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It’s time for tech startups to get political

By Walter Thompson
Xiao Wang Contributor
Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.

Between 2005 and 2018, the five biggest U.S. tech firms collectively spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying federal policymakers. But they shelled out even more in 2019: Facebook boosted its lobbying budget by 25%, while Amazon hiked its political outlay by 16%. Together, America’s biggest tech firms spent almost $64 million in a bid to shape federal policies.

Clearly, America’s tech giants feel they’re getting value for their money. But as CEO of Boundless, a 40-employee startup that doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest in political lobbying, I’m proposing another way. One of the things we care most about at Boundless is immigration. And while we’ve yet to convince Donald Trump and Stephen Miller that immigrants are a big part of what makes America great — hey, we’re working on it! — we’ve found that when you have a clear message and a clear mission, even a startup can make a big difference.

So how can scrappy tech companies make a splash in the current political climate? Here are some guiding principles we’ve learned.

1) Speak out

You can’t make a difference if you don’t make some noise. A case in point: Boundless is spearheading the business community’s pushback against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge rule.” This sweeping immigration reform would preclude millions of people from obtaining U.S. visas and green cards — and therefore make it much harder for American businesses to hire global talent — based on a set of new, insurmountable standards. We’re doing that not by cutting checks to K Street but by using our own expertise, creativity and people skills — the very things that helped make our company a success in the first place.

By leveraging our unique strengths — including our own proprietary data — we’ve been able to put together a smart, business-focused amicus brief urging courts to strike down the public charge rule. And because we combine immigration-specific expertise with a real understanding of the issues that matter most to tech companies, we’ve been able to convince more than 100 other firms  — such as Microsoft, Twitter, Warby Parker, Levi Strauss & Co. and Remitly — to cosign our amicus brief. Will that be enough to persuade the courts and steer federal policy in immigrants’ favor? The jury’s still out. But whatever happens, we take satisfaction in knowing that we’re doing everything we can on behalf of the entire immigrant community, not just our customers, in defense of a cause we’re passionate about.

2) Take a stand

Taking a stand is risky, but staying silent is a gamble, too: Consumers are increasingly socially conscious, and almost nine out of 10 said in one survey that they prefer to buy from brands that take active steps to support the causes they care about. It depends a bit on the issue, though. One survey found that trash-talking the president will win you brownie points from millennials but cost you support among Baby Boomers, for instance.

So pick your battles — but remember that media-savvy consumers can smell a phony a mile off. It’s important to choose causes you truly stand behind and then put your money where your mouth is. At Boundless, we do that by hiring a diverse workforce — not just immigrants, but also women (we’re over 60%), people of color (35%) and LGBTQ+ (15%) — and putting time and energy into helping them succeed. Figure out what authenticity looks like for your company, and make sure you’re living your values as well as just talking about them.

3) Band together

Tech giants might have a bigger megaphone, but there are a lot of startups in our country, and quantity has a quality all its own. In fact, the Small Business Administration reported in 2018 that there are 30.2 million small businesses in the United States, 414,000 of which are classified as “startups.” So instead of trying to shout louder, try forging connections with other smart, up-and-coming companies with unique voices and perspectives of their own.

At Boundless, we routinely reach out to the other startups that have received backing from our own investor groups — national networks such as Foundry Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, Pioneer Square Labs, Two Sigma Ventures and Flybridge Capital Partners — in the knowledge that these companies will share many of our values and be willing to listen to our ideas.

For startups, the venture capitalists, accelerators and incubators that helped you launch and grow can be an incredible resource: Leverage their expertise and Rolodexes to recruit a posse of like-minded startups and entrepreneurs that can serve as a force multiplier for your political activism. Instead of taking a stand as a single company, you could potentially rally dozens of companies — from a range of sectors and unique weights in their fields — on board for your advocacy efforts.

4) Use your superpowers

Every company has a few key superpowers, and the same things that make you a commercial success can help to sway policymakers, too. Boundless uses data and design to make the immigration process more straightforward, and number-crunching and messaging skills come in handy when we’re doing advocacy work, too.

Our data-driven report breaking down naturalization trends and wait times by location made a big splash, for instance, and not just in top-ranked Cleveland. We presented our findings to Congress, and soon afterward some Texas lawmakers began demanding reductions in wait times for would-be citizens. We can’t prove our advocacy was the deciding factor, but it’s likely that our study helped nudge them in the right direction.

5) Work the media

Whether you’re Bill Gates or a small-business owner, if you’re quoted in The New York Times, then your voice will reach the same people. Reporters love to feel like they’re including quotes from the “little guy,” so make yourself accessible, and learn to give snappy, memorable quotes to reporters, and you’ll soon find that they keep you on speed dial.

Our phones rang off the hook when Trump tried to push through a healthcare mandate by executive order, for instance, and our founders were quoted by top media outlets — from Reuters to Rolling Stone. It takes a while to build media relationships and establish yourself as a credible source, but it’s a great way to win national attention for your advocacy.

6) Know your lawmakers

To make a difference, you’ll need allies in the corridors of power. Reach out to your senators and congresspeople, and get to know their staffers, too. Working in politics is often thankless, and many aides love to hear from new voices, especially ones who are willing to stake out controversial positions on big issues, sound the alarm on bad policies or help move the Overton window to enable better solutions.

We’ve often found that prior to hearing from us, lawmakers simply hadn’t considered the special challenges faced by smaller tech companies, such as lack of internal legal, human and financial resources, to comply with various regulations. And those lawmakers come away from our meetings with a better understanding of the need to craft straightforward policies that won’t drown small businesses in red tape.

Political change doesn’t just happen in the Capital Beltway, so make a point of reaching out to your municipal and state-level leaders, too. In 2018, Boundless pitched to the Civic I/O Mayors Summit at SXSW because we knew that municipal leaders played a critical role in welcoming new Americans into our communities. Local policies and legislation can have a big impact on startups, and the support of local leaders remains a critical foundation for the kinds of change we want to see made to the U.S. immigration system.

Take the next step

It’s easy to make excuses or expect someone else to advocate on your behalf. But if there’s something you think the government could be doing better, then you have an obligation to use your company’s energy, talent and connections to push back and create momentum for reform. Sure, it would be nice to splash money around and hire a phalanx of lobbyists to shape public policy — but it’s perfectly possible to make a big difference without spending a dime.

But first, figure out what you stand for and what strengths and superpowers you can leverage to bear the problems you and your customers face. Above all, don’t be afraid to take a stand.

In latest JEDI contract drama, AWS files motion to stop work on project

By Ron Miller

When the Department of Defense finally made a decision in October on the decade long, $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, it seemed that Microsoft had won. But nothing has been simple about this deal from the earliest days, so  it shouldn’t come as a surprise that last night Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court decides on its protest of the DoD’s decision.

The company announced on November 22nd that it had filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims protesting the DoD’s decision to select Microsoft. Last night’s motion is an extension of that move to put the project on hold until the court decides on the merits of the case.

“It is common practice to stay contract performance while a protest is pending and it’s important that the numerous evaluation errors and blatant political interference that impacted the JEDI award decision be reviewed. AWS is absolutely committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts and to an expeditious legal process that resolves this matter as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson said in a statement last night.

As we previously reported, the statement echoes sentiments AWS CEO Andy Jassy made at a press event during AWS re:Invent in December:

“I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

This is just the latest turn in a contract procurement process for the ages. It will now be up to the court to decide if the project should stop or not, and beyond that if the decision process was carried out fairly.

Microsoft releases tools to let devs start building for its upcoming dual-screen devices

By Greg Kumparak

As we learned back in October, Microsoft has been cracking away at not one, but two dual-screen devices: Surface Duo and Surface Neo. Surface Duo will run Android, while Surface Neo will run on a special fork of Windows 10 dubbed “Windows 10 X.”

This morning the company is pulling back the curtain a bit, debuting its first batch of dual-screen developer tools and shedding some light on how apps can utilize that second screen.

While a developer kit for the Android-powered Duo has been made available, the company says dev tools for the Windows-powered Neo will arrive in “the coming weeks,” with a target date of February 11th.

By default, says Microsoft, apps on these dual-screen devices will only occupy one screen. Users can elect to “span” the app to make it stretch across both — but, at least for now, it’s not something an app can force to happen.

While simply stretching an app to fill both screens is one approach, Microsoft offered up a few alternative “pattern ideas” to better utilize the form factor:

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also starting to build out web standards for dual-screen devices — APIs for developers to easily detect dual-screen devices, for example, allowing them to adapt their web apps accordingly. The company says preview builds of Microsoft Edge with early dual-screen APIs should start shipping “soon.”

While no specific launch date has been given for either device, Microsoft has given both a launch window of sometime around the holidays of 2020. Getting these dev tools out sooner than later, then, makes sense — while it might look neat, two screens aren’t inherently better than one. For the concept to ever take off, Microsoft needs developers to find novel ways to use that second screen; the ways in which having a pair of screens really makes things better, rather than just… different.

Tencent to grow gaming empire with $148M acquisition of Conan publisher Funcom in Norway

By Ingrid Lunden

Tencent, one of the world’s biggest videogaming companies by revenue, today made another move to help cement that position. The Chinese firm has made an offer to fully acquire Funcom, the games developer behind Conan Exiles (and others in the Conan franchise), Dune and some 28 other titles. The deal, when approved, would value the Oslo-based company at $148 million (NOK 1.33 billion) and give the company a much-needed cash injection to follow through on longer-term strategy around its next generation of games.

Funcom is traded publicly on the Oslo Stock Exchange, and the board has already recommended the offer, which is being made at NOK 17 per share, or around 27% higher than its closing share price the day before (Tuesday).

The news is being made with some interesting timing. Today, Tencent competes against the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in terms of mass-market, gaming revenues. But just earlier this week, it was reported that ByteDance — the publisher behind breakout social media app TikTok — was readying its own foray into the world of gaming.

That would set up another level of rivalry between the two companies, since Tencent also has a massive interest in the social media space, specifically by way of its messaging app WeChat . While many consumers will have multiple apps, when it comes down to it, spending money in one represents a constraint on spending money in another.

Today, Tencent is one of the world’s biggest video game companies: in its last reported quarter (Q3 in November), Tencent said that it make RMB28.6 billion ($4.1 billion) in online gaming revenue, with smartphone games accounting for RMB24.3 billion of that.

Acquisitions and controlling stakes form a key part of the company’s growth strategy in gaming. Among its very biggest deals, Tencent paid $8.6 billion for a majority stake in Finland’s Supercell back in 2016. It also has a range of controlling stakes in Riot Games, Epic, Ubisoft, Paradox, Frontier and Miniclip. These companies, in turn, also are making deals: just earlier this month it was reported (and sources have also told us) that Miniclip acquired Israel’s Ilyon Games (of Bubble Shooter fame) for $100 million.

Turning back to Funcom, Tencent was already an investor in the company: it took a 29% stake in it in September 2019 in a secondary deal, buying out KGJ Capital (which had previously been the biggest shareholder).

“Tencent has a reputation for being a responsible long-term investor, and for its renowned operational capabilities in online games,” said Funcom CEO Rui Casais at the time. “The insight, experience, and knowledge that Tencent will bring is of great value to us and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to develop great games and build a successful future for Funcom.”

In retrospect, this was laying the groundwork and relationships for a bigger deal just months down the line. 

“We have a great relationship with Tencent as our largest shareholder and we are very excited to be part of the Tencent team,” Casais said in a statement today. “We will continue to develop great games that people all over the world will play, and believe that the support of Tencent will take Funcom to the next level. Tencent will provide Funcom with operational leverage and insights from its vast knowledge as the leading company in the game space.”

The rationale for Funcom is that the company had already determined that it needed further investment in order to follow through on its longer-term strategy.

According to a statement issued before it recommended the offer, the company is continuing to build out the “Open World Survival segment” using the Games-as-a-Service business model (where you pay to fuel up with more credits); and is building an ambitious Dune project set to launch in two years.

“Such increased focus would require a redirection of resources from other initiatives, the most significant being the co-op shooter game, initially scheduled for release during 2020 that has been impacted by scope changes due to external/market pressures with increasingly strong competition and internal delays,” the board writes, and if it goes ahead with its strategy, “It is likely that the Company will need additional financing to supplement the revenue generated from current operations.”

Gartner: 2020 device shipments to grow 0.9% to 2.16B thanks to 5G, before 2 further years of decline

By Ingrid Lunden

The analysts at Gartner have published their annual global device forecast, and while 2020 looks like it may be partly sunny, get ready for more showers and poor weather ahead. The analysts predict that a bump from new 5G technology will lead to total shipments of 2.16 billion units — devices that include PCs, mobile handsets, watches, and all sizes of computing devices in between — working out to a rise of 0.9% compared to 2019.

That’s a modest reversal after what was a rough year for hardware makers who battled with multiple headwinds that included — for mobile handsets — a general slowdown in renewal cycles and high saturation of device ownership in key markets; and — in PCs — the wider trend of people simply buying fewer of these bigger machines as their smartphones get smarter (and bigger).

As a point of comparison, last year Gartner revised its 2019 numbers at least three times, starting from “flat shipments” and ending at nearly four percent decline. In the end, 2019 saw shipments of 2.15 billion units — the lowest number since 2010. All of it is a bigger story of decline. In 2005, there were between 2.4 billion and 2.5 billion devices shipped globally.

“2020 will witness a slight market recovery,” writes Ranjit Atwal, research senior director at Gartner . “Increased availability of 5G handsets will boost mobile phone replacements, which will lead global device shipments to return to growth in 2020.”

(Shipments, we should note, do not directly equal sales, but they are used as a marker of how many devices are ordered in the channel for future sales. Shipments precede sales figures: overestimating results in oversupply and overall slowdown.)

The idea that 5G will drive more device sales, however, is still up for debate. Some have argued that while carriers are going hell for leather in their promotion of 5G, the idea of special 5G apps and services — versus using it to connect machines in an IoT play — that will spur adoption of those devices is not as apparent, and that’s leading to it being more of an abstract concept, and not one that is leading the charge when it comes to apps and services, especially for the mass consumer market and for (human) business users.

In 6 years of hearing pitches in Silicon Valley, I heard '5G' maybe once. That's not from ignorance – the utility network layer is not very important to innovation at the top of the stack.

— Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) January 20, 2020

Still, it may be that hardware might march on ahead regardless. Gartner predicts that 5G devices will account for 12% of all mobile phone shipments in 2020 as handset makers make their devices “5G ready,” with the proportion increasing to 43% by 2022. “From 2020, Gartner expects an increase in 5G phone adoption as prices decrease, 5G service coverage increases and users have better experiences with 5G phones,” writes Atwal. “The market will experience a further increase in 2023, when 5G handsets will account for over 50% of the mobile phones shipped.” That may in part be simply because handset makers are making their devices “5G ready”

Drilling down into the numbers, Gartner believes that worldwide, phones will see a bump of 1.7% this year, up to 1.78 billion before declining again in 2021 to 1.77 billion and then further in 2022 to 1.76 billion. Asia and in particular China and emerging markets will lead the charge.

Another analyst firm, Counterpoint, has been tracking marketshare for individual handset makers and notes that Samsung remains the world’s biggest handset maker going into Q4 2019 (final numbers on that quarter should be out in the coming weeks), with 21% of all shipments and slight increases over the year, but with the BBK group (which owns OPPO, Vivo, Realme, and OnePlus) likely to pass it, Huawei and Apple to become the world’s largest, as it’s growing much faster. Numbers overall were dragged down by declines for Apple, the world’s number-three handset maker, which saw a slump last year in its handset sales.

Although the market was generally lower across all devices, PC shipments actually saw some growth in 2019. That is set to turn down again this year, to 251 million units, and declining further to 247 million in 2021 and 242 million in 2022.

Part of that is due to slower migration trends — Windows 10 adoption was the primary driver for people switching up and buying new devices last year, but now that’s more or less finished. That will see slower purchasing among enterprise end users, although later adopters in the SME segment will finally make the change when support for Windows it 7 finally ends this month (it’s been on the cards for years at this point). In any case, the upgrade cycle is changing because of how Windows is evolving.

“The PC market’s future is unpredictable because there will not be a Windows 11. Instead, Windows 10 will be upgraded systematically through regular updates,” writes Atwal “As a result, peaks in PC hardware upgrade cycles driven by an entire Windows OS upgrade will end.”

Two trends that might impact shipments — or at least highlight other currents in the hardware market — should also be noted. The first is the role that Chromebooks might play in the PC market. These were one of the faster-growing categories last year, and this year we will see even more models rolled out, with what hardware makers hope will be even more of a boost in functionality to drive adoption. (Google and Intel’s collaboration is one example of how that will work: the two are working on a set of standards that will fit with chips made by Intel to produce what the companies believe are more efficient and compelling notebooks, with tablet-like touchscreens, better battery life, smaller and lighter form factors, and more.)

The second is whether or not smartwatches will make a significant dent into the overall device market. Q3 of last year saw growth of 42% to 14 million shipments globally. And while there have been a number of smartwatch hopefuls, but one of the biggest successes has been the Apple Watch, whose growth outstripped that of the wider watch market, at 51%. Indeed, looking at the results of the last several quarters, Apple’s product category that includes Watch sales (wearables, home and accessories) even appears to be on track to outstrip another hardware category, Macs. Whether that will continue, and potentially see others joining in, will be an interesting area to “watch.”

Israel’s cybersecurity startup scene spawned new entrants in 2019

By Walter Thompson
Yoav Leitersdorf Contributor
Yoav Leitersdorf is the Silicon Valley-based Managing Partner at YL Ventures, where he accelerates cybersecurity startups in the U.S. market.
Ofer Schreiber Contributor
Ofer Schreiber is partner and head of Israel Office at YL Ventures, where he seeds and accelerates cybersecurity startups.

As the global cybersecurity market becomes increasingly crowded, the Start Up Nation remains a bulwark of innovation and opportunity generation for investors and global cyber companies alike. It achieved this chiefly in 2019 by adapting to the industry’s competitive developments and pushing forward its most accomplished entrepreneurs in larger numbers to meet them.

New data illustrates how Israeli entrepreneurs have seized on the country’s reputation for building radically cutting-edge technologies as the number of new Israeli cybersecurity startups addressing nascent sectors eclipses its more traditional counterparts. Moreover, related findings highlight how cybersecurity companies looking to expand beyond their traditional offerings are entering Israel’s cybersecurity ecosystem in larger numbers through highly strategic acquisitions.

Broadly, new findings also reveal the Israeli cybersecurity market’s overall coming of age, seasoned entrepreneurial dominance and greater appetite for longer-term visions and strategies — the latter of which received record-breaking investor backing in 2019.

Breaking records

Google takes on AWS and Azure in India with Airtel cloud deal

By Manish Singh

Google has inked a deal with India’s third-largest telecom operator as the American giant looks to grow its cloud customer base in the key overseas market that is increasingly emerging as a new cloud battleground for AWS and Microsoft .

Google Cloud announced on Monday that the new partnership, effective starting today, enables Airtel to offer G Suite to small and medium-sized businesses as part of the telco’s ICT portfolio.

Airtel, which has amassed over 325 million subscribers in India, said it currently serves 2,500 large businesses and over 500,000 small and medium-sized businesses and startups in the country. The companies did not share details of their financial arrangement.

In a statement, Thomas Kurian, chief executive of Google Cloud, said, “the combination of G Suite’s collaboration and productivity tools with Airtel’s digital business offerings will help accelerate digital innovations for thousands of Indian businesses.”

The move follows Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecom operator, striking a similar deal with Microsoft to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

AWS, which leads the cloud market, interestingly does not maintain any similar deals with a telecom operator — though it did in the past. Deals with carriers, which were very common a decade ago as tech giants looked to acquire new users in India, illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments. According to a report by lobby group Nasscom, India’s cloud market is estimated to be worth more than $7 billion in three years.

Like in many other markets, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are locked in an intense battle to win cloud customers in India. All of them offer near identical features and are often willing to pay out a potential client’s remainder credit to the rival to convince them to switch, industry executives have told TechCrunch.

TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

By Josh Constine

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

As Alphabet crests the $1T mark, SaaS stocks reach all-time highs of their own

By Alex Wilhelm

Continuing our irregular surveys of the public markets, two things happened this week that are worth our time. First, a third domestic technology company — Alphabet — passed the $1 trillion market capitalization threshold. And, second, software as a service (SaaS) stocks reached record highs on the public markets after retreating over last summer.

The two milestones, only modestly related events, indicate how temperate the public waters are for technology companies today, a fact that should extend warmth into the private market where startups, and their venture capital backers, work.

The happenings are good news for technology startups for a number of reasons, including that major tech players have never had as much wealth in hand with which to buy smaller companies, and strong SaaS valuations help both smaller startups fundraise, and their larger brethren possibly exit.

Indeed, the stridently good valuations that major tech companies and their smaller siblings enjoy today should be just the sort of market conditions under which unicorns want to debut. We’ll continue to make this point so long as the public markets continue to rise, pricing tech companies that have already floated higher like the cliche’s own tide.

But while Alphabet, Microsoft and Apple are worth $3.68 trillion as a trio, and SaaS stocks are now worth 12.3x times their revenue (using enterprise value instead of market cap, for those keeping score at home), not every private, venture-backed company will necessarily benefit from public investor largesse.

What about tech-ish startups?

How much the current public-market tech valuation expansion will help companies that are increasingly sorted into the tech-enabled bucket isn’t clear; some companies that went public in 2019 were quickly spit up by investors unwilling to support valuations that matched or rose above their final private valuations. SmileDirectClub was one such offering.

The dividing line between what counts as tech — often fuzzy — appears to be slicing along gross margin lines, and the repeatability of business. The higher margin, and more recurring a company is, the more it’s worth. This market reality is why SaaS stocks’ recent return to form is not a surprise.

For Casper and One Medical, the first two venture-backed IPO hopefuls of the year, the more tech-ish they can appear between now and pricing the better. Because technology companies today are valued so highly, perhaps even a faint dusting of tech will save their valuations as they cross the chasm between private and adult.

Where FaZe Clan sees the future of gaming and entertainment

By Jonathan Shieber

Lee Trink has spent nearly his entire career in the entertainment business. The former president of Capitol Records is now the head of FaZe Clan, an esports juggernaut that is one of the most recognizable names in the wildly popular phenomenon of competitive gaming.

Trink sees FaZe Clan as the voice of a new generation of consumers who are finding their voice and their identity through gaming — and it’s a voice that’s increasingly speaking volumes in the entertainment industry through a clutch of competitive esports teams, a clothing and lifestyle brand and a network of creators who feed the appetites of millions of young gamers.

As the company struggles with a lawsuit brought by one of its most famous players, Trink is looking to the future — and setting his sights on new markets and new games as he consolidates FaZe Clan’s role as the voice of a new generation.

“The teams and social media output that we create is all marketing,” he says. “It’s not that we have an overall marketing strategy that we then populate with all of these opportunities. We’re not maximizing all of our brands.”

Microsoft announces global Teams ad push as it combats Slack for the heart of enterprise comms

By Alex Wilhelm

The long-running contest between Microsoft and its Teams service and Slack’s eponymous application continued this morning, with Redmond announcing what it describes as its first “global” advertising push for its enterprise communication service.

Slack, a recent technology IPO, exploded in the back half of last decade, accreting huge revenues while burrowing into the tech stacks of the startup world. The former startup’s success continued as it increasingly targeted larger companies; it’s easier to stack revenue in enterprise-scale chunks than it is by onboarding upstarts.

Enterprise productivity software, of course, is a large percentage of Microsoft’s bread and butter. And as Slack rose — and Microsoft decided against buying the then-nascent rival — the larger company invested in its competing Teams service. Notably, today’s ad push is not the first advertising salvo between the two companies. Slack owns that record, having welcomed Microsoft to its niche in a print ad that isn’t aging particularly well.

Slack and Teams are competing through public usage announcements. Most recently, Teams announced that it has 20 million daily active users (DAUs); Slack’s most recent number is 12 million. Slack, however, has touted how active its DAUs are, implying that it isn’t entirely sure that Microsoft’s figures line up to its own. Still, the rising gap between their numbers is notable.

Microsoft’s new ad campaign is yet another chapter in the ongoing Slack vs. Teams. The ad push itself is only so important. What matters more is that Microsoft is choosing to expend some of its limited public attention bandwidth on Teams over other options.

Stock

While Teams is merely part of the greater Office 365 world that Microsoft has been building for some time, Slack’s product is its business. And since its direct listing, some air has come out of its shares.

Slack’s share price has fallen from the mid-$30s after it debuted to the low-$20s today. I’ve explored that repricing and found that, far from the public markets repudiating Slack’s equity, the company was merely mispriced in its early trading life. The company’s revenue multiple has come down since its first days as a public entity, but remains rich; investors are still pricing Slack like an outstanding company.

Ahead, Slack and Microsoft will continue to trade competing DAU figures. The question becomes how far Slack’s brand can carry it against Microsoft’s enterprise heft.

Twitch’s loss of top streamers impacts hours watched and streamed in Q4 2019, report says

By Sarah Perez

The loss of several big-name streamers is finally taking its toll on Twitch, according to a new report from StreamLabs and Newzoo out today. In August 2019, top streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, announced his intention to leave Twitch for Microsoft Mixer. Several others have since defected as well, including competitive gamer Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek who went to Mixer in October, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop who left in November for YouTube Live, and Jeremy “Disguised Toast” Wang who also left in November, but went to Facebook Gaming.

The loss of Ninja hadn’t impacted the amount of time Twitch users spent watching content on the platform as of Q3 2019, but the total hours streamed had slightly dipped. As of Q4 2019, however, Twitch’s momentum began to slow.

While the Amazon-owned streaming site is still by far the leader in terms of hours of content both watched and streamed compared with rivals with a market share of 75.1%, the number of hours watched on Twitch declined from Q3 to Q4 2019 by 9.8%.

This resulted in the lowest number of hours watched on the platform (2299.6M) since Q3 2018 (2283.9M).

That being said, Twitch overall is still growing on a year-over-year basis, with a 12% increase in hours watched on the platform in 2019 compared with 2018.

The high-profile losses are also now impacting the hours streamed on Twitch, the report found.

The platform in Q4 2019 saw the lowest number of hours streamed (82.7M) since Q2 2018 (86M). Again, the trend on a year-over-year basis is still climbing upwards, with a 16.1% increase in hours streamed in 2019 versus 2018.

Twitch saw declines in the number of unique channels streaming over the course of 2019, too, dropping from 5.6 million in Q1 2019 — the highest ever — to 3.7 million by Q4.

Concurrent viewers declined on a quarterly basis by 9.4%. This is the lowest average concurrent viewership figure since Q3 2018. On an annual basis, however, concurrent viewership was still up by 12.3%. The average number of viewers per channel was stable and has increased by 12.5% since Q1 2018.

YouTube Gaming Live, meanwhile, became the only platform to see increases in hours watched, streamed and concurrent viewership in Q4 2019.

CourageJD’s move to YouTube Gaming Live has helped to boost Google’s platform, but the increases can also be attributed to YouTube’s broadcast of top esports events and influencer moments.

The total number of hours watched on YouTube Gaming Live grew 46% from Q1 to Q4 2019 to reach 909.1M — making that the largest percentage increase among gaming sites. Hours streamed remained stable, closing the year at 12.3M. Unique channels increased 4.8% on a quarterly basis but declined 24.6% from Q1 2019.

YouTube Gaming Live’s biggest jump was in concurrent viewers, which grew by a sizable 33.8% in Q4 — making it the only platform to see an increase in average concurrent viewership in the quarter. Average viewers per channel also increased by 21% quarter-over-quarter — even though the number of unique streaming channels grew by 4.8%, which usually means a drop in average viewers per channel would occur.

YouTube Gaming Live closed the year with 22.1% market share.

Ninja’s move to Mixer has encouraged other streamers to start broadcasting on the platform, but despite that deal and the one with Shroud, the number of hours watched declined 8.5% quarter-over-quarter from 90.2 million in Q3 2019 to 82.5 million in Q4 2019. But year-over-year, Mixer’s hours watched have more than doubled.

Ninja and Shroud have helped to boost the number of hours streamed on Mixer, more than doubling the number of hours in Q3. But in Q4, the number of hours streamed dropped 12.9% from 32.6 million to 28.4 million.

However, 80.3 million hours of content was streamed in 2019 versus just 35.2 million hours in 2018.

There was also a 7.5% decrease in the number of Mixer channels in Q4 (3.9 million to 3.6 million), but a 78% increased in 2019 compared with 2018. Mixer now has triple the number of unique channels streaming, compared with YouTube Gaming Live.

Average concurrent viewership on Mixer declined 8% from Q3 to Q4, but was up 55.1% year-over-year. Average viewers per channel remained stable.

Mixer closed the year with a 2.7% market share.

The report doesn’t include Facebook Gaming live streaming data. But it does note there was a 400% increase in the number of live streams in 2019, from 504,173 live streams in Q1 to 2,525,863 in Q4, based on Facebook Gaming streamers who used the Streamlabs’ OBS product. Additionally, the number of total hours streamed increased by 275% from 438,835 in Q1 to 1,648,557 in Q4.

Also in Q4, several live streamers made the switch to Facebook, including Disguised Toast, as noted above, as well as Zero and Corinna Kopf. This could have also contributed to the momentum in the quarter, as well as launches of charity live streaming tools, and the arrival of the Facebook Gaming app in Thailand and Latin America.

For the year, the most-watched publisher was Riot Games, due to League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics. Epic Games (Fortnite) trailed by only 25.1 million hours. The latter saw a 29% decline, year-over-year, in terms of hours watched, while the former grew just 3.6%.

Similarly, League of Legends was the No. 1 game streamed on Twitch in 2019, followed by Fornite then Grand Theft Auto V. Fornite topped YouTube Gaming Live and Mixer.

While none of the streamers’ defections from Twitch have been significant enough to force the platform from its No. 1 position, it has created a healthier competitive landscape among streaming services. But in reality, it’s still too soon to see what long-term impacts the moves will have on Twitch and whether or not its rivals can continue their momentum in 2020.

Wipro Ventures announces $150M Fund II to invest in enterprise startups

By Manish Singh

Wipro Ventures, the investment arm of one of India’s largest IT companies by market capitalization, said on Thursday it has raised $150 million for its second fund as it looks to invest in more enterprise startups and venture capitalist funds.

As with its $100 million maiden fund in 2015, Wipro Ventures will use its second fund to invest in early and mid-stage startups worldwide that are building enterprise solutions in cybersecurity, analytics, cloud infrastructure, test automation and AI, said Biplab Adhya and Venu Pemmaraju, managing partners at Wipro Ventures, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Through its maiden fund, Wipro Ventures invested in 16 startups and five VC funds. Adhya said two of its portfolio startups — including Demisto, which sold to Palo Alto for $560 million — have seen an exit, while others are showing good signs.

“We are pleased with the traction these startups are showing and the value we have added to Wipro, and we look forward to continuing this journey,” he said.

Adhya said Wipro Ventures looks to be a long-term investor in a startup. In addition to often participating in a startup’s follow-on financial rounds, it tends to stay with a startup until its IPO, he said.

Of the 16 startups Wipro Ventures has invested in to date, 11 are based in the U.S., four in Israel and one in India. Adhya said geography tends not to play a crucial role when investing in a startup, and he is open to ideas from anywhere in the world.

A corporate giant showing interest in picking stake in private equity firms is not a new phenomenon. Leaving aside the American giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, all of which operate investment arms, Indian IT giants have also been at it for years.

HCL and Infosys, two other IT giants in India, have also invested in — or outright acquired — dozens of startups in recent years. A 2017 CB Insights report showed that Wipro and Infosys, which runs Innovation Fund, alone had invested in 28 firms and acquired eight startups.

Adhya said Wipro Ventures is now investing in six to eight startups each year.

One of the benefits of taking money from a corporate giant is sometimes getting access to their other customers. And that appears to be true of Wipro. More than 100 of Wipro’s global customers have deployed solutions from its portfolio startups, Adhya said.

In a statement, Rishi Bhargava, a founder of Demisto, explained the benefit. “Within the first year of our partnership, Wipro and Demisto were working together on dozens of Fortune 1000 opportunities and closing a majority of them.

“It’s exciting to see Wipro Ventures continue to enhance the startup ecosystem with new capital while helping companies boost their bottom line,” he added.

Here is the first stable release of Microsoft’s new Edge browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Right on schedule, Microsoft today released the first stable version of its new Chromium-based Edge browser, just over a year after it first announced that it would stop developing its own browser engine and go with what has, for better or worse, become the industry standard.

You can now download the stable version for Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as macOS, directly. If you are on Windows 10, you can also wait for the automatic update to kick in, but that may take a while.

Since all of the development has happened in the open, with various pre-release channels, there are no surprises in this release. Some of the most interesting forward-looking features like Collections, Microsoft’s new take on bookmarking, are still only available in the more experimental pre-release channels. That will quickly change, though, since Edge is now on a six-week release cycle.

 

As I’ve said throughout the development cycle, Edge is a competent Chrome challenger and I have no hesitations to recommend it to anybody who is looking for a browser alternative. It’s still missing a few features, most importantly the ability to sync your browser history and extensions between devices. I’ve never found that to be much of a roadblock to using Edge as my main browser, but your mileage may vary.

Like all modern browsers, Edge features various options for protecting you from online trackers, support for extensions (both from the Chrome Web Store and Microsoft’s own extension repository), reader mode, the ability to switch profiles and pretty much everything else you would expect.

What it doesn’t have yet is a killer feature or something that really makes it stand out from the rest. While Microsoft seems quite excited about Collections, I admit that it’s not something I’ve found all that useful for my own workflow. But the team now has a stable platform in place to start innovating on, so we’ll likely see a stronger focus on new features going forward.

With Firefox going through its own renaissance, the Edge team may have trouble convincing people that they should switch back to a Microsoft browser, no matter how good it is. For most users, switching browsers isn’t a casual thing, after all.

Either way, if you were hesitant to try out the new Edge, now it the time to give it a shot. The easiest way to do so is to download the update directly. If you’re on Windows 10, the new Edge will replace the old Edge over time through the usual Windows OS update channel, but Microsoft is making this a very gradual rollout that it expects to last several months (and once it’s installed, it will update independently, outside of the Windows Update system).

Enterprise users get a choice for how and when they want to make the move, of course, which Microsoft detailed here and here.

Amazon to invest $1 billion to help digitize small businesses in India

By Manish Singh

India welcomed Jeff Bezos this week with an antitrust probe. On top of that, thousands of small merchants who typically compete with one another are beginning to gather across the country to hold a protest against the alleged predatory practices by the e-commerce giant. But Amazon founder and chief executive’s love for one of the company’s most important overseas markets remains untainted.

At a conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, Bezos and Amit Agarwal, the head of Amazon India, announced that the American giant is pumping $1 billion into India operations to help small and medium-sized businesses in the country come online. This is in addition to about $5.5 billion the company has invested in the country.

Bezos said the company is also eyeing making exports of locally produced goods from India — in line with New Delhi’s Make in India program that encourages companies to manufacture locally in the nation — to be of $10 billion in size on Amazon platform by 2025.

“Over the next five years, Amazon will invest an incremental $1 billion to digitize micro and small businesses in cities, towns, and villages across India, helping them reach more customers than ever before,” said Bezos in a statement.

“This initiative will use Amazon’s global footprint to create $10 billion in India exports by 2025. Our hope is that this investment will bring millions more people into the future prosperity of India and at the same time expose the world to the ‘Make in India’ products that represent India’s rich, diverse culture,” he added.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online for the first time in the last decade. But most small businesses such as mom-and-pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns, and villages of India are still offline. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have also launched tools in recent years to help these businesses build presence on the web and accept digital payments.

Amazon opened its conference, titled Amazon SMBhav (Hindi for possible), with videos of poor merchants and craftsmen in India who have expanded their businesses after signing up on the e-commerce platform.

An Amazon executive said the company has amassed over 500,000 sellers in India and thousands of merchants have boosted their businesses by beginning to sell on 12 Amazon marketplaces across the globe.

But just 10 miles from the conference venue, dozens of merchants had a different Amazon story to tell.

Dozens of merchants gathered in New Delhi on Wednesday to protest against alleged predatory practices by Amazon. (Image: Manish Singh / TechCrunch)

Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a trade group that represents more than 60 million merchants in the country, said it was organizing protests in 300 cities in India. A representative of the trade group said they want to publicize the alleged predatory pricing and other anti-competitive practices employed by Amazon and Flipkart .

Bezos and Agarwal did not address the protests or the antitrust probe.

At stake is one of the world’s largest untapped markets. India’s e-commerce market is projected to grow to $150 billion in the next three years, according to a report by Nasscom and PwC India.

“I predict that the 21st century is going to be the Indian century,” said Bezos at the conference. “The most important alliance is going to be the alliance between India and the U.S., the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy.”

On Monday, India’s Competition Commission opened an antitrust probe into Amazon and Walmart -owned Flipkart to find whether the two e-commerce giants have exclusive arrangements with smartphone vendors and are giving preferential treatment to some sellers.

The probe is the latest regulatory setback for Amazon and Flipkart, which sold majority stake to Walmart for $16 billion in 2018, in India. Last year, the U.S. senators criticized New Delhi after it restricted foreign companies from selling inventory from their own subsidiaries. The move forced Amazon and Flipkart to abruptly pull hundreds of thousands of goods from their marketplaces.

A CAIT spokesperson told TechCrunch that its member merchants were pleased with India’s antitrust watchdog’s move. The new round of protests today are one of several the trade group has organized in recent years. Last month, thousands of protestors expressed similar concerns against the e-commerce players.

“Amazon, Jeff Bezos, Flipkart, go back!” some protesters chanted today. Sumit Agarwal, National Secretary of CAIT, told TechCrunch in an interview that “deep discounting” on products on Amazon is impeding the growth of small merchants and a government intervention is urgently needed.

According to industry estimates, e-commerce accounts for about 3% of retail sales in the country.

Tech’s biggest companies are worth ~$5T as 2019’s epic stock market run wraps

By Alex Wilhelm

Look, this is the last post I’m writing in 2019 and I’m tired. But I can’t let the year close without taking stock of how well tech stocks did this year. It was bonkers.

So let’s mark the year’s conclusion with some notes for our future selves. Yes, we know that the Nasdaq has been setting new records and SaaS had a good year. But we need to dig in and get the numbers out so that we can look back and remember.

Let’s cap off this year the way it deserves to be remembered, as a kick-ass trip ’round the sun for your local, public technology company.

Keeping score

We’ll start with the indices that we care about:

  • The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 35% in 2019
  • The SaaS-heavy Bessemer Cloud Index rose 41% this year

Next, the highest-value U.S.-based technology companies:

  • Microsoft was up around 55% in 2019
  • Apple managed an 86% gain in the year
  • Not be left out, Facebook rose 57%
  • Amazon posted its own gain of 23% in 2019
  • Alphabet managed to grow by 29%, as well

Now let’s turn to some companies that we care about, even if they are smaller than the Big Five:

  • Salesforce? Up 19% this year
  • Adobe was up 46% in 2019, which was astounding
  • Intel picked up 28% in the year, making it no slouch
  • Even Oracle managed to gain 17% in 2019

And so on.

The technology industry’s epic run has been so strong that The Wall Street Journal noted this morning that, powered by tech companies, U.S. stocks “are poised for their best annual performance in six years.” The Journal highlighted the performance of Apple and Microsoft in particular for helping drive the boom. I wonder why.

How long will we live in the neighborhood of Nasdaq 9,000? How long can two tech companies be worth more than $1 trillion at the same time? How long can the biggest tech companies be worth a combined $4.93 trillion (I remember when $3 trillion for the Big Five was news, and I recall when the group reach a collective value of $4 trillion).1

But the worst trade in recent years has been the pessimists’ gambit. No matter what, stocks have kept going up, short-term hiccoughs and other missteps aside.

For nearly everyone, that is. While tech stocks in general did very well, some names that we all know did not. Let’s close on those reminders that a rising tide lifts only most boats.

2019 naughty list

Several of the most lackluster public tech companies were 2019 technology IPOs, interestingly enough. Who didn’t do well? Uber earns a spot on the naughty list for not only being underwater from its IPO price, but also from its final private valuations. And as you guessed, Lyft is down from its IPO price as well, which is not good.

Some 2019 IPOs did well in the middle of the year, but fell a little flat as the year came to a close. Pinterest, Beyond Meat and Zoom meet that criteria, for example. And some SaaS companies struggled, even if we think they will reach $1 billion in revenue in time.

But it was mostly a party. The public markets were good, and tech stocks were great. This helped create another 100+ unicorns in the year.

Such was 2019. On to 2020!

  1. In time, those numbers will look small. But sitting here on December 31, 2019, they appear huge and towering and, it must be said, somewhat perilously stacked.

In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

By Kate Clark

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.

While other tech giants fund housing initiatives, Amazon is opening a homeless shelter — inside its HQ

By Connie Loizos

As big tech gets bigger, industry leaders have begun making more noise about helping homeless populations, particularly in those regions where high salaries have driven up the cost of living to heights not seen before. Last January, for example, Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, among other participants, formed a group called the Partnership for the Bay’s Future that said it was going to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to expand affordable housing and strengthen “low-income tenant protections” in the five main counties in and around San Francisco. Microsoft meanwhile made a similar pledge in January of last year, promising $500 million to increase housing options in Seattle where low- and middle-income workers are being priced out of Seattle and its surrounding suburbs.

Amazon has made similar pledges in the past, with CEO Jeff Bezos pledging $2 billion to combat homelessness and to fund a network of “Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” as he said in a statement posted on Twitter at the time, in September 2018.

Now, however, Amazon is taking an approach that immediately raises the bar for its rivals in tech: it’s opening up a space in its Seattle headquarters to a homeless shelter, one that’s expected to become the largest family shelter in the state of Washington.

Business Insider reported the news earlier today, and it says the space will be able to accommodate 275 people each night and that it will offer individual, private rooms for families who are allowed to bring pets. It will also feature an industrial kitchen that’s expected to produce 600,000 meals per year.

The space is scheduled to open in the first quarter of the new year, and is part of a partnership Amazon has enjoyed for years with a nonprofit called Mary’s Place that has been operating a shelter out of a Travelodge hotel on Amazon’s campus since 2016. The new space, which BI says will have enough beds and blankets for 400 families each year, isn’t just owned by Amazon but the company has offered to pay for the nonprofit’s utilities, maintenance, and security for the next 10 years or as long as Mary’s Place needs it.

BI notes that the shelter will make a mere dent in Seattle’s homeless population, which includes 12,500 people in King County, where Seattle is located, but it’s still notable, not least because of the company’s willingness to house the shelter in its own headquarters.

It’s a move that no other tech company of which we’re aware has taken. The decision also underscores other cities’ equivocation over where their own, growing homeless populations should receive support. In just one memorable instance, after San Francisco Mayor London Breed last March floated an idea of turning a parking lot along the city’s Embarcadero into a center that would provide health and housing services and stays for up to 200 of the city’s 7,000-plus homeless residents, neighboring residents launched a campaign to squash the proposal. It was later passed anyway.

Vox noted in report about Microsoft’s $500 million pledge last year that many of these corporate efforts tend to elicit two types of reactions: admiration for the companies’ efforts — or frustration over the publicity these initiatives receive. After all, it’s hard to forget that Amazon paid no federal tax in the U.S. in 2018 on more than $11 billion in profit before taxes. The company also threatened in 2018 to stop construction in Seattle if the city passed a tax on major businesses that would have raised money for affordable housing.

Whether Amazon — one of the most valuable companies in the world, with a current $915 billion market cap — is doing its fair share is certainly worthy of exploring in an ongoing way. The same is true of every tech company that’s ‘eating the world.’

Still, a homeless shelter at the heart of a company like Amazon is worth acknowledging — and perhaps emulating — too.

“It’s not one entity that’s going to solve this,” Marty Hartman, the executive director of Mary’s Place, tells BI. “It’s not on corporations. It’s not on congregations. It’s not on government. It’s not on foundations. It’s all of us working together.”

Pictured above: A view of the new Mary’s Place Family Center from the street, courtesy of Amazon.

Xbox Series X is Microsoft’s next-gen console, arriving late-2020

By Brian Heater

If you didn’t watch last night’s Game Awards, you may of missed it. But Xbox Series X is the company’s  next generation console, and will be arriving in late 2020. Thankfully, Microsoft has kindly catalogued all of the images, media and even a little information online. Oh, and we’ll almost certainly be hearing a LOT more about the Xbox Series X before it arrives holidays 2020.

Xbox Head Phil Spencer has a pretty long break down over on the the official blog. But let’s start with the obvious here. The Series X looks…different. Surely the meme makers are already working overtime on this one, but to my mind, it looks a more traditional PC or maybe even a router.

It’s tall (around three times as tall as its predecessor), it’s rectangular, it’s black. It’s fairly minimalist. A lot of people seem to be comparing it to a refrigerator, which, fine. Honestly, I think it’s got that working for it. Surely plenty of people are looking for something that more seamlessly blends in with its surroundings.

The last few generations have found consoles transforming from specialty items into catchall media players, and there’s something to be said for a product that can sit on your shelf, largely undetected. Notably, the blocky design means that the console can be oriented either vertically or horizontally, depending on your spacing needs.

The latest version of the Xbox Wireless Controller arrives alongside the new system, because, well, you’re going to need something to control it with. It’s a bit smaller than the previous version, “refined to accommodate an even wider range of people,” per Spencer.

The buttons are largely in tact, with the addition of a Share button for taking screenshots and game clips. The new controllers ship with the system and will be capable with both the Xbox One and Windows 10 systems.

Speaking of older systems, the Series X is set up to support backward compatibility for all older systems, along with Xbox One accessories. Per Spencer,

Building on our compatibility promise, with Xbox Series X we’re also investing in consumer-friendly pathways to game ownership across generations.

Leading the way with our first-party titles including Halo Infinite in 2020, we’re committed to ensuring that games from Xbox Game Studios support cross-generation entitlements and that your Achievements and game saves are shared across devices.

Spec information is still pretty light for this first pass, but Spencer promises 4K playback at 60FPS (with potentially up to 120FPS) and support for both Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and 8K capability.

Powered by our custom-designed processor leveraging the latest Zen 2 and next generation RDNA architecture from our partners at AMD, Xbox Series X will deliver hardware accelerated ray tracing and a new level of performance never before seen in a console. Additionally, our patented Variable Rate Shading (VRS) technology will allow developers to get even more out of the Xbox Series X GPU and our next-generation SSD will virtually eliminate load times and bring players into their gaming worlds faster than ever before.

The Series X will also, naturally, have an eye on cloud gaming, in addition to native hardware. Tonight’s unveil also featured a sneak preview of the upcoming Ninja Theory title, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II.

Chatbots spotlight machine learning’s trillion-dollar potential

By Walter Thompson
Gustavo Parés Contributor
Gustavo Parés is CEO of NDS Cognitive Labs, a leader in cognitive computing and AI business solutions. A Professor at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), he's partnered with Microsoft, IBM and Google to deliver digital transformation and cognitive technology services.

The global industry potential of artificial intelligence is well-documented, yet the vision of this AI future is uncertain.

AI and automation trends are generating significant debate among economists and governments, particularly around employment impact and uncertain social outcomes. The mainstream attention is warranted. According to PwC, AI “could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined.”

AI is at a crossroads, and its long-term outlook is still hotly debated. Despite social media giants, automotive companies and numerous other industries investing hundreds of billions of dollars in AI, many automation technologies are not yet directly generating revenue and instead are forecasted to become profitable in the coming decades. This creates additional uncertainty of AI’s true market potential. The realistic potential value of AI is unknown, yet, as the technology advances, the ultimate impact could be of great consequence to virtually every economy.

There are many reasons to view AI’s future from an optimistic lens, however: chatbots provide significant evidence for AI’s positive impact on both business growth and employment markets. Today, chatbots are increasingly capable of mimicking human interactions and conversations to assist business-to-business, business-to-consumer, business-to-government, advertising audiences and other diverse groups. The evolution of the cognitive computer science behind conversational chatbots is perhaps one of the best examples of AI technologies driving revenue. Further, chatbot technology shows some of the greatest promise for augmenting, rather than replacing human workers.

AI is driving value while augmenting human workers

Chatbots are delivering real revenue today for some of the world’s leading financial services (Bank of America), retail (Levi’s), and technology companies (Zendesk) . We’re seeing more consumers taking the next step in a transaction or even making a purchase decision based off conversations with chatbots. Beyond driving sales, chatbots have numerous applications to a wide range of organizations. Nonprofits, NGOs, and even political campaigns find value in deploying chatbots to help handle the influx of inquiries from stakeholders and relevant audiences.

Rather than these chatbots replacing human workers, organizations are finding chatbots to be a helpful and value-creating opportunity that frees employees to focus on more strategic tasks. Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana aren’t replacing executive assistants today, but these technologies are all capable of supporting the executive assistant function in the workplace.

Gartner predicts AI augmentation, defined as a “human-centered partnership model of people and AI working together to enhance cognitive performance,” could generate $2.9 trillion of business value by 2021. Many industries see potential for chatbots to augment functions like sales, customer support and IT, enabling workers to create value in more strategic ways. Bain & Company finds chatbots to be among the most notable examples of artificial intelligence and automation in practice: “Companies use AI applications to understand industry trends, manage their workforce, address problems, power chatbots and personalize content to enable self-service.”

Clearly, the implications of scaled, human-like engagement are stunning in their capacity to carry out tasks. A chatbot’s ability to simultaneously hold tens of thousands of conversations — pulling from many millions of data points — is comparable to what a human customer service rep could accomplish in more than 1,000 years of nonstop work. Scaling customer service via AI allows service professionals to focus on big picture and more complex issues, and it provides rich data on customer interactions. We anticipate seeing more companies look to build better customer service experiences through chatbots, as Google and Salesforce announced in April.

The transformative impact of chatbots across industries

From our research and work with leading global companies, it’s clear that enterprises are finding that chatbots bring about tremendous value while supporting both people employment and long-term business growth opportunities today. Ultimately, chatbots are on track to showcase some of the most optimistic examples of AI augmentation. Consider three examples:

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