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Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Microsoft launches Open Service Mesh

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new open-source service mesh based on the Envoy proxy. The Open Service Mesh is meant to be a reference implementation of the Service Mesh Interface (SMI) spec, a standard interface for service meshes on Kubernetes that has the backing of most of the players in this ecosystem.

The company plans to donate Open Service Mesh to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to ensure that it is community-led and has open governance.

“SMI is really resonating with folks and so we really thought that there was room in the ecosystem for a reference implementation of SMI where the mesh technology was first and foremost implementing those SMI APIs and making it the best possible SMI experience for customers,” Microsoft partner program manager (and CNCF board member) Gabe Monroy told me.

Image Credits: Microsoft

He also added that, because SMI provides the lowest common denominator API design, Open Service Mesh gives users the ability to “bail out” to raw Envoy if they need some more advanced features. This “no cliffs” design, Monroy noted, is core to the philosophy behind Open Service Mesh.

As for its feature set, SMI handles all of the standard service mesh features you’d expect, including securing communications between services using mTLS, managing access control policies, service monitoring and more.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are plenty of other service mesh technologies in the market today, though. So why would Microsoft launch this?

“What our customers have been telling us is that solutions that are out there today, Istio being a good example, are extremely complex,” he said. “It’s not just me saying this. We see the data in the AKS support queue of customers who are trying to use this stuff — and they’re struggling right here. This is just hard technology to use, hard technology to build at scale. And so the solutions that were out there all had something that wasn’t quite right and we really felt like something lighter weight and something with more of an SMI focus was what was going to hit the sweet spot for the customers that are dabbling in this technology today.”

Monroy also noted that Open Service Mesh can sit alongside other solutions like Linkerd, for example.

A lot of pundits expected Google to also donate its Istio service mesh to the CNCF. That move didn’t materialize. “It’s funny. A lot of people are very focused on the governance aspect of this,” he said. “I think when people over-focus on that, you lose sight of how are customers doing with this technology. And the truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today. I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that’s really the reason why we’re not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment.”

Kubermatic launches open source service hub to enable complex service management

By Ron Miller

As Kubernetes and cloud native technologies proliferate, developers and IT have found a growing set of technical challenges they need to address, and new concepts and projects have popped up to deal with them. For instance, operators provide a way to package, deploy and manage your cloud native application in an automated way. Kubermatic wants to take that concept a step further, and today the German startup announced KubeCarrier, a new open source, cloud native service management hub.

Kubermatic co-founder Sebastian Scheele says three or four years ago, the cloud native community needed to solve a bunch of technical problems around deploying Kubernetes clusters such as overlay networking, service meshes and authentication. He sees a similar set of problems arising today where developers need more tools to manage the growing complexity of running Kubernetes clusters at scale.

Kubermatic has developed KubeCarrier to help solve one aspect of this. “What we’re currently focusing on is how to provision and manage workloads across multiple clusters, and how IT organizations can have a service hub where they can provide those services to their organizations in a centralized way,” Scheele explained.

Scheele says that KubeCarrier provides a way to manage and implement all of this, giving organizations much greater flexibility beyond purely managing Kubernetes. While he sees organizations with lots of Kubernetes operators, he says that as he sees it, it doesn’t stop there. “We have lots of Kubernetes operators now, but how do we manage them, especially when there are multiple operators, [along with] the services they are provisioning,” he asked.

This could involve provisioning something like Database as a Service inside the organization or for external customers, while combining or provisioning multiple services, which are working on multiple levels and a need a way to communicate with each other.

“That is where Kubecarrier comes in. Now, we can help our customers to build this kind of automation around provisioning, and service capability so that different teams can provide different services inside the organization or to external customers,” he said.

As the company explains it, “KubeCarrier addresses these complexities by harnessing the Kubernetes API and Operators into a central framework allowing enterprises and service providers to deliver cloud native service management from one multi-cloud, multi-cluster hub.”

KubeCarrier is available  on GitHub, and Scheele says the company is hoping to get feedback from the community about how to improve it. In parallel, the company is looking for ways to incorporate this technology into its commercial offerings and that should be available in the next 3-6 months, he said.

Harness makes first acquisition, snagging open source CI company Drone.io

By Ron Miller

Harness has made a name for itself creating tools like continuous delivery (CD) for software engineers to give them the kind of power that has been traditionally reserved for companies with large engineering teams like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Today, the company announced it has acquired Drone.io, an open source continuous integration (CI) company, marking the company’s first steps into open source, as well as its first acquisition.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

“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,” company co- founder Brad Rydzewski told TechCrunch.

Drone delivers pipeline configuration information as code in a Docker container. Image: Drone.io

While Harness had previously lacked a CI tool to go with its continuous delivery tooling, founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal said this was less about filling in a hole than expanding the current platform.

“I would call it an expansion of our vision and where we were going. As you and I have talked in the past, the mission of Harness is to be a next generation software delivery platform for everyone,” he said. He added that buying Drone had a lot of upside.”It’s all of those things — the size of the open source community, the simplicity of the product — and it [made sense], for Harness and Drone to come together and bring this integrated CI/CD to the market.”

While this is Harness’ first foray into open source, Bansal says it’s just the starting point and they want to embrace open source as a company moving forward. “We are committed togetting more and more involved in open source and actually making even more parts of Harness, our original products, open source over time as well,” he said.

For Drone community members who might be concerned about the acquisition, Bansal said he was “100% committed” to continuing to support the open source Drone product. In fact, Rydzewski said he wanted to team with Harness because he felt he could do so much more with them than he could have done continuing as a stand-alone company.

“Drone was a growing community, a growing project and a growing business. It really came down to I think the timing being right and wanting to partner with a company like Harness to build the future. Drone laid a lot of the groundwork, but it’s a matter of taking it to the next level,” he said.

Bansal says that Harness intends to also offer a commercial version of Drone with some enterprise features on the Harness platform, even while continuing to support the open source side of it.

Drone was founded in 2012. The only money it raised was $28,000 when it participated in the Alchemist Accelerator in 2013, according to Crunchbase data. The deal has closed and Rydzewski has joined the Harness team,

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Parental control app Boomerang repeatedly blocked from Play Store, losing business

By Sarah Perez

Apple isn’t the only one accused of kicking out competitive solutions from its App Store. Google did the same — for over a month at least — or so alleges parental control app maker Boomerang. The company’s product competes with Google’s own Family Link solution for controlling screen time and children’s use of mobile devices. The company claims Google repeatedly removed its application from the Play Store for a variety of issues, including violations of Google’s “Deceptive Behavior Policy,” which relates to users’ inability to easily remove the application from their Android device.

The issue itself is complicated and an indication of how poor developer communication processes can make an existing problem worse, leading developers to complain of anti-competitive behaviors.

Like Apple, Google also has a set of rules developers have to agree to in order to publish apps on the Google Play store. The difficulty is that those rules are often haphazardly or unevenly enforced, requests for appeals are met with no replies or automated responses and, at the end of the day, there’s no way for a developer to reach a human and have a real discussion.

You may recall a similar situation involving screen time apps hit a group of screen time app makers last year. Apple then had suddenly removed a host of third-party screen time and parental control apps, shortly after introducing its own Screen Time solution within iOS 12. The company’s move was brought up during last week’s antitrust hearings in Congress, where Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted Apple’s decision was due to the risk to user privacy and security these apps caused.

The case with Boomerang is not that different. A developer gets kicked out of the Play Store and seems to have no way to escalate the appeal to an actual human to discuss the nuances of the situation further.

The Boomerang Ban

For starters, let’s acknowledge that it makes sense that the Play Store would have a policy against apps that are difficult to uninstall, as this would allow for a host of malware, spam and spyware applications to exist and torment users.

However, in the case of a parental control solution, the reality is that parents don’t want their kids to have the option to simply uninstall the program. In fact, Boomerang added the feature based on user feedback from parents.

Google itself puts its Family Link controls behind a parental PIN code and requires parents to sign into their Google account to remove the child’s account from a device, for instance.

Boomerang’s app required a similar course of action. In “Parent Mode,” parents would toggle a switch that says “prevent app uninstallation” in the app’s Settings to make the protection on the child device non-removable.

Image Credits: Boomerang

But despite the obvious intended use case here, Boomerang’s app was repeatedly flagged for the same “can’t uninstall app” reason by the Play Store’s app review process when it submitted updates and bug fixes.

This began on May 8th, 2020 and took over a month to resolve. The developer, Justin Payeur, submitted the first appeal on May 11th to test if the ban had just been triggered by Google’s “app review robots.” On May 13th, the app was re-approved without any human response or feedback to the appeals message he had sent to Google.

But then on June 30th, Boomerang was again flagged for the same reason: “can’t uninstall app.” Payeur filed a second appeal, explaining the feature is not on by default — it’s there for parents to use if they choose.

On July 6th, Boomerang had to inform users of the problem, as they had become increasingly frustrated they couldn’t find the app on Google Play. In a customer email that didn’t mince words, Boomerang wrote: “Google has become evil.” Complaints from users said that if the app didn’t offer the “prevent uninstall” feature, it wouldn’t be worth using.

On July 8th, Boomerang received a reply from Google with more information, explaining that Google doesn’t allow apps that change the user’s device settings or features outside the app without user’s knowledge or consent. Specifically, it also cited the app’s use of the “Google Accessibility Services API” in a manner that’s  in violation with the Play Store terms. Google said the app wouldn’t be approved until it removed functionality that prevented a user from removing or uninstalling the app from their device.

This requirement, though rooted in user security, disadvantages parental control apps compared with Google’s own Family Link offering. As Google’s help documentation indicates, removing a child’s account from an Android device requires parents to input a passcode — it can’t simply be uninstalled by the end user (the child).

Boomerang later that day received a second violation notification after it changed the app to be explicitly clear to the end user (the child) that the Device Administrator (a parent) would have permission to control the device, mimicking other apps Boomerang said were still live on Google Play.

After two more days with no reply from the Appeals team, Boomerang requested a phone call to discuss the situation. Google sent a brief email, saying it was merging the two active Appeals into one but no other information about the Appeal was provided.

On July 13th, Boomerang was informed Google was still examining the app. The company replied again to explain why a parental control app would have such a feature. The same day, Boomerang was alerted that older versions of its app in its internal testing area in the Play Console were being rejected. These versions were never published live, the company says. The rejections indicated Boomerang was “degrading device security” with its app.

The next day, Boomerang informed its user base that it may have to remove the feature they wanted and emailed Google to again point out the app now has clear consent included.

Image Credits: Boomerang; Email complains of “material impact” to business

Despite not having made any changes, Google informed Boomerang on July 16th it’s in violation of the “Elevated Privilege Abuse” section of the Google Play Malware policy. On July 19th, the company removed the additional app protection feature and on July 21st, Google again rejected the app for the same violation — over a feature that had now been removed.

Despite repeated emails, Boomerang didn’t receive any message from Google until an automated email arrived on July 24th. Again, Google sent no response to the emails where Payeur explains the violating feature had now been removed. Repeated emails through July 30th were also not responded to.

After hearing about Boomerang’s issues, TechCrunch asked Google on July 27th to explain its reasoning.

The company, after a few follow-ups, told TechCrunch on August 3rd that the issues with Boomerang — as later emails to Boomerang had said — were related to how the app implemented its features. Google does not allow apps to engage in “elevated privilege” abuse. And it doesn’t allow apps to abuse the Android Accessibility APIs to interfere with basic operations on a device.

Google also said it doesn’t allow any apps to use the same mechanism Boomerang does, including Google’s own. (Of course, Google’s own apps have the advantage of deep integrations with the Android OS. Developers can’t tap into some sort of “Family Link API,” for example, to gain a similar ability to control a child’s device.)

“We recognize the value of supervision apps in various contexts, and developers are free to create this experience with appropriate safeguards,” a Google spokesperson said.

More broadly, Boomerang’s experience is similar to what iOS parental control apps went through last year. Like those apps, Boomerang too bumped up against a security safeguard meant to protect an entire app store from abusive software. But the blanket rule leaves no wiggle room for exceptions. Google, meanwhile, argues its OS security is not meant to be “worked around” like this. But it has also at the same time offered no official means of interacting with its OS and own screen time/parental control features. Instead, alternative screen time apps have to figure out ways to basically hack the system to even exist in the first place, even though there’s clear consumer demand for their offerings.

Boomerang’s particular case also reveals the complexities involved with of having a business live or die by the whims of an app review process.

It’s easy enough to argue that the developer should have simply removed the feature and moved on, but the developer seemed to believe the feature would be fine — as evidenced by prior approvals and the approval received upon at least one of its appeals. Plus, the developer is incentivized to fight for the feature because it’s something users said they wanted — or rather, what they demanded, to make the app worth paying for.

Had someone from Google just picked up the phone and explained to Boomerang what’s wrong and what alternative methods would be permitted, the case may not have dragged on in such a manner. In the meantime, Boomerang likely lost user trust, and its removal definitely impacted its business in the near-term.

Reached for a follow-up, Payeur expressed continued frustration, despite the app now being re-approved for Play Store distribution.

“It took Google over a month to provide us with this feedback,” he said, referencing the forbidden API usage that was the real problem. “We are currently digesting this” he said, adding how difficult it was to not be able to talk to Google’s teams to get proper communication and feedback over the past several weeks.

Boomerang has begun collecting the names of other similarly impacted apps, like Filter Chrome, Minder Parental Control and Netsanity. The company says other apps can reach out privately to discuss, if they prefer.

Florida teen accused of being ‘mastermind’ behind celebrity Twitter hack

By Anthony Ha

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced today that he has filed 30 felony charges against a 17-year-old resident of Tampa, Florida, who was described by the state attorney’s office as “the mastermind of the recent hack of Twitter .”

The hack in question occurred earlier this month and involved high-profile Twitter users like Apple, Elon Musk, Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whose accounts all posted messages promoting a Bitcoin wallet and claiming, “All Bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled!”

The teen (we’re not identifying them because they’re a minor) allegedly made more than $100,000 through this cryptocurrency scam.

The state attorney’s office said that the teen was arrested earlier today, as a result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, and that they will be tried as an adult. They face charges including one count of organized fraud (over $50,000) and 17 counts of communications fraud (over $300).

“These crimes were perpetrated using the names of famous people and celebrities, but they’re not the primary victims here,” Warren said in a statement. “This ‘Bit-Con’ was designed to steal money from regular Americans from all over the country, including here in Florida. This massive fraud was orchestrated right here in our backyard, and we will not stand for that.”

As we reported at the time, the hack used Twitter’s own admin tool to gain access to high-profile accounts. The company just updated its blog post outlining what it knows about the attack:

The social engineering that occurred on July 15, 2020, targeted a small number of employees through a phone spear phishing attack A successful attack required the attackers to obtain access to both our internal network as well as specific employee credentials that granted them access to our internal support tools. Not all of the employees that were initially targeted had permissions to use account management tools, but the attackers used their credentials to access our internal systems and gain information about our processes. This knowledge then enabled them to target additional employees who did have access to our account support tools. Using the credentials of employees with access to these tools, the attackers targeted 130 Twitter accounts, ultimately Tweeting from 45, accessing the DM inbox of 36, and downloading the Twitter Data of 7.

To prevent a similar attack from succeeding in the future, Twitter said it will be “accelerating several of our pre-existing security workstreams and improvements to our tools” and also improving the methods it uses to detect and stop inappropriate access to its internal systems.

Opportunities (and challenges) in church tech

By Walter Thompson
Will Robbins Contributor
Will Robbins is an early-stage investor at Contrary.

Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Weekly church attendance is falling, congregations are getting smaller or even closing and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” has spiked.

Despite all this, now might be the perfect time for church tech companies to thrive.

A combination of COVID-19-induced adoption, underrated demographic trends and pressure to innovate is setting the stage for new successes in the previously sleepy church tech space. Venture dollars are flowing in, and Silicon Valley is slowly showing serious interest in the sector. Hot new startups are finding creative growth hacks to penetrate a difficult market. Major challenges remain for companies in this space, but their odds seem better than ever.

Less religion, more spirituality

Yes, Americans are going to church less often, but that doesn’t mean they’re not staying spiritual. In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown faster than any other group in this Pew survey on religiosity. This fact is reflected in other data. For example, the percentage of Americans that pray daily or weekly has stayed fairly flat even as overall religiosity declined. This opens up two distinct opportunities, as well as two challenges.

Opportunities:

  • What tools do the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd need?
  • Churches are realizing they need to innovate or die. What tools do they need to reach out to their members and gain new congregants?

Challenges:

  • Two demographics: young, tech-savvy and more willing to try a new product, but less involved in church tradition versus older, not as tech-savvy and harder to reach.
  • Very byzantine market: as documented in part one of this series, the market is dominated by small companies waging a turf war with one another. In addition, because churches are so local and hard to sell to, all of the companies to date have been smaller land-grabs rather than anything with scale or accumulating advantage.

Rapidly growing startups in the space are deftly navigating this landscape and taking advantage of these trends.

What’s ahead for no-code and low-code startups?

By Alex Wilhelm

Since The Exchange last checked in on the world of low- and no-code startup funding, several more interesting rounds in the niche have bubbled up.

This week, TechCrunch covered a startup called Hevo raising $8 million, and Paragon, which raised a $2.5 million seed round. Hevo is a “data pipeline startup” that helps “clients’ employees to integrate data from more than 150 different sources — including enterprise software from Salesforce and Oracle  without requiring a technical background, we reported.

Paragon, part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch, is a developer productivity-focused service that “makes it easier for non-technical people to be able to build out integrations using our visual workflow editor” according to its co-founder Brandon Foo. Paragon wants to “bring the benefits of low code to product and engineering teams and make it easier to build products without writing manual code for every single integration” to help “streamline the product development process,” Foo added.

And there are more rounds worth highlighting in the space since we last looked, like $4 million for Enduvo (no-code AR/VR), a $3.45 million extension for the fast-growing Turbo Systems (a no-code “engagement platform”), and a seed round for CloudWorx (no-code IoT), among others.

The trend that we noted last week that no-code and low-code startups are raising lots of capital is still hot.

But startups aren’t the only companies working in this space: Apple has long had a foot in the domain via its subsidiary Claris, which rebranded to that name last year after running under the FileMaker moniker. At the time, Claris CEO Brad Freitag told TechCrunch that his company’s vision was to make “powerful technology accessible to everyone.”

That wasn’t merely cliché: Claris’ best-known product, FileMaker, helps users build low-code apps, and its second product is called Connect, a service that helps users link APIs using low-code tooling.

Given that Claris has been in the no-code, low-code space for longer than most, TechCrunch caught up with Freitag again to chat about recent growth in the market category, what he thinks of the low-code terminology, and, of course, his take on startups in the niche.

The growth of no-code and low-code

Build products that improve the lives of inmates

By Richard Dal Porto
Nik Milanovic Contributor
Nik Milanovic is a fintech and financial inclusion enthusiast, with a decade of work across mobile payments, online lending, credit and microfinance. The opinions expressed in his articles do not reflect those of his employer(s).

Those of us who work in technology should always be asking ourselves, “Who we are really building for?” Do we design products to make ourselves more comfortable, or do we innovate to be the change in the world we want to see? One group perennially left out of tech conversations — moved out of sight and out of mind — is the 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison system. As tech becomes such a critical driver of progress in the world, we should be building products that improve inmates’ lives and help them reintegrate into society without the risk of relapse.

I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote following my work at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, analyzing Norway’s humane prison systems and asking, “Could they work here?” These prisons are designed to replicate life outside their walls. They incorporate features like yoga classes and recording studios. They give inmates a chance to pursue higher education so that they can be meaningfully employed when they reenter the outside world. Anyone who has seen the documentary 13th knows that American prisons are very different. Why?

(Quick disclaimer: This is a fraught and emotional topic. It is hard to appreciate the complexity of incarceration and recidivism in a 1,000-word op-ed. I appreciate the input and forbearance of those with different perspectives.)

Writ-large, the corrections system has five goals:

  1. Punish offenders.
  2. Incapacitate them (keep them off the streets).
  3. Deter crime.
  4. Repay society.
  5. Rehabilitate people so that they don’t commit more crimes.

But sadly, per criminologist Bob Cameron, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.”

This is why Norway has a recidivism rate of 20% while the U.S. rate hovers at around 75%. That is staggering. Three out of every four former inmates is at-risk of committing a crime after leaving prison. This is a huge deadweight loss for society. How much lower could that rate be if we invested in prisoners’ potential? If we gave them the tools to seamlessly reenter the world? Is there a role for private, for-profit enterprises here, and if so, how could technology be used to help people exit the corrections system permanently?

What’s being done today

Most tech coverage just focuses on tools used to predict recidivism and keep past offenders, many of whom are trying to reform their lives, behind bars. But there are many startups building products to help them successfully move on.

New York-based APDS recently raised a $5 million Series B to provide tablets that inmates can use for learning purposes. The tablets are now in-use in 88 correctional facilities in 17 states. Inmates can use the software to learn English, get their GEDs or learn entrepreneurship. North Carolina startup Pokket helps inmates plan for life outside of prison in the six months leading up to their release date.

Mission: Launch is an organization that hosts demo days and hackathons for inmates. They teach financial literacy, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Hackathon participants so far have built an app to convert online messages from friends and family into written postcards for inmates (who are shut off from social media) and an app to help people leaving the corrections system to seal their records so that they can get hired again.

Maintaining connections with friends and loved ones outside of prison makes a significant difference when it comes to reentering society. Technology company Securus recently announced free messaging on its 290,000 tablets so that inmates can communicate with relatives without having to pay exorbitant fees. Prison Voicemail in the U.K. provides a cheap phone service that families can pay. In all cases when it comes to implementing technology to reduce recidivism, the financial burden should not fall on inmates, a captive population with limited agency and earning potential.

Prison Scholars, a nonprofit founded by a former inmate, teaches entrepreneurship to inmates and helps them create post-incarceration business plans. They estimate that inmates who receive education are 43% less likely to return to prison, an implied ROI of $18.36 to society for every dollar invested. Defy Ventures boasts of 82% employment for program graduates and a 7.2% recidivism rate. Other programs to teach digital literacy and coding, which make resources like textbooks and Wikipedia available offline, have found similar success.

There are many similar examples of tech and education directly lowering recidivism. But why stop here? What else could tech do to make an impact?

What we could still do

The U.S. spends $80 billion to keep inmates behind bars. This creates an enormous financial incentive for taxpayers to reduce recidivism. Two related questions need to be addressed: Can tech companies actually make money on products to improve the lives of those in the prison system? And should they?

To answer the first question — and at the risk of sounding crass — a very simplified business model could look like this: State governments pay companies somewhere between $0 and the cost of keeping an inmate in jail for one year (~$81,000) for each inmate who successfully uses an educational product to prep for leaving prison.

The payment could be split across multiple years, so that the longer someone is able to go without reoffending, the more the provider makes. If taxpayers paid tech providers just 50% of the cost to house an inmate for one year, the tech company would make a per-user LTV of over $40,000 (!). This kind of financial incentive could easily attract more talented entrepreneurs to the goal of improving the lives of people in the corrections system. (The opposite of the for-profit prison business model, which creates a perverse incentive to maintain a constant prison population.)

The question of whether it is morally permissible for for-profit tech companies to sell products built for this demographic is a more difficult one. While there is no right answer, there are guidelines that companies could follow:

  1. Don’t charge inmates or their families. Taxpayers have the largest financial incentive to reduce recidivism — and all the associated costs of the prison — so it is to state corrections budgets that tech companies should look for revenue opportunities.
  2. No Goodhart’s law or perverse incentives. Products have to be designed and sold based on principles, e.g., “help former inmates reintegrate into society and live full lives,” and not numeric targets, e.g., “keep former inmates from committing a felony within three years of leaving prison.” Numbers-based targets can always be gamed. Force companies to keep the end-goal in mind of giving people the tools to improve their lives.
  3. Collect user feedback. Award contracts only to the companies with high user affinity. Unlike standard consumers, inmates experience a principal/agent problem: The purchaser of the services (taxpayers) is not the user (the inmate). States should require tech providers to collect anonymous feedback from the users of their products, and only award contracts to those that get the highest ratings.
  4. Your product’s job-to-do does not end when the sentence does. If products built to reduce recidivism are truly successful, it means that the providers of those products will be slowly eliminating their own markets as prison populations go down. These products should be built not just to get people out of prison, but to help them build meaningful lives for the years after they leave.

There are so, so many great products yet to be built for this demographic. A LinkedIn or Craigslist Jobs equivalent populated by the employers who hire former inmates. Live-streamed religious services so that inmates can continue to participate in their community faith organizations. Nonvocational hobby education platforms. Limited versions of MasterClass or Udemy or Coursera . Closed-loop online games.

Lastly — and needless to say — tech doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to righting the wrongs of our corrections system. The reinstatement of voting rights, employment on-ramps and limits to background checks, the elimination of for-profit private prisons, adjustments to prison wages that tacitly amount to indentured servitude … the list of things we could improve is long. But tech can still play a critical role in improving the lives of fellow citizens in the corrections system.

Mohandas Gandhi quipped that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Almost one-third of Americans have some criminal history. The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population. Let’s stop ignoring this demographic and build tools that really make the world better for those who need it most.

The hype, haplessness and hope of haptics in the COVID-19 era

By Walter Thompson
Devon Powers Contributor
Devon Powers is an associate professor of advertising at Temple University and the author of "On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future."
David Parisi Contributor
David Parisi is an associate professor at the College of Charleston and author of "Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing."

In March, Brooklynite Jeremy Cohen achieved minor internet fame when he launched an elaborate scheme to court Tori Cignarella, a cute stranger living in a nearby building.

After spotting Cignarella across an air shaft, Cohen used drones, Venmo, texting and FaceTime to interact with his socially distanced crush. But it was on their second date when Cohen pulled out all the stops. He purchased a gigantic plastic bubble, sealed himself inside and invited his new friend to go on a touchless walk. As Cohen wrote on Instagram, “just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant.”

Cohen’s quirky, DIY approach made for fun clickbait for a few days. But it’s also a somewhat unflattering metaphor for the kinds of touch-centric entrepreneurialism that has proliferated in the age of COVID-19. From dating to banking, education to retail, the virus has pushed everyone to rethink how touch and proximity factor into daily interactions. Businesses besieged by the uncertainty of shutdown orders, partial re-openings, remote work, disease spikes and changing consumer behavior have been forced to test-drive solutions on the fly.

Amid that confusion, a few common approaches have emerged. Some are rushing to return to normalcy, adopting quick fixes at the expense of more broad-based solutions. Others are using the pandemic as an excuse to accelerate technological shifts, even those that may be unwelcome, impractical or both. Still others are enforcing guidelines selectively or not at all, tempting consumers back, in part, through the promise of “normal” (read: non-distanced and non-regulated) interactions.

Enter haptics. Investment in touch technologies had been on the rise before COVID-19, with virtual reality fueling fresh interest in haptic gloves and full-body suits, and haptics for mobile devices like wearables and smartwatches infusing the field with new resources. While it is difficult to capture the health and growth of the haptics industry with a single number, one estimate puts the global haptics market at US$12.9 billion in 2020, projected to grow to US$40.9 billion by 2027.

In addition to established players like Immersion Corporation, founded in 1993 and active working on haptics applications ranging from gaming and automotive to medical, mobile and industrial, Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Disney and Facebook each have dedicated teams working on new haptics products. Scores of startups, too, are currently bringing new hardware and software solutions to market: Ultraleap (formerly Ultrahaptics), a Bristol-based company that develops midair haptics, has secured $85 million in funding; HaptX, which makes exoskeleton force feedback gloves for use in VR and remote manipulation, has raised $19 million in funding; and Neosensory, focused on routing sound through the skin with a wrist-based wearable Buzz, has received $16 million in funds. A recent industry-wide initiative intended to make it easier to embed haptics in multimedia content suggests that we could soon see growth in this area accelerate even further.

Despite these trends, the business of touch isn’t heading in one clear direction. And with such variety in business responses, customers have responded with confusion, frustration, anxiety and defiance. More than disgruntlement, though, COVID-19 shines a light on a longstanding debate over whether the future will have more touch or less. Tensions around touch were already high, but rapid changes, Band-Aid solutions and short-term thinking are making the problems worse.

What’s needed now is a longer view: serious, systematic thinking about where we — as consumers, citizens, humans — want and need touch, and where we don’t. To get there, we need greater investment not just in technologies that sound good, but ones that will deliver on real needs for connection and safety in the days ahead.

Plexiglass is the new mask

While the mask may be the most conspicuous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic in much of the world, the new normal has another, clearer symbol: plexiglass.

Plexiglass leads the way as our environments are retrofitted to protect against the virus. In the U.S., demand began rising sharply in March, driven first by hospitals and essential retailers like grocery stores. Traditional sectors like automotive are using much less of the stuff, but that difference is more than made up for by the boom among restaurants, retail, office buildings, airports and schools. Plexiglass is even popping up in temples of bodily experience, surrounding dancers at strip clubsclients at massage parlors and gymgoers in fitness centers.

Like plexiglass itself, the implications for touch are stark, if invisible. Plexiglass may communicate sterility and protection — though, truth be told, it dirties often and it’s easy to get around. More to the point, it puts up a literal barrier between us.

The story of plexiglass — like that of single-use plastic, ventilation systems, hand sanitizer and ultraviolet light — underscores how mundane interventions often win the day, at least initially. It is much easier for a grocery store to install an acrylic sneezeguard between cashiers and customers than it is to adopt contactless shopping or curbside pickup. At their best, interventions like plexiglass are low-cost, effective and don’t require huge behavior changes on the part of customers. They are also largely reversible, should our post-pandemic lifestyles revert back to something more closely resembling our previous behaviors.

Besides their obvious environmental consequences, plasticized approaches can erode our relationship to touch and thereby to each other. In Brazil, for example, some nursing homes have installed “hug tunnels” to allow residents to embrace family members through a plastic barrier. Given that “when will I be able to hug my loved ones again?” is a common and heart-wrenching question these days, the reunions hug tunnels facilitate are, well, touching. But as a shadow of the real thing, they amplify our desperate need for real connection.

The same with circles on the floor in elevators or directional arrows down store aisles: In expecting us to be our best, most rational and most orderly selves, they work against cultural inclinations toward closeness. They indicate not so much a brave new future as a reluctant present. And without proper messaging about their importance as well as their temporariness, they are bound to fail.

Touch tech to the rescue

To feed our skin hunger, futurists are pushing haptic solutions — digital technologies that can replicate and simulate physical sensations. Haptics applications range from simple notification buzzes to complex whole-body systems that combine vibration, electricity and force feedback to re-create the tactile materiality of the physical world. But although the resurgence of VR has rapidly advanced the state of the art, very few of these new devices are consumer-ready (one notable exception is CuteCircuit’s Hug Shirt — released for sale earlier this year after 15+ years in development).

Haptics are typically packaged as part of other digital techs like smartphones, video game controllers, fitness trackers and smartwatches. Dedicated haptic devices remain rare and relatively expensive, though their imminent arrival is widely promoted in popular media and the popular technology press. Effective haptic devices, specially designed to communicate social and emotional touch such as stroking, would seem particularly useful to re-integrate touch into Zoom-heavy communication.

Even with well-resourced companies like FacebookMicrosoft and Disney buying in, these applications will not be hitting home offices or teleconferencing setups anytime soon. Though it would be easy to imagine, for example, a desktop-mounted system for facilitating remote handshakes, mass producing such devices would prove expensive, due in part to the pricey motors necessary to accurately synthesize touch. Using cheaper components compromises haptic fidelity, and at this point, what counts as an acceptable quality of haptic simulation remains ill-defined. We don’t have a tried and tested compression standard for haptics the way we do with audio, for instance; as Immersion Corporation’s Yeshwant Muthusamy recently argued, haptics has been held back by a problematic lack of standards.

Getting haptics right remains challenging despite more than 30 years’ worth of dedicated research in the field. There is no evidence that COVID is accelerating the development of projects already in the pipeline. The fantasy of virtual touch remains seductive, but striking the golden mean between fidelity, ergonomics and cost will continue to be a challenge that can only be met through a protracted process of marketplace trial-and-error. And while haptics retains immense potential, it isn’t a magic bullet for mending the psychological effects of physical distancing.

Curiously, one promising exception is in the replacement of touchscreens using a combination of hand-tracking and midair haptic holograms, which function as button replacements. This product from Bristol-based company Ultraleap uses an array of speakers to project tangible soundwaves into the air, which provide resistance when pressed on, effectively replicating the feeling of clicking a button.

Ultraleap recently announced that it would partner with the cinema advertising company CEN to equip lobby advertising displays found in movie theaters around the U.S. with touchless haptics aimed at allowing interaction with the screen without the risks of touching one. These displays, according to Ultraleap, “will limit the spread of germs and provide safe and natural interaction with content.”

A recent study carried out by the company found that more than 80% of respondents expressed concerns over touchscreen hygiene, prompting Ultraleap to speculate that we are reaching “the end of the [public] touchscreen era.” Rather than initiate a technological change, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to push ahead on the deployment of existing technology. Touchscreens are no longer sites of naturalistic, creative interaction, but are now spaces of contagion to be avoided. Ultraleap’s version of the future would have us touching air instead of contaminated glass.

Touch/less

The notion that touch is in crisis has been a recurring theme in psychology, backed by scores of studies that demonstrate the negative neurophysiological consequences of not getting enough touch. Babies who receive insufficient touch show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have all kinds of negative effects on their development. In prisons, for example, being deprived of touch through restraint or solitary confinement is a punishment tantamount to torture. As technology continues to make inroads into our lives, interactions that once required proximity or touch have become mediated instead, prompting ongoing speculation about the consequences of communicating by technology rather than by touch.

The coronavirus pandemic intensifies this crisis by demanding a sudden, collective withdrawal from physical contact. The virus lays a cruel trap: the longer we’re apart, the more we crave togetherness and are willing to take dangerous risks. But giving in to the desire to touch not only exposes us and those we care about to a potentially mortal danger, it also extends the amount of time before we can resume widespread touching.

The pandemic has already revealed important lessons about touch, haptics and humanity. First is that while circumstances can change quickly, true social and behavioral change takes longer. The many examples of Americans acting as though there is no pandemic going on should give pause to anyone thinking touch-free futures are just around the corner. Atop this, there is plain-old inertia and malaise, which suggests some pandemic-era interventions will stick around while others will disappear or slacken over time. Consider 9/11 — nearly two decades later, though we still can’t greet our loved ones at their gate, most airports don’t strictly monitor our liquids and gels.

By the same token, one can imagine unfilled hand sanitizer stations as the ultimate hangover from these times. We may begin to like the plexiglass barriers between ourselves and our fellow subway passengers, but hate them at restaurants and sporting events. We may encounter more motion-detecting sliding doors and hand-tracking options, but when they falter we may revert to revolving doors, handles and push-buttons.

A second and equally important insight is that the past and the future exist side by side. Technological development takes even longer than behavioral change, and can be bedeviled by momentary trends, expense and technological limitations. For example, there are a lot of pressures right now to transform stores and restaurants into “last-mile” fulfillment centers, to embrace AR and VR and to reimagine space as contact-free. In these scenarios, objects could be touched and handled in virtual showrooms using high-fidelity digital touch technologies. But some of this pressure is based on promises that haptics have yet to fulfill. For instance, being able to touch clothing through a mobile phone may be possible in theory, but would be difficult in practice and would mean other trade-offs for mobile phones’ functionality, size, weight and speed.

Touch/more?

But just as the coronavirus pandemic did not create making us miss touching, it also did not create all the problems with touching. Some of the touch we were used to — like the forced closeness of a crowded subway car or the cramped quarters of airline seats — is dehumanizing. Social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have drawn attention to how unwanted touch can have traumatic consequences and exacerbate power imbalances. We must think broadly about the meaning of touch and its benefits and drawbacks for varying types of people, and not rush toward a one-size-fits-all solution. Although touch may seem like a fundamentally biological sense, its meaning is continually renegotiated in response to shifting cultural conditions and new technologies. COVID-19 is the most rapid upheaval in global practices of touching that we’ve seen in at least a generation, and it would be surprising not to see a corresponding adoption of technologies that could allow us to gain back some of the tactility, even from a distance, that the disease has caused us to give up.

Too often, however, touch technologies prompt a “gee whiz” curiosity without being attentive to the on-the-ground needs for users in their daily lives. Businesses looking to adopt haptic tech must see through the sales pitch and far-flung fantasies to develop a long-term plan for where touch and touch-free make the most sense. And haptic designers must move from a narrow focus on solving the complex engineering problem touch presents to addressing the sorts of technologies users might comfortably incorporate into their daily communication habits.

A useful exercise going forward is to consider how would we do haptic design differently knowing we’d be facing another COVID-19-style pandemic in 2030? What touch technologies could be advanced to satisfy some of the desires for human contact? How can firms be proactive, rather than reactive, about haptic solutions? As much as those working in the field of haptics may have been motivated by the noble intention of restoring touch to human communication, this mission has often lacked a sense of urgency. Now that COVID-19 has distanced us, the need for haptics to bridge that physical gap, however incompletely, becomes more obvious and demanding.

Businesses feel it too, as they attempt to restore “humanity” and “connection” to their customer interactions. Yet as ironic as it might feel, now is the time not to just stumble through this crisis — it’s time to prepare for the next one. Now is the time to build in resilience, flexibility and excess capacity. To do so requires asking hard questions, like: do we need VR to replicate the sensory world in high fidelity, even if it’s costly? Or would lower-cost and lower-fidelity devices suffice? Will people accept a technologized hug as a meaningful proxy for the real thing? Or, when touch is involved, is there simply no substitute for physical presence? Might the future have both more touch and less?

These are difficult questions, but the hardship, trauma and loss of COVID-19 proves they demand our best and most careful thinking. We owe it to ourselves now and in the future to be deliberate, realistic and hopeful about what touch and technology can do, and what they can’t.

GitHub starts publishing a public roadmap

By Frederic Lardinois

GitHub today announced that it will start publishing a public roadmap to help its users understand when it will ship new features across its various versions of the GitHub code repository and products like GitHub Actions, its mobile app and its security tools.

“What we’re trying to do is provide a way for people to see what’s coming, join in that dialogue and give us feedback and be able to collaborate with us,” GitHub’s SVP of Product Shanku Niyogi told me.

He also noted that as the company’s enterprise business has grown, the need for customers to be able to prepare for what’s coming next has also increased. Until now, GitHub often provided this information to some of its larger customers directly (through good-old slide decks), but that same information will now be available to all. To Niyogi, this is essentially about “building GitHub more the way that people build software on GitHub already.”

Image Credits: GitHub

Unsurprisingly then, the roadmap lives in a GitHub repo. Everything will be tagged based on the feature, the product it affects and its development stage. Over time, GitHub plans to attach more artifacts to every item, including screenshots, for example.

The company is also using its own product to give users the ability to give feedback through GitHub’s recently launched Discussions feature, for example.

Image Credits: GitHub

In its current iteration, the roadmap looks about a year ahead. “We’re not going to necessarily go throw things on here that we’re looking at five, six years ahead,” Niyogi said. “But as things start to kind of get into that horizon for us, we’ll have that. As happens with software development, you can always expect changes, so we want to be comfortable with that.”

Users can also sign up for notifications when anything on the roadmap changes.

The new roadmap is now live on GitHub.

 

 

Roblox jumps to over 150M monthly users, will pay out $250M to developers in 2020

By Sarah Perez

Gaming platform Roblox, which has seen a surge of use due to the coronavirus pandemic, now has over 150 million monthly active users, up from the 115 million it announced in February before the U.S.’s shelter-in-place orders went into effect. The company also said its developer community is on pace to earn over $250 million in 2020, up from the $110 million they earned last year.

These metrics and other company news were announced over the weekend at RDC, Roblox’s annual developer conference that was held virtually for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roblox, to be clear, doesn’t build the games that run on its platform. Instead, offers the platform for developers to build upon, similar to the App Store. Many of its most popular games are free, monetizing as players spend on in-game items using virtual cash called Robux. Some of the company’s larger individual games, before the pandemic, would average over 10 million monthly users. And over 10 games as of February claimed more than 1 billion total visits.

Image Credits: Roblox

 

Thanks to the pandemic, however, these gaming milestones have significantly increased in size.

During the first part of the year, the Roblox game Adopt Me! reached 1.615 million concurrent users and over 10 billion visits. A new game called Piggy, launched in January 2020, now has over 5 billion plays. Jailbreak surpassed 500,000 concurrent users during a live event held in April 2020.

In total, there are now 345,000 developers on the Roblox platform who are monetizing their games, and over half of Robux being spent in catalog is now being spent on user-generated content (UGC) items, in less than 12 months after the UGC catalog program began.

The more than doubling of Roblox developers’ earnings year-over-year is related to a combination of factors, including the platform’s growing game catalog, new development tools, international expansions, and of course, a pandemic that has locked kids indoors away from their friends, forcing them to go online to connect.

On notable factor driving the increased developer earnings, however, was Roblox’s recent introduction of Premium Payouts, which pays developers based on the engagement time of Premium subscribers in their game. Through this system, launched earlier this spring, developers earned $2 million in June 2020 as part of this program alone.

Image Credits: Roblox

During the RDC event, Roblox also detailed its plans for expanded developer tools and platform updates. This includes new collaboration tools for larger development teams, which will allow developers to grant permissions to team members and contractors to work only on a certain part of their game. It will also launch a talent marketplace by the end of the year to help developers find people and resources to help with game development.

Roblox also said it will begin rolling out automatic machine translation for all supported languages, languages including Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and Spanish. This feature will help developers more easily reach international users with localized versions of their games.

Later this summer, Roblox said it will launch “Developer Events,” a new service that will help developers find one another in their local communities. Initially, these events will be held virtually, but will transition to in-person events when it’s safe to do so.

The company also signed its first music label partnership with Monstercat, an indie electronic music label known for its collaborations with gaming titles and artists, including Marshmello and Vicetone. The partnership has initially yielded 51 tracks for developers to use, free of charge, in their games. These include songs from a variety of EDM genres, such as Drum & Bass, Synthwave, Electro, Chillout, Electronic, Breaks, Future Bass, and more. More tracks will be added over time, Roblox says.

“The accomplishments of our developer community have eclipsed even our loftiest expectations; I am incredibly impressed by the unique and creative experiences being introduced on the Roblox platform,” said David Baszucki, founder and CEO, Roblox. “Our focus is to give developers the tools and resources they need to pursue their vision and create larger, more complex, more realistic experiences and collectively build the Metaverse.”

Roblox raised an additional $150 million in Series G funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz’s late-stage venture fund, just before the COVID-19 health crisis hit the U.S., valuing the business at $4 billion. Ahead of this, Roblox had been working to take its platform further outside the U.S. and into China, through a strategic partnership with Tencent focused on bringing its coding curriculum to the region and through added support for Chinese languages, among other things. Also with the additional funding, Roblox said it planned to help further its expansion effects, and build out more tools and its developer ecosystem.

YC alum Paragon snags $2.5M seed for low-code app integration platform

By Ron Miller

Low-code is a hot category these days. It helps companies build workflows or simple applications without coding skills, freeing up valuable engineering resources for more important projects. Paragon, a member of the Y Combinator Winter 2020 cohort, announced a $2.5 million seed round today for its low-code application integration platform.

Investors include Y Combinator, Village Global, Global Founders Capital, Soma Capital and FundersClub.

“Paragon makes it easier for non-technical people to be able to build out integrations using our visual workflow editor. We essentially provide building blocks for things like API requests, interactions with third party APIs and conditional logic. And so users can drag and drop these building blocks to create workflows that describe business logic in their application,” says company co-founder Brandon Foo.

Foo acknowledges there are a lot of low-code workflow tools out there, but many like UIPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere concentrate on Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to automate certain tasks. He says he and co-founder Ishmael Samuel wanted to focus on developers.

“We’re really focused on how can we improve developer efficiency, and how can we bring the benefits of low code to product and engineering teams and make it easier to build products without writing manual code for every single integration, and really be able to streamline the product development process,” Foo told TechCrunch.

The way it works is you can drag and drop one of 1200 predefined connectors for tools like Stripe, Slack and Google Drive into a workflow template, and build connectors very quickly to trigger some sort of action. The company is built on AWS serverless architecture, so you define the trigger action and subsequent actions, and Paragon handles all of the back-end infrastructure requirements for you.

It’s early days for the company. After launching in private beta in January, the company has 80 customers. It currently has 6 employees including Foo, who previously co-founded Polymail and Samuel, who was previously lead engineer at Uber. They plan to hire 4 more employees this year.

With both founders people of color, they definitely are looking to build a diverse team around them. “I think it’s already sort of built into our DNA. As a diverse founding team we have perhaps a broader viewpoint and perspective in terms of hiring the kind of people that we seek to work with. Of course, I think there’s always room for improvements, and so we’re always looking for new ways that we can be more inclusive in our hiring recruiting process [as we grow],” he said.

As far as raising during a pandemic, he says it’s been a crazy time, but he believes they are solving a real problem and that they can succeed in spite of the macro economic conditions of the moment.

As ADA turns 30, tech is just getting started helping people with disabilities

By Devin Coldewey

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 paved the way for decades of incremental changes to the way buildings, businesses and laws accommodate people with a wide variety of disabilities. At 30 years old this week, the law’s effect on tech has been profound, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

The ADA originally applied mainly to things like buildings and government resources, but over the years (and with improvements and amendments) came to be much broader than that. As home computers, the web and eventually apps became popular, they too became subject to ADA requirements — though to what extent is still a matter under debate.

I asked a few prominent companies and advocacy organizations what they think about how tech has improved the everyday lives of people with disabilities, and where it has so far fallen short.

Those who responded had the most to say about how tech has helped, of course, but also offered suggestions (and recriminations) for an industry that has in some ways only recently begun to truly include people with disabilities in its processes — and in many ways has yet to do so.

Claire Stanley, Advocacy and Outreach Specialist at the American Council for the Blind

“Tech has opened the door to so many things,” said Stanley. “Books, for instance — 10 years ago to get a book you might have to wait for the Library of Congress to convert it to audio. Now, because of Kindles and e-readers, the day a book comes out I can buy it. Access is a lot faster than it once was.”

“The ability to do certain things in the workplace, too. The caveat is, people don’t always design software to work with accessibility technology. Designing with screen readers in mind can be very helpful, but if they don’t, that opens up whole new problems,” she said.

“Companies just don’t think about accessibility, so they design a product that’s totally inaccessible to screen readers. To my understanding, if you design it right from the get-go it should be easy to make it compatible. There are the WCAG standards — if programmers took even a cursory glance at these, they’d be like, ‘oh I get it!,’ ” said Stanley. “And I’ve heard from a lot of people that when you make something accessible to the blind it makes it better for everybody.”

That’s exactly the problem that Fable intends to alleviate by providing software testers with various disabilities as a service to companies that may not have thought that far ahead in their QA process.

New devices and services are also changing the landscape for blind folks.

“Braille literacy is going down because people are turning to audio synthesizers — but new designs of braille readers are coming out, and they’re getting cheaper. I have mine right next to me,” said Stanley.

Of course for the deaf-blind community braille is still indispensable. One dad hoping to teach his daughter braille recently built his own inexpensive braille education device — not something you were likely to do 20 years ago.

“And Aira is an app that has been around for about four years — basically, through video from your phone, a person on the other end can answer questions and identify things. I use it all the time. They’re starting to integrate AI to do some simple things like read signs,” Stanley said.

“We’ve also been working a lot in the autonomous vehicle space. That will open up a lot of doors, and not just for blind people, but people with other disabilities, the elderly, children,” she added. “I know we have a long way to go, but we’ve been fortunate enough to be at the table with companies and Congress when we’re talking about what making an autonomous vehicle accessible looks like.”

Eve Andersson, Director of Accessibility at Google

“To me, one of the most notable tech advances has been changes in captioning technology. About two years after I started at Google, in 2009, we introduced automatic captioning on YouTube using AI. Then eight years later, we introduced the ability to caption sound effects (laughter, music, applause, etc.) to make video content even more accessible,” said Andersson.

She pointed out that although captions were originally made with accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing users, they quickly became helpful for many other users who wanted to be able to watch videos on mute, in other languages and so on.

“Programming computers to be able to understand and display or translate language is allowing for so many more advances that benefit everyone. For example, speech recognition and voice assistants have made it possible to have the speech to text features that we have today, like voice typing in Google Docs or dictation in Chrome OS,” she said.

Live transcribe is another feature that tech has enabled, letting hearing impaired people follow in-person communications live.

Before the ADA, some parts of the physical world remained inaccessible to people who are blind or low-vision,” Andersson said. “Today, you can find braille under almost all signs in the United States, which paved the way for us to create products like Google BrailleBack and the TalkBack braille keyboard, which both allow braille users to gain the information they need and communicate effectively with the world around them. In addition, the spirit of ADA in making the physical world accessible to people with disabilities is what inspired innovations like Lookout, an app that helps people who are blind or low-vision identify the world around them.”

One area that we’re thinking about more and more is how to leverage technology to be more helpful for people with cognitive disabilities. This is an incredibly diverse space spanning many different needs, but it remains largely unexplored,” she said. “Action blocks” in Android are an early effort to address it, simplifying multi-step processes into single buttons. But the team is looking into larger scale improvements to help out those who have trouble using a smart device out of the box.

“As an industry, we need to work to ensure that people with disabilities — from employees to consultants to users — are always included in the process of developing a product, research area or initiative from the very beginning,” she said. “People with disabilities or who have family members with disabilities on my team bring their experiences to the table and we make better products as a result.”

Sarah Herrlinger, Director of Global Accessibility Policy at Apple

“It’s fundamentally about culture,” said Herrlinger. “From the beginning Apple has always believed accessibility is a human right and this core value is still evident in everything we design today.”

Though somewhat general of a statement, Apple has the history to back it up. The company has famously been ahead of others on the accessibility curve for decades. TechCrunch columnist Steve Aquino has documented these efforts over the years, summing many up in this feature.

Accessibility features on the Apple iPhone

Image Credits: Apple

The iPhone, being Apple’s flagship product since its introduction, has also been its main platform for accessibility.

“The historical impact of iPhone as a mainstream consumer product is well documented. What is less understood though is how life changing iPhone and our other products have been for disability communities,” said Herrlinger. “Over time iPhone has become the most powerful and popular assistive device ever. It broke the mold of previous thinking because it showed accessibility could in fact be seamlessly built into a device that all people can use universally.”

The feature that has been helpful to the most people is likely VoiceOver, which intelligently reads off the contents of the screen in a way that allows blind users to navigate the OS easily. One such user posted her experience recently, racking up millions of views:

I thought I would share how I, as someone who is visually impaired use my iPhone.☺pic.twitter.com/wPI9smOIq0

— Kristy Viers 🦯 (@Kristy_Viers) July 26, 2020

As for where the tech industry has room to grow, Herrlinger said: “Representation and inclusion are critical. We believe in the mantra of many within disability communities: ‘Nothing about us without us.’ We started a dedicated accessibility team in 1985, but like all things on inclusion — accessibility should be everyone’s job at Apple.”

Melissa Malzkuhn, Founder & Creative Director, Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University

“If not for the laws in place to safeguard our access, no one would implement them,” Malzkuhn said frankly. “The ADA really helped push greater access, but we also saw a lot of change in how people think, and what is considered socially responsible. More and more people now see that their use of social media comes with a sense of social responsibility to make their posts accessible. We would like to see that social accountability with all individuals, and with all companies, big and small.”

Gallaudet is a university that aims to be “barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students,” providing a huge amount of resources and instruction for that community. Many of the technologies its staff has used for years have seen major improvements as mainstream users have flocked to virtual meetings and the like and found them wanting.

A video meeting showing live captions

Image Credits: Microsoft

“We have more video meeting options than ever, and they continue to improve. We also have seen a constant improvement in our experience with video relay services,” Malzkuhn said. She also cited voice-to-text as having improved a lot and provided serious utility; Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program has worked with Google’s Live Transcribe.

“Language-mapping processing, and the early pioneering work on gesture and sign recognition is exciting,” she added, though the latter is still a ways from practical use. She was unsparing in her criticism of the many attempts at smart gloves, however: “Enough with the sign language gloves. It reinforces a bigger ideology: Give deaf people something to wear and our communication issues will go away. It is not about putting the burden of communication on one group of people.”

“I would say that the Apple iPad has revolutionized how we look at the experience of reading for deaf children. In the Motion Light Lab here at Gallaudet University, we have created bilingual storybook apps, intersecting both ASL videos and written text on the same interface,” she said. “But technology will never replace the humanity in all of us. All it takes are attitudes and the willingness to communicate, regardless of technology. Learning a bit of sign language goes a long way.”

Malzkuhn emphasized the value of inclusion and chastised companies that fail to take even elementary steps in hiring and process.

“Companies that hire deaf people have it right. Companies that focus on inclusive design and accessibility as an important and ‘non-negotiable’ aspect in product design also have it right. Their products are invariably superior to inaccessible products,” she said, while those who do not are guilty of “a serious omission. Many companies strive to create products to ‘help’ our lives, but if we are not in the room in the first place, and if we do not have a seat at the table, that is not helpful. Inclusive design starts with an inclusive team.”

Investors need to look at startups focused on accessibility and deafness as well. Like any growing community, they need funding and mentorship.

Malzkuhn also wanted to make sure that companies are thinking about the deaf and hard of hearing not just as consumers of an end product, but full-fledged users.

“That is a driving force in my work — we need to always give tools so anyone can design technology. We need to ensure that we have the responsibility of training, teaching and making those accessible so we develop and cultivate the next generation of young deaf people who design and construct, who are architects of systems, who can program systems, as well as being end users of technology.”

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft

“On a personal level, the ADA drove a new bar of awareness and provision of captioning, interpreting which are both invaluable to me in the workplace, home and navigating crucial life needs like medical care,” said Lay-Flurrie. “Technology can unlock solutions that can help empower people with disabilities in the spirit of the ADA and lead to greater innovations for everyone. To enable transformative change accessibility needs to be a priority.”

Like Google’s Eve Andersson, Lay-Flurrie highlighted captioning as a major recent advance.

“Captioning, like many other aspects of accessibility, is increasingly woven into the fabric of what we do,” she said. “Captioning has evolved so much in the last 30 years, and accelerated as a result of AI and ML in the last five. Teams now has AI captioning integrated and we have seen the impact of that during COVID with Teams Captioning usage up 30x from a few months prior.”

“Accessibility has also diversified — with technologies like Seeing AI, Learning Tool, and the Xbox Adaptive Controller as Microsoft focuses on inclusive design, building with and for people with disabilities in these instances, creating breakthrough technologies for blind/low vision, dyslexia and mobility,” she said.

The Adaptive Controller was one of the best hardware surprises of recent years — a device for playing games and interacting with computers and consoles that’s hyper-compatible and clearly the result of immense effort and expenditure.

It’s an example of one of the “doors that remain closed and need to be opened, vehemently and with speed,” as Lay-Flurrie put it. “Seeing AI is a great lens on what is possible here, and I get excited to think about what AI/ML, as well as ARm can do across the spectrum of disability. Additionally, we believe that AI can help unlock solutions to some of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face, which is why the AI for Accessibility program plays a crucial role in how Microsoft is working to drive inclusive innovation.”

Lay-Flurrie had a good deal to say on how to integrate inclusivity into a company’s processes — and with good reason, seeing as Microsoft has been a leader on these issues for years.

“Accessibility isn’t optional. It must be part of your business, ecosystem and managed/measured,” she said. “It starts with people and we have really focused on how we build an inclusive culture, pipeline of talent. Though we are still continuing to grow and learn, we have also taken steps to share our learnings with other organizations through resources like the Autism Hiring Playbook, Accessibility at a Glance training resources, the Supported Employment Program Toolkit and the Inclusive Design Toolkit.”

“We realize that each organization has its own pace and starting point. The first step is to recognize the need to design for accessibility,” she continued. “It’s particularly important to evaluate the maturity of a product development life cycle through the lens of accessibility and look to build in assistive features from the start, not bolted on later in the process. But there is more to do here. Until then, my mantra stands — if you don’t know it’s accessible, it’s not.”

Mike Shebanek, Head of Accessibility at Facebook

“The portability, ease of use, affordability and built-in accessibility of smartphones has allowed people with disabilities to be more connected, more mobile and more independent than anyone thought possible 30 years ago,” said Shebanek. “The rise of voice technologies like speech synthesis, speech recognition and voice control of devices has also radically improved the lives of people with disabilities.”

Facebook created React Native, and made it open source, so that developers can create accessible mobile apps. We’ve also helped set global digital standards for web accessibility that enable everyone to enjoy a more accessible internet,” he continued.

Like the others, he suggests that tech companies need to consider accessibility needs and methods early on, and increase the numbers of people with disabilities in the development and testing process.

Machine learning is helping address some major obstacles in a more automated way: “We’re using it at Facebook to power automatic video captioning and create automatic Alt-Text to provide spoken descriptions of photographs to people who are blind,” said Shebanek. “But these are only recent innovations and the industry has barely begun to scratch the service of what’s possible in the next 30 years as we begin to thoughtfully address the needs of people with disabilities.”

Fable aims to make disability-inclusive design as simple as a service

By Devin Coldewey

Tech companies are increasingly finding that accessibility isn’t a widget you plug into an otherwise final product, but something that’s integrated from the very beginning of development — but that takes resources few possess. Fable hopes to make disability-inclusive design easier by providing testing and development assistance from disabled folks on-demand, and has raised a $1.5M seed round to do it.

“The person who experiences this problem is usually the best one to solve it,” Alwar Pillai, co-founder of Fable, told TechCrunch. But that’s rarely how it works with accessibility features.

More often than not, she said, the people developing them are able and under 40. “It’s under-prioritized and incomplete,” Pillai said. “It’s not about, is this product really usable by a blind person? Businesses should be consulting with disabled folks, and Fable is a platform that connects digital teams to them so they can include them in building and testing from the get-go.”

Fable provides on-demand access to people with various disabilities that need to be considered during the design process. Prototypes or mockups can be sent to individuals on call, who then return an evaluation within 48 hours.

“Most companies have huge digital products, but no idea what it’s like for people with disabilities, like that a signup flow takes an hour for a blind person,” said co-founder and CTO Abid Virani. “So we put put a couple prototypes in front of, maybe, someone quadriplegic or low vision who has to zoom in a lot, and observe how they go through that. They’ll give feedback on all kinds of stuff you don’t expect.”

Of course customers can pick and choose which demographics, disabilities, and platforms they want to target and test, for example blind users on mobile browsers.

It’s important, Pillai and Virani emphasized, that this process takes place during development and doesn’t slow it down, otherwise it will be left to the end of development and considered a necessity for ADA compliance rather than actually being about accessibility.

“You can be compliant and still have a bad site,” noted Virani, but companies don’t tend to have the ability to recognize that, since they rarely have disabled testers.

There’s also the consideration that with large products, there are all kinds of integrations, plugins, and partners that may or may not be accessible, yet are important parts of the experience. If your ostensibly accessible site hands things over to a payment provider at the last minute that’s difficult to navigate, it’s not really accessible.

That’s throwing away a lot of business, Pillai pointed out. “These are people with billions in disposable income, and they’re untapped,” she said. “It’s a market opportunity.” But only if companies design for accessibility from the start.

Not only that, but with the pandemic creating a shift to working from home, disabilities that were no problem in the office may prove troublesome with remote tools.

In addition to supplying experienced people with disabilities for testing — and providing those people with steady work, which for some can be difficult to come by — Fable is hoping to create and publicize improved testing methodologies and get data out there to improve the status quo.

The company’s $1.5M round was led by Disruption Ventures in Canada (where the company is based) and Village Global in Silicon Valley. “We wanted people who believed we could do social good and build a billion dollar business,” said Virani.

With the Americans with Disabilities Act having just turned 30 yesterday, it’s clear we’ve come a long way since the ’90s — but not only have we still got a lot of work to do, but it’s ongoing work. Building accessibility and inclusivity into development and testing at a fundamental level should help keep those goals in sight.

Cloudflare launches Workers Unbound, the next evolution of its serverless platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Cloudflare today announced the private beta launch of Workers Unbound, the latest step in its efforts to offer a serverless platform that can compete with the likes of AWS Lambda.

The company first launched its Workers edge computing platform in late 2017. Today it has “hundreds of thousands of developers” who use it, and in the last quarter alone, more than 20,000 developers built applications based on the service, according to the company. Cloudflare also uses Workers to power many of its own services, but the first iteration of the platform had quite a few limitations. The idea behind Workers Unbound is to do away with most of those and turn it into a platform that can compete with the likes of AWS, Microsoft and Google.

“The original motivation for us building Cloudflare Workers was not to sell it as a product because we were using it as our own internal platform to build applications,” Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince told me ahead of today’s announcement. “Today, Cloudflare Teams, which is our fastest-growing product line, is all running on top of Cloudflare Workers and it’s allowed us to innovate as fast as we have and stay nimble and stay agile and all those things that get harder as you become a larger and larger company.”

Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince (Image Credits: TechCrunch)

Prince noted that Cloudflare aims to expose to third-party developers all of the services it builds for its internal consumption. “The fact that we’ve been able to roll out a whole Zscaler competitor in almost no time is because of the fact that we had this platform and we could build on it ourselves,” he said.

The original Workers service will continue to operate (but under the Workers Bundled moniker) and essentially become Cloudflare’s serverless platform for basic workloads that only run for a very short time. Workers Unbound — as the name implies — is meant for more complex and longer-running processes.

When it first launched Workers, the company said that its killer feature was speed. Today, Prince argues that speed obviously remains an important feature — and Cloudflare Workers Unbound promises that it essentially does away with cold-start latencies. But developers also adopted the platform because of its ability to scale and its price.

Indeed, Workers Unbound, Cloudflare argues, is now significantly more affordable than similar offerings. “For the same workload, Cloudflare Workers Unbound can be 75% percent less expensive than AWS Lambda, 24 percent less expensive than Microsoft Azure Functions, and 52 percent less expensive than Google Cloud Functions,” the company says in today’s press release.

As it turned out, the fact that Workers was also an edge computing platform was basically a bonus, but not necessarily why developers adopted it.

Another feature Prince highlighted is regulatory compliance. “I think the thing we’re realizing as we talk to our largest enterprise customers is that for real companies — not just the individual developer hacking away at home — but for real businesses in financial services or anyone who has to deal with a regulated industry, the only thing that trumps ease of use is regulatory compliance, which is not sexy or interesting or anything else but like if your GC says you can’t use XYZ platform, then you don’t use XYZ platform and that’s the end of the story,” Prince noted.

Speed, though, is of course something developers will always care about. Prince stressed that the team was quite happy with the 5ms cold-start times of the original Workers platform. “But we wanted to be better,” he said. “We wanted to be the clearly fastest serverless platform forever — and the only number that we know no one else can beat is zero — unless they invent a time machine.”

The way the team engineered this is by queuing up the process while the two servers are still negotiating their TLS handshake. “We’re excited to be the first cloud computing platform that [offers], for no additional costs, out of the box, zero millisecond cold-start times, which then also means less variability in the performance.”

Cloudflare also argues that developers can update their code and have it go live globally within 15 seconds.

Another area the team worked on was making it easier to use the service in general. Among the key new features here is support for languages like Python and a new SDK that will allow developers to add support for their favorite languages, too.

Prince credits Cloudflare’s ability to roll out this platform, which is obviously heavy on compute resources — and keep it affordable — to the fact that it always thought of itself as a security platform first (the team has often said that the CDN functionality was more or less incidental). Because it performed deep packet inspection, for example, the company’s servers always featured relatively high-powered CPUs. “Our network has been optimized for CPU usage from the beginning and as a result, it’s actually made it much more natural for us to extend our network that way,” he explained. “To this day, the same machines that are running our firewall products are the same machines that are running our edge computing platform.”

Looking ahead, Prince noted that while Workers and Workers Unbound feature a distributed key-value store, the team is looking at adding a more robust database infrastructure and distributed storage.

The team is also looking at how to decompose applications to put them closest to where they will be running. “You could imagine that in the future, it might be that you write an application and we say, ‘listen, the parts of the application that are sensitive to the user of the database might run in Portland, where you are — but if the database is in Ashburn, Virginia, then the parts that are sensitive to latency in the database might run there,’ ” he said.

 

This Week in Apps: Apple argues for commissions, ‘Find My’ NDA, Alexa to open apps

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series* that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.  

Let’s dive in.

Headlines

Top Story: Apple doubles down on its right to take a 30% cut

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Ahead of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s testimony before Congress, Apple on Thursday again took to the press to fight back against claims of anti-competitive practices on its App Store.

Last month, the company detailed the results of a commissioned study that showed how Apple wasn’t receiving a cut of revenue on the majority of App Store transactions — $519 billion in commerce. This time, Apple is touting the results of another study by the same analyst group that is meant to demonstrate how Apple’s App Store commission rate is similar to those of other app stores and digital content marketplaces.

The study exhaustingly compares the App Store’s 30% commission to all other forms of storefronts, online and off. This includes other app stores, game stores, e-commerce marketplaces, digital platforms and even brick-and-mortar retail. Apple’s conclusion is that it’s not doing anything different from the others, so what’s the big deal?

Of course, this misses the point. The antitrust issues surrounding Apple’s App Store are not about whether Apple is charging more than other digital marketplaces. It’s about whether that commission structure is hindering competition, given Apple’s size, wealth and power.

As indie developer Brent Simmons (of NetNewsWire) put it this week, the cut limits developers’ ability to hire and retain talent.

To an app on the App Store it might mean being able to lower prices — or hire a designer or a couple junior developers. It might be the difference between abandoning an app and getting into a virtuous circle where the app thrives.

Quality costs money, and profitability is just simple arithmetic: anything that affects income — such as Apple’s cut — goes into that equation.

To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.

Apple’s opening of ‘Find My’ to third-parties isn’t as nice as it seems

5 find my

Image Credits: Apple

Apple announced at WWDC 2020 that third-party developers, like Tile, would be able to tap into Apple’s “Find My” technology platform to locate lost items and gadgets that aren’t made by Apple. The move was meant to counteract Tile’s ongoing complaints and testimony to U.S. antitrust investigators that Apple favored its first-party services at the expense of competitors’ businesses.

Tile was particularly concerned over Apple’s plans to announce a direct competitor, AirTags, which would be allowed to leverage the “Find My” technology at a deeper level. The move could potentially have wiped out Tile’s business with a better product — at least from a consumer standpoint.

The Washington Post reported this week that Apple’s opening of “Find My” is not the olive branch it seems, however. The publication acquired the 50-page confidentially agreement that all developers would have to sign, which indicates there are a lot of restrictions on how this integration works. For instance, Apple customers using “Find My” to locate a device will be barred from using competing services simultaneously, the document said. This is an unusual restriction — and one that makers of Bluetooth devices and smart home products don’t have to agree to for their own products.

Amazon turns Alexa into a mobile app launcher

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

How often do you think Amazon kicks itself over its smartphone failures? Given that the company hasn’t been able to compete directly on mobile, it’s finding another angle by way of Alexa. Amazon this week announced a bevy of new developer tools for its Alexa virtual assistant, including one that will allow the digital helper to launch iOS and Android apps using voice commands.

For example, you’d be able to say things like, “Alexa, start recording a TikTok,” or “Alexa, ask Twitter to search for #BLM.”

It’s unclear how many developers would adopt just a feature, outside of those that already offer one of the more popular Alexa skills. After all, Siri and Google Assistant can already launch and control your apps.

While Amazon is likely hoping that tying Alexa to the world of mobile apps could give it some momentum in terms of building an app ecosystem of its own, consumers so far have seemed to largely prefer using Alexa for first-party activities, like playing music, listening to news, controlling the smart home, asking random questions, making lists, setting reminders and more.

The move, however, may hint that Amazon is thinking about building out a mobile app ecosystem for its Alexa devices with a screen, like forthcoming versions of its Echo Show, for example.

Apple releases beta 3 builds of iOS 14, iPadOS 14

Testers this week received their third set of iOS 14 developer betas, as the software moves closer to its fall launch date. Beyond the usual bug fixes and performance improvements, only small changes were spotted this time around. This includes a new Music app icon, widget and the ability to share music to Snapchat; a new widget from the Clock app; a new pop-up when organizing the home screen that explains how to hide pages; a new pop-up when you use widgets for the first time; an updated design for Memoji masks; and more.

Facebook takes on Zoom with its latest Messenger Rooms update

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook this week announced a new feature that it hopes will give it a better shot at challenging Zoom’s dominance on web conferencing that came about due to the pandemic. The company upgraded its Messenger Rooms group calls platform to support the ability to live broadcast calls to platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitch — a move that effectively combined Facebook’s live-streaming capabilities with group video chat. Facebook turned around the feature in a relatively short time, given it has only been a matter of months since Zoom has really taken off. That indicates Facebook understands the threat of online chat and socializing exiting its platform.

The goal with the new addition is to make it simpler to broadcast to social platforms, to encourage users to return. Even if they arrive in order to broadcast to competitors’ sites, like YouTube, the company understands that adding Facebook to the list of destinations will increase the output of live broadcasts on its own platform.

In addition, Facebook also this week announced that Messenger now lets you secure your chats with Touch ID or Face ID on iOS. Why don’t more apps offer this feature?

TikTok unveils a $200M fund to back U.S. creators, as it scrambles for a “Plan B”

LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 01: A general view of the atmosphere during the TikTok US launch celebration at NeueHouse Hollywood on August 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

As the U.S. government weighs a ban on the Chinese-headquartered app over privacy concerns, the company announced plans to hire 10,000 employees across the U.S. over the next three years and launched a $200 million fund to invest in new creators. The new fund is aimed at helping top creators in the U.S. supplement their earnings, and potentially find the next big TikTok star in the process. The platform will begin accepting applications from U.S.-based creators starting next month and will then distribute the capital over the coming year.

Meanwhile, TikTok parent company ByteDance continues to discuss a range of other options to keep its popular and profitable app alive in the U.S. The latest, according to The Information, is one that would have a small group of the company’s U.S. investors joining forces to buy a majority stake in TikTok.

The U.S government — and particularly the Trump administration — continues to be skeptical about TikTok’s China ties. This week, the U.S. House voted to ban federal employees from using the app on government-issued devices. The vote passed 336-71, as part of a package of bipartisan amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Robinhood ends plan for a U.K. launch

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mobile investing app Robinhood said this week it would not be launching in the U.K., as planned. The company said it was now going to hold off on its global expansion plans to instead focus its efforts in its home market, the U.S. The company had already received over 250,000 sign-ups on its U.K. waitlist, which it says will now be deleted in line with local privacy laws. The company said it will transfer 10 U.K. employees to the U.S., but others will be let go.

The app has been more recently facing criticism in the U.S. for how it lures in young, inexperienced traders who then buy and sell some of the riskiest financial products on the market — at rates higher than other retail brokerage firms. With its hip and youthful design and social app-like features, such as confetti and emoji, Robinhood can make investing feel more like a game, The NYT reported in a recent feature. But the reality is that these inexperienced users are taking more speculative risks, sometimes with devastating results. One Robinhood user killed himself after seeing his balance drop to negative $730,000 — a figure that was higher, in part, due to some of his incomplete trades.

Google has its own ‘Onavo’

Image Credits: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google today already allows Android app developers to collect usage data from devices where their app is installed, so it comes as no surprise that Google was doing this itself, too. The Information revealed Google’s program that allows it to access usage data on any device that has its Google apps pre-installed. Similar to Facebook’s Onavo, the data wasn’t just used to make improvements to Android, but was also used as a competitive advantage.

According to the report, Google had used the data to show how Google’s own services compared to rivals. This is what Facebook had used Onavo for, too — even leveraging those learnings to inform its acquisition strategy. APIs aren’t the only way large tech companies collect data on smartphone user habits. App intelligence firms like App Annie and Sensor Tower provide similar data to customers, obtained through a number of apps that downplay their true purpose, but really serve as data collection machines.

Data collection like this has been underway for years, but with the antitrust investigations now underway, the time may have come for regulators to actually do something about it.

Funding and M&A

  • Fintech startup Meemo came out of stealth and launched its social finance app with $10 million in seed funding. Investors including Saama Capital, Greycroft, Monashees and Sierra Ventures led the round with additional participation from Amit Singhal, Hans Tung and several former colleagues from Google and Snap.
  • Swiss keyboard startup Typewise raises $1 million seed round to build its “privacy-safe” next word prediction engine that works entirely offline. The round consists of $700,000 from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340,000 via the Swiss government through a mechanism akin to a research grant.
  • China’s Missfresh raises $495 million for its e-grocery app with deep WeChat integrations. The round was led by state-backed China International Capital Corporation. Other investors included ICBC International Securities, Tencent, Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Tiger Global and a fund managed by the government of Changshu county, home to Missfresh’s east China headquarters
  • Levitate raises $6 million for its “keep-in-touch” email marketing solution for small business that works across web and mobile. Investors include Tippet Venture Partners, Durham, North Carolina-based Bull City Venture Partners and angel investor Peter Gassner, the co-founder and CEO of Veeva Systems and investor in Zoom

Downloads

Dilims

Image Credits: Dilims

This beautifully designed indie iOS app called Dilims lets you display different time zones on one screen, and even name them with aliases or view them as a widget. The simple single-purpose utility is useful for anyone who has to work with teams or clients across time zones, and wants an easier way to see what time it is and where. For $2, that’s kind of a steal, too.

Dark Noise 2

Image Credits: Dark Noise

If you like to play ambient noise to help you focus, sleep or just relax, you’ll want to check out Dark Noise 2. This ambient noise app for iOS just got a big update, which adds new sounds, new icons and introduces iCloud syncing. Plus, it now allows you to create your own custom mix of ambient sounds so you can chill to the sounds of rain at the beach, for example, or whatever else you want to blend. The app is $5.99 on the App Store. 

Further Reading (and Listening)

  • Apple Kills IDFA: How Will the Fallout Really Affect Marketers?: Dig into the implications of the IDFA changes in the latest episode of the Mobile Presence podcast, in a discussion with Shamanth Rao, veteran growth marketer and CEO of RocketShip HQ, a full-service mobile user acquisition agency.
  • What Ever Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?: Lawfare takes a look at how the contact-tracing app landscape is shaping up, given the disappearance of contact tracing apps from the headlines. Though Apple and Google’s API was meant to encourage each country to build their own apps, the U.S. has instead taken a patchwork approach due to its fractured response to COVID-19. Today, there are a handful states with their own apps, and only some that plan to use Apple and Google’s technology. Many states have no plans for an app at all, turning instead to human-led contract tracing efforts.
  • Designed for iPad: What makes a good iPad app today? These things, says LookUp Design in a thoughtful post.

Tweets of the Week

Apple is debuting a "Summer Newsletter" to cover topics during the beta period: pic.twitter.com/j2vedSeQqx

— Kyle Seth Gray (@kylesethgray) July 22, 2020

But as Gruber noted, Steve Jobs said "We don’t intend to make any money off the App Store." Thus, if Apple *is* making a lot of money off the App Store, that's arguably a mistake, following a misguided path.https://t.co/NLg6oCDF1z

— Jeff Johnson (@lapcatsoftware) July 23, 2020

Neo’s Ali Partovi on best practices for hiring early-stage startup engineers

By Brian Heater

On day one of TechCrunch’s Early Stage virtual conference, Ali Partovi joined us to discuss best practices for startups looking to hire engineers.

It’s a subject that’s near and dear to his heart: Partovi is co-founder and CEO of Neo, a venture aimed at including young engineers in a community alongside seasoned industry vets. The fund includes top executives from a slew of different industry titans, including Amazon, Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Stripe.

Partovi is probably best known in the Valley for co-founding Code.org with twin brother, Hadi. The nonprofit launched in 2013 with a high-profile video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey, along with a mission to make coding education more accessible to the masses.

It was a two-summer internship at Microsoft while studying at Harvard that gave Partovi an entrée into the world of tech. And while it was clearly a formative experience for the college student, he advises against prospective startup founders looking to large corporations as career launch pads.

“I spend a lot of time mentoring college students, that’s a big part of what I do at Neo,” Partovi said.

“And for anyone who wants to be a founder of a company, there’s a spectrum, from giant companies like Microsoft or Google to early-stage startups. And I would say, find the smallest point on that spectrum that you’re comfortable with, and start your career there. Maybe that’s a 100-person company or maybe for you, it’s a 500-person company. But if you start at Microsoft, it’ll be a long time before you feel comfortable doing your own startup. The skills you gain at a giant company are very valuable for getting promoted and succeeding in giant companies. They’re not often as translatable to being your own founder.”

What your company can learn from the Bank of England’s resilience proposal

By Richard Dal Porto
Kolton Andrus Contributor
Kolton is co-founder and CEO of Gremlin, the chaos engineering company helping the world build a more reliable internet.

The outages at RBS, TSB and Visa left millions of people unable to deposit their paychecks, pay their bills, acquire new loans and more. As a result, the House of Commons’ Treasury Select Committee (TSC) began an investigation of the U.K. finance industry and found the “current level of financial services IT failures is unacceptable.” Following this, the Bank of England (BoE), Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) decided to take action and set a standard for operational resiliency.

While policies can often feel burdensome and detached from reality, these guidelines are reasonable steps that any company across any industry can exercise to improve the resilience of their software systems.

The BoE standard breaks down to these five steps:

  1. Identify critical business services based on those that end users rely on most.
  2. Set a tolerance level for the amount of outage time during an incident that is acceptable for that service, based on what utility the service provides.
  3. Test if the firm is able to stay within that acceptable period of time during real-life scenarios.
  4. Involve management in the reporting and sign-off of these thresholds and tests.
  5. Take action to improve resiliency against the different scenarios where feasible.

Following this process aligns with best practices in architecting resilient systems. Let’s break each of these steps down and discuss how chaos engineering can help.

Identify critical business services

The operational resilience framework recommends focusing on the services that serve external customers. While internal applications are important for productivity, this customer-first mentality is sound advice for determining a starting place for reliability efforts. While it’s ultimately up to the business to weigh the criticality of the different services they offer, the ones necessary to make payments, retrieve payments, investing or insuring against risks are all recommended priorities.

When choosing a tech stack, look before you leap

By Ron Miller

When it comes to choosing a tech stack, the decisions you make today could have a cascading impact for years. On one hand you want to be cool and modern, but on the other, you want to build with technology you know — and sometimes getting to market is more important than riding the latest technology wave.

The problem is that your decisions can have consequences that result in technical debt, the concept that as you make one decision, you have to pay a debt of sorts to fix underlying structural problems in the code as the result of those decisions you made early on.

Before you start freaking out, it’s something that happens to every company and is really impossible to avoid — so you make your choices and get your product out the door.

At this week’s TechCrunch Early Stage conference, HappyFunCorp CEO and co-founder Ben Schippers and CTO Jon Evans spoke about choosing the optimal tech stack. The pair have built custom software for companies like Amazon, Samsung, WeWork and AMC, so they know a thing or two about the subject.

What to consider before choosing

Image Credits: HappyFunCorp

Evans says startups must weigh several key factors when choosing a tech stack, but development speed tops the list. “The single most key thing about your tech stack is speed,” he said. “The right stack will give you the most speed, compared to the alternatives.”

But early choices have other implications. “In the medium- to long-run, you have to be conscious about running up what we call technical debt, which is really the side effects of a spaghetti nest of bad code that is tightly coupled and leads to negative side effects all over the place,” he said.

Reflect wants to help you automate web testing without writing code

By Ron Miller

Reflect, a member of Y Combinator Summer 2020 class, is building a tool to automate website and web application testing, making it faster to get your site up and running without waiting for engineers to write testing code, or for human testers to run the site through its paces.

Company CEO and co-founder Fitz Nowlan says his startup’s goal is to allow companies to have the ease of use and convenience of manual testing, but the speed of execution of automated or code-based testing.

“Reflect is a no code tool for creating automated tests. Typically when you change your website, or your web application, you have to test it, and you have the choice of either having your engineers build coded tests to run through and ensure the correctness of your application, or you can hire human testers to do it manually,” he said.

With Reflect, you simply teach the tool how to test your site or application by running through it once, and based on those actions, Reflect can create a test suite for you. “You enter your URL, and we load it in a browser in a virtual machine in the cloud. From there, you just use your application just like a normal user would, and by using your application, you’re telling us what is important to test,” Nowlan explained.

He adds, “Reflect will observe all of your actions throughout that whole interaction with that whole browser session. And then from those actions, it will distill that down into a repeatable machine executable test.”

Nowlan and co-founder Todd McNeal started the company in September 2019 after spending five years together at a digital marketing startup near Philadelphia, where they experienced  problems with web testing first-hand.

They launched a free version of this product in April, just as we were beginning to feel the full force of the pandemic in the U.S, a point that was not lost on him. “We didn’t want to delay any longer and we just felt like, you know you got to get up there and swing the bat,” he said.

Today, the company has 20 paying customers, and he has found that the pandemic has helped speed up sales in some instances, while slowing it down in others.

He says the remote YC experience has been a positive one, and in fact he McNeal couldn’t have participated had they had to show up in California as they have families and homes in Pennsylvania.  He says that the remote nature of the current program forces you to be fully engaged mentally to get the most out of the program.

“It’s just a little more mental work to prepare yourself and to have the mental energy to stay locked in for a remote batch. But I think if you can get over that initial hump, the information flow and the knowledge sharing is all the same,” he said.

He says as technical founders, the program has helped them focus on the sales and marketing side of the equation, and taught them that it’s more than building a good product. You still have to go out there and sell it to build a company.

He says his short-term goal is to get as many people as he can using the platform, which will help them refine their ability to automate the test building. For starters, that involves recording activities on-screen, but over time they plan to layer on machine learning and that requires more data.

“We’re going to focus primarily over the next six to 12 months on growing our customer base — both paid and unpaid — and I really mean that we want people to come in and create tests. Even if they  [use the free product], we’re benefiting from that creation of that test,” he said.

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