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Customer experience and digital transformation concepts are merging during the pandemic

By Ron Miller

Customer experience and digital transformation are two terms we’ve been hearing about for years, but have often remained nebulous in many organizations — something to aspire to perhaps, but not take completely seriously. Yet the pandemic has been a forcing event for both concepts, thrusting the ideas front and center.

Suddenly startups that help with either of these concepts are seeing rising demand, even in a year with an overall difficult economic climate. If you are fortunate enough to be helping companies digitize a process or improve how customers interact with companies, you may be seeing increased interest from customers and potential acquirers (and this was true even before this year). A case in point is Twilio acquiring Segment for $3.2 billion recently to help build data-fueled applications to interact with customers.

Even though building a positive customer experience has never been completely about digital, at a time where it’s difficult to interact with customers in person, the digital side of it has taken new urgency. As COVID-19 took hold this year, businesses, large and small, suddenly realized the only way to connect to their customers was digitally. At that point, digital transformation became customer experience’s buddy when other ways of contacting one another have been severely limited.

Pandemic brings changes

Just about every startup founder I talk to these days, along with bigger, more established companies, talk about how the pandemic has pushed companies to digitally transform much faster than they would have without COVID.

Brent Leary, founder at CRM Essentials, says that the pandemic has certainly expedited the need to bring these two big ideas together and created opportunities as that happens. “The coronavirus, as terrible as it has been in so many ways to so many people, has created opportunities for companies to build direct-to-consumer (D2C) digital pipelines that can make them stronger companies despite the current hardships,” Leary told TechCrunch.

The cloud plays a big role in the digital transformation process, and for the last decade, we have seen companies make a slow but steady shift to the cloud. When you have a situation like we’ve had with the coronavirus, it speeds everything up. As it turns out, being in the cloud helps you move faster because you don’t have to worry about all of the overhead of running a business critical application as the SaaS vendors take care of all that for you.

Harness delivers enterprise continuous integration on heels of Drone.io acquisition

By Ron Miller

In August, Harness made its first acquisition when it bought open source continuous integration startup Drone.io. The company didn’t waste any time building on that purchase, announcing a new enterprise continuous integration tool today to go alongside the open source project Drone has been building.

The Harness software development platform consists of various modules and the latest one helps with continuous integration, which is the build and test process that happens before developers start deploying their code changes.

As Brad Rydzewski, co-founder at Drone.io, explained it at the time of the acquisition:

“Drone is a continuous integration software. It helps developers to continuously build, test and deploy their code. The project was started in 2012, and it was the first cloud-native, container-native continuous integration solution on the market, and we open sourced it.”

Bansal indicated at the time of the acquisition that he wanted to build on that open source project and provide an enterprise commercial version, while continuing to support the open source project.

“This is really the first product in the industry that is bringing AI and machine learning into optimizing the build and test process,” Bansal said. That intelligence layer is what separates it from the open source version of the software, and the idea is to use machine learning to speed up the building and testing process.

The company is also announcing a new module around managing feature flags. These are elements developers leave in the code to limit the roll out of software, allowing them to see how the update is performing before rolling it out to the user base at large. The problem is these as these flags proliferate, they become difficult to manage, and the new module is designed to help developers understand and control the flags that exist in their code.

Bansal says his goal for the company has been to put the kind of automated software delivery pipeline that’s in place at the world’s largest tech companies within reach of every developer.

“[Our goal] is that every company in the world can have the same level of software delivery sophistication as a Google or Amazon or Facebook,” Bansal said.

Bansal founded AppDynamics, a company he sold to Cisco in 2017 for $3.7 billion. He launched Harness later that same year. The company has raised almost $80 million on a valuation of $500 million, according to Pitchbook data.

Bansal also started the venture capital firm Unusual Ventures in 2018 and as though he doesn’t have enough to do, he launched his third startup Traceable, a security company, in July.

Google Maps launches a new developer solution for on-demand ride and delivery companies

By Frederic Lardinois

The Google Maps Platform, the developer side of Google Maps, is launching a new service for on-demand rides and delivery companies today that ties together some of the platform’s existing capabilities with new features for finding nearby drivers and sharing trip and order progress information with customers.

This isn’t Google Maps Platform’s first foray into this business. Back in 2018, the company launched a solution for in-app navigation for ridesharing companies, for example. At the time, the team didn’t really focus on delivery solutions, though, but that’s obviously one of the few booming markets right now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Building on 15 years of experience mapping the world, the On-demand Rides & Deliveries solution helps businesses improve operations as well as transform the driver and customer journey from booking to arrival or delivery–all with predictable pricing per completed trip,” Google senior product manager Eli Danziger writes in today’s announcement.”

At the core of the service is the Google Maps routing service, which developers can tweak for deliveries by bike or motorcycle, for example, and to find optimized routes with the shortest or fastest path. The team notes that this so-called ‘Routes Preferred’ feature also enables arrival time predictions for time-sensitive deliveries and pricing estimates.

The other new feature of this platform is to enable developers to quickly build an experience that helps users find nearby drivers. Imaginatively called ‘Nearby Drivers,’ the idea here is about as straightforward as you can imagine and allows developers to find the closest driver with a single API call. They can also add custom rankings, based on their specific needs, to ensure the right driver is matched to the right route.

Unsurprisingly, the platform also features support for in-app navigation, and that’s tied in closely with the rest of the feature set.

Developers can also easily integrate Google’s real-time trip and order progress capabilities to “keep customers informed from pickup to drop-off or delivery, with a real-time view of a driver’s current position, route, and ETA.”

All of this is pretty much what any user would expect from a modern ride-sharing or delivery app, so for the most part, that’s table stakes. The technology behind it is not, though, and a lot of delivery companies have set up large tech operations to build out exactly these features. They aren’t likely to switch to Google’s platform, but the platform may give smaller players a chance to operate more efficiently or enter new markets without the added expense of having to build this tech stack from the ground up — or cobble it together from multiple vendors.

 

E-bike subscription service Dance closes $17.7M Series A, led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Three months on since the former founders of SoundCloud launched their e-bike subscription service, Dance they are today announcing the close of a $17.7 million (€15 million) Series A funding round led by one of the larger European VCs, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Founded by Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss (ex-Soundcloud), Alexander Ljung (ex-Soundcloud) and Christian Springub (ex-Jimdo), Dance has ambitions to offer its all-inclusive service subscription package into expanded markets across Europe and eventually the US. Dance is currently operating the invite-only pilot of its e-bike subscription in Berlin, with plans for a broader launch, expanded accessibility and availability and new cities next year. 

Rainer Märkle, general partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures said in a statement: “The mobility market is seeing a huge shift towards bikes, strongly fueled by the paradigm shift of vehicles going electric. Unfortunately, the majority of e-bikes on the market today have some combination of poor design, high upfront costs, and cumbersome maintenance. We analyzed the overall mobility market, evaluated all means of transport, and crunched the numbers on all types of business models for a few years before we found what we were looking for. Dance is by the far the most viable future of biking, bridging the gap between e-bike ownership and more ‘joyful’ accessibility to go places.”

E-bikes tend to be notoriously expensive to purchase and a hassle to repair. That said, startups like VanMoof and Cowboy have brought an Apple -esque business model to the market which is fast bringing the cost of full ownership down.

Most commuters are put off cycling the average 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) commute but e-bikes make this distance a breeze. Dance sits in that half-way house between owning an expensive bike and having to hunt down a rentable ebike or electric scooter close to your location.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought individual, socially distanced, transport into sharp relief. UK sales of e-bikes have boomed, seeing a 230% surge in demand over the summer. This has happened at the same time as EU governments have put in more than 2300km of bike lanes, with the UK alone pledging £250 million in investment.

Quidenus-Wahlforss said the startup has been “inundated with positive responses from around the world since we announced our invite-only pilot program.”

Dance’s subscription model includes a fully assembled e-bike delivered to a subscriber’s door within 24 hours. This comes with maintenance, theft replacement insurance, a dedicated smartphone app, concierge services, GPS location tracking and unlocking capabilities.

Contrast launches its security observability platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Contrast, a developer-centric application security company with customers that include Liberty Mutual Insurance, NTT Data, AXA and Bandwidth, today announced the launch of its security observability platform. The idea here is to offer developers a single pane of glass to manage an application’s security across its lifecycle, combined with real-time analysis and reporting, as well as remediation tools.

“Every line of code that’s happening increases the risk to a business if it’s not secure,” said Contrast CEO and chairman Alan Nauman. “We’re focused on securing all that code that businesses are writing for both automation and digital transformation.”

Over the course of the last few years, the well-funded company, which raised a $65 million Series D round last year, launched numerous security tools that cover a wide range of use cases from automated penetration testing to cloud application security and now DevOps — and this new platform is meant to tie them all together.

DevOps, the company argues, is really what necessitates a platform like this, given that developers now push more code into production than ever — and the onus of ensuring that this code is secure is now also often on that.

Image Credits: Contrast

Traditionally, Nauman argues, security services focused on the code itself and looking at traffic.

“We think at the application layer, the same principles of observability apply that have been used in the IT infrastructure space,” he said. “Specifically, we do instrumentation of the code and we weave security sensors into the code as it’s being developed and are looking for vulnerabilities and observing running code. […] Our view is: the world’s most complex systems are best when instrumented, whether it’s an airplane, a spacecraft, an IT infrastructure. We think the same is true for code. So our breakthrough is applying instrumentation to code and observing for security vulnerabilities.”

With this new platform, Contrast is aggregating information from its existing systems into a single dashboard. And while Contrast observes the code throughout its lifecycle, it also scans for vulnerabilities whenever a developers check code into the CI/CD pipeline, thanks to integrations with most of the standard tools like Jenkins. It’s worth noting that the service also scans for vulnerabilities in open-source libraries. Once deployed, Contrast’s new platform keeps an eye on the data that runs through the various APIs and systems the application connects to and scans for potential security issues there as well.

The platform currently supports all of the large cloud providers like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, and languages and frameworks like Java, Python, .NET and Ruby.

Image Credits: Contrast

Lessons from Datto’s IPO pricing and revenue multiple

By Alex Wilhelm

Last night Datto priced its IPO at $27 per share, the top end of its range that TechCrunch covered last week. The data and security-focused software company had targeted a $24 to $27 per-share IPO price range, meaning that its final per-share value was at the top of its estimates.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


The Datto IPO won’t draw lots of attention; its business is somewhat dull, as selling software to managed service providers rarely excites. But, the public offering matters for a different reason: it gives us a fresh lens into today’s IPO market.

That lens is the perspective of slower, more profitable growth. What is that worth?

The value of quickly-growing and unprofitable software and cloud companies is well known. Snowflake made a splash earlier this year on the back of huge growth and enormous losses. Investors ate its shares up, pushing its valuation to towering heights. And this year we’ve even seen rapid growth and profits valued by public investors in the form of JFrog’s IPO.

But slower growth, software margins and profitability? Datto’s financial picture feels somewhat unique among the IPOs that TechCrunch has covered this year.

It’s a similar bet to the one that Egnyte is making; the enterprise software company crested $100 million ARR last year and announced that it grew by around 22% in the first half of 2020. And, it is profitable on an EBITDA basis. Therefore, the Datto IPO could provide a clue as to what companies like Egnyte and the rest of the late-stage startup crop content to grow more slowly, but with the benefit of actually making money.

Lessons from Datto’s IPO pricing and revenue multiple

Here are the deal’s nuts and bolts:

Adobe’s Project Sharp Shots uses AI to deblur your videos with one click

By Frederic Lardinois

Every year at its MAX user conference, Adobe shows off a number of research projects that may or may not end up in its Creative Cloud apps over time. One new project that I hope we’ll soon see in its video apps is Project Sharp Shots, which will make its debut later today during the MAX Sneaks event. Powered by Adobe’s Sensei AI platform, Sharp Shots is a research project that uses AI to deblur videos.

Shubhi Gupta, the Adobe engineer behind the project, told me the idea here is to deblur a video — no matter whether it was blurred because of a shaky camera or fast movement — with a single click. In the demos she showed me, the effect was sometimes relatively subtle, as in a video of her playing ukulele, or quite dramatic, as in the example of a fast-moving motorcycle below.

With Project Sharp Shots, there’s no parameter tuning and adjustment like we used to do in our traditional methods,” she told me. “This one is just a one-click thing. It’s not magic. This is simple deep learning and AI working in the background, extracting each frame, deblurring it and producing high-quality deblurred photos and videos.”

Image Credits: AdobeGupta tells me the team looked at existing research on deblurring images and then optimized that process for moving images — and then optimized that for lower-memory usage and speed.

It’s worth noting that After Effects already offers some of these capabilities for deblurring and removing camera shake, but that’s a very different algorithm with its own set of limitations.

This new system works best when the algorithm has access to multiple related frames before and after, but it can do its job with just a handful of frames in a video.

Image Credits: Adobe

Cloud Foundry coalesces around Kubernetes

By Frederic Lardinois

In a normal year, the Cloud Foundry project would be hosting its annual European Summit in Dublin this week. But this is 2020, so it’s a virtual event. This year, however, has been a bit of a transformative year for the open-source Platform-as-a-Service project — in more ways than one. With Cloud Foundry executive director Abby Kearns leaving earlier this year, the organizations’ former CTO Chip Childers stepped into the role. Maybe just as importantly, though, the project’s move to Kubernetes as its container orchestration tool of choice — and a renewed focus on the Cloud Foundry developer experience — is now starting to bear fruit.

“In April, I took over the job. I said: ‘Listen, our community has a new North Star. It’s to go take the Cloud Foundry developer experience and get that thing re-platformed onto Kubernetes . No more delay, no more diversity of thought here. It’s time to make the move,’ ” Childers said (with a chuckle). “And here we are. It’s October, we have our ecosystem aligned, we have major project releases that are fulfilling that vision. And we’ve got a community that’s very energized around it continuing the work of progressing this integration with a bunch of cloud-native projects.”

Developers who use Cloud Foundry, Childers argued, love it, but the project now has an opportunity to show a wider range of potential use that it can offer a smoother developer experience on top of virtually any Kubernetes cluster.

One of the projects that is working on making this happen — and which hit its 1.0 release today, is cf-for-k8s. Traditionally, getting up and running with Cloud Foundry was a heavy lift — and something that most companies left to third-party vendors to handle. This new project, which launched in April, allows developers to spin up a relatively light-weight Cloud Foundry distribution on top of a Kubernetes cluster — using projects like Istio and Fluentd, in addition to Kubernetes — and to do so within minutes.

“It comes along with the whole process of reimagining our architecture to pull in other projects a lot more aggressively and allows us to get to feature parity [with the classic VM-focused Cloud Foundry experience] using a lot more complementary open-source projects,” Childers said about the larger role of this project in the overall ecosystem. “That lets our community focus less on building the underlying plumbing and [spend] more time thinking about how to speed up innovation and the developer experience.”

This wouldn’t be open source if there wasn’t another project that does something quite similar — at least at first glance. That’s KubeCF, which hit its 2.5 launch today. This is an open-source distribution of the Cloud Foundry Application Runtime that, as Childers explained, is meant for production use and that was originally meant to provide existing users a bridge onto the Kubernetes bandwagon. Over time, these two projects will likely merge. “Everyone’s collaborating on what this shared vision looks like. They’re just, they’re just two different distributions that handle the different use cases today,” Childers explained.

After six months in his new position, Childers noted that he’s seeing a lot of energy in the community right now. The job is hard, he said, when there’s unhealthy disagreement, but right now, what he’s seeing is “a beautiful harmony of agreement.”

Egnyte introduces new features to help deal with security/governance during pandemic

By Ron Miller

The pandemic has put stress on companies dealing with a workforce that is mostly — and sometimes suddenly — working from home. That has led to rising needs for security and governance tooling, something that Egnyte is looking to meet with new features aimed at helping companies cope with file management during the pandemic.

Egnyte is an enterprise file storage and sharing (EFSS) company, though it has added security services and other tools over the years.

“It’s no surprise that there’s been a rapid shift to remote work, which has I believe led to mass adoption of multiple applications running on multiple clouds, and tied to that has been a nonlinear reaction of exponential growth in data security and governance concerns,” Vineet Jain, co-founder and CEO at Egnyte, explained.

There’s a lot of data at stake.

Egnyte’s announcements today are in part a reaction to the changes that COVID has brought, a mix of net-new features and capabilities that were on its road map, but accelerated to meet the needs of the changing technology landscape.

What’s new?

The company is introducing a new feature called Smart Cache to make sure that content (wherever it lives) that an individual user accesses most will be ready whenever they need it.

“Smart Cache uses machine learning to predict the content most likely to be accessed at any given site, so administrators don’t have to anticipate usage patterns. The elegance of the solution lies in that it is invisible to the end users,” Jain said. The end result of this capability could be lower storage and bandwidth costs, because the system can make this content available in an automated way only when it’s needed.

Another new feature is email scanning and governance. As Jain points out, email is often a company’s largest data store, but it’s also a conduit for phishing attacks and malware. So Egnyte is introducing an email governance tool that keeps an eye on this content, scanning it for known malware and ransomware and blocking files from being put into distribution when it identifies something that could be harmful.

As companies move more files around it’s important that security and governance policies travel with the document, so that policies can be enforced on the file wherever it goes. This was true before COVID-19, but has only become more true as more folks work from home.

Finally, Egnyte is using machine learning for auto-classification of documents to apply policies to documents without humans having to touch them. By identifying the document type automatically, whether it has personally identifying information or it’s a budget or planning document, Egnyte can help customers auto-classify and apply policies about viewing and sharing to protect sensitive materials.

Egnyte is reacting to the market needs as it makes changes to the platform. While the pandemic has pushed this along, these are features that companies with documents spread out across various locations can benefit from regardless of the times.

The company is over $100 million ARR today, and grew 22% in the first half of 2020. Whether the company can accelerate that growth rate in H2 2020 is not yet clear. Regardless, Egnyte is a budding IPO candidate for 2021 if market conditions hold.

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

By Ron Miller

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.

Microsoft Azure announces its first region in Austria

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced its plans to launch a new data center region in Austria, its first in the country. With nearby Azure regions in Switzerland, Germany, France and a planned new region in northern Italy, this part of Europe now has its fair share of Azure coverage. Microsoft also noted that it plans to launch a new ‘Center of Digital Excellence’ to Austria to “to modernize Austria’s IT infrastructure, public governmental services and industry innovation.”

In total, Azure now features 65 cloud regions — though that number includes some that aren’t online yet. As its competitors like to point out, not all of them feature multiple availability zones yet, but the company plans to change that. Until then, the fact that there’s usually another nearby region can often make up for that.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Talking about availability zones, in addition to announcing this new data center region, Microsoft also today announced plans to expand its cloud in Brazil, with new availability zones to enable high-availability workloads launching in the existing Brazil South region in 2021. Currently, this region only supports Azure workloads but will add support for Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform over the course of the next few months.

This announcement is part of a large commitment to building out its presence in Brazil. Microsoft is also partnering with the Ministry of Economy “to help job matching for up to 25 million workers and is offering free digital skilling with the capacity to train up to 5.5 million people” and to use its AI to protect the rainforest. That last part may sound a bit naive, but the specific plan here is to use AI to predict likely deforestation zones based on data from satellite images.

Sym raises $9M Series A for its security workflow platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Sym, a new platform that makes it easier for developers to integrate security and privacy workflows into their process, today announced that it has raised a $9 million Series A round led by Amplify Partners. Earlier this year, the company announced its $3 million seed round lead by Andy McLoughlin of Uncork Capital and Robin Vasan of Mango Capital. Angel investors include former Google CISO Gerhard Eschelbeck, Atlassian CTO Sri Viswanath and Jason Warner, the CTO of GitHub.

Sym co-founder Yasyf Mohamedali spent the last few years as CTO of health tech company Karuna Health. In that role, he became intimately familiar with working in a high-compliance industry, handling vendor reviews and security audits. To make those processes more efficient, his team built lots of small tools, but he realized that everybody else in the industry was doing the same.

Image Credits: Sym

“As an engineer, it’s frustrating when you see people building the same thing over and over,” Mohamedali told me. “For years, I had this kind of concept in my head of, ‘what if we just built it all once, and then people didn’t have to keep redoing the same thing over and over?’ And so when I stepped away from Karuna to start Sym, originally, what I wanted to do was exactly that — and specifically for HIPAA. It’s kind of a naïve approach where I was like, ‘you know, what, I’m just going to build all the tools, someone needs to do HIPAA and open source it as like a black box thing.”

What he realized, though, is that companies have their own security and governance workflows that tend to share the same core but also a lot of variabilities. So what Sym now does is offer these core tools and lets companies mix and match what they need from this developer-centric toolbox the company has created.

“What we’re building is a set of workflow templates and primitives that map to that shared 20% core — and then a set of integrations that you can use to pull down those workflow templates, and codify that last mile variance by connecting those templates to all your different services,” Mohamedali explained.

What’s interesting about this approach is that Sym offers a Python SDK and lets developers create these workflows and integrations with only a few lines of code. In part, that’s due to the company’s philosophy of putting engineers back into control of security — the same way DevOps allowed them to reclaim control over infrastructure and Q&A. “DevOps is a thing. So now, DevSecOps needs to be a thing. We need to reclaim security. And we want to be the tool to do that with,” he said.

Mohamedali stressed that this was very much an opportunistic round, and for the next few months this raise won’t change anything in the company’s road map. But because Sym started signing up large customers — and had made commitments to them — now was a good time to raise, especially because the right partners came along. That means hiring more engineers, but over time, the company obviously also plans to build out its sales and marketing teams. The product itself, though, will remain in private beta until about the middle of next year. At that time, Sym will also launch a self-serve version of its platform.

Index nabs $2.6M seed to create BI dashboards without coding

By Ron Miller

Index founders, Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet, have been friends since they were small children in the Dominican Republic. Both came to college in the U.S., and last year the two decided to launch a startup to help non-technical users build business intelligence dashboards without coding.

Today they get to keep building on that dream with the help of a $2.6 million seed investment from David Sacks, Slack, Gradient Ventures, Y Combinator and other individual investors.

What has attracted this investment is a couple of young founders who are passionate about making it simple to build a data dashboard without help from experts like engineers or data analysts.

“Essentially what we do is we help companies build their business metrics dashboards with as little code or technical knowledge as possible. The byproduct of that is that anyone in the company can build their own metrics for their teams,” co-founder Xavier Pladevall told TechCrunch.

End users can connect to a growing list of data sources and Index deals with building the queries and displaying the data for the users without data scientists or data analysts to help. For now, that includes Salesforce and Hubspot for CRM data, Stripe payments data and certain databases from Postgres and MongoDB.

(Xavier Pladevall (left) and Eduardo Portet (right) founders of Inex

Company co-founders Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet. Image Credits: Index

As the founders build out the product, they want to stay lean with just the two founders and perhaps two additional engineers. “We’re actually looking to hire two people full time, and that’s going to take us to the Series A, and we’ve been very clear with investors about that,” he said.

As Latino immigrant founders, they want to build a company that’s diverse and inclusive. He says that’s it’s not hard for him and his co-founder to find people of color because they have formed friendships with a diverse  network of people they can tap into.

“Our job is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is to be friends with a bunch of different people because that is genuine and people can definitely tell you’re trying to meet some diversity quota versus when you’re generally a diversity-oriented type of company because it comes back to the founders themselves,” he said.

The two founders and their families have been friends since they were children. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, they didn’t have access to computer science classes, but they did have access to the internet and they got the startup bug from reading U.S. tech publications like this one, and learned to code from YouTube videos and StackOverflow. They both came to college in the U.S. and both interned at large companies — Pladevall at Facebook and Portet worked at Metadata in New York.

The idea came together because Pladevalll was part of a team at Facebook building a similar tool for internal use. He decided that it would be a viable commercial idea for companies without the resources of Facebook. He came together with his childhood friend and began building the company in January as the pandemic hit.

He acknowledges the hardship of this year, but says it really helped them focus because there wasn’t anything else to do. While they are amazed at having $2.6 million in the bank, he says they still have the hunger that he believes is part of the immigrant founder ethos.

“It’s just hunger to just prove yourself and if coding is what it takes, learn how to code. If it’s going through an early visa process, which is by the way, way harder than raising millions of dollars and going through YC, in my opinion, [you do that]” he said. He said it’s about doing whatever it takes.

As the two friends take their first steps as a company, they have some early customers and continue to refine the product. With today’s funding they have some lofty goals for the next year, which include building out that product, reaching $1 million in ARR and building distribution for the dashboard.

If they can meet those goals, Pladevall says, they should be able to get their Series A. I wouldn’t bet against them.

Robin.io launches a free version of its cloud-native Kubernetes storage solution

By Frederic Lardinois

Robin.io, a cloud-native application and data management solution with enterprise customers like USAA, Sabre, SAP, Palo Alto Networks and Rakuten Mobile, today announced the launch of its new free(-mium) version of its service, in addition to a major update to the core of its tool.

Robin .io promises that it brings cloud-native data management capabilities to containerized applications with support for standard operations like backup and recovery, snapshots, rollbacks and more. It does all of that while offering bare-metal performance and support for all major clouds. The service is essentially agnostic to the actual database being used and offers support for the likes of PostgreSQL, MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, MariaDB, Cassandra, Elasticsearch and others.

Image Credits: Robin.io

“Robin Cloud Native Storage works with any workload on any Kubernetes-based platform and on any cloud,” said Robin founder and CEO Partha Seetala. “With capabilities for storing, taking snapshots, backing up, cloning, migrating and securing data — all with the simplest of commands — Robin Cloud Native Storage offers developers and DevOps teams a super simple yet highly performant tool for quickly deploying and managing their enterprise workloads on Kubernetes.”

The new free version lets teams manage up to 5 nodes and 5TB of storage. The promise here is that this a free-for-life offering and the company obviously expects that it allows enterprises to get a feel for the service and then upgrade to its paid enterprise plans over time.

Talking about those enterprise plans, the company also today announced that it is moving to a consumption-based pricing plan, starting at $0.42 per node-hour (though it also offers annual subscriptions). The enterprise plan includes 24×7 support and doesn’t limit the number of nodes or storage capacity.

Among the new features to Robin’s core storage service are data management support for Helm Charts (where Helm is the Kubernetes package manager), the ability to specify where exactly the data should reside (which is mostly meant to keep it close to the compute resources) and affinity policies that ensure availability for stateful applications that rely on distributed databases and data platforms.

Adobe Photoshop gets new AI smarts with neural filters, sky replacement and more

By Frederic Lardinois

Adobe is betting big on its Sensei AI platform, and so it’s probably no surprise that the company also continues to build more AI-powered features into its flagship Photoshop applications. At its MAX conference, Adobe today announced a handful of new AI features for Photoshop, with Sky Replacement being the most obvious example. Other new AI-driven features include new so-called “Neural Filters” that are essentially the next-generation of Photoshop filters and new and improved tools for selecting parts of images, in addition to other tools to improve on existing features or simplify the photo-editing workflow.

Photoshop isn’t the first tool to offer a Sky Replacement feature. Luminar, for example, has offered that for more than a year already, but it looks like Adobe took its time to get this one right. The idea itself is pretty straightforward: Photoshop can now automatically recognize the sky in your images and then replace it with a sky of your choosing. Because the colors of the sky also influence the overall scene, that would obviously result in a rather strange image, so Adobe’s AI also adjusts the colors of the rest of the image accordingly.

Image Credits: Adobe

How well all of this works probably depends a bit on the images, too. We haven’t been able to give it a try ourselves, and Adobe’s demos obviously worked flawlessly.

Photoshop will ship with 25 sky replacements, but you can also bring in your own.

Neural Filters are the other highlight of this release. They provide you with new artistic and restorative filters for improving portraits, for example, or quickly replacing the background color of an image. The portrait feature will likely get the most immediate use, given that it allows you to change where people are looking, change the angle of the light source and “change hair thickness, the intensity of a smile, or add surprise, anger, or make someone older or younger.” Some of these are a bit more gimmicky than others, and Adobe says they work best for making subtle changes, but either way — making those changes would typically be a lot of manual labor, and now it’s just a click or two.

Image Credits: Adobe

Among the other fun new filters are a style transfer tool and a filter that helps you colorize black and white images. The more useful new filters include the ability to remove JPEG artifacts.

As Adobe noted, it collaborated with Nvidia on these Neural Filters, and, while they will work on all devices running Photoshop 22.0, there’s a real performance benefit to using them on machines with built-in graphics acceleration. No surprise there, given how computationally intensive a lot of these are.

Image Credits: Adobe

While improved object selection may not be quite as flashy as Sky Replacement and the new filters, “intelligent refine edge,” as Adobe calls it, may just save a few photo editors’ sanity. If you’ve ever tried to use Photoshop’s current tools to select a person or animal with complex hair — especially against a complex backdrop — you know how much manual intervention the current crop of tools still need. Now, with the new “Refine Hair” and “Object Aware Refine Mode,” a lot of that manual work should become unnecessary.

Other new Photoshop features include a new tool for creating patterns, a new Discover panel with improved search, help and contextual actions, faster plugins and more.

Also new is a plugin marketplace for all Creative Cloud apps that makes it easier for developers to sell their plugins.

Adobe Illustrator launches on iPad and Adobe Fresco comes to the iPhone

By Frederic Lardinois

Adobe today launched the first public version of its Illustrator vector graphics app on the iPad. That’s no surprise, given that it was already available for pre-order and as a private beta, but a lot of Illustrator users were looking forward to this day.

In addition, the company also today announced that its Fresco drawing and painting app is now available on Apple’s iPhone, too. Previously, you needed either a Windows machine or an iPad to use it.

Illustrator on the iPad supports Apple Pencil — no surprise there either — and should offer a pretty intuitive user experience for existing users. Like with Photoshop, the team adapted the user interface for a smaller screen and promises a more streamlined experience.

Image Credits: Adobe

“While on the surface it may seem simple, more capabilities reveal themselves as you work. After a while you develop a natural rhythm where the app fades into the background, freeing you to express your creativity,” the company says.

Over time, the company plans to bring more effects, brushes and AI-powered features to Illustrator in general — including on the iPad.

Adobe Fresco on iPhone

Image Credits: Adobe

As for Fresco, it’ll be interesting to see what that user experience will look like on a small screen. Since it uses Adobe’s Creative Cloud libraries, you can always start sketching on an iPhone and then move to another platform to finish your work. It’s worth noting that the iPhone version will feature the same interface, brushes and capabilities you’d expect on the other platforms.

The company also today launched version 2.0 of Fresco, with new smudge brushes, support for personalized brushes from Adobe Capture and more.

Jam raises $3.5 million to Figma-tize product collaboration

By Lucas Matney

The web of collaboration apps invading remote work toolkits have led to plenty of messy workflows for teams that communicate in a language of desktop screenshots and DMs. Tracing a suggestion or flagging a bug in a company’s website forces engineers or designers to make sense of the mess themselves.  While task management software has given teams a funnel for the clutter, the folks at Jam question why this functionality isn’t just built straight into the product.

Jam co-founders Dani Grant and Mohd Irtefa tell TechCrunch they’ve closed on $3.5 million in seed funding and are ready to launch a public beta of their collaboration platform which builds chat, comments and task management directly onto a website, allowing developers and designers to track issues and make suggestions quickly and simply

The seed round was led by Union Square Ventures, where co-founder Dani Grant previously worked as an analyst. Version One Ventures, BoxGroup and Village Global also participated alongside some noteworthy angels including GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and former Robinhood VP Josh Elman.

Like most modern productivity suites, Jam is heavy on integrations so users aren’t forced to upend their toolkits just to add one more product into the mix. The platform supports Slack, Jira, GitHub, Asana, Loom and Figma, with a few more in the immediate pipeline. Data syncs from one platform to the other bidirectionally so information is always fresh, Grant says. It’s all built into a tidy sidebar.

Grant and Irtefa met as product managers at Cloudflare, where they started brainstorming better ways to communicate feedback in a way that felt like “leaving digital sticky notes all over a product,” Grant says. That thinking ultimately pushed the duo to leave their jobs this past May and start building Jam.

The startup, like so many conceived during this period, has a remote founding story. Grant and Irtefa have only spent four days together in-person since the company was started, they raised their seed round remotely and most of the employees have never met each other in-person.

The remote team hopes their software can help other remote teams declutter their workflows and focus on what they’re building.

“On a product team, the product is the first tab everyone opens and closes,” Grant says. “So we’re on top of your product instead of on some other platform”

Jam’s interface

Splunk acquires Plumbr and Rigor to build out its observability platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Data platform Splunk today announced that it has acquired two startups, Plumbr and Rigor, to build out its new Observability Suite, which is also launching today. Plumbr is an application performance monitoring service, while Rigor focuses on digital experience monitoring, using synthetic monitoring and optimization tools to help businesses optimize their end-user experiences. Both of these acquisitions complement the technology and expertise Splunk acquired when it bought SignalFx for over $1 billion last year.

Splunk did not disclose the price of these acquisitions, but Estonia-based Plumbr had raised about $1.8 million, while Atlanta-based Rigor raised a debt round earlier this year.

When Splunk acquired SignalFx, it said it did so in order to become a leader in observability and APM. As Splunk CTO Tim Tully told me, the idea here now is to accelerate this process.

Image Credits: Splunk

“Because a lot of our users and our customers are moving to the cloud really, really quickly, the way that they monitor [their] applications changed because they’ve gone to serverless and microservices a ton,” he said. “So we entered that space with those acquisitions, we quickly folded them together with these next two acquisitions. What Plumbr and Rigor do is really fill out more of the portfolio.”

He noted that Splunk was especially interested in Plumbr’s bytecode implementation and its real-user monitoring capabilities, and Rigor’s synthetics capabilities around digital experience monitoring (DEM). “By filling in those two pieces of the portfolio, it gives us a really amazing set of solutions because DEM was the missing piece for our APM strategy,” Tully explained.

Image Credits: Splunk

With the launch of its Observability Suite, Splunk is now pulling together a lot of these capabilities into a single product — which also features a new design that makes it stand apart from the rest of Splunk’s tools. It combines logs, metrics, traces, digital experience, user monitoring, synthetics and more.

“At Yelp, our engineers are responsible for hundreds of different microservices, all aimed at helping people find and connect with great local businesses,” said Chris Gordon, Technical Lead at Yelp, where his team has been testing the new suite. “Our Production Observability team collaborates with Engineering to improve visibility into the performance of key services and infrastructure. Splunk gives us the tools to empower engineers to monitor their own services as they rapidly ship code, while also providing the observability team centralized control and visibility over usage to ensure we’re using our monitoring resources as efficiently as possible.”

The OpenStack Foundation becomes the Open Infrastructure Foundation

By Frederic Lardinois

This has been a long time coming, but the OpenStack Foundation today announced that it is changing its name to “Open Infrastructure Foundation,” starting in 2021.

The announcement, which the foundation made at its virtual developer conference, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Over the course of the last few years, the organization started adding new projects that went well beyond the core OpenStack project, and renamed its conference to the “Open Infrastructure Summit.” The organization actually filed for the “Open Infrastructure Foundation” trademark back in April.

Image Credits: OpenStack Foundation

After years of hype, the open-source OpenStack project hit a bit of a wall in 2016, as the market started to consolidate. The project itself, which helps enterprises run their private cloud, found its niche in the telecom space, though, and continues to thrive as one of the world’s most active open-source projects. Indeed, I regularly hear from OpenStack vendors that they are now seeing record sales numbers — despite the lack of hype. With the project being stable, though, the Foundation started casting a wider net and added additional projects like the popular Kata Containers runtime and CI/CD platform Zuul.

“We are officially transitioning and becoming the Open Infrastructure Foundation,” long-term OpenStack Foundation executive president Jonathan Bryce told me. “That is something that I think is an awesome step that’s built on the success that our community has spawned both within projects like OpenStack, but also as a movement […], which is [about] how do you give people choice and control as they build out digital infrastructure? And that is, I think, an awesome mission to have. And that’s what we are recognizing and acknowledging and setting up for another decade of doing that together with our great community.”

In many ways, it’s been more of a surprise that the organization waited as long as it did. As the foundation’s COO Mark Collier told me, the team waited because it wanted to be sure that it did this right.

“We really just wanted to make sure that all the stuff we learned when we were building the OpenStack community and with the community — that started with a simple idea of ‘open source should be part of cloud, for infrastructure.’ That idea has just spawned so much more open source than we could have imagined. Of course, OpenStack itself has gotten bigger and more diverse than we could have imagined,” Collier said.

As part of today’s announcement, the group also announced that its board approved four new members at its Platinum tier, its highest membership level: Ant Group, the Alibaba affiliate behind Alipay, embedded systems specialist Wind River, China’s FiberHome (which was previously a Gold member) and Facebook Connectivity. These companies will join the new foundation in January. To become a Platinum member, companies must contribute $350,000 per year to the foundation and have at least two full-time employees contributing to its projects.

“If you look at those companies that we have as Platinum members, it’s a pretty broad set of organizations,” Bryce noted. “AT&T, the largest carrier in the world. And then you also have a company Ant, who’s the largest payment processor in the world and a massive financial services company overall — over to Ericsson, that does telco, Wind River, that does defense and manufacturing. And I think that speaks to that everybody needs infrastructure. If we build a community — and we successfully structure these communities to write software with a goal of getting all of that software out into production, I think that creates so much value for so many people: for an ecosystem of vendors and for a great group of users and a lot of developers love working in open source because we work with smart people from all over the world.”

The OpenStack Foundation’s existing members are also on board and Bryce and Collier hinted at several new members who will join soon but didn’t quite get everything in place for today’s announcement.

We can probably expect the new foundation to start adding new projects next year, but it’s worth noting that the OpenStack project continues apace. The latest of the project’s bi-annual releases, dubbed “Victoria,” launched last week, with additional Kubernetes integrations, improved support for various accelerators and more. Nothing will really change for the project now that the foundation is changing its name — though it may end up benefitting from a reenergized and more diverse community that will build out projects at its periphery.

Google will let everyone migrate from Hangouts to Chat for free in 2021

By Frederic Lardinois

Google’s strategy around its messaging apps is nothing if not messy right now (hello Hangouts, Meet, Chat, Duo and Co.), but it looks like things will get a bit easier come next year. We already knew that Hangouts’ time was coming to an end and as Google announced today, the company will allow all current Hangouts users to migrate to Chat — which was originally meant to only be its Slack-like messaging service for business users — in the first half of 2021.

One interesting wrinkle here: Chat will now also become free to use for consumers. Currently, you have to be a paying G Suite/Workspace user to access the service (though somehow it’s enabled on my free personal account).

While Chat isn’t an exact 1-to-1 replacement of Hangouts, it actually offers a bunch of additional features for group chats and collaboration around files and tasks, as well as new security tools. Chat, together with Rooms and Meet, will also be integrated deeply into the Gmail app as part of Google’s Workspace migration.

Image Credits: Google

Google says it will automatically migrate all Hangouts conversations, contacts and history to Chat, but it’s not providing details about this yet. Final timing, Google says, may still shift. It’s not clear, though, when Google will force everyone to migrate and shut down the Hangouts servers for good.

There are a few more details here: if you use Hangouts with Google Fi, Hangouts support will go away ‘early next year.’ Traditionally, Fi users were able to make calls and manage their text messages from Hangouts. That experience will migrate to Google’s Messages app.

If you’re a Google Voice user, there’s a similar transition happening. For voice calls and text messages, Hangouts users will now be directed to the Voice app and early next year, your Voice support will be removed from Hangouts.

And for all users in the U.S. and Europe, the ability to call phones from Hangouts will disappear at the beginning of next year — and group video calls in Hangouts will transition to Meet in November.

Yeah — that all sounds complicated, but it’s a problem of Google’s own making. A few years ago, the idea was to move Hangouts users to its Allo and Duo apps and business users to Chat and Meet (or whatever they were called back then). Allo flopped (and few people use Duo), leaving Google with the unenviable task of keeping the aging Hangouts platform around for the foreseeable future and making the overall transition harder and more complicated, to the point where I’m not sure that consumers really understand what’s happening.

 

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