader when it got to the image, but it’s generally not made visible.

Unless the metadata was stripped from the previous administration’s site (it’s archived here), none of the photos I checked had text descriptions there, so this is a big improvement. Unfortunately some photos (like the big header photo on the front page) don’t have descriptions, something that should probably be remedied.

Accessibility in other places will mean prompt inclusion of plaintext versions of governance items and announcements (versus PDFs or other documents), captions on official videos and other media, and as the team notes, lots of little improvements that make the site better for everyone who visits.

It’s a small thing in a way, compared with the changes expected to accompany the new administration, but small things tend to pile up and become big things.

As Microsoft’s Isaac Hepworth noted, there’s still lots of work to do, and that’s why U.S. Digital Services hid a little message in the source code:

Section of source code asking for help from the US Digital Services administration

Image Credits: White House

If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.

EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

By Natasha Lomas

In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of U.S. president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the U.S. to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the U.S. capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of U.K. politician Jo Cox by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [U.S.] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

Von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as “problematic”; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-U.S. relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the U.S. — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

Von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington”, she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset U.S. relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in, vis-à-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech versus the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of U.S. surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the U.S. (and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying) — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his “needs urgent attention” in-tray also seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

❌