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Microsoft announces the next perpetual release of Office

By Frederic Lardinois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok parent ByteDance joins patent troll protection group LOT Network

By Frederic Lardinois

LOT Network, the nonprofit that helps businesses of all sizes and across industries defend themselves against patent trolls by creating a shared pool of patents to immunize themselves against them, today announced that TikTik parent ByteDance is joining its group.

ByteDance has acquired its fair share of patents in recent years and is itself embroiled in a patent fight with its rival Triller. That’s not what joining the LOT Network is about, though. ByteDance is joining a group of companies here that includes the likes of IBM, the Coca-Cola Company, Cisco, Lyft, Microsoft, Oracle, Target, Tencent, Tesla, VW, Ford, Waymo, Xiaomi and Zelle. In total, the group now has more than 1,300 members.

As LOT CEO Ken Seddon told me, the six-year-old group had a record year in 2020, with 574 companies joining and bringing its set of immunized patents to over 3 million, including 14% of all patents issued in the U.S.

Among the core features of LOT, which only charges members who make more than $25 million in annual revenue, is that its members aren’t losing control over the patents they add to the pool. They can still buy and trade them as before, but if they decide to sell to what the industry calls a “patent assertion entity,” (PAE) that is, a patent troll, they automatically provide a free license to that patent to every other member of the group. This essentially turns LOT into what Seddon calls a “flu shot” against patent trolls (and one that’s free for startups).

“The conclusion that people are waking up to is, is that we’re basically like a herd, we’re herd immunization, effectively,” Seddon said. “And every time a company joins, people realize that the community of non-members shrinks by one. It’s like those that don’t have the vaccination shrinks — and they are, ‘wait a minute, that makes me a higher risk of getting sued. I’m a bigger target.’ And they’re like, ‘wait a minute, I don’t want to be the target.’ ”

ByteDance, he argues, is a good example for a company that can profit from membership in LOT. While you may think of patents as purely a sign of a company’s innovativeness, for corporate lawyers, they are also highly effective defense tools (that can be used aggressively as well, if needed). But it can take a small company years to build up a patent portfolio. But a fast-growing, successful company also becomes an obvious target for patent trolls.

“When you are a successful company, you naturally become a target,” Seddon said. “People become jealous and they become threatened by you. And they covet your money and your revenue and your success. One of the ways that companies can defend themselves and protect their innovation is through patents. Some companies grow so fast, they become so successful, that their revenue grows faster than they can grow their patent portfolio organically.” He cited Instacart, which acquired 250 patents from IBM earlier this month, and Airbnb, which was sued by IBM over patent infringement in early 2020 (the companies settled in December), as examples.

ByteDance, thanks to the success of TikTok, now finds itself in a situation where it, too, is likely to become a target of patent trolls. The company has started acquiring patents itself to grow its portfolio faster and now it is joining LOT to strengthen its protection there.

“[ByteDance] is being a visionary and trying to get ahead of the wave,” Seddon noted. “They are a successful global company that needs to develop a global IP strategy. Historically, PAEs were just a U.S. problem, but now ByteDance has to worry about PAEs being an issue in China and Europe as well.  By joining LOT, they protect themselves and their investments from over 3 million patents should they ever fall into the hands of a PAE.”

Lynn Wu, director and chief IP Counsel, Global IP and Digital Licensing Strategy at ByteDance, agrees. “Innovation is core to the culture at ByteDance, and we believe it’s important to protect our diverse technical and creative community,” she said in today’s announcement. “As champions for the fair use of IP, we encourage other companies to help us make the industry safer by joining LOT Network. If we work together, we can protect the industry from exploitation and continue advancing innovation, which is key to the growth and success of the entire community.”

There’s another reason companies are so eager to join the group now, though, and that’s because these patent assertion entities, which had faded into the background a bit in the mid-to late-2010s, may be making a comeback. The core assumption here is a bit gloomy: Many companies seem to assume we’re in for an economic downturn. If we hit a recession, a lot of patent holders will start looking at their patent portfolios and start selling off some of their more valuable patents in order to stay afloat. Because beggars can’t be choosers, that often means they’ll sell to a patent troll if that troll is the highest bidder. Last year, a patent troll sued Uber using a patent sold by IBM, for example (and IBM gets a bit of a bad rap for this, but, hey, it’s business).

That’s what happened after the last recession — though it typically takes a few years for the effect to be felt. Nothing in the patent world moves quickly.

Now, when LOT members sell to a troll, that troll can’t sue other LOT members over it. Take IBM, for example, which joined LOT last year.

“People give IBM a lot of grief and criticism for selling to PAEs, but at least IBM is giving everybody a chance to get a free license,” Seddon told me. “IBM joined LOT last year and what IBM is effectively doing is saying to everybody, ‘look, I joined LOT.’ And they put all of their entire patent portfolio into LOT. And they’re saying to everybody, ‘look, I have the right to sell my patents to anybody I want, and I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder. And if I sell it to a patent troll and you don’t join LOT — and if you get sued by a troll, is that my fault or your fault? Because if you join LOT, you could have gotten a free license.’ ”

Magical raises $3.3M to modernize calendars

By Frederic Lardinois

Calendars. They are at the core of how we organize our workdays and meetings, but despite regular attempts to modernize the overall calendar experience, the calendar experience you see today in Outlook or G Suite Google Workspace hasn’t really changed at its core. And for the most part, the area that startups like Calendly or ReclaimAI have focused on in recent years is scheduling.

Magical is a Tel Aviv-based startup that wants to reinvent the calendar experience from the ground up and turn it into more of a team collaboration tool than simply a personal time-management service. The company today announced that it has raised a $3.3 million seed round led by Resolute Ventures, with additional backing from Ibex Investors, Aviv Growth Partners, ORR Partners, Homeward Ventures and Fusion LA, as well as several angel investors in the productivity space.

The idea for the service came from discussions on Supertools, a large workplace-productivity community, which was also founded by Magical founder and CEO Tommy Barav.

Image Credits: Magical

Based on the feedback from the community — and his own consulting work with large Fortune 500 multinationals — Barav realized that time management remains an unsolved business problem. “The time management space is so highly fragmented,” he told me. “There are so many micro tools and frameworks to manage time, but they’re not built inside of your calendar, which is the main workflow.”

Traditional calendars are add-ons to bigger product bundles and find themselves trapped under those, he argues. “The calendar in Outlook is an email sidekick, but it’s actually the center of your day. So there is an unmet need to use the calendar as a time management hub,” he said.

Magical, which is still in private beta, aims to integrate many of the features we’re seeing from current scheduling and calendaring startups, including AI-scheduling and automation tools. But Magical’s ambition is larger than that.

Image Credits: Magical

“We want to redefine how you use a calendar in the first place,” Barav said. “Many of the innovations that we’ve seen are associated with scheduling: how you schedule your time, letting you streamline the way you schedule meetings, how you see your calendar. […] But we’re talking about redefining time management by giving you a better calendar, by bringing these workflows — scheduling, coordinating and utilizing — into your calendar. We’re redefining the use of the calendar in the modern workspace.”

Since Magical is still in its early days, the team is still working out some of the details, but the general idea is to, for example, turn the calendar into the central repository for meeting notes — and Magical will feature tools to collaborate on these notes and share them. Team members will also be able to follow those meeting notes without having to participate in the actual meeting (or get copied on the emails about that meeting).

“We’ll help teams reduce pointless meetings,” Barav noted. To do this, the team is also integrating other service into the calendar experience, including the usual suspects like Zoom and Slack, but also Salesforce and Notion, for example.

“It’s rare that you find an entrepreneur who has so clearly validated its market opportunity,” said Mike Hirshland, a founding partner of Magical investor Resolute Ventures. “Tommy and his team have been talking to thousands of users for three years, they’ve validated the opportunity, and they’ve designed a product from the ground-up that meets the needs of the market. Now it’s ‘go time’ and I’m thrilled to be part of the journey ahead.”

Microsoft offers new accessibility testing service for PC and Xbox games

By Devin Coldewey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems obvious to do this now. Image Credits: Microsoft

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

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

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

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

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

By Frederic Lardinois

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Dapr

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

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

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

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

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

 

Databricks brings its lakehouse to Google Cloud

By Frederic Lardinois

Databricks and Google Cloud today announced a new partnership that will bring to Databricks customers a deep integration with Google’s BigQuery platform and Google Kubernetes Engine. This will allow Databricks’ users to bring their data lakes and the service’s analytics capabilities to Google Cloud.

Databricks already features a deep integration with Microsoft Azure — one that goes well beyond this new partnership with Google Cloud — and the company is also an AWS partner. By adding Google Cloud to this list, the company can now claim to be the “only unified data platform available across all three clouds (Google, AWS and Azure).”

It’s worth stressing, though, that Databricks’ Azure integration is a bit of a different deal from this new partnership with Google Cloud. “Azure Databricks is a first-party Microsoft Azure service that is sold and supported directly by Microsoft. The first-party service is unique to our Microsoft partnership. Customers on Google Cloud will purchase directly from Databricks through the Google Cloud Marketplace,” a company spokesperson told me. That makes it a bit more of a run-of-the-mill partnership compared to the Microsoft deal, but that doesn’t mean the two companies aren’t just as excited about it.

“We’re delighted to deliver Databricks’ lakehouse for AI and ML-driven analytics on Google Cloud,” said Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian (or, more likely, one of the company’s many PR specialists who likely wrote and re-wrote this for him a few times before it got approved). “By combining Databricks’ capabilities in data engineering and analytics with Google Cloud’s global, secure network—and our expertise in analytics and delivering containerized applications—we can help companies transform their businesses through the power of data.”

Similarly, Databricks CEO Ali Ghodsi noted that he is “thrilled to partner with Google Cloud and deliver on our shared vision of a simplified, open, and unified data platform that supports all analytics and AI use-cases that will empower our customers to innovate even faster.”

And indeed, this is clearly a thrilling delight for everybody around, including customers like Conde Nast, whose Director of Data Engineering Nana Essuman is “excited to see leaders like Google Cloud and Databricks come together to streamline and simplify getting value from data.”

If you’re also thrilled about this, you’ll be able to hear more about it from both Ghodsi and Kurian at an event on April 6 that is apparently hosted by TechCrunch (though this is the first I’ve heard of it, too).

The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture-capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we — Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace — had more than a little to noodle over, but not so much that we blocked out a second episode. We try to stick to our current format, but, may do more shows in the future. Have a thought about that? equitypod@techcrunch.com is your friend and we are listening.

Now! We took a broad approach this week, so there is a little of something for everything down below. Enjoy!

Like we said, it’s a lot, but all of it worth getting into before the weekend. Hugs from the team, we are back early Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

By Mike Butcher

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Daily Crunch: Microsoft backs Cruise

By Anthony Ha

Autonomous vehicle company Cruise raises a $2 billion new round, Netflix keeps growing and WhatsApp faces more privacy concerns. This is your Daily Crunch for January 19, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft backs Cruise

Cruise announced today that it has raised $2 billion in new funding at a $30 billion valuation, with Microsoft joining as a new investor. (Previous backers GM and Honda also participated.)

This includes a long-term strategic partnership between the two companies, with Cruise using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform for its yet-to-launch autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service. Microsoft is also becoming the preferred cloud provider for GM as part of the deal.

“As Cruise and GM’s preferred cloud, we will apply the power of Azure to help them scale and make autonomous transportation mainstream,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a statement.

The tech giants

Netflix shares soar as it passes 200M paying subscribers — Netflix capped off a year of impressive streaming growth by adding 8.5 million net new paying subscribers during the fourth quarter.

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy over ‘grave concerns’ — India’s IT ministry said the upcoming update to the app’s data-sharing policy has raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens.”

Apple’s new editorial franchise, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, to highlight interesting creators — The editorial team at Apple will select new podcast creators to feature every month.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Rivian raises $2.65B as it pushes toward production of its electric pickup — Rivian is now valued at $27.6 billion.

PPRO nabs $180M at a $1B+ valuation to bring together the fragmented world of payments — The London startup has built a platform to make it easier for marketplaces, payment providers and other e-commerce players to enable localized payments.

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40M funding round — Last year, Google unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In 2020, VCs invested $428M into US-based startups every day
That’s according to data shared by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association.

Six investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities — “We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” said Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public — Bustle could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via SPAC.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’ —  A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance,” the European Commission said today.

Paramount+, the successor to CBS All Access, launches March 4 in the US, Canada and Latin America — The company had been touting its plans for the rebranded service since earlier last year.

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.

Microsoft invests in Cruise in new $2 billion round

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise has raised $2 billion in a new equity round that has pushed its valuation up to $30 billion and delivered Microsoft as an investor and partner.

GM, Honda and other institutional investors have also put more capital into Cruise as the autonomous vehicle company inches closer to commercializing its technology.

While Microsoft’s capital is important, the partnership might provide equal and longer-term value for Cruise, at least in the two companies’ views. Under the long-term strategic partnership, Cruise will use Azure, Microsoft’s cloud and edge computing platform, for its yet-to-be launched autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service.

Any autonomous vehicle company aiming to commercialize — meaning bring their tech to the public at scale — needs a robust cloud computing platform. Operating fleets of self-driving vehicles that will shuttle people and even packages generates a massive amount of data, making cloud services one of the bigger costs for an AV company.

Cruise’s partnership with Microsoft aims to provide benefits for both companies. Cruise will be able to lock in lower prices for cloud services and Microsoft will be able to test some of its bleeding-edge systems that can handle workloads needed to bring machine learning and robotics — like autonomous vehicles — to life and at scale.

“Advances in digital technology are redefining every aspect of our work and life, including how we move people and goods,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “As Cruise and GM’s preferred cloud, we will apply the power of Azure to help them scale and make autonomous transportation mainstream.”

The partnership extends to GM as well, according to Tuesday’s announcement. Microsoft will be GM’s preferred public cloud provider to help the automaker accelerate several of it digitization initiatives as well as streamline operations across digital supply chains.

The partnership will not only allow Cruise to accelerate the commercialization of its all-electric, self-driving vehicles, it helps “GM realize even more benefits from cloud computing as we launch 30 new electric vehicles globally by 2025 and create new businesses and services to drive growth, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said.

The pandemic was top of mind in the tech of CES 2021

By Brian Heater

Of course COVID-19 was bound to be an unavoidable topic during the first-ever all-virtual CES. After all, the topic is at front of mind regardless of the topic these days. Close to a year into the pandemic, presenters still understandably feel obligated to address the always-present elephant in the room. Sometimes it was as simple as acknowledging the strangeness of moving from the Las Vegas Convention Center to a Microsoft-powered virtual venue. Other times it felt far more forced.

When it comes to the technology itself, there’s no doubt that the pandemic is going to have a profound effect on the industry for years to come, from health measures to remote work setups. Sometimes it’s a genuinely organic evolution aimed at adapting technology to an ever-changing world. In other cases, it can feel far more exploitative — like the consumer electronics equivalent to a beer commercial discussing “these uncertain times.”

I’ve written a lot about how the pandemic will impact robotics and AI going forward. The short version is that companies will no doubt be more enthusiastic about embracing these technologies, after bumping up against the limitations of a human workforce with a deadly and highly contagious virus spreading across the world.

We saw some glimpses of robotics’ response. Though there tends to be a far longer lead time than in the consumer category. The clearest and most immediate example had to be the prevalence of UV outfitted robotics. LG, Ubtech and Ava Robotics all bombarded my inbox with their take on the category. The desire for disinfecting technology should be clear during a pandemic, and robotics offer both a way to automate a dull and repetitious process like this, while removing a potential human viral vector from the equation.

Image Credits: Razer

UV disinfecting made appearances in a number of other form factors. Phones have been a target for the tech for a few years now. After all, it didn’t take COVID-19 to teach us that smartphones are mobile petri dishes we watch TikToks on. Products like CleanPhone from Canadian startup Glissner are looking to enter a space that’s been thus far dominated by PhoneSoap, which was genuinely ahead of the curve on the phenomenon.

Targus’s keyboard may well have been the most widely reported-on UV solution of the show, because, well, it’s a bit wacky, with an ultraviolet lamp that sits above it.

Masks are another piece of the puzzle that have slowly been infiltrating the show, but really hit a fever pitch this year. Obviously wearing a face mask in public is only a new phenomenon in some countries — in other parts of the world like East Asia it’s long been a normal part of life. Last year, Portland-based Ao Air grabbed some headlines with its own take on the category.

Razer’s Project Hazel was undoubtedly the most prominent mask to debut at the show. It’s big and flashy and a bit of a diversion for a company that primarily trades in gaming peripherals. The N95 mask sports LEDs to indicate charging status and make the wearer’s face visible in dark surroundings. There’s also technology built in to make the wearer’s voice clearer. For the moment, however, it’s hard to see them as much beyond a headline grabber.

One piece I genuinely expected to see more of was remote work. We caught glimpses, like the Dell monitor with Microsoft Teams conferencing built in. Microsoft pitched its new Surface as a remote work machine, but frankly, it didn’t feel any more targeted at that vertical than any other portable Surface.

No doubt many of the innovations companies are working on will have to wait until CES 2022. Fingers crossed, we’ll see them next year in Vegas.

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records

By Darrell Etherington

A new cross-industry initiative is seeking to establish a standard for digital vaccination records that can be used universally to identify COVID-19 vaccination status for individuals, in a way that can be both secure via encryption and traceable and verifiable for trustworthiness regarding their contents. The so-called ‘Vaccination Credential Initiative’ includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and the tech industry, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and Epic, as well as the Mayo Clinic, Safe Health, Change Healthcare and the CARIN Alliance to name a few.

The effort is beginning with existing, recognized standards already in use in digital healthcare programs, like the SMART Health Cards specification, which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) which is a standard created for use in digital health records to make them interoperable between providers. The final product that the initiative aims to establish is an “encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for individuals who don’t own or prefer not to use smartphones.

Vaccination credentials aren’t a new thing – they’ve existed in some form or another since the 1700s. But their use and history is also mired in controversy and accusations of inequity, since this is human beings we’re dealing with. And already with COVID-19, there efforts underway to make access to certain geographies dependent upon negative COVID-19 test results (though such results don’t actually guarantee that an individual doesn’t actually have COVID-19 or won’t transfer it to others).

A recent initiative by LA County specifically also is already providing digital immunization records to individuals via a partnership with Healthvana, facilitated by Apple’s Wallet technology. But Healthvana’s CEO and founder was explicit in telling me that that isn’t about providing a proof of immunity for use in deterring an individual’s social or geographic access. Instead, it’s about informing and supporting patients for optimal care outcomes.

It sounds like this initiative is much more about using a COVID-19 immunization record as a literal passport of sorts. It’s right in the name of the initiative, for once (‘Credential’ is pretty explicit). The companies involved also at least seem cognizant of the potential pitfalls of such a program, as MITRE’s chief digital health physician Dr. Brian Anderson said that “we are working to ensure that underserved populations have access to this verification,” and added that “just as COVID-19 does not discriminate based on socio-economic status, we must ensure that convenient access to records crosses the digital divide.”

Other quotes from Oracle and Salesforce, and additional member leaders confirm that the effort is focused on fostering a reopening of social and economic activity, including “resuming travel,” get[ting] back to public life,” and “get[ting] concerts and sporting events going again.” Safe Health also says that they’ll help facility a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Given the urgency of solutions that can lead to a safe re-opening, and a way to keep tabs on the massive, global vaccination program that’s already underway, it makes sense that a modern approach would include a digital version of historic vaccination record systems. But such an approach, while it leverages new conveniences and modes made possible by smartphones and the internet, also opens itself up to new potential pitfalls and risks that will no doubt be highly scrutinized, particularly by public interest groups focused on privacy and equitable treatment.

Stacklet raises $18M for its cloud governance platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Stacklet, a startup that is commercializing the Cloud Custodian open-source cloud governance project, today announced that it has raised an $18 million Series A funding round. The round was led by Addition, with participation from Foundation Capital and new individual investor Liam Randall, who is joining the company as VP of business development. Addition and Foundation Capital also invested in Stacklet’s seed round, which the company announced last August. This new round brings the company’s total funding to $22 million.

Stacklet helps enterprises manage their data governance stance across different clouds, accounts, policies and regions, with a focus on security, cost optimization and regulatory compliance. The service offers its users a set of pre-defined policy packs that encode best practices for access to cloud resources, though users can obviously also specify their own rules. In addition, Stacklet offers a number of analytics functions around policy health and resource auditing, as well as a real-time inventory and change management logs for a company’s cloud assets.

The company was co-founded by Travis Stanfield (CEO) and Kapil Thangavelu (CTO). Both bring a lot of industry expertise to the table. Stanfield spent time as an engineer at Microsoft and leading DealerTrack Technologies, while Thangavelu worked at Canonical and most recently in Amazon’s AWSOpen team. Thangavelu is also one of the co-creators of the Cloud Custodian project, which was first incubated at Capital One, where the two co-founders met during their time there, and is now a sandbox project under the Cloud Native Computing Foundation’s umbrella.

“When I joined Capital One, they had made the executive decision to go all-in on cloud and close their data centers,” Thangavelu told me. “I got to join on the ground floor of that movement and Custodian was born as a side project, looking at some of the governance and security needs that large regulated enterprises have as they move into the cloud.”

As companies have sped up their move to the cloud during the pandemic, the need for products like Stacklets has also increased. The company isn’t naming most of its customers, but one of them is FICO, among a number of other larger enterprises. Stacklet isn’t purely focused on the enterprise, though. “Once the cloud infrastructure becomes — for a particular organization — large enough that it’s not knowable in a single person’s head, we can deliver value for you at that time and certainly, whether it’s through the open source or through Stacklet, we will have a story there.” The Cloud Custodian open-source project is already seeing serious use among large enterprises, though, and Stacklet obviously benefits from that as well.

“In just 8 months, Travis and Kapil have gone from an idea to a functioning team with 15 employees, signed early Fortune 2000 design partners and are well on their way to building the Stacklet commercial platform,” Foundation Capital’s Sid Trivedi said. “They’ve done all this while sheltered in place at home during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. This is the type of velocity that investors look for from an early-stage company.”

Looking ahead, the team plans to use the new funding to continue to developed the product, which should be generally available later this year, expand both its engineering and its go-to-market teams and continue to grow the open-source community around Cloud Custodian.

Microsoft’s latest business-focused Surface is focused on remote work

By Brian Heater

As CES starts in earnest today, I anticipate we’ll be seeing a lot of hardware focused on remote work. PC sales saw a nice spike last year, even as smartphone sales continued to slip. There was a lot of adapting that needed to be done, moving from offices to virtual work places, and now we’re beginning to see the fruits of that push from hardware makers.

The new Surface Pro 7+ certainly seems to fit the bill. I’m still hesitant to recommend a convertible with a keyboard case as a primary productivity device, but people do seem increasingly willing to move in that direction.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Top line features include optional LTE and faster processing (up to 2.1x per Microsoft’s numbers) via an 11th Gen Intel Core processor. That’s paired with up to 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. There’s a 1080p front-facing webcam for video conferences and a quartet of mics.

Ports include one full-size USB-A and that pesky Surface connector and, unfortunately, only a single USB-C. Microsoft seems pretty committed to that last bit, to its detriment. The device should get up to 15 hours of battery on a charge — which isn’t exceptional, but isn’t bad either.

It starts at $899 for the Wi-Fi version and $1,149 for LTE. Pre-order starts today and it will ship next week. Speaking of shipping, the already announced Surface Hub 2S 85 whiteboard is finally set to do just that next month in “select markets.”

SilviaTerra wants to bring the benefits of carbon offsets to every landowner everywhere

By Jonathan Shieber

Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilivaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue generating carbon offsets.

As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multi-billion dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated ten years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.

That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the 1 trillion trees initiative, Marc Benioff .

“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere*. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”

For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.

After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SiliviaTerra.

SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilivaTerra

The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.

While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S. the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the US each year.

The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for moset landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.

There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.

To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SiliviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.

That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.

Working with AI for Earth, TierraSilva created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes ofsatellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the US Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.

With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.

Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and try to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”

The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.

Landowners involved in SilivaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”

Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.

It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”

The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways its an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.

Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.

“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.” 

Minecraft Earth will shut down in June

By Greg Kumparak

Throughout 2019, Microsoft experimented with building a real world, augmented reality Minecraft game designed in the same vein as Pokémon GO. Called Minecraft Earth, they finally opened it up to everyone in November of 2019.

In just a few months, it’ll shut down and all player data will be deleted.

So what happened? Writes the Minecraft Earth team:

Minecraft Earth was designed around free movement and collaborative play – two things that have become near impossible in the current global situation. As a result, we have made the difficult decision to re-allocate our resources to other areas that provide value to the Minecraft community and to end support for Minecraft Earth in June 2021.

In other words: this game just isn’t going to work in a pandemic. Pokémon GO might be doing just fine thanks to a strong foundation of super dedicated players and a steady stream of curious newcomers, but it’d be pretty damned hard to go from zero to sixty with a real world game when everyone is supposed to be staying at home.

What happens next:

  • The team is releasing one final patch that removes all in-app purchases and makes all in-game mechanics easier/faster
  • On June 30th, the game shuts down. Even if you’ve got it installed already, it’ll stop working.
  • On July 1st, they’re deleting all player data.
  • Anyone who has spent any money in Minecraft Earth is getting a free copy of Minecraft Bedrock version, and players who have unused Minecraft Earth rubies will get an unspecified amount of Minecoins that’ll work in Minecraft-proper’s marketplace

It’s a disappointing end to what was really a pretty cool concept — but if they’re announcing its shutdown barely a year after launch, the data probably suggest there’s not much else they can do.

This will be our last update, so we made it a good one! Please enjoy and thank you for being a part of the community!

🏆 Introducing the Super Season
🎩 New Character Creator items
⏱ Reduced time for crafting & smelting
🐑🐄🐖🐇🐓 So many new mobs

https://t.co/OBpzUcz2Ckpic.twitter.com/Dnl9R9HQLP

— Minecraft Earth (@minecraftearth) January 5, 2021

Dell monitors embrace video calls with pop-up webcams and Teams buttons built in

By Devin Coldewey

Dell’s latest monitors reflect the growing need for simple, solid solutions to video conferencing needs, with a clever pop-up camera and a perhaps too clever by half Teams integration. The new displays integrate a number of advanced features — but they’re still made strictly with offices in mind.

The new Dell 24, 27, and 34 Video Conferencing Monitors are clearly meant to be a turnkey solution to the need at many companies for video-capable setups that don’t cost a fortune.

The most interesting feature is a pop-up camera at the top; this isn’t the first one of these by far (we’ve seen them going back a few years) or even the first by Dell, but it is the first in a monitor as opposed to an all-in-one system and it is probably the best one yet.

Dell's monitor has a pop-up camera.

Image Credits: Dell

The five-megapixel camera (which translates to somewhat more than 1080p, likely around 3K) won’t blow any minds, so if you want things like optical background blur and improved lighting, you’ll have to build your own setup. But it should be perfectly fine for work calls, and having it slip away when not in use is reassuring to the privacy-conscious.

An additional, non-obvious reason to like this setup is it means the camera isn’t confined to the bezel of the monitor itself, possibly allowing for a better lens and bigger sensor. I’ve asked Dell for the detailed specs and I don’t expect anything extraordinary, but it’s always better to have space than to pack the camera module into the margins.

At the bottom of these new screens is a pleasantly felted speaker bar, with just enough wattage for calls to sound fine — it won’t work for bangers, though.

But on the left side of that speaker are some interesting, if not entirely practical, new buttons. Most prominent is a dedicated Microsoft Teams button, along with call, volume, and mute buttons.

Close up of Teams button on Dell monitor.

Image Credits: Dell

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want one of those. And not just because we don’t use Teams.

Maybe this is just me, but I don’t like the idea of reaching forward and whacking my monitor, which I’ve carefully positioned, every time I want to adjust the volume or answer a call, or mute myself — good luck doing it subtly when the whole view shakes every time. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want a button dedicated specifically to a single brand of video conferencing. Seems limiting.

I would be far more likely to pay for a puck with those controls on it as well as a mono speaker for voices and mic that’s closer to me.

No doubt this is a simpler product solution, of course, and also one that Microsoft and Dell worked together on. The pop-up webcam also has an IR camera that works with Windows Hello, the face-recognition login method I didn’t realize existed until very recently.

Obviously this is Dell and Microsoft going after enterprise customers who are already in their ecosystem. But as a Dell monitor lover myself, I wouldn’t mind having a pop-up camera — minus the unnecessary sound bar and Teams button. Where’s the love, Dell?

The new video conferencing monitors will be available next month, starting at $520 for a 24-inch, then going up to $720 for the 27-inch and $1,150 for the (curved) 34-inch.

Nintendo buys Canadian game studio in rare acquisition

By Lucas Matney

While gaming giants Sony and Microsoft have made M&A a critical part of their strategic growth plans, Nintendo has always seemed to be more reluctant to bring outside talent into the fold of its video game empire. Today, the company announced that it will be acquiring the developer behind Luigi’s Mansion 3, Canada-based Next Level Games.

Nintendo’s announcement is the first studio acquisition for the company since their 2007 purchase of Xenoblade Chronicles developer Monolith Soft.

Next Level Games has been working on Nintendo-licensed IP exclusively for the better part of the last decade, crafting a number of titles across some of the company’s second tier of intellectual property including the Super Mario Strikers series as well as mobile iterations of Metroid Prime and Luigi’s Mansion. The studio’s recent Luigi’s Mansion 3 title for the Nintendo Switch has been a pretty huge success for the company which has had pretty light offerings of first-party IP since the system’s launch.

In a recent earnings report, Nintendo shared that Luigi’s Mansion 3 had sold nearly 8 million copies, earning it a spot as one of the system’s top-selling titles.

It’s not just you, Slack is struggling this morning

By Alex Wilhelm

Slack did its best to ease the working world back into their jobs this morning by breaking, ensuring that everyone’s return to the grind would be as chaotic and unproductive as possible.

Precisely when the downtime began is not clear, though problems amongst the TechCrunch staff began a little after 10 o’clock in the morning. Slack itself posted at 10:14 a.m. Eastern Time that there was a problem:

Downtime issues are not new for the workplace chat application that went public in mid-2019, before announcing a deal to sell itself to Salesforce toward the end of 2020. TechCrunch covered the service’s uptime issues in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and so forth.

The downtime is embarrassing, as Slack is in the midst of selling itself for a hefty check. For a service designed to help folks work, falling apart precisely when the users — customers! — you serve are trying to gear back up for a working year is simply awful.

I suppose we can call one another until Slack is back up.

To close, here’s the view from Redmond, with its competing Teams product:

Update: Slack sent TechCrunch a statement, saying the following:

Our teams are aware and are investigating the issue. We know how important it is for people to stay connected and we are working hard to get everyone running as normal. For the latest updates please keep an eye on @slackstatus and status.slack.com.

Yayzy app automatically calculates the environmental impact of your spending

By Mike Butcher

Ahead of the turning of the New Year, many people are wishing they could do something about the environment. Now, a U.K. startup hopes to make our environmental impact more personal.

Yayzy has now launched an iOS app (Android is coming) which literally links to your bank account to work out the environmental impact of what you buy. It uses payment data via Open Banking standards to automatically calculate the carbon footprint of each purchase a user makes, giving them a picture of their total monthly carbon emissions. This makes the carbon footprint calculated more accurate and bespoke to the individual, allowing them to immediately connect their spending to its impact on the planet.

Yayzy has secured £900,000 in backing from Antler Venture Capital, Seedrs (a crowdfunding round) and the CoreAngels Impact Fund. As the user sees what the carbon footprint is of their purchase, they can choose to offset it right then and there on the app via the carbon offsetter Ecosphere Plus. In the app, users can also find tips to reduce their carbon footprint, eco-friendly retailers near them or insights into lifestyle choices that have the highest environmental impact.

Their competitors are people like CoGo, a real-time Carbon Footprint tracker, and and Doconomy and the soon to launch Tred.

But Yayzy is taking a different approach. It brings together all of a user’s spending and shows them item by item as they spend, what the carbon footprint of that spend is. So far – it claims – its competitors don’t do that.

Yayzy app. Image Credits: Yayzy

This can be done ad hoc, item by item, or by signing up to a monthly subscription to either carbon offsetting projects or the user’s own unique climate portfolio. This portfolio would bundle multiple projects together for a more ‘holistic’ impact. Yayzy says all of these projects have been carefully selected based on strict criteria, and also advance the UN Sustainable development goals.

For its underlying carbon data, Yayzy is using Vital Metrics https://www.vitalmetricsgroup.com/
as used by Google, Microsoft and both the UK and US governments, among others.

Mankaran Ahluwalia, cofounder and CEO of Yayzy said in a statement: “While emissions have gradually risen as lockdown eases, YAYZY wants to put us all in the driver’s seat to control our own environmental impact… It is clear from a plethora of surveys that the majority of people want to address climate change before it is too late, but that a huge intention/action gap blocks much of it. Our solution with Yayzy is to make environmental impact ‘up close and personal’ and the action to tackle it super easy, all via your phone.”

Ahluwalia, was as a technology analyst with Infosys and built a lending platform for alternate credit. Cofounder Cristian Dan, CTO, previously built a discounts platform and cofounder Pedro Cabrero, CFO was in equity sales and trading for UBS and Citigroup, and co-founded the a leading online pharmacy in Mexico.

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