Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.
The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.
Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.
The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.
While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.
Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.
Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake, given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.
Conventional wisdom over the last year has suggested that the pandemic has driven companies to the cloud much faster than they ever would have gone without that forcing event with some suggesting it has compressed years of transformation into months. This quarter’s cloud infrastructure revenue numbers appear to be proving that thesis correct.
With The Big Three — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reporting this week, the market generated almost $40 billion in revenue, according to Synergy Research data. That’s up $2 billion from last quarter and up 37% over the same period last year. Canalys’s numbers were slightly higher at $42 billion.
As you might expect if you follow this market, AWS led the way with $13.5 billion for the quarter up 32% year over year. That’s a run rate of $54 billion. While that is an eye-popping number, what’s really remarkable is the yearly revenue growth, especially for a company the size and maturity of Amazon. The law of large numbers would suggest this isn’t sustainable, but the pie keeps growing and Amazon continues to take a substantial chunk.
Overall AWS held steady with 32% market share. While the revenue numbers keep going up, Amazon’s market share has remained firm for years at around this number. It’s the other companies down market that are gaining share over time, most notably Microsoft which is now at around 20% share good for about $7.8 billion this quarter.
Google continues to show signs of promise under Thomas Kurian, hitting $3.5 billion good for 9% as it makes a steady march towards double digits. Even IBM had a positive quarter, led by Red Hat and cloud revenue good for 5% or about $2 billion overall.
Image Credits: Synergy Research
John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy says that even though AWS and Microsoft have firm control of the market, that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made by the companies playing behind them.
“These two don’t have to spend too much time looking in their rearview mirrors and worrying about the competition. However, that is not to say that there aren’t some excellent opportunities for other players. Taking Amazon and Microsoft out of the picture, the remaining market is generating over $18 billion in quarterly revenues and growing at over 30% per year. Cloud providers that focus on specific regions, services or user groups can target several years of strong growth,” Dinsdale said in a statement.
Canalys, another firm that watches the same market as Synergy had similar findings with slight variations, certainly close enough to confirm one another’s findings. They have AWS with 32%, Microsoft 19%, and Google with 7%.
Image Credits: Canalys
Canalys analyst Blake Murray says that there is still plenty of room for growth, and we will likely continue to see big numbers in this market for several years. “Though 2020 saw large-scale cloud infrastructure spending, most enterprise workloads have not yet transitioned to the cloud. Migration and cloud spend will continue as customer confidence rises during 2021. Large projects that were postponed last year will resurface, while new use cases will expand the addressable market,” he said.
The numbers we see are hardly a surprise anymore, and as companies push more workloads into the cloud, the numbers will continue to impress. The only question now is if Microsoft can continue to close the market share gap with Amazon.
Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.
That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.
Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.
That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.
“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”.
Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.
It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch.
“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.”
Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.
Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.
In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.
But news of the breach only became public after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.
Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.
In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”
“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.
Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.
It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.
Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests (from TechCrunch) for comment. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”
TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.
Even as signs of hope for life after the pandemic have begun to emerge here in the U.S., increases in video game spending continue. There’s no doubt that much of last year’s big numbers were driven by stay-at-home requirements in much of the country and the world. All said, U.S. spending on the industry increased 27% for 2020.
There remains a broader question, however, around whether this momentum can maintain, as people start to, you know, leave the house more. For now, at least, things are continuing to look rosy for the industry. NPD noted this morning that U.S. spending on the category jumped 30% y-o-y for Q1 2021 to $14.92 billion.
When we break the number down a bit, however, it becomes clear that the driver goes beyond mere pandemic entertainment. Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%.
The motivator behind that last figure should be immediately obvious to anyone who follows the industry with any among of interest. Where Nintendo’s Switch dominated the conversation for most of 2020, Sony and Microsoft both launched their next gen consoles late-last year.
“While we are still seeing elevated rates of both engagement and spending resulting from changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic, we are also seeing cyclical gains from the November launches of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles,” analyst Mat Piscatella said in a release The growth driven by these new platforms, combined with gains experienced in mobile, PC and VR content spending, as well as the continued strength of Nintendo Switch, have pushed the market to new highs.”
Calibri, we hardly knew ye. Microsoft’s default font for all its Office products (and built-in apps like WordPad) is on its way out and the company now needs your help picking a new one. Let’s judge the options!
You probably don’t think much about Calibri, if you think about fonts at all, but that’s a good thing in this context. A default font should be something you don’t notice and don’t feel the need to change unless you want something specific. Of course the switch from Times New Roman back in 2007 was controversial — going from a serif default to a sans serif default ruffled a lot of feathers. Ultimately it proved to be a good decision, and anyway TNR is still usually the default for serif-specified text.
To be clear, this is about defaults for user-created stuff, like Word files. The font used by Microsoft in Windows and other official brand things is Segoe UI, and there are a few other defaults mixed in there as well. But from now on making a new document in an Office product would default to using one of these, and the others will be there as options.
Replacing Calibri with another friendly-looking universal sans serif font will be a considerably less dramatic change than 2007’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions on it. Oh no. We’re going to get into it. Unfortunately Microsoft’s only options for seeing the text, apart from writing it out in your own 365 apps, are the tweet (doesn’t have all the letters) or some colorful but not informative graphic presentations. So we (and by we I mean Darrell) made our own little specimen to judge by:
Calibri, here for reference, is an inoffensive, rather narrow font. It gets its friendly appearance from the tips of the letters, which are buffed off like they were afraid kids might run into them. At low resolutions like we had in 2007 this didn’t really come across, but now it’s more obvious and actually a little weird, making it look a bit like magnetic fridge letters.
Bierstadt is my pick and what I think Microsoft will pick. First because it has a differentiated lowercase l, which I think is important. Second, it doesn’t try anything cute with its terminals. The t ends without curling up, and there’s no distracting tail on the a, among other things — sadly the most common letter, lowercase e, is ugly, like a chipped theta. Someone fix it. It’s practical, clear and doesn’t give you a reason to pick a different font. First place. Congratulations, designer Steve Matteson.
Tenorite is my backup pick, because it’s nice but less practical for a default font. Geometric sans serifs (look at the big fat “dog,” all circles) look great at medium size but small they tend to make for weird, wide spacing. Look at how Bierstadt makes the narrow and wide letters comparable in width, while in Tenorite they’re super uneven, yet both are near the same total length. Also, no, we didn’t mess with the kerning or add extra spaces to the end in “This is Tenorite.” That’s how it came out. Someone fix it! Second Place.
Skeena, apart from sounding like a kind of monster you fight in an RPG, feels like a throwback. Specifically to Monaco, the font we all remember from early versions of MacOS (like System 7). The variable thickness and attenuated tails make for an interesting look in large type, but small it just looks awkward. Best e of the bunch, but something’s wrong with the g, maybe. Someone might need to fix it. Third place.
Seaford is an interesting one, but it’s trying too hard with these angular loops and terminals. The lowercase k and a are horrifying, like broken pretzels. The j looks like someone kicked an i. The d looks like it had too much to eat and is resting its belly on the ground. And don’t get me started on the bent bars of the italic w. Someone fix it. I like the extra strong bold and the g actually works, but this would really bug me to use every day. Fourth Place.
Grandview didn’t render properly for us. It looked like Dingbats in regular, but was fine in bold and italic. Someone fix it. Fortunately I feel confident it won’t be the next default. It’s not bad at all, but it’s inhuman, robotic. Looks like a terminal font no one uses. See how any opportunity there is for a straight line is taken? Nice for a logo — feels strong structurally — but a paragraph of it would look like a barcode. Use it for H2 stuff. Last place.
So what should you “vote” for by tweeting hard at Microsoft? Probably it doesn’t matter. I’m guessing they’ve already picked one. Bierstadt is the smart pick, because it’s good in general while the others are all situational. If they would only fix that damn e.
MasterClass, which sells a subscription to celebrity-taught classes, sits on the cusp of entertainment and education. It offers virtual, yet aspirational learning: an online tennis class with Serena Williams, a cooking session with Gordon Ramsay. While there’s the off chance that an instructor might actually talk to you — it has happened before — the platform mostly just offers paywalled documentary-style content.
The vision has received attention. MasterClass is raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, as scooped by Axios and confirmed independently by a source to TechCrunch. But while MasterClass has found a sweet spot, can the success be replicated?
Investors certainly think so. Outlier, founded by MasterClass’ co-founder, closed a $30 million Series C this week, for affordable, digital college courses. The similarities between Outlier and its founder’s alma mater aren’t subtle: It’s literally trying to apply MasterClass’ high-quality videography to college classes. This comes a week after I wrote about a “MasterClass for Chess lovers” platform launched by former Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov.
Two back-to-back MasterClass copycats raising millions in venture capital makes me think about if the model can truly be verticalized and focused down into specific niches. After 2020 and the rise of Zoom University, we know edtech needs to be more engaging, but we don’t know the exact way to get there. Is it by creating micro-learning communities around shared loves? Is it about gamification? Aspirational learning has different incentives than for-credit learning. In order to be successful, Outlier needs to prove to universities it can use MasterClass magic for true outcomes that rival in-person lectures. It’s a harder, and more ambtious promise.
My riff aside, I turned to two edtech founders to understand how they see the MasterClass effect panning out, and to cross-check my gut reaction.
Taylor Nieman, the founder of language learning startup Toucan:
Although I do love how these models try to lean into this theme of “invisible learning” like we leverage with Toucan, it faces the same issues as so many other consumer products that try to steal time out of people’s very busy days. Constantly competing for time leads to terrible engagement metrics and very high churn. That leads me to question what true learning outcomes could occur from little to no usage of the product itself.
Amanda DoAmaral, the founder of Fiveable, a learning platform for high school students:
Masterclass is important for showing us why educational content should be treated more like entertainment. All of our bars for content quality is much higher now than it ever was before and I’m excited to see how that affects learning across the board.
For students, it’s about creating environments that support them holistically and giving them space to collaborate openly. It feels so obvious that these spaces should exist for young people, but we’ve lost sight of what students actually need. At my school, we built policies that assumed the worst in students. I want to flip that. Assume the best, be proactive to keep them safe, and create ways to react when we need to.
Anyways, that’s just some nuance to chew on during this fine day. In the rest of this newsletter, we will focus a lot on tactical advice for founders, from the money they raise to the peacock dance they might want to do one day. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ so we can talk during the week, too!
You know when male peacocks fan their feathers to court a lover? That, but for startups trying to get acquired. As one of our many rabbit holes on Equity this week, we talk about Discord walking away from a Microsoft deal, and if that deal ever existed in the first place or if it was just a way to drum up investor excitement in the audio gaming platform.
Here’s what to know: Discord is reportedly pursuing an IPO after walking away from talks with multiple companies that were looking to acquire the audio gaming giant.
Discord aside, the consolidation environment continues to be hot for some sectors.
Image Credits: VectorInspiration / Getty Images
Clearbanc, a Toronto-based fintech startup that gives non-dilutive financing to businesses, has rebranded alongside a $100 million financing that valued it at $2 billion. Now rebranded as Clearco, the startup wants to be more than just a capital provider, but a services provider, too.
Here’s what to know: The startup has been on a tear of product development for the past year, launching services such as valuation calculators or runway tools. It’s a step away from what Clearbanc originally flexed: the 20-minute term sheet and rapid-fire investment. I talk about some of the levers at play in my piece:
Many of Clearco’s newest products are still in their infancy, but the potential success of the startup could nearly be tied to the general growth of startups looking for alternatives to venture capital when financing their startups. Similar to how AngelList’s growth is neatly tied to the growth of emerging fund managers, Clearco’s growth is cleanly related to the growth of founders who see financing as beyond a seed check from Y Combinator.
Abstract human brain made out of dollar bills isolated on white background. Image Credits: Iaremenko / Getty Images
Keeping on the theme of tactical advice for founders, let’s move onto talking about marketing. Tim Parkin, president of Parkin Consulting, explained how startup founders can use marketing as a tool to stand out in the noisy environment. Differentiation has never been harder, but also more imperative.
Here’s what to know: Parkin outlines four ways that martech will shift in 2021, strapped with anecdotes and a nod to the importance of investing in influencers.
Red ball on curved light blue paper, blue background. Image Credits: PM Images / Getty Images
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Thanks for reading along today and everyday. Sending love to my readers in India and everyone around the world that is facing yet another deadly surge of this horrible disease. I’m rooting for you.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
First and foremost, Equity was nominated for a Webby for “Best Technology Podcast”!!! Drop everything and go Vote for Equity! We’d appreciate it. A lot. And even if we lose, well, we’ll keep doing our thing and making each other laugh.
Natasha and Danny and Alex and Chris got together to chat through the week’s biggest news. And like every other week in recent memory, it was a busy one. But we did our best to hit some M&A news, some unicorn news, and some funding news from smaller startups.
Now, onto the show rundown, here’s what we discussed:
We’ll see you on Monday.
Google today announced a sizable update to its Anthos multicloud platform that lets you build, deploy and manage containerized applications anywhere, including on Amazon’s AWS and (in preview) on Microsoft Azure.
Version 1.7 includes new features like improved metrics and logging for Anthos on AWS, a new Connect gateway to interact with any cluster right from Google Cloud and a preview of Google’s managed control plane for Anthos Service Mesh. Other new features include Windows container support for environments that use VMware’s vSphere platform and new tools for developers to make it easier for them to deploy their applications to any Anthos cluster.
Today’s update comes almost exactly two years after Google CEO Sundar Pichai originally announced Anthos at its Cloud Next event in 2019 (before that, Google called this project the “Google Cloud Services Platform,” which launched three years ago). Hybrid and multicloud, it’s fair to say, takes a key role in the Google Cloud roadmap — and maybe more so for Google than for any of its competitors. Recently, Google brought on industry veteran Jeff Reed to become the VP of Product Management in charge of Anthos.
Reed told me that he believes that there are a lot of factors right now that are putting Anthos in a good position. “The wind is at our back. We bet on Kubernetes, bet on containers — those were good decisions,” he said. Increasingly, customers are also now scaling out their use of Kubernetes and have to figure out how to best scale out their clusters and deploy them in different environments — and to do so, they need a consistent platform across these environments. He also noted that when it comes to bringing on new Anthos customers, it’s really those factors that determine whether a company will look into Anthos or not.
He acknowledged that there are other players in this market, but he argues that Google Cloud’s take on this is also quite different. “I think we’re pretty unique in the sense that we’re from the cloud, cloud-native is our core approach,” he said. “A lot of what we talk about in [Anthos] 1.7 is about how we leverage the power of the cloud and use what we call “an anchor in the cloud” to make your life much easier. We’re more like a cloud vendor there, but because we support on-prem, we see some of those other folks.” Those other folks being IBM/Red Hat’s OpenShift and VMware’s Tanzu, for example.
The addition of support for Windows containers in vSphere environments also points to the fact that a lot of Anthos customers are classical enterprises that are trying to modernize their infrastructure, yet still rely on a lot of legacy applications that they are now trying to bring to the cloud.
Looking ahead, one thing we’ll likely see is more integrations with a wider range of Google Cloud products into Anthos. And indeed, as Reed noted, inside of Google Cloud, more teams are now building their products on top of Anthos themselves. In turn, that then makes it easier to bring those services to an Anthos-managed environment anywhere. One of the first of these internal services that run on top of Anthos is Apigee. “Your Apigee deployment essentially has Anthos underneath the covers. So Apigee gets all the benefits of a container environment, scalability and all those pieces — and we’ve made it really simple for that whole environment to run kind of as a stack,” he said.
I guess we can expect to hear more about this in the near future — or at Google Cloud Next 2021.
The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.
That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.
Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.
Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.
“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.
Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.
Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.
Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.
Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.
“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.
With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.
Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”
Earlier this week, ExxonMobil, a company among the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions and a longtime leader in the corporate fight against climate change regulations, called for a massive $100 billion project (backed in part by the government) to sequester hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide in geologic formations off the Gulf of Mexico.
The gall of Exxon’s flag-planting request is matched only by the grit from startup companies that are already working on carbon capture and storage or carbon utilization projects and announced significant milestones along their own path to commercialization even as Exxon was asking for handouts.
These are companies like Charm Industrial, which just completed the first pilot test of its technology through a contract with Stripe. That pilot project saw the company remove 416 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere. That’s a small fraction of the hundred million tons Exxon thinks could be captured in its hypothetical sequestration project located off the Gulf Coast, but the difference between Exxon’s proposal and Charm’s sequestration project is that Charm has actually managed to already sequester the carbon.
The company’s technology, verified by outside observers like Shopify, Microsoft, CarbonPlan, CarbonDirect and others, converts biomass into an oil-like substance and then injects that goop underground — permanently sequestering the carbon dioxide, the company said.
Eventually, Charm would use its bio-based oil equivalent to produce “green hydrogen” and replace pumped or fracked hydrocarbons in industries that may still require combustible fuel for their operations.
1/ Today we're announcing we've delivered @stripe's 416 ton CO₂e carbon removal purchase ahead of schedule, just 12 months after inventing our new carbon removal pathway. The carbon is now in permanent geological storage. https://t.co/ZIy2plK6n9
— Charm Industrial (@CharmIndustrial) April 20, 2021
While Charm is converting biomass into an oil-equivalent and pumping it back underground, other companies like CarbonCure, Blue Planet, Solidia, Forterra, CarbiCrete and Brimstone Energy are capturing carbon dioxide and fixing it in building materials.
“The easy way to think about CarbonCure we have a mission to reduce 500 million tons per year by 2030. On the innovation side of things we really pioneered this area of science using CO2 in a value-added, hyper low-cost way in the value chain,” said CarbonCure founder and chief executive Rob Niven. “We look at CO2 as a value added input into making concrete production. It has to raise profits.”
Niven stresses that CarbonCure, which recently won one half of the $20 million carbon capture XPrize alongside CarbonBuilt, is not a hypothetical solution for carbon dioxide removal. The company already has 330 plants operating around the world capturing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering them in building materials.
Applications for carbon utilization are important to reduce the emissions footprints of industry, but for nations to achieve their climate objectives, the world needs to move to dramatically reduce its reliance on emissions spewing energy sources and simultaneously permanently draw down massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.
It’s why the ExxonMobil call for a massive project to explore the permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide isn’t wrong, necessarily, just questionable coming from the source.
The U.S. Department of Energy does think that the Gulf Coast has geological formations that can store 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (which the company says is more than 130 years of the country’s total industrial and power generation emissions). But in ExxonMobil’s calculation that’s a reason to continue with business-as-usual (actually with more government subsidies for its business).
Here’s how the company’s top executives explained it in the pages of The Wall Street Journal:
The Houston CCS Innovation Zone concept would require the “whole of government” approach to the climate challenge that President Biden has championed. Based on our experience with projects of this scale, we estimate the approach could generate tens of thousands of new jobs needed to make and install the equipment to capture the CO2 and transport it via a pipeline for storage. Such a project would also protect thousands of existing jobs in industries seeking to reduce emissions. In short, large-scale CCS would reduce emissions while protecting the economy.
These oil industry executives are playing into a false narrative that the switch to renewable energy and a greener economy will cost the U.S. jobs. It’s a fact that oil industry jobs will be erased, but those jobs will be replaced by other opportunities, according to research published in Scientific American.
“With the more aggressive $60 carbon tax, U.S. employment would still exceed the reference-case forecast, but the increase would be less than that of the $25 tax,” write authors Marilyn Brown and Majid Ahmadi. “The higher tax causes much larger supply-side job losses, but they are still smaller than the gains in energy-efficiency jobs motivated by higher energy prices. Overall, 35 million job years would be created between 2020 and 2050, with net job increases in almost all regions.”
ExxonMobil and the other oil majors definitely have a role to play in the new energy economy that’s being built worldwide, but the leading American oil companies are not going to be able to rest on their laurels or continue operating with a business-as-usual mindset. These companies run the risk of going the way of big coal — slowly sliding into obsolescence and potentially taking thousands of jobs and local economies down with them.
To avoid that, carbon sequestration is a part of the solution, but it’s one of many arrows in the quiver that oil companies need to deploy if they’re going to continue operating and adding value to shareholders. In other words, it’s not the last 130 years of emissions that ExxonMobil should be focused on, it’s the next 130 years that aim to be increasingly zero-emission.
We all know these constant video calls are doing something to our brains. How else could we get tired and frazzled from sitting around in our own home all day? Well, now Microsoft has done a little brain science and found out that yeah, constant video calls do increase your stress and brain noise. Tell your boss!
The study had 14 people participate in eight half-hour video calls, divided into four a day — one day with 10-minute breaks between, and the other all in one block. The participants wore EEG caps: brain-monitoring gear that gives a general idea of types of activity in the old grey matter.
What they found is not particularly surprising, since we all have lived it for the last year (or more for already remote workers), but still important to show in testing. During the meeting block with no breaks, people showed higher levels of beta waves, which are associated with stress, anxiety and concentration. There were higher peaks and a higher average stress level, plus it increased slowly as time went on.
Taking 10-minute breaks kept stress readings lower on average and prevented them from rising. And they increased other measurements of positive engagement.
It’s certainly validating even if it seems obvious. And while EEG readings aren’t the most exact measurement of stress, they’re fairly reliable and better than a retrospective self-evaluation along the lines of “How stressed were you after the second meeting on a scale of 1-5?” And of course it wouldn’t be safe to take your laptop into an MRI machine. So while this evidence is helpful, we should be careful not to exaggerate it, or forget that the stress takes place in a complex and sometimes inequitable work environment.
For instance: A recent study published by Stanford shows that “Zoom Fatigue,” as they call it (a mixed blessing for Zoom), is disproportionately suffered by women. More than twice as many women as men reported serious post-call exhaustion — perhaps because women’s meetings tend to run longer and they are less likely to take breaks between them. Add to that the increased focus on women’s appearance and it’s clear this is not a simple “no one likes video calls” situation.
Microsoft, naturally, has tech solutions to the problems in its Teams product, such as adding buffer time to make sure meetings don’t run right into each other, or the slightly weird “together mode” that puts everyone’s heads in a sort of lecture hall (the idea being it feels more natural).
Stanford has a few recommendations, such as giving yourself permission to do audio only for a while each day, position the camera far away and pace around (make sure you’re dressed), or just turn off the self-view.
Ultimately the solutions can’t be entirely individual, though — they need to be structural, and though we may be leaving the year of virtual meetings behind, there can be no doubt there will be more of them going forward. So employers and organizers need to be cognizant of these risks and create policies that mitigate them — don’t just add to employee responsibilities. If anyone asks, tell them science said so.
Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company aiming to deploy robotaxis in San Francisco and Dubai, has added Walmart as an investor in an extended fundraising round that has grown to $2.75 billion.
The company said it has a post-money valuation of more than $30 billion. Walmart and several unnamed institutional investors added capital to a $2 billion equity round announced back in January that was led by Microsoft. The companies didn’t disclose Walmart’s exact investment. Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM, is also backed by Honda, Softbank Vision Fund and funds managed by T. Rowe Price.
Cruise has long been viewed — and described itself — as a company solely focused on launching a commercial scale robotaxi service. However, comments from Walmart CEO John Furner in a blog post published Thursday suggest that laser focus continues to widened beyond robotaxis and San Francisco.
“The investment will aid our work towards developing a last-mile delivery ecosystem that’s fast, low-cost and scalable,” Furner wrote in a blog post published Thursday morning. He later wrote “this investment is a marker for us.”
Cruise has experimented with delivery over the past several years even as its efforts around robotaxis took most of its attention and resources. For instance, Cruise and DoorDash completed in 2019 a delivery pilot in San Francisco. And when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into North America, prompting government lockdowns, Cruise paused its testing in San Francisco and started delivering prepared meals for two food banks.
Walmart and Cruise also already have a relationship. The companies announced in November 2020 plans to test grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Under the pilot program, the companies said that customers will be able to place an order from their local Walmart store and have it delivered via one of Cruise’s autonomous, electric Chevy Bolt cars. While the vehicles will operate autonomously, a human safety operator will always be behind the wheel.
Cruise is not Walmart’s only autonomous dancing partner. The retail giant has partnered with a handful of autonomous vehicle developers, including Waymo, to test out how the technology might eventually be used at a commercial scale. The retailer signed a deal in 2019 with startup Udelv to test the use of autonomous vans to deliver online grocery orders to customers in Surprise, Arizona. Autonomous delivery startup Nuro launched a pilot program with Walmart in Houston in 2020.
The retail giant participated in a pilot with Postmates and Ford in the Miami-Dade area and last year the retailer tapped AV startup Gatik to deliver customer online grocery orders from Walmart’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas.
A court in Houston has authorized an FBI operation to “copy and remove” backdoors from hundreds of Microsoft Exchange email servers in the United States, months after hackers used four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities to attack thousands of networks.
The Justice Department announced the operation on Tuesday, which it described as “successful.”
In March, Microsoft discovered a new China state-sponsored hacking group — Hafnium — targeting Exchange servers run from company networks. The four vulnerabilities when chained together allowed the hackers to break into a vulnerable Exchange server and steal its contents. Microsoft fixed the vulnerabilities but the patches did not close the backdoors from the servers that had already been breached. Within days, other hacking groups began hitting vulnerable servers with the same flaws to deploy ransomware.
The number of infected servers dropped as patches were applied. But hundreds of Exchange servers remained vulnerable because the backdoors are difficult to find and eliminate, the Justice Department said in a statement.
“This operation removed one early hacking group’s remaining web shells which could have been used to maintain and escalate persistent, unauthorized access to U.S. networks,” the statement said. “The FBI conducted the removal by issuing a command through the web shell to the server, which was designed to cause the server to delete only the web shell (identified by its unique file path).”
The FBI said it’s attempting to inform owners via email of servers from which it removed the backdoors.
Assistant attorney general John C. Demers said the operation “demonstrates the Department’s commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions.”
The Justice Department also said the operation only removed the backdoors, but did not patch the vulnerabilities exploited by the hackers to begin with or remove any malware left behind.
It’s believed this is the first known case of the FBI effectively cleaning up private networks following a cyberattack. In 2016, the Supreme Court moved to allow U.S. judges to issue search and seizure warrants outside of their district. Critics opposed the move at the time, fearing the FBI could ask a friendly court to authorized cyber-operations for anywhere in the world.
Other countries, like France, have used similar powers before to hijack a botnet and remotely shutting it down.
Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department commented by press time.
Microsoft is understandably positioning the latest additions to its Surface line as productivity devices. Laptop sales, in particular, have jumped amid the pandemic, as many have scrambled to shift to a work from home setting. With that in mind, the latest version of the Surface Laptop is far and away the headline item amid a new batch of devices.
The Surface Laptop 4 doesn’t seem to mark a massive upgrade to the line, arriving about a year and half after the previous model. Of course, the product has been one of the better received among the company’s proprietary hardware offerings, swapping the more creator-focused convertible models for a more straightforward approach. Sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.
Image Credits: Microsoft
Available with either a 13.5- or 15-inch touchscreen, the new Laptop sports either an 11th Gen Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor. The system’s lowest configuration will run $999, but Microsoft has yet to break down the pricing from there. The company is promising improved performance and increased battery life, over the 11.5 posted hours on the Laptop 3. The below video puts the new time at “up to 19 hours,” which big if true — and nice for when we all start traveling again.
The system builds on its predecessor’s HD webcam with the addition of improved low-light capabilities. That’s paired with a studio mic array. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to see companies paying attention to this stuff in the age of COVID-19, when a concerning percentage of our interpersonal communication occurs via webcam.
The design language is similar to earlier versions, though the company has swapped in a new Ice Blue color option. Microsoft is keeping that proprietary charging port around (fast charging will get you up to 80% in an hour). That’s coupled with USB A and C. There are a pair of Dolby Atmos speakers on board and the touchscreen works with the Surface Pen.
The Laptop is available for preorder today in the U.S., Canada and Japan, and starts shipping on April 15. The 13.5-inch AMD Ryzen with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage runs $999. On the high end, the 15-inch Intel Core i7 with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage is $2,399 (plus another $100 if you want to upgrade Windows 10 Home to Pro). The company is tossing in Surface Earbuds for early preorders.
The new Surface Laptop was the marquee arrival in today’s Microsoft announcement, but boy howdy, the company also dropped a whole bunch of new accessories. It’s a pretty broad range of new devices, including some small updates to existing products and entirely new entries. But there’s one clear through line across them all: Teams.
Microsoft is, after all, a software company at heart. That’s always fueled the company’s hardware products. So it’s really not a major surprise that its productivity software is the driving force here. After all, this is the company that was pushing Office integration on its earbuds.
Image Credits: Microsoft
Matter of fact, the company’s actually debuting a slight upgrade to its Surface Headphone line. The Headphones 2+ for Business. The big distinction here is the addition on-ear Teams control. The other additions to the well-received over-ear headphones are fairly minor (hence the telling “2+” name), including improved remote calling. They also run a bit of a premium at $299 to the Headphone 2’s $250. They’re shipping later this month.
Image Credits: Microsoft
The remainder of the new products fall under the “Modern” line, which currently also includes the Modern Mouse. Joining the Headphones are the Microsoft Modern USB and Wireless Headsets. Here the products get a dedicated Teams button for joining calls on MS’ platform. They’ll ship in June for $50 and $100, respectively.
Microsoft is also adding a 1080p webcam to the mix. The Modern Webcam has a 78-degree field of view and can shoot in HDR. There’s a privacy shutter on board, as well as software settings for things like auto white balance and facial retouching, if you’re so inclined. And yes, Teams certification. Can’t help but think this would have been a big hit this time last year, but for many working from home will be the new normal, going forward. That will ship in June for a reasonable $70.
Image Credits: Microsoft
The oddest addition is probably the Microsoft Modern USB-C Speaker. With Cortana seemingly dead in the water, Teams is once again the driving force here. It’s a desktop speaker with dual microphones designed for Teams calls and some light music listening. That one is also arriving in June, priced at $100.
Microsoft makes a big healthcare tech acquisition, Twitter is building a presence in Africa and Apple may be cooking up some new smart home products. This is your Daily Crunch for April 12, 2021.
The big story: Microsoft acquires Nuance for $19.7B
Microsoft announced this morning that it’s acquiring speech-to-text company Nuance Communications for $19.7 billion. It seems like the real focus here is on healthcare — Microsoft announced a Cloud for Healthcare last year, while Nuance’s industry products include Dragon Ambient eXperience, Dragon Medical One and PowerScribe One for radiology reporting.
“Today’s acquisition announcement represents the latest step in Microsoft’s industry-specific cloud strategy,” the company said in a blog post.
Analysts told us that this could help Microsoft fill in crucial gaps when it comes to both speech recognition and health data.
The tech giants
Apple and Google will both attend Senate hearing on app store competition — After it looked like Apple might no-show, the company has committed to sending a representative to a Senate antitrust hearing on app store competition later this month.
Twitter to set up its first African presence in Ghana — In a statement, Twitter said it is now actively building a team in Ghana “to be more immersed in the rich and vibrant communities that drive the conversations taking place every day across the continent.”
Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display — Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, according to Bloomberg.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Austin’s newest unicorn: The Zebra raises $150M after doubling revenue in 2020 — The Zebra started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool, and has added homeowners insurance as well.
Hardware is still hard in the Motor City — Astrohaus co-founder Adam Leeb describes the ups and downs of launching a hardware startup in Detroit.
EcoCart raises $3M for a Honey-like browser extension to offset shoppers’ carbon emissions — Brands pay the company a commission to drive traffic to their websites under a standard affiliate marketing model and EcoCart uses a portion of the proceeds to offset a shopper’s carbon emissions.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
How to choose and deploy industry-specific AI models — Organizations that seek the most accurate results from their AI projects will simply have to turn to industry-specific models.
UiPath’s first IPO pricing could be a warning to late-stage investors — The company’s first IPO price range failed to value the company where its final private backers expected it to.
Ride-hailing’s profitability promise is in its final countdown — The Exchange is back!
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
Biden’s cybersecurity dream team takes shape — President Biden has named two former National Security Agency veterans to senior government cybersecurity positions, including the first national cyber director.
Tech and auto execs tackle global chip shortage at White House summit — A collection of tech and auto industry executives met with the White House to discuss solutions for the worldwide chip shortage today.
How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it — We’ve already been telling you about TechCrunch’s new podcast Found, but now we’ve got the very first episode for your listening pleasure.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
When Microsoft announced it was acquiring Nuance Communications this morning for $19.7 billion, you could be excused for doing a Monday morning double take at the hefty price tag.
That’s surely a lot of money for a company on a $1.4 billion run rate, but Microsoft, which has already partnered with the speech-to-text market leader on several products over the last couple of years, saw a company firmly embedded in healthcare and it decided to go all in.
And $20 billion is certainly all in, even for a company the size of Microsoft. But 2020 forced us to change the way we do business from restaurants to retailers to doctors. In fact, the pandemic in particular changed the way we interact with our medical providers. We learned very quickly that you don’t have to drive to an office, wait in waiting room, then in an exam room, all to see the doctor for a few minutes.
Instead, we can get on the line, have a quick chat and be on our way. It won’t work for every condition of course — there will always be times the physician needs to see you — but for many meetings such as reviewing test results or for talk therapy, telehealth could suffice.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that Nuance is at the center of this shift, especially with its use of cloud and artificial intelligence, and that’s why the company was willing to pay the amount it did to get it.
“AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most urgent application. Together, with our partner ecosystem, we will put advanced AI solutions into the hands of professionals everywhere to drive better decision-making and create more meaningful connections, as we accelerate growth of Microsoft Cloud in Healthcare and Nuance,” Nadella said in a post announcing the deal.
Microsoft sees this deal doubling what was already a considerable total addressable market to nearly $500 billion. While TAMs always tend to run high, that is still a substantial number.
It also fits with Gartner data, which found that by 2022, 75% of healthcare organizations will have a formal cloud strategy in place. The AI component only adds to that number and Nuance brings 10,000 existing customers to Microsoft including some of the biggest healthcare organizations in the world.
Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says the deal could provide Microsoft with a ton of health data to help feed the underlying machine learning models and make them more accurate over time.
“There is going be a ton of health data being captured by the interactions coming through telemedicine interactions, and this could create a whole new level of health intelligence,” Leary told me.
That of course could drive a lot of privacy concerns where health data is involved, and it will be up to Microsoft, which just experienced a major breach on its Exchange email server products last month, to assure the public that their sensitive health data is being protected.
Leary says that ensuring data privacy is going to be absolutely key to the success of the deal. “The potential this move has is pretty powerful, but it will only be realized if the data and insights that could come from it are protected and secure — not only protected from hackers but also from unethical use. Either could derail what could be a game changing move,” he said.
Microsoft also seemed to recognize that when it wrote, “Nuance and Microsoft will deepen their existing commitments to the extended partner ecosystem, as well as the highest standards of data privacy, security and compliance.”
We are clearly on the edge of a sea change when it comes to how we interact with our medical providers in the future. COVID pushed medicine deeper into the digital realm in 2020 out of simple necessity. It wasn’t safe to go into the office unless absolutely necessary.
The Nuance acquisition, which is expected to close some time later this year, could help Microsoft shift deeper into the market. It could even bring Teams into it as a meeting tool, but it’s all going to depend on the trust level people have with this approach, and it will be up to the company to make sure that both healthcare providers and the people they serve have that.