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Yesterday — December 4th 2020Your RSS feeds

China Stakes Its Claim to Quantum Supremacy

By Tom Simonite
Google trumpeted its quantum computer that outperformed a conventional supercomputer. A Chinese group says it's done the same, with different technology.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Ivanti has acquired security firms MobileIron and Pulse Secure

By Zack Whittaker

IT security software company Ivanti has acquired two security companies: enterprise mobile security firm MobileIron, and corporate virtual network provider Pulse Secure.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ivanti said it bought MobileIron for $872 million in stock, with 91% of the shareholders voting in favor of the deal; and acquired Pulse Secure from its parent company Siris Capital Group, but did not disclose the buying price.

The deals have now closed.

Ivanti was founded in 2017 after Clearlake Capital, which owned Heat Software, bought Landesk from private equity firm Thoma Bravo, and merged the two companies to form Ivanti. The combined company, headquartered in Salt Lake City, focuses largely on enterprise IT security, including endpoint, asset, and supply chain management. Since its founding, Ivanti went on to acquire several other companies, including U.K.-based Concorde Solutions and RES Software.

If MobileIron and Pulse Secure seem familiar, both companies have faced their fair share of headlines this year after hackers began exploiting vulnerabilities found in their technologies.

Just last month, the U.K. government’s National Cyber Security Center published an alert that warned of a remotely executable bug in MobileIron, patched in June, allowing hackers to break into enterprise networks. U.S. Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisory unit CISA said that the bug was being actively used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups, typically associated with state-backed hackers.

Meanwhile, CISA also warned that Pulse Secure was one of several corporate VPN providers with vulnerabilities that have since become a favorite among hackers, particularly ransomware actors, who abuse the bugs to gain access to a network and deploy the file-encrypting ransomware.

‘Complete Success’: Rocket Lab’s booster recovery is a big step toward reusability

By Devin Coldewey

Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first stage of an Electron launch vehicle after it made a controlled splashdown in the Atlantic, marking a major milestone in the company’s quest for a reusable rocket. CEO Peter Beck, speaking to press shortly after the operation, called the mission “a complete success” — and it raised $286,092 for charity to boot.

This was the first major test of Rocket Lab’s improved Electron, which has a modified interstage (above the first stage booster but below the second stage, which takes the payload into orbit) that allows the booster to make a controlled descent after detaching.

The plan for the future is to have a helicopter catch the booster in mid-air, but this first time the team decided to let it splash down first. “Pulling rockets out of the ocean is just not fun,” Beck noted.

Before the mission even starts, a general idea of the descent area is already known, since the trajectory of the rocket has been carefully planned and the weather monitored closely. And as the launch proceeds, the projected descent area becomes more and more clear based on information streamed from the rocket itself.

“Downrange we’ll have a ship and a helicopter based on the ship. It’ll take off at the same time as the rocket and hover over the predicted reentry point,” explained Beck. “The moment we hand over to stage one, it is telemetrying its predicted impact point in real time. The whole time there’s sort of a real time feedback loop.”

He pointed out that, should something go wrong with the launch, the helicopter is not at risk of being struck by debris going 900 miles per hour, since the trajectory be completely different in that case.

After the second stage detached, the first began its descent, hitting about mach 2 before deploying its pilot chute, then a drogue chute for about a minute to get its speed down, then the main glider chute under which it would normally cruise along a predictable path until being picked up by the helicopter. In this case it was allowed to splash down, however, “within a few miles” of the predicted impact zone. It was going about 9 meters per second, or 20 miles per hour, when it hit the water.

The Electron first stage appears to be in good condition after recovery.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Beck was back at mission control, and happy to be so, he said. “Based on the state of the sea, I’m glad I wasn’t out on the boat. The trip back was on 5-meter swells. I don’t have particularly strong sea legs myself,” he admitted. The descending stage was sending back sparse but accurate telemetry, however, which he was watching as the second stage continued its journey. “It felt like cheating, to take your eyes off the ascent to watch the reentry.”

(He added that “if you were in the room, you’d probably have described me as a giggling schoolboy.” Another Rocket Lab representative on the call confirmed this assessment.)

The recovery ship collected the booster shortly after splashdown and engineers are even now tearing it apart to examine the various parts for wear and damage. “The reentry environments exceed the ascent environments,” Beck explained, meaning that the hardware faces different and more severe conditions in its semi-controlled descent than in the meticulously planned launch.

Although they hope to requalify some components for flight, the engines and a few other parts will not live to launch another day. “It’d be pretty unfair on the engines given the ride they had. It got pretty roasty down there,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab's Return to Sender mission takes off.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

That’s all part of the plan, though: using data from this descent the first stage’s heat shield and components will be modified and reinforced to better cope with the rigors of reentry. “We’ll do engines in the future,” Beck said. “The goal is to take the whole stage, charge it up, and fly it again.”

Simple to propose, but a complex task in that every component must be checked and recertified. But given this can be done in parallel with the main Electron production line — which Beck said is turning out a launch vehicle every 30 days and getting faster every month — it should lead to a substantial increase to the number of rockets the company has on hand.

The cost impact of recovery, flying recertified hardware, and other aspects of this are still very much in flux, Beck emphasized. “But the majority of the cost of building an Electron is the stage one, so if you can change that, you can change the economics of the vehicle. It would be nice to have it all figured out next year but it’s very possible it won’t be,” he said.

One thing seems certain, though: reusable rockets are clearly the future if cost is a factor at all.

The launch was a great success in another measure as well: Among its numerous deployments was a 3D printed gnome whose ride was paid for by gaming giant Valve Software founder Gabe Newell . He promised to donate a dollar to Starship Children’s Hospital for every view on the launch’s live stream, and that added up to $286,092.

Gnome Chompski, as he’s called, probably burned up by now, but had a brief and exciting life in space, producing some memorable photos.

A 3D printed gnome in space after being launched on a Rocket Lab rocket.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Splunk acquires network observability service Flowmill

By Frederic Lardinois

Data platform Splunk continues to make acquisitions as it works to build out its recently launched observability platform. After acquiring Plumbr and Rigor last month, the company today announced that it has acquired Flowmill, a Palo Alto-based network observability startup. Flowmill focuses on helping its users find network performance issues in their cloud infrastructure in real time and measure their traffic by service to help them control cost.

Like so many other companies in this space now, Flowmill utilizes eBPF, the Linux kernel’s relatively new capability to run sandboxed code inside it without having to change the kernel or load kernel modules. That makes it ideal for monitoring applications.

“Observability technology is rapidly increasing in both sophistication and ability to help organizations revolutionize how they monitor their infrastructure and applications. Flowmill’s innovative NPM solution provides real-time observability into network behavior and performance of distributed cloud applications, leveraging extended Berkeley Packet Filter (eBPF) technologies,” said Tim Tully, Splunk’s chief technology officer. “We’re excited to bring Flowmill’s visionary NPM technology into our Observability Suite as Splunk continues to deliver best-in-class observability capabilities to our customers.”

While Spunk has made some larger acquisitions, including its $1.05 billion purchase of SignalFx, it’s building out its observability platform by picking up small startups that offer very specific capabilities. It could probably build all of these features in-house, but the company clearly believes that it has to move fast to get a foothold in this growing market as enterprises look for new observability tools as they modernize their tech stacks.

“Flowmill’s approach to building systems that support full-fidelity, real-time, high-cardinality ingestions and analysis aligns well with Splunk’s vision for observability,” said Flowmill CEO Jonathan Perry. “We’re thrilled to join Splunk and bring eBPF, next-generation NPM to the Splunk Observability Suite.”

The companies didn’t disclose the purchase price, but Flowmill previously raised funding from Amplify, Felicis Ventures, WestWave Capital and UpWest.

Australia’s spy agencies caught collecting COVID-19 app data

By Zack Whittaker

Australia’s intelligence agencies have been caught “incidentally” collecting data from the country’s COVIDSafe contact-tracing app during the first six months of its launch, a government watchdog has found.

The report, published Monday by the Australian government’s inspector general for the intelligence community, which oversees the government’s spy and eavesdropping agencies, said the app data was scooped up “in the course of the lawful collection of other data.”

But the watchdog said that there was “no evidence” that any agency “decrypted, accessed or used any COVID app data.”

Incidental collection is a common term used by spies to describe the data that was not deliberately targeted but collected as part of a wider collection effort. This kind of collection isn’t accidental, but more of a consequence of when spy agencies tap into fiber optic cables, for example, which carries an enormous firehose of data. An Australian government spokesperson told one outlet, which first reported the news, that incidental collection can also happen as a result of the “execution of warrants.”

The report did not say when the incidental collection stopped, but noted that the agencies were “taking active steps to ensure compliance” with the law, and that the data would be “deleted as soon as practicable,” without setting a firm date.

For some, fears that a government spy agency could access COVID-19 contact-tracing data was the worst possible outcome.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries — and states in places like the U.S. — have rushed to build contact-tracing apps to help prevent the spread of the virus. But these apps vary wildly in terms of functionality and privacy.

Most have adopted the more privacy-friendly approach of using Bluetooth to trace people with the virus with which you may have come into contact. Many have chosen to implement the Apple-Google system, which hundreds of academics have backed. But others, like Israel and Pakistan, are using more privacy-invasive techniques, like tracking location data, which governments can also use to monitor a person’s whereabouts. In Israel’s case, the tracking was so controversial that the courts shut it down.

Australia’s intelligence watchdog did not say specifically what data was collected by the spy agencies. The app uses Bluetooth and not location data, but the app requires the user to upload some personal information — like their name, age, postal code and phone number — to allow the government’s health department to contact those who may have come into contact with an infected person.

Australia has seen more than 27,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 900 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

LA-based Boulevard raises $27 million for its spa management software

By Jonathan Shieber

Boulevard, a spa management and payment platform, has raised $27 million in a new round of funding despite a business slowdown caused by the COVID0-19 pandemic.

Founded four years ago by Matt Danna and Sean Stavropoulos, Boulevard was inspired by Stavropoulos’ inability to book a haircut and Danna’s hunch that the inability of salons and spas to cater to customers like the busy programmer could be indicative of a bigger problem.

The two spent months pounding the pavement in Los Angeles pretending to be college students doing research on the industry. They spoke with salon owners in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and other trendy neighborhoods trying to get a sense of where software and services were falling short.

Through those months of interviews the two developed the booking management and payment platform that would become Boulevard. The inspiration was one part Shopify and one part ServiceTitan, Danna said.

The idea was that Boulevard could build a pretty large business catering to the needs of a niche industry that hadn’t traditionally been exposed to a purpose-built toolkit for its vertical.

Investors including Index Ventures, Toba Capital, VMG Partners, Bonfire Ventures, Ludlow Ventures and BoxGroup agreed.

That could be because of the size of the industry. There is more than $250 billion spent per year across roughly 3 million businesses in the salon and spa category, according to data provided by the company. By comparison, fitness attracts roughly $34 billion in annual spending from 150,000 businesses.

“With limited access to the professionals that help us look and feel our best, I think the world has realized something that our team has always recognized: Salons and spas are more than a luxury, they are essential to our well-being,” said Danna, in a statement. “We are humbled that so many businesses are placing their trust in us during such a turbulent time. This new capital will help accelerate our mission and deliver value to salons and spas that they never imagined was possible from technology.”

According to data provided by the company, Boulevard is definitely giving businesses a boost. On average, businesses increase bookings by 16%, retail revenue jumps by 18% and gratuity paid out to stylists jumps by 24% for businesses that use Boulevard, the company said. It also reduces no-shows and cancellations, and halves time spent on the phone.  

“Boulevard is revitalizing the salon and spa industry, as evidenced by the company’s sustained 300-400% revenue growth over the last three years,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, whose firm led the company’s Series A round and has doubled down with the new capital infusion. 

Customers using the company’s software include: Chris McMillan the Salon, Heyday, MèCHE Salon, Paintbox, Sassoon Salon, SEV Laser, Spoke & Weal and TONI&GUY.

Boulevard now has 90 employees and will look to increase that number as it continues to expand across the country.

Investors have taken a run at the spa market in the past, with company’s like MindBody valued at over $1 billion for its software services. Indeed, that company was taken private two years ago in a $1.9 billion transaction by Vista Equity Partners.

As Boulevard expands, the company may look to get deeper into financial services for the salons and spas that it’s already working with. Given the company’s window into these businesses’ financing, it’s not impossible to imagine a new line of business providing small business loans to these companies.

It’s something that the founders would likely not rule out. And it’s a way to provide more tools to entrepreneurs that often fall outside of the traditional sweet spot for banks and other lenders, Danna said.

 

A bug meant Twitter Fleets could still be seen after they disappeared

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter is the latest social media site to allow users to experiment with posting disappearing content. Fleets, as Twitter calls them, allows its mobile users post short stories, like photos or videos with overlaying text, that are set to vanish after 24 hours.

But a bug meant that fleets weren’t deleting properly and could still be accessed long after 24 hours had expired. Details of the bug were posted in a series of tweets on Saturday, less than a week after the feature launched.

full disclosure: scraping fleets from public accounts without triggering the read notification

the endpoint is: https://t.co/332FH7TEmN

— cathode gay tube (@donk_enby) November 20, 2020

The bug effectively allowed anyone to access and download a user’s fleets without triggering a notification that the user’s fleet had been read and by whom. The implication is that this bug could be abused to archive a user’s fleets after they expire.

Using an app that’s designed to interact with Twitter’s back-end systems via its developer API. What returned was a list of fleets from the server. Each fleet had its own direct URL, which when opened in a browser would load the fleet as an image or a video. But even after the 24 hours elapsed, the server would still return links to fleets that had already disappeared from view in the Twitter app.

When reached, a Twitter spokesperson said a fix was on the way. “We’re aware of a bug accessible through a technical workaround where some Fleets media URLs may be accessible after 24 hours. We are working on a fix that should be rolled out shortly.”

Twitter acknowledged that the fix means that fleets should now expire properly, it said it won’t delete the fleet from its servers for up to 30 days — and that it may hold onto fleets for longer if they violate its rules. We checked that we could still load fleets from their direct URLs even after they expire.

Fleet with caution.

FireEye acquires Respond Software for $186M, announces $400M investment

By Ron Miller

The security sector is ever frothy and acquisitive. Just last week Palo Alto Networks grabbed Expanse for $800 million. Today it was FireEye’s turn snagging Respond Software, a company that helps customers investigate and understand security incidents, while reducing the need for highly trained and scarce security analysts. The deal has closed, according to the company.

FireEye had its eye on Respond’s Analyst product, which it plans to fold into to its Mandiant Solutions platform. Like many companies today, FireEye is focused on using machine learning to help bolster its solutions and bring a level of automation to sorting through the data, finding real issues and weeding out false positives. The acquisition gives them a quick influx of machine learning-fueled software.

FireEye sees a product that can help add speed to its existing tooling.”With Mandiant’s position on the front lines, we know what to look for in an attack, and Respond’s cloud-based machine learning productizes our expertise to deliver faster outcomes and protect more customers,” Kevin Mandia, FireEye CEO said in a statement announcing the deal.

Mike Armistead, CEO at Respond, wrote in a company blog post that today’s acquisition marks the end of a 4-year journey for the startup, but it believes it has landed in a good home with FireEye. “We are proud to announce that after many months of discussion, we are becoming part of the Mandiant Solutions portfolio, a solution organization inside FireEye,” Armistead wrote.

While FireEye was at it, it also announced a $400 million investment from Blackstone Tactical Opportunities fund and ClearSky (an investor in Respond), giving the public company a new influx of cash to make additional moves like the acquisition it made today.

It didn’t come cheap. “Under the terms of its investment, Blackstone and ClearSky will purchase $400 million in shares of a newly designated 4.5% Series A Convertible Preferred Stock of FireEye (the “Series A Preferred”), with a purchase price of $1,000 per share. The Series A Preferred will be convertible into shares of FireEye’s common stock at a conversion price of $18.00 per share,” the company explained in a statement. The stock closed at $14.24 today.

Respond, which was founded in 2016, raised $32 million including a $12 million Series A in 2017 led by CRV and Foundation Capital and a $20 million Series B led by ClearSky last year, according to Crunchbase data.

Google plans to test end-to-end encryption in Android messages

By Zack Whittaker

For the past year and a half, Google has been rolling out its next-generation messaging to Android users to replace the old, clunky, and insecure SMS text messaging. Now the company says that rollout is complete, and plans to bring end-to-end encryption to Android messages next year.

Google’s Rich Communications Services is Android’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, and brings typing indicators, read receipts, and you’d expect from most messaging apps these days.

In a blog post Thursday, Google said it plans to roll out end-to-end encryption — starting with one-on-one conversations — leaving open the possibility of end-to-end encrypted group chats. It’ll become available to beta testers, who can sign up here, beginning later in November and continue into the new year.

End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — even Google — from reading messages as they travel between sender and the recipient.

Google dipped its toes into the end-to-end encrypted messaging space in 2016 with the launch of Allo, an app that immediately drew criticism from security experts for not enabling the security feature by default. Two years later, Google killed off the project altogether.

This time around, Google learned its lesson. Android messages will default to end-to-end encryption once the feature becomes available, and won’t revert back to SMS unless the users in the conversation loses or disables RCS.

Instagram revamps its mobile messaging app Threads

By Sarah Perez

Instagram is continuing to develop its standalone messaging app, Threads. Last month, the company modified the app to make it possible for users to message everyone, instead of just “close friends,” as its other messaging app, Direct, once did. Today, Instagram is releasing a redesigned version of the Threads app with updated navigation and a Status tab, as well as support for posting photos and videos to your Instagram Story.

The changes address some of Threads’ shortcomings in usability. Though the app offered a way to update your Status or even automatically update it, based on your location, it was difficult to move between the different sections of the app.

The redesign attempts to make it easier for Threads users to view and interact with friends’ statuses and their Stories, or quickly switch back to the Camera interface or their messaging inbox, through a new navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. This navigation change, which adds the Status tab, will go live globally starting on November 19, says Instagram.

In addition, Instagram says Threads users can now take a photo or video and share it out to their Instagram Story, in addition to only their Close Friends Story directly in the Threads app.

The more recent change to the inbox, which added a new tab for “Everyone Else,” is also now globally available, as of today’s update.

These changes represent another step away from Threads being an app only meant to be used to keep with close friends.

The updates to Threads follow a period of overhaul for Facebook’s family of mobile messaging apps, including Messenger and Instagram itself, which saw another set of updates to its own inbox in recent weeks. Yesterday, Facebook announced that more features that were a part of the big overhaul of the Instagram messaging experience had become available, including an expanded co-watching feature, Watch Together, which now lets users watch IGTV, Reels and TV shows together in real-time over video chat.

It also rolled out chat themes, including a new one that featured characters representing the seven members of BTS. The company in September had announced cross-app communication with Messenger for users who upgraded their messaging experience on Instagram. That update had included the ability to change your chat color, react with any emoji, among other new features. Vanish mode is still to come to Instagram, but should arrive soon, Facebook said.

These changes, focused on Facebook’s flagship apps, may have left some wondering what would become of Threads — an app that hasn’t gone mainstream. As of the time of writing, the app was ranked No. 66 in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store, and No. 1,031 Overall. But as these new efforts show, Instagram is continuing to tweak the user experience on Threads, in an effort to cater to those often use Instagram for messaging.

To be clear, some users may have had access to the new features ahead of today’s announcement, but they’re now broadly available.

 

Messaging app Go SMS Pro exposed millions of users’ private photos and files

By Zack Whittaker

Go SMS Pro, one of the most popular messaging apps for Android, is exposing photos, videos and other files sent privately by its users. Worse, the app maker has done nothing to fix the bug.

Security researchers at Trustwave discovered the flaw in August and contacted the app maker with a 90-day deadline to fix the issue, as is standard practice in vulnerability disclosure to allow enough time for a fix. But after the deadline elapsed without hearing back, the researchers went public.

Trustwave shared their findings with TechCrunch this week.

When a Go SMS Pro user sends a photo, video or other file to someone who doesn’t have the app installed, the app uploads the file to its servers, and lets the user share a web address by text message so the recipient can see the file without installing the app. But the researchers found that these web addresses were sequential. In fact, any time a file was shared — even between app users — a web address would be generated regardless. That meant anyone who knew about the predictable web address could have cycled through millions of different web addresses to users’ files.

Go SMS Pro has more than 100 million installs, according to its listing in Google Play.

TechCrunch verified the researcher’s findings. In viewing just a few dozen links, we found a person’s phone number, a screenshot of a bank transfer, an order confirmation including someone’s home address, an arrest record, and far more explicit photos than we were expecting, to be quite honest.

Karl Sigler, senior security research manager at Trustwave, said while it wasn’t possible to target any specific user, any file sent using the app is vulnerable to public access. “An attacker can create scripts that could throw a wide net across all the media files stored in the cloud instance,” he said.

We had about as much luck getting a response from the app maker as the researchers. TechCrunch emailed two email addresses associated with the app. One email immediately bounced back saying the email couldn’t be delivered due to a full inbox. The other email was opened, according to our email open tracker, but a follow-up email was not.

Since you might now want a messaging app that protects your privacy, we have you covered.

OpsLevel raises $5M to fix DevOps

By Frederic Lardinois

The term ‘DevOps’ has been rendered meaningless and developers still don’t have access to the right tools to put the overall idea into practice, the team behind DevOps startup OpsLevel argues. The company, which was co-founded by John Laban and Kenneth Rose, two of PagerDuty’s earliest employees, today announced that it has raised a $5 million seed funding round, led by Vertex Ventures. S28 Capital, Webb Investment Network and Union Capital also participated in this round, as well as a number of angels, including the three co-founders of PagerDuty .

“[PagerDuty] was an important part of the DevOps movement. Getting engineers on call was really important for DevOps, but on-call and getting paged about incidents and things, it’s very reactive in nature. It’s all about fixing incidents as quickly as possible. Ken [Rose] and I saw an opportunity to help companies take a more proactive stance. Nobody really wants to have any downtime or any security breaches in the first place. They want to prevent them before they happen.”

Image Credits: OpsLevel

With that mission in mind, the team set out to bring engineering organizations back to the roots of DevOps by giving those teams ownership over their services and creating what Rose called a “you build it, you own it” culture. Service ownership, he noted, is something the team regularly sees companies struggle with. When teams move to microservices or even serverless architectures for their systems, it quickly becomes unclear who owns what and as a result, you end up with orphaned services that nobody is maintaining. The natural result of that is security and reliability issues. And at the same time, because nobody knows which systems already exist, other teams reinvent the wheel and rebuild the same service to solve their own problems.

“We’ve underinvested in tools to make DevOps actually work,” the team says in today’s announcement. “There’s a lot we still need to build to help engineering teams adopt service ownership and unlock the full power of DevOps.”

So at the core of OpsLevel is what the team calls a “service ownership platform,” starting with a catalog of the services that an engineering organization is currently running.

Image Credits: OpsLevel

“What we’re trying to do is take back the meaning of DevOps,” said Laban. “We believe it’s been rendered meaningless and we wanted to refocus it on service ownership. We’re going to be investing heavily on building out our product, and then working with our customers to get them to really own their services and get really down to solving that problem.”

Among the companies OpsLevel is already working with are Segment, Zapier, Convoy and Under Armour. As the team noted, its service becomes most useful once a company runs somewhere around 20 or 30 different services. Before that, a wiki or spreadsheet is often enough to manage them, but at that point, those systems tend to break.

OpsLevel gives them different onramps to start cataloging their services. If they prefer to use a ‘config-as-code’ approach, they can use those YAML files as part of their existing Git workflows. But OpsLevel offers APIs that teams can plug into their various systems if they already have existing service creating workflows.

The company’s funding round closed in late September. The pandemic, the team said, didn’t really hinder its fundraising efforts, something I’ve lately heard from a lot of companies (though the ones I talk obviously to tend to be the ones that recently raised money).

“The reason why [we raised] is because we wanted to really invest in building out our product,” Laban said. “We’ve been getting this traction with our customers and we really wanted to double down and build out a lot of product and invest into our go-to-market team as well and really wanted to accelerate things.”

Instagram expands new ‘Guides’ feature to all users, upgrades Search

By Sarah Perez

Earlier this year, Instagram launched a new feature called “Guides,” which allowed creators to share tips, resources and other longer-form content in a dedicated tab on their user profiles. Initially, Instagram limited Guides to a select group of creators who were publishing content focused on mental health and well-being. Today, the company says it’s making the format available to all users, and expanding Guides to include other types of content, as well — including Products, Places, and Posts.

Separately, Instagram also today announced an update to its Search functionality that will better direct users to their interests.

TechCrunch in August noted an expansion of Instagram Guides appeared to be in development, with a focus on allowing users to create travel guides and product recommendation guides, in addition to a more generic “posts” format.

This “Guides” format was designed to give Instagram creators and marketers a way to share long-form content on a social network that had been, until now, focused more on media — like photos and videos. By comparison, an Instagram Guide could look more like a blog post, as it could include text accompanied by photos, galleries and videos to illustrate the subject matter being discussed.

The feature could help increase users’ time in the app, since users wouldn’t have to click through to external websites and blogs to access these posts — for instance, through a link in the creator’s bio or through a link added to one of the creator’s Stories.

With the expansion to Products, Places and Posts, Instagram’s Guides can now cover more areas. Instagram says it made the feature easier to use, too. It may also feature Product Guides inside its new shopping destination on the platform, Instagram Shop, the company noted.

Visitors to Guides can share the Guides across their own Stories and in Direct Messages, expanding their reach even further.

Image Credits: Instagram

Also new today is an update to Instagram Search. Before, users could search for names, usernames, hashtags and locations. With the changes rolling out today, users will also now be able to use keywords that will surface content relevant to their interests. Along with Guides, the larger goal is to help keep Instagram users from leaving the app.

Instagram says the search update is available in English to all users in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland starting today. The expansion to Guides is rolling out now to all users.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

Hulu will increase the price of its live TV service again on December 18th

By Greg Kumparak

It’s price-hike season!

Just a few weeks after Netflix bumped up prices on a bunch of its plans, it looks like Hulu will soon be charging more for its Live TV service.

The company has confirmed to us that it will be bumping the monthly cost of Hulu + Live from $54.99 to $64.99 as of December 18th — an increase of around 18%. The price increase will go into effect for both existing and new subscribers. The “Hulu (No Ads) + Live” plan, meanwhile, will increase from $60.99 per month to $70.99 per month.

To be clear, this price increase seemingly only impacts the plans that include live TV on top of Hulu’s on-demand library; there’s no word, currently, on any price changes for Hulu’s on-demand-only offerings.

Hulu + Live originally launched in May of 2017, initially costing $40 per month.

Arrikto raises $10M for its MLOps platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Arrikto, a startup that wants to speed up the machine learning development lifecycle by allowing engineers and data scientists to treat data like code, is coming out of stealth today and announcing a $10 million Series A round. The round was led by Unusual Ventures, with Unusual’s John Vrionis joining the board.

“Our technology at Arrikto helps companies overcome the complexities of implementing and managing machine learning applications,” Arrikto CEO and co-founder Constantinos Venetsanopoulos explained. “We make it super easy to set up end-to-end machine learning pipelines. More specifically, we make it easy to build, train, deploy ML models into production using Kubernetes and intelligent intelligently manage all the data around it.”

Like so many developer-centric platforms today, Arrikto is all about “shift left.” Currently, the team argues, machine learning teams and developer teams don’t speak the same language and use different tools to build models and to put them into production.

Image Credits: Arrikto

“Much like DevOps shifted deployment left, to developers in the software development life cycle, Arrikto shifts deployment left to data scientists in the machine learning life cycle,” Venetsanopoulos explained.

Arrikto also aims to reduce the technical barriers that still make implementing machine learning so difficult for most enterprises. Venetsanopoulos noted that just like Kubernetes showed businesses what a simple and scalable infrastructure could look like, Arrikto can show them what a simpler ML production pipeline can look like — and do so in a Kubernetes-native way.

Arrikto CEO Constantinos Venetsanopoulos. Image Credits: Arrikto

At the core of Arrikto is Kubeflow, the Google -incubated open-source machine learning toolkit for Kubernetes — and in many ways, you can think of Arrikto as offering an enterprise-ready version of Kubeflow. Among other projects, the team also built MiniKF to run Kubeflow on a laptop and uses Kale, which lets engineers build Kubeflow pipelines from their JupyterLab notebooks.

As Venetsanopoulos noted, Arrikto’s technology does three things: it simplifies deploying and managing Kubeflow, allows data scientists to manage it using the tools they already know, and it creates a portable environment for data science that enables data versioning and data sharing across teams and clouds.

While Arrikto has stayed off the radar since it launched out of Athens, Greece in 2015, the founding team of Venetsanopoulos and CTO Vangelis Koukis already managed to get a number of large enterprises to adopt its platform. Arrikto currently has more than 100 customers and, while the company isn’t allowed to name any of them just yet, Venetsanopoulos said they include one of the largest oil and gas companies, for example.

And while you may not think of Athens as a startup hub, Venetsanopoulos argues that this is changing and there is a lot of talent there (though the company is also using the funding to build out its sales and marketing team in Silicon Valley). “There’s top-notch talent from top-notch universities that’s still untapped. It’s like we have an unfair advantage,” he said.

“We see a strong market opportunity as enterprises seek to leverage cloud-native solutions to unlock the benefits of machine learning,” Unusual’s Vrionis said. “Arrikto has taken an innovative and holistic approach to MLOps across the entire data, model and code lifecycle. Data scientists will be empowered to accelerate time to market through increased automation and collaboration without requiring engineering teams.”

Image Credits: Arrikto

Strava raises $110 million, touts growth rate of 2 million new users per month in 2020

By Darrell Etherington

Activity and fitness tracking platform Strava has raised $110 million in new funding, in a Series F round led by TCV and Sequoia, and including participation by Dragoneer group, Madrone Capital Partners, Jackson Square Ventures and Go4it Capital. The funding will be used to propel the development of new features, and expand the company’s reach to cover even more users.

Already in 2020, Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added more than 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.

Strava has 70 million members, according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities — all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.

The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities, including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity — though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.

Strava’s app is available free on iOS and Android, with in-app purchases available for premium subscription features.

Zilliz raises $43 million as investors rush to China’s open-source software

By Rita Liao

For years, founders and investors in China had little interest in open-source software because it did not seem like the most viable business model. Zilliz‘s latest financing round shows that attitude is changing. The three-year-old Chinese startup, which builds open-source software for processing unstructured data, recently closed a Series B round of $43 million.

The investment, which catapults Zilliz’s to-date raise to more than $53 million, is a sizable amount for any open-source business around the world. Storied private equity firm Hillhouse Capital led the round joined by Trustbridge Partners, Pavilion Capital and existing investors 5Y Capital (formerly Morningside) and Yunqi Partners.

Investors are going after Zilliz as they increasingly recognize open source as an effective software development strategy, Charles Xie, founder and CEO of Zilliz, told TechCrunch at an open-source meetup in Shenzhen where he spoke as the first Chinese board chairperson for Linux Foundation’s AI umbrella, LF AI.

“Investors are seeing very good exits for open-source companies around the world in recent years, from Elastic to MongoDB,” he added.

“When Starlord [Xie’s nickname] first told us his vision for data processing in the future digital age, we thought it was a crazy idea, but we chose to believe,” said 5Y Capital’s partner Liu Kai.

There’s one caveat for investing in the area: Don’t expect to make money in the first three to five years. “But if you’re looking at an eight to 10-year cycle, these [open source] companies can gain valuation at tens of billions of dollars,” Xie reckoned.

After six years as a software engineer at Oracle, Xie left the U.S. and headed home to start Zilliz in China. Like many Chinese entrepreneurs these days, Xie named his startup in English to mark the firm’s vision to be “global from day one.” While Zilliz set out in Shanghai, the goal is to relocate its headquarters to Silicon Valley when the firm delivers “robust technology and products” in the next 12 months, Xie said. China is an ideal starting point both for the cheaper engineering talents and the explosive growth of unstructured data — anything from molecular structure, people’s shopping behavior, audio information to video content.

“The amount of unstructured data in a region is in proportion to the size of its population and the level of its economic activity, so it’s easy to see why China is the biggest data source,” Xie observed.

On the other hand, China has seen rapid development in mobile internet and AI, especially in terms of real-life applications, which Xie argued makes China a suitable testing ground for data processing software.

So far Zilliz’s open-source product Milvus has been “starred” more than 4,440 times on GitHub and attracted some 120 contributors and 400 enterprise users around the world, half of whom are outside China. It’s done so without spending a penny on advertising; rather, user acquisition has come from its active participation on GitHub, Reddit and other online developer communities.

Going forward, Zilliz plans to deploy its fresh capital in overseas recruitment, expanding its open-source ecosystem, as well as research and development in its cloud-based products and services, which will eventually become a revenue driver as it starts monetizing in the second half of 2021.

5 New Features to Explore in MacOS Big Sur

By Julian Chokkattu
Apple brings a new look to the Mac's interface, plus several major improvements to Safari, Messages, and Maps.

L’Oréal rolls out a line of ‘virtual makeup’

By Lucas Matney

Selfie filters have improved immensely over the past several years, but companies on the forefront of the tech see plenty of room to grow.

The cosmetics world has seen some rapid change in the past several years as makeup has proven particularly ripe for up-and-coming direct-to-consumer and influencer-endorsed brands to take hold. Plenty of legacy brands have seen their revenues decimated, while others have proven resilient by leaning into new tech and sales channel trends.

Back in 2018, L’Oréal made the interesting decision to buy an augmented reality filter company called Modiface. Fast forward to 2020 and they’ve opted to roll out a line of “virtual makeup” selfie filters. The “Signature Face” filters show off eye makeup, lipsticks, and hair products from the company. They’ve gone fairly wide with the rollout supporting Instagram, Snapchat, Snap Camera and Google Duo. Snap Camera support in particular enables the selfies to be used across plenty of video chat services like Houseparty and Zoom, L’Oréal is marketing these selfies as a way to spice up your look on video calls specifically. You can check our more details on where you can use the filters on their site.

In terms of the filters themselves, there’s nothing terribly more advanced about them than the makeup-centric selfie filters that have been floating around Snapchat for years, but it is interesting to see such a substantial brand leaning in so heavily and pitching this idea where people use selfie filters during video calls in a non-gimmicky way. It’s not clear whether the technology or consumer habits are there yet but it’s certainly plausible that things could move in that direction, especially as social media apps begin a more-focused drive towards becoming commerce platforms.

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