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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Virgin Galactic looks to late September, early October for first commercial crewed flight

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Just two months after celebrating its first manned launch to orbit – which is now under investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration – Virgin Galactic wants to return to space.

The company will be conducting its first commercial mission, the 23rd for the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, in late September or early October from the company’s sprawling Spaceport America facility. The flight will carry three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council, each of whom paid an undisclosed amount for the seat. A Virgin Galactic staff member will also be on board.

The role of mission lead will be held by Walter Villadei, a Colonel with the Italian Air Force; Angelo Landolfi, a physician and Lieutenant Colonel; Pantaleone Carlucci, an aerospace engineer on behalf of the National Research Council; and Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot the spaceplane.

The goal of the mission will be to evaluate the effects of the “transitional phase” from gravity to zero G on the human body; to that end, the crew members will be wearing sensors to measure physiological activity, and Villadei will even be wearing a smart suit that Virgin says will “[incorporate] Italian fashion style and technology.”

The announcement comes just one day after the FAA said that it was investigating the first crewed flight of VSS Unity in July. The news was first reported by The New Yorker and confirmed by the aerospace regulatory, who said that the spaceplane “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.” According to journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s reporting, a red warning light appeared on the dash of the Unity during flight, indicating that it had diverged from its planned trajectory.

Virgin Galactic later issued a statement disputing the piece, saying that “athough the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company added.

This is not the first time Schmidle has uncovered news regarding the safety of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic operations. His book, Test Gods, also includes a previously unknown account of a 2019 test flight (confirmed in the book by former employees) which saw potentially serious issues with the plane’s wing.

Workera.ai, a precision upskilling platform, taps $16M to close enterprise skills gap

By Christine Hall

Finding the right learning platform can be difficult, especially as companies look to upskill and reskill their talent to meet demand for certain technological capabilities, like data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence roles.

Workera.ai’s approach is to personalize learning plans with targeted resources — both technical and nontechnical roles — based on the current level of a person’s proficiency, thereby closing the skills gap.

The Palo Alto-based company secured $16 million in Series A funding, led by New Enterprise Associates, and including existing investors Owl Ventures and AI Fund, as well as individual investors in the AI field like Richard Socher, Pieter Abbeel, Lake Dai and Mehran Sahami.

Kian Katanforoosh, Workera’s co-founder and CEO, says not every team is structured or feels supported in their learning journey, so the company comes at the solution from several angles with an assessment on mentorship, where the employee wants to go in their career and what skills they need for that, and then Workera will connect those dots from where the employee is in their skillset to where they want to go. Its library has more than 3,000 micro-skills and personalized learning plans.

“It is what we call precision upskilling,” he told TechCrunch. “The skills data then can go to the organization to determine who are the people that can work together best and have a complementary skill set.”

Workera was founded in 2020 by Katanforoosh and James Lee, COO, after working with Andrew Ng, Coursera co-founder and Workera’s chairman. When Lee first connected with Katanforoosh, he knew the company would be able to solve the problem around content and basic fundamentals of upskilling.

It raised a $5 million seed round last October to give the company a total of $21 million raised to date. This latest round was driven by the company’s go-to-market strategy and customer traction after having acquired over 30 customers in 12 countries.

Over the past few quarters, the company began working with Fortune 500 companies, including Accenture and Siemens Energy, across industries like professional services, medical devices and energy, Lee said. As spending on AI skills is expected to exceed $79 billion by 2022, he says Workera will assist in closing the gap.

“We are seeing a need to measure skills,” he added. “The size of the engagements are a sign as is the interest for tech and non-tech teams to develop AI literacy, which is a more pressing need.”

As a result, it was time to increase the engineering and science teams, Katanforoosh said. He plans to use the new funding to invest in more talent in those areas and to build out new products. In addition, there are a lot of natural language processes going on behind the scenes, and he wants the company to better understand it at a granular level so that the company can assess people more precisely.

Carmen Chang, general partner and head of Asia at NEA, said she is a limited partner in Ng’s AI fund and in Coursera, and has looked at a lot of his companies.

She said she is “very excited” to lead the round and about Workera’s concept. The company has a good understanding of the employee skill set, and with the tailored learning program, will be able to grow with company needs, Chang added.

“You can go out and hire anyone, but investing in the people that you have, educating and training them, will give you a look at the totality of your employees,” Chang said. “Workera is able to go in and test with AI and machine learning and map out the skill sets within a company so they will be able to know what they have, and that is valuable, especially in this environment.”

 

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

By Taylor Hatmaker

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30% of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30% to 15% last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15% for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

“This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up,” Epic Games VP of Public Policy Corie Wright said of the new bill.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

“At Apple, our focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million-dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.

 

GGV Capital gave this real estate startup founder a term sheet 48 hours after meeting

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Realm, which aims to help homeowners maximize the value of their property with its data platform, has raised $12 million in Series A funding led by GGV Capital.

Existing backers Primary Venture Partners, Lerer Hippeau and Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures also participated in the round, bringing the New York-based startup’s total raised to $15 million.

Liz Young founded Realm, launching the platform earlier this year with the goal of providing “a one-stop-shop for accessible, actionable home advice.”

So far, Realm says it has helped over 20,000 homeowners “uncover” an average of $175,000 in property value. Its user base is growing 20% month over month.

What makes the company different from other valuation offerings out there, according to Young, is that rather than telling owners what their homes are worth today, Realm can tell them what their home could be worth after renovations in months and years to come.

“There are a ton of tools and services that make it easier to buy or sell your home, but once you move, it’s a total black box,” she said. “You’re left trying to cobble together advice from fragmented, often biased resources to navigate big, expensive decisions. There’s nowhere else consumers spend so much money, with such little actionable information.”

For example, using data extracted from a variety of sources such as tax assessors and its own users, Realm can do things like tell a homeowner in real time how their property value will change if they do things like make over a bathroom or add a new deck. Its algorithms can assess a property and offer advice on what projects are most likely to add value.

“The public data that we acquire, the data we ingest from users, and the data that we build ourselves has allowed us to build the most robust and unique actionable real estate data set in the U.S.,” Young told TechCrunch.

Realm’s database is free and according to Young, offers insights on over 70 million single family detached homes across the U.S.

Part of that is determined by zoning data, which tells people where they can and cannot build on a property.

“It’s really important because square feet is one of the biggest drivers of home value,” Young said. “So if you’re trying to understand how much a home’s worth or could be worth, you really have to understand the local zoning rules.”

Image Credits: Realm

Realm’s marketplace offering, where an adviser connects owners to contractors, architects and lenders that can carry out the company’s recommendations, is currently only live in California, but will be expanding to new markets over the next 12 months.

“People can digitally consume our free insights but a lot want help interpreting them,” Young said.

The company plans to use its new capital to “improve the quality and sophistication of the platform’s data insights” and toward hiring across its data science, engineering, marketing and operations teams. It will also continue to develop its proprietary data sets and models, which offer homeowners across the country personalized analysis of over 70 million homes.
A lot of Realm’s business is driven by its relationships with agents and word of mouth via its existing user base.

Jeff Richards, GGV managing partner and new Realm board member, said that when his firm backs at the Series A level, its bet is “100% on the founder.”

“I met Liz when she was raising her seed round in July 2020 and was blown away,” he told TechCrunch. “She’s smart, ambitious and has a deep background in the space she’s going after. Although it was early, I could tell she was thinking big.”

Founder and CEO Liz Young. Image Credits: Realm

He points out that GGV Capital, with $2.5 billion in assets under management, is a long-time investor in other proptechs including Opendoor, Divvy Homes, Belong and Airbnb.

“Zillow made it easy for people to find a home to buy. Opendoor made it easy to buy and sell a home,” Richards told TechCrunch. “Airbnb made it easy to rent a home for a short-term vacation. Belong is making it easy to rent a home for the long term.”

Realm, according to Richards, was right in GGV’s “sweet spot.”

“No one has zeroed in on helping the individual homeowner manage their home, and that’s the opportunity area Liz is going after,” he said. “We kept in touch after the seed round, she pinged me to talk about her A, we met up and I gave her a term sheet 48 hours later.”

In general, Richards believes that residential real estate is one of the biggest spend categories in the U.S. and yet is still virtually untouched by technology.

Home sales are over $1.6 trillion annually, home improvement is one of the biggest categories in the U.S. at over $500 billion annually, and the average home renovation project in the U.S. is around $15,000, with many spending over $50,000.

“I’ve owned a home for 17 years and almost everything I do with respect to the home is the same as it was over a decade ago. The only thing that has really changed is I can manage my thermostat and cameras with my phone,” Richards said. “Literally everything else is the same — the way I do renovations, the way I find contractors to do repairs, the way I pay my mortgage, etc. — exactly the same. That’s ridiculous! Liz sees a huge opportunity here, and so do we. The market is enormous. So there will be many, many winners.”

Tailor Brands raises $50M, aims to be one-stop shop for small businesses to launch

By Christine Hall

Tailor Brands, a startup that automates parts of the branding and marketing process for small businesses, announced Thursday it has raised $50 million in Series C funding.

GoDaddy led the round as a strategic partner and was joined by OurCrowd and existing investors Pitango Growth, Mangrove Capital Partners, Armat Group, Disruptive VC and Whip Media founder Richard Rosenblatt. Tailor Brands has now raised a total of $70 million since its inception in 2015.

“GoDaddy is empowering everyday entrepreneurs around the world by providing all of the help and tools to succeed online,” said Andrew Morbitzer, vice president of corporate development at GoDaddy, in a written statement. “We are excited to invest in Tailor Brands — and its team — as we believe in their vision. Their platform truly helps entrepreneurs start their business quickly and easily with AI-powered logo design and branding services.”

When Tailor Brands, which launched at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2014, raised its last round, a $15.5 million Series B, in 2018, the company was focused on AI-driven logo creation.

The company, headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, is now compiling the components for a one-stop SaaS platform — providing the design, branding and marketing services a small business owner needs to launch and scale operations, and within minutes, Yali Saar, co-founder and CEO of Tailor Brands told TechCrunch.

Over the past year, more users are flocking to Tailor Brands; the company is onboarding some 700,000 new users per month for help in the earliest stages of setting up their business. In fact, the company saw a 27% increase in new business incorporations as the creator and gig economy gained traction in 2020, Saar said.

In addition to the scores of new users, the company crossed 30 million businesses using the platform. At the end of 2019, Tailor Brands started monetizing its offerings and “grew at a staggering rate,” Saar added. The company yielded triple-digit annual growth in revenue.

To support that growth, the new funding will be used on R&D, to double the team and create additional capabilities and functions. There may also be future acquisition opportunities on the table.

Saar said Tailor Brands is at a point where it can begin leveraging the massive amount of data on small businesses it gathers to help them be proactive rather than reactive, turning the platform into a “consultant of sorts” to guide customers through the next steps of their businesses.

“Users are looking for us to provide them with everything, so we are starting to incorporate more products with the goal of creating an ecosystem, like WeChat, where you don’t need to leave the platform at all to manage your business,” Saar said.

 

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