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Google Photos adds a time-traveling version of Stories, plus more sharing and printing options

By Sarah Perez

Google Photos is getting its own version of Stories. But instead of focusing on what you’re doing now, as Stories on other platforms like Instagram and Snapchat offer, Google Photos is adopting the format to help you take a trip down memory lane. The feature is one of several updates coming to the photo-sharing service that focuses on helping you reconnect with your old photos that often get forgotten after upload.

Its unique take on Stories is, perhaps, the most interesting update, as it’s the first time we’ve seen the format used as a way to rewind time.

In Google Photos, the feature is more appropriately called “Memories,” as is designed to help users relive their life in a more meaningful way.

Memories

The company said it came up with the idea by watching user behavior on its app.

“We see users browse their photos and scroll all the way down to look at pictures from five years ago,” explained Google Photos Lead, Shimrit Ben-Yair. “We see them searching for moments and having a good experience with that. But we thought, how can we make that even easier?”

The Memories feature, she continued, is meant to accomplish that by helping users “better reminisce digitally.”

Most users will already know how to use Google Photos Memories, given the broad adoption of Stories across various platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, and even surprising places like Netflix. As with some other implementations, the feature places small, rounded icons at the top of the Google Photos gallery, which you can tap to launch and advance through.

Except, in this case, each Story circle is taking you back in time — for example, a year ago, two years ago, three, and so on.

Memories

 

However, the feature isn’t just a variation on “Rediscover this Day,” because it’s not as tightly tied to a particular date. It’s more like a showcase of what you were doing around the same time as in years prior — like around the same week. It lets you look back without having to swipe through the badly shot photos and duplicates.

To help users from reliving more sensitive memories — like deaths they’re still grieving or breakups they’d rather forget, for example — you’ll also be able to block certain people or places from showing up in the Memories feature, to better personalize your highlight reel.

Another key difference is that Google Photos’ Memories are not put on public display.

“Even though it is the Stories format — which we lean into because we feel it creates a more immersive experience for reliving your life — this is only your library. It’s your private content,” noted Google Photos Engineering Lead, James Gallagher, when demoing the feature, pre-launch, to TechCrunch.

In a few months’ time, however, Google Photos plans to let you share these old photos — or any others you come across in your library  — in a more direct and more personal way. Through an enhancement to the sharing feature, you’ll be able to send a photo directly to friends or family, where it’s then adding to an ongoing and private conversation that will eventually become a stream of all your chats and shares.

Photo prints

And Google Photos is expanding its options for getting photos off your phone and into the real world.

It’s partnering with Walmart and CVS for 4×6 photo prints that can be picked up in about an hour at over 11,000 U.S. locations. These prints will cost the same as if you ordered through the retailers directly at $0.25 from Walmart and $0.33 from CVS. You’ll also be able to turn photos into wall art of various sizes, in the U.S. This follows Flickr’s recent expansion into the area of prints and wall art, which rolled out last month.

Photo prints

In Google Photos’ case, you’ll be able to select canvas prints in three different sizes, 8×8 ($19.99), 11×14 ($29.99), and 16×20 ($44.99), which can be customized with either black, white, or photo wrap borders. The canvases also come with a wire hanger on the back to make mounting easier.

This feature will generate revenue, though Google outsources the actual work to a network of printing partners across the U.S. It joins an existing feature that lets users turn photos into photo books in just a few steps.

Canvas prints

One final feature, though not necessarily related to reminiscing, is an improvement to search that will now help you find photos or screenshots with text — like a recipe.

This feature, prints, and the Memories feature are rolling out now. Direct sharing is coming in a few months.

The additions are part of many enhancements to Google Photos since its spin-out from Google+ just over four years ago. The company has rapidly improved its photo-hosting and sharing service with A.I. functionality to clean up users’ vast photo libraries and automatically create photo edits and mini-movies, among other things. And it continues to improve with features like support for Lens’ visual search and an expanded array of A.I.-powered photo fixes, for example.

Thanks to these features and its integration with the Android operating system, Google Photos now has over a billion monthly users.

 

Apple tweaks App Store rule changes for children’s apps and sign-in services

By Matthew Panzarino

Originally announced in June, changes to Apple’s App Store policies on its Sign in with Apple service and the rules around children’s app categories are being tweaked. New apps must comply right away with the tweaked terms, but existing apps will have until early 2020 to comply with the new rules.

The changes announced at Apple’s developer conference in the summer were significant, and raised concerns among developers that the rules could handicap their ability to do business in a universe that, frankly, offers tough alternatives to ad-based revenue for children’s apps.

In a short interview with TechCrunch, Apple’s Phil Schiller said that they had spent time with developers, analytics companies and advertising services to hear what they had to say about the proposals and have made some updates.

The changes are garnering some strong statements of support from advocacy groups and advertising providers for children’s apps that were pre-briefed on the tweaks. The changes will show up as of this morning in Apple’s developer guidelines.

“As we got closer to implementation we spent more time with developers, analytics companies and advertising companies,” said Schiller. “Some of them are really forward thinking and have good ideas and are trying to be leaders in this space too.”

With their feedback, Schiller said, they’ve updated the guidelines to allow them to be more applicable to a broader number of scenarios. The goal, he said, was to make the guidelines easy enough for developers to adopt while being supportive of sensible policies that parents could buy into. These additional guidelines, especially around the Kids app category, says Schiller, outline scenarios that may not be addressed by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) or GDPR regulations.

There are two main updates.

Kids’ changes

The first area that is getting further tweaking is the Kids terms. Rule sections 1.3 and 5.1.4 specifically are being adjusted after Apple spoke with developers and providers of ad and analytics services about their concerns over the past few months.

Both of those rules are being updated to add more nuance to their language around third-party services like ads and analytics. In June, Apple announced a very hard-line version of these rule updates that essentially outlawed any third-party ads or analytics software and prohibited any data transmission to third-parties. The new rules offer some opportunities for developers to continue to integrate these into their apps, but also sets out explicit constraints for them.

The big changes come in section 1.3 surrounding data safety in the Kids category. Apple has removed the explicit restriction on including any third-party advertising or analytics. This was the huge hammer that developers saw heading towards their business models.

Instead, Apple has laid out a much more nuanced proposal for app developers. Specifically, it says these apps should not include analytics or ads from third parties, while implicitly acknowledging that there are ways to provide these services as well as practicing data safety on the App Store.

Apple says that in limited cases, third-party analytics may be permitted as long as apps in the Kids category do not send personal identifiable information or any device fingerprinting information to third parties. This includes transmitting the IDFA (the device ID for advertisers), name, date of birth, email address, location or any other personally identifiable information.

Third-party contextual ads may be allowed but only if those companies providing the ads have publicly documented practices and policies and also offer human review of ad creatives. That certainly limits the options, including most offerings from programmatic services.

Rule 5.1.4 centers on data handling in kids apps. In addition to complying with COPPA, GDPR and other local regulations, Apple sets out some explicit guard rails.

First, the language on third-party ads and analytics has been changed from may not to should not. Apple is discouraging their use, but acknowledges that “in limited cases” third-party analytics and advertising may be permitted if it adheres to the new rules set out in guideline 1.3.

The explicit prohibition on transmitting any data to third parties from apps in the Kids category has been removed. Once again, this was the big bad bullet that every children’s app maker was paying attention to.

An additional clause reminds developers not to use terms like “for kids” and “for children” in app metadata for apps outside of the Kids category on the App Store.

SuperAwesome is a company that provides services like safe ad serving to kids apps. CEO Dylan Collins was initially critical of Apple’s proposed changes, noting that killing off all third-party apps could decimate the kids app category.

“Apple are clearly very serious about setting the standard for kids apps and digital services,” Collins said in a statement to TechCrunch after reviewing the new rules Apple is publishing. “They’ve spent a lot of time working with developers and kidtech providers to ensure that policies and tools are set to create great kids digital experiences while also ensuring their digital privacy and safety. This is the model for all other technology platforms to follow.”

All new apps must adhere to the guidelines. Existing apps have been given an additional six months to live in their current form but must comply by March 3, 2020.

“We commend Apple for taking real steps to protect children’s privacy and ensure that kids will not be targets for data-driven, personalized marketing,” said Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. “Apple rightly recognizes that a child’s personal identifiable information should never be shared with marketers or other third parties. We also appreciate that Apple made these changes on its own accord, without being dragged to the table by regulators.”

The CCFC had a major win recently when the FTC announced a $170M fine against YouTube for violations of COPPA.

Sign in with Apple

The second set of updates has to do with Apple’s Sign in with Apple service.

Sign in with Apple is a sign-in service that can be offered by an app developer to instantly create an account that is handled by Apple with additional privacy for the user. We’ve gone over the offering extensively here, but there are some clarifications and policy additions in the new guidelines.

Sign in with Apple is being required to be offered by Apple if your app exclusively offers third-party or social log ins like those from Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Amazon or Facebook. It is not required if users sign in with a unique account created in the app, with say an email and password.

But some additional clarifications have been added for additional scenarios. Sign in with Apple will not be required in the following conditions:

  • Your app exclusively uses your company’s own account setup and sign-in systems.
  • Your app is an education, enterprise or business app that requires the user to sign in with an existing education or enterprise account.
  • Your app uses a government or industry-backed citizen identification system or electronic ID to authenticate users.
  • Your app is a client for specific third-party service and users are required to sign in to their mail, social media or other third-party account directly to access their content.

Most of these were sort of assumed to be true but were not initially clear in June. The last one, especially, was one that I was interested in seeing play out. This scenario applies to, for instance, the Gmail app for iOS, as well as apps like Tweetbot, which log in via Twitter because all they do is display Twitter.

Starting today, new apps submitted to the store that don’t meet any of the above requirements must offer Sign in with Apple to users. Current apps and app updates have until April 2020 to comply.

Both of these tweaks come after developers and other app makers expressed concern and reports noted the abruptness and strictness of the changes in the context of the ever-swirling anti-trust debate surrounding big tech. Apple continues to walk a tightrope with the App Store where they flex muscles in an effort to enhance data protections for users while simultaneously trying to appear as egalitarian as possible in order to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

Uber commits $200 million to Uber Freight expansion in bet on trucking and Chicago

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Freight is establishing its headquarters in Chicago as part of Uber’s broader plan to invest more than $200 million annually in the region, including hiring hundreds of workers.

Uber said Monday it will hire 2,000 new employees in the region over the next three years; most will be dedicated to Uber Freight .

Uber Freight, which helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, has become an important piece to Uber’s larger business strategy to generate revenue from all forms of transportation, including logistics for packages. The announcement comes on the heels of a disappointing quarter for Uber that included a stunning $5.2 billion loss.

Since launching in May 2017, Uber Freight has grown from from limited regional operations in Texas to the rest of the continental U.S. and to Europe.

Uber made Uber Freight a separate business unit in August 2018. Since then, the company has redesigned the app, adding new navigation features that make searching for and filtering loads easier to customize and more intuitive, as well as other features, including an updated map view and a search bar across the top of the screen.

It has also made some key hires, one of which intimated the company’s global ambitions. The company hired Andrew Smith, one of Box’s early employees, to head up global sales at Uber Freight, and Bar Ifrach, formerly of Airbnb, to lead its marketplace team.

With signs of some success, Uber is doubling down on the trucking business.

Uber Freight has more than 400,000 drivers in its carrier network and 1,000-plus shippers as customers, including AB Inbev, Niagara Bottling and Land O’Lakes, according to the company. Uber Freight also has more than 50,000 carriers on the platform.

“I believe this makes Uber Freight  the biggest virtual fleet in the United States,” Lior Ron, head of Uber Freight, told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

The company has been relatively quiet as it has scaled up, Ron said, noting that this announcement marks a turning point for Uber Freight.

“This is really a graduation moment for us and where we can share that because the business is doing so well we are doubling down on our investment,” he said.

The new Uber office located in The Old Main Post Office in the historic Chicago River area will serve as Uber Freight headquarters and its first engineering hub outside of San Francisco.

“Trucking represents an enormous opportunity for Uber, and this milestone is a testament to our long-term commitment to our Freight business,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “Chicago is the heart of America’s transportation and logistics industry, and there is no better place to open our dedicated Freight HQ. Uber has long recognized the incredible history, innovation, and talent that Chicago has to offer, and we’re excited about the thousands of new jobs our Freight business will help bring as we become one of the city’s largest technology employers.”

As part of its new investments in the region, Uber is collaborating with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership (CCWP) to help with workplace diversity. Uber will start onboarding new employees in 2020 and will work with CCWP to develop a process for identifying potential candidates through their system.

Tastemakers raises $1M to sell Africa experiences to the world

By Jake Bright

New York-based startup Tastemakers has raised a $1 million seed-round — led by Precursor Ventures — for its business that connects Africa adventures to global consumers.

Tastemakers’ platform curates, prices, and lists African travel and cultural experiences—from paragliding tours to wine-tasting to concerts.

The startup generates revenues by taking a 20% commission on each transaction. Community managers in Africa screen and select experiences that go up on the site.

Tastemakers will use the investment to grow the number of experiences offered from 200 to 10,000 and build out machine learning capabilities to better match suppliers, experiences, and clients—CEO and founder Cherae Robinson told TechCrunch.

She likened the site to an Airbnb for commoditizing and connecting people to Africa travel experiences at scale.

On the startup’s addressable market, Robinson references a segment of culture curious travelers: people who are travelling to experience things such foreign art, food, music, or dance workshops.

“We looked at who’s doing these kinds of tours and and the number of people booking…and we found that globally, based on triangulating that, there are about 700 million people globally booking culture forward experiences,” said Robinson.

For different reasons—from negative stereotypes or the difficulty of identifying tourist options in Africa—most of these excursions are occurring in other parts of the world, according to Robinson.

She sees Tastemakers’ value proposition as the site that can bring a greater percentage of these culture travelers to Africa.

On revenue potential, Robinson is pretty up front on numbers and goals. “If we can capture 1% of that [700 million] market in the next five years that’s $2.2 billion generated on our platform,” she said, noting an average booking cost of $308. She believes Tastemakers could hit those figures by 2025—and by applying their 20 percent commission—reach income of $434 million.

Tastemakers Africa Ghana III

Precursor Ventures Managing Partner Charles Hudson invested in Tastemakers for its potential as an early entrant in an off the grid travel market attracting more curiosity.

“I just had a sense that Africa was having a moment, and whether its Black Panther or more startups that have a foot in Africa, that there were more people interested in going to Africa,” he told TechCrunch.

“And it’s not like going to New York City…You have providers that are hard to find and hard to book..that are not super well marketed. If you can become an aggregator and curator of those, you could effectively become the largest source of lead generation,” Hudson said.

Tastemakers is looking at  ancillary partnership and revenue share opportunities. It uses Stripe and WorldRemit to process mobile payments for transactions on the site and has done promotional partnerships with Uber Africa. The startup also counts Kempinski Hotels as its biggest lodging partner.

Tastemakers also offers advisory services to sellers on the site, to better determine price-points and on marketing their travel experiences more effectively online.

CEO Cherae Robinson is clear about the company’s for-profit status, but sees upside for Africa beyond generating business from tourism. “I strategically don’t brand Tastemakers as a social impact startup…but we’re driving benefits of the sharing economy to diverse populations both in Africa and in underrepresented communities in the technology and tourism sectors,” she said.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Tastemakers has closed a $1M round and is in the process of raising $1.4M total for the round. 

Google says China used YouTube to meddle in Hong Kong protests

By Zack Whittaker

Google has disabled 210 YouTube accounts after it said China used the video platform to sow discord among protesters in Hong Kong.

The search giant, which owns YouTube, followed in the footsteps of Twitter and Facebook, which earlier this week said China had used their social media sites to spread misinformation and discord among the protesters, who have spent weeks taking to the streets to demand China stops interfering with the semi-autonomous region’s affairs.

In a brief blog post, Google’s Shane Huntley said the company took action after it detected activity which “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.”

“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” said Huntley.

Earlier this week Twitter said China was using its service to “sow discord” through fake accounts as part of “a coordinated state-backed operation.”

In line with Twitter and Facebook’s findings, Google said it detected the use of virtual private networks — or VPNs — which can be used to tunnel through China’s censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. Facebook, Twitter and Google are all banned in China. But Google said little more about the accounts, what they shared or whether it would disclose its findings to researchers.

When reached, a Google spokesperson only referred back to the blog post and did not comment further.

More than a million protesters took to the streets this weekend to peacefully demonstrate against the Chinese regime, which took over rule from the United Kingdom in 1997. Protests erupted earlier this year after a bid by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to push through a highly controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was suspended, effectively killing it from reaching the law books, but protests have continued, pushing back at claims that China is trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

On-demand parking startup SpotHero raises $50 million

By Kirsten Korosec

SpotHero, the Chicago-based company that has developed an on-demand parking app, has raised $50 million in a Series D round led by Macquarie Capital.

Union Grove Venture Partners participated in the round, along with existing investors including Insight Venture Partners, Global Founders Capital, OCA Ventures, AutoTech Ventures and others, according to the company. SpotHero has raised $118 million to date.

The new capital will be used to expand its reach in the 300 U.S. and Canadian cities where it is already operating, build out its digital platform and strengthen partnerships with mobility companies, CEO and co-founder Mark Lawrence told TechCrunch.

SpotHero, which has operations in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, initially set out to develop software that connects everyday drivers to parking spots in thousands of garages across North America.

It’s secret sauce is its software, which can sit on top of the 40 or so different point-of-sales systems used by parking garages. This acts as a single protocol, allowing SpotHero to bring some kind of standardization to an otherwise fragmented system. From this single protocol, SpotHero can add in features that will allow for automated parking services such as license plate recognition.

“We’ve built the pipes, so to speak, and this powers out consumer app,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. Now the company is focus is on building out partnerships, features in the software and services, he added.

Capital will also be used to hire talent to support these new endeavors. SpotHero has 210 employees today and is working on hiring 50 more engineers this year.

In the eight years since its founding, SpotHero has expanded beyond its core consumer-focused compentcy. The company has added other services as urban density has increased and on-street parking has become more jumbled and confused thanks to an increase in traffic, ride-hailing and on-demand delivery services that take up valuable curb space. It has locked in more than 900 distribution partnerships and integrations including Google Assistant, for voice-enabled parking and Waze in-app navigation to parking. Other partners include Hertz and car2go for fleet parking, WeWork, for commuter parking and Moovit, for multi-modal parking.

Most recently, SpotHero launched a new service dubbed “SpotHero for Fleets” that targets shared mobility and on-demand services.

The service aims to be a one-stop shop for car-sharing and commercial fleets to handle all that goes into ensuring there is access and the right number of designated parking areas on any given day within SpotHero’s large network of 6,500 garages across 300 cities. That means everything from managing the relationships between garage owners and the fleet companies to proper signage so car-sharing customers can find the vehicles, as well as flexible plans that account for seasonal demands on businesses.

Under the new service, customers are able to source and secure parking inventory in high-traffic areas across multiple cities and pay per use across multiple parking facilities on one invoice to streamline payments. 

The company has signed on car-sharing companies and other commercial fleets, although it’s not naming them yet.

After data incidents, Instagram expands its bug bounty

By Zack Whittaker

Facebook is expanding its data abuse bug bounty to Instagram.

The social media giant, which owns Instagram, first rolled out its data abuse bounty in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw tens of millions of Facebook profiles scraped to help swing undecided voters in favor of the Trump campaign during the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

The idea was that security researchers and platform users alike could report instances of third-party apps or companies that were scraping, collecting and selling Facebook data for other purposes, such as to create voter profiles or build vast marketing lists.

Even following he high profile public relations disaster of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook still still had apps illicitly collecting data on its users.

Instagram wasn’t immune either. Just this month Instagram booted a “trusted” marketing partner off its platform after it was caught scraping millions of users’ stories, locations and other data points on millions of users, forcing Instagram to make product changes to prevent future scraping efforts. That came after two other incidents earlier this year where a security researcher found 14 million scraped Instagram profiles sitting on an exposed database — without a password — for anyone to access. Another incident saw another company platform scrape the profile data — including email addresses and phone numbers — of Instagram influencers.

Last year Instagram also choked developers’ access as the company tried to rebuild its privacy image in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Dan Gurfinkel, security engineering manager at Instagram, said its new and expanded data abuse bug bounty aims to “encourage” security researchers to report potential abuse.

Instagram said it’s also inviting a select group of trusted security researchers to find flaws in its Checkout service ahead of its international rollout, who will also be eligible for bounty payouts.

Read more:

Shell’s first Greenlots electric vehicle fast charger lands in Singapore

By Kirsten Korosec

Royal Dutch Shell, the energy giant known for its fossil fuel production and hundreds of Shell gas stations, is creeping into the electric vehicle-power business.

The company’s first DC fast charger from its newly acquired company Greenlots launched Monday at a Shell gas station in Singapore. Greenlots, an EV charging startup acquired by Shell in January, installed the charger. This is the first of 10 DC fast chargers that Greenlots plans to bring to Shell service stations in Singapore over the next several months.

The decision to target Singapore is part of Greenlots’ broader strategy to provide EV charging solutions across all applications throughout Asia and North America, the company said. Both Shell and Greenlots have a presence in Singapore. Greenlots, which is based in Los Angeles, was founded in Singapore; and Shell is one of Singapore’s largest foreign investors.

Singapore has been promoting the use of electric vehicles, particularly for car-sharing and ride-hailing platforms. The island city-state has been building up its EV infrastructure to meet anticipated demand as ride-hailing drivers and commercial fleets switch to electric vehicles.

Greenlots was backed by Energy Impact Partners, a cleantech investment firm, before it was acquired by Shell. The company, which combines its management software with the EV charging hardware, has landed some significant customers in recent years, notably Volkswagen. Greenlots is the sole software provider to Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal.

Clarification: Shell has other EV chargers. These are the first through its newly acquired company Greenlots.

Week in Review: Snapchat beats a dead horse

By Lucas Matney

Hey. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how Netflix might have some rough times ahead as Disney barrels towards it.


3d video spectacles 3

The big story

There is plenty to be said about the potential of smart glasses. I write about them at length for TechCrunch and I’ve talked to a lot of founders doing cool stuff. That being said, I don’t have any idea what Snap is doing with the introduction of a third-generation of its Spectacles video sunglasses.

The first-gen were a marketing smash hit, their sales proved to be a major failure for the company which bet big and seemingly walked away with a landfill’s worth of the glasses.

Snap’s latest version of Spectacles were announced in Vogue this week, they are much more expensive at $380 and their main feature is that they have two cameras which capture images in light depth which can lead to these cute little 3D boomerangs. One one hand, it’s nice to see the company showing perseverance with a tough market, on the other it’s kind of funny to see them push the same rock up the hill again.

Snap is having an awesome 2019 after a laughably bad 2018, the stock has recovered from record lows and is trading in its IPO price wheelhouse. It seems like they’re ripe for something new and exciting, not beautiful yet iterative.

The $150 Spectacles 2 are still for sale, though they seem quite a bit dated-looking at this point. Spectacles 3 seem to be geared entirely towards women, and I’m sure they made that call after seeing the active users of previous generations, but given the write-down they took on the first-generation, something tells me that Snap’s continued experimentation here is borne out of some stubbornness form Spiegel and the higher-ups who want the Snap brand to live in a high fashion world and want to be at the forefront of an AR industry that seems to have already moved onto different things.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

tumblr phone sold

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • WordPress buys Tumblr for chump change
    Tumblr, a game-changing blogging network that shifted online habits and exited for $1.1 billion just changed hands after Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) unloaded the property for a reported $3 million. Read more about this nightmarish deal here.
  • Trump gives American hardware a holiday season pass on tariffs 
    The ongoing trade war with China generally seems to be rough news for American companies deeply intertwined with the manufacturing centers there, but Trump is giving U.S. companies a Christmas reprieve from the tariffs, allowing certain types of hardware to be exempt from the recent rate increases through December. Read more here.
  • Facebook loses one last acquisition co-founder
    This week, the final remnant of Facebook’s major acquisitions left the company. Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell announced he was leaving. Now, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus are all helmed by Facebook leadership and not a single co-founder from the three companies remains onboard. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Facebook’s turn in audio transcription debacle:
    [Facebook transcribed users’ audio messages without permission]
  2. Google’s hate speech detection algorithms get critiqued:
    [Racial bias observed in hate speech detection algorithm from Google]
  3. Amazon has a little email mishap:
    [Amazon customers say they received emails for other people’s orders]

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. My colleague Danny Crichton wrote about the “tech” conundrum that is WeWork and the questions that are still unanswered after the company filed documents this week to go public.

WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points

…How is margin changing at its older locations? How is margin changing as it opens up in places like India, with very different costs and revenues? How do those margins change over time as a property matures? WeWork spills serious amounts of ink saying that these numbers do get better … without seemingly being willing to actually offer up the numbers themselves…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we published a major deep dive into the world’s next music unicorn and we dug deep into marketplace startups.

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

SoftBank reportedly plans to lend employees as much as $20 billion to invest in its VC fund

By Darrell Etherington

SoftBank has a plant to loan up to $20 billion to its employees, including CEO Masayoshi Son, for the purposes of having that capital re-invested in SoftBank’s own Vision venture fund, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. That’s a highly unusual move that could be risky in terms of how much exposure SoftBank Group has on the whole in terms of its startup bets, but the upside is that it can potentially fill out as much as a fifth of its newly announced second Vision Fund’s total target raise of $108 billion from a highly aligned investor pool.

SoftBank revealed its plans for its second Vision Fund last month, including $38 billion from SoftBank itself, as well as commitments from Apple, Microsoft and more. The company also took a similar approach to its original Vision Fund, WSJ reports, with stakes from employees provided with loans totalling $8 billion of that $100 billion commitment.

The potential pay-off is big, provided the fund has some solid winners that achieve liquidation events that provide big returns that employees can then use to pay off the original loans, walking away with profit. That’s definitely a risk, however, especially in the current global economic client. As WSJ notes, the Uber shares that Vision Fund I acquired are now worth less than what SoftBank originally paid for them according to sources, and SoftBank bet WeWork looks poised to be another company whose IPO might not make that much, if any, money for later stage investors.

Local governments are forcing the scooter industry to grow up fast

By Megan Rose Dickey

Gone are the days when tech companies can deploy their services in cities without any regard for rules and regulations. Before the rise of electric scooters, cities had already become hip to tech’s status quo (thanks to the likes of Uber and Lyft) and were ready to regulate. We explored some of this in “The uncertain future of shared scooters,” but since then, new challenges have emerged for scooter startups.

And for scooter startups, city regulations can make or break their businesses across nearly every aspect of operations, especially two major ones: ridership growth and ability to attract investor dollars. From issuing permits to determining how many scooters any one company can operate at any one time to enforcing low-income plans and impacting product roadmaps, the ball is really in the city’s court.

How Facebook does IT

By Frederic Lardinois

If you have ever worked at any sizable company, the word “IT” probably doesn’t conjure up many warm feelings. If you’re working for an old, traditional enterprise company, you probably don’t expect anything else, though. If you’re working for a modern tech company, though, chances are your expectations are a bit higher. And once you’re at the scale of a company like Facebook, a lot of the third-party services that work for smaller companies simply don’t work anymore.

To discuss how Facebook thinks about its IT strategy and why it now builds most of its IT tools in-house, I sat down with the company’s CIO, Atish Banerjea, at its Menlo Park headquarter.

Before joining Facebook in 2016 to head up what it now calls its “Enterprise Engineering” organization, Banerjea was the CIO or CTO at companies like NBCUniversal, Dex One and Pearson.

“If you think about Facebook 10 years ago, we were very much a traditional IT shop at that point,” he told me. “We were responsible for just core IT services, responsible for compliance and responsible for change management. But basically, if you think about the trajectory of the company, were probably about 2,000 employees around the end of 2010. But at the end of last year, we were close to 37,000 employees.”

Traditionally, IT organizations rely on third-party tools and software, but as Facebook grew to this current size, many third-party solutions simply weren’t able to scale with it. At that point, the team decided to take matters into its own hands and go from being a traditional IT organization to one that could build tools in-house. Today, the company is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to running its IT operations, but getting to this point took a while.

“We had to pretty much reinvent ourselves into a true engineering product organization and went to a full ‘build’ mindset,” said Banerjea. That’s not something every organization is obviously able to do, but, as Banerjea joked, one of the reasons why this works at Facebook “is because we can — we have that benefit of the talent pool that is here at Facebook.”

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The company then took this talent and basically replicated the kind of team it would help on the customer side to build out its IT tools, with engineers, designers, product managers, content strategies, people and research. “We also made the decision at that point that we will hold the same bar and we will hold the same standards so that the products we create internally will be as world-class as the products we’re rolling out externally.”

One of the tools that wasn’t up to Facebook’s scaling challenges was video conferencing. The company was using a third-party tool for that, but that just wasn’t working anymore. In 2018, Facebook was consuming about 20 million conference minutes per month. In 2019, the company is now at 40 million per month.

Besides the obvious scaling challenge, Facebook is also doing this to be able to offer its employees custom software that fits their workflows. It’s one thing to adapt existing third-party tools, after all, and another to build custom tools to support a company’s business processes.

Banerjea told me that creating this new structure was a relatively easy sell inside the company. Every transformation comes with its own challenges, though. For Facebook’s Enterprise  Engineering team, that included having to recruit new skill sets into the organization. The first few months of this process were painful, Banerjea admitted, as the company had to up-level the skills of many existing employees and shed a significant number of contractors. “There are certain areas where we really felt that we had to have Facebook DNA in order to make sure that we were actually building things the right way,” he explained.

Facebook’s structure creates an additional challenge for the team. When you’re joining Facebook as a new employee, you have plenty of teams to choose from, after all, and if you have the choice of working on Instagram or WhatsApp or the core Facebook app — all of which touch millions of people — working on internal tools with fewer than 40,000 users doesn’t sound all that exciting.

“When young kids who come straight from college and they come into Facebook, they don’t know any better. So they think this is how the world is,” Banerjea said. “But when we have experienced people come in who have worked at other companies, the first thing I hear is ‘oh my goodness, we’ve never seen internal tools of this caliber before.’ The way we recruit, the way we do performance management, the way we do learning and development — every facet of how that employee works has been touched in terms of their life cycle here.”

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Facebook first started building these internal tools around 2012, though it wasn’t until Banerjea joined in 2016 that it rebranded the organization and set up today’s structure. He also noted that some of those original tools were good, but not up to the caliber employees would expect from the company.

“The really big change that we went through was up-leveling our building skills to really become at the same caliber as if we were to build those products for an external customer. We want to have the same experience for people internally.”

The company went as far as replacing and rebuilding the commercial Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system it had been using for years. If there’s one thing that big companies rely on, it’s their ERP systems, given they often handle everything from finance and HR to supply chain management and manufacturing. That’s basically what all of their backend tools rely on (and what companies like SAP, Oracle and others charge a lot of money for). “In that 2016/2017 time frame, we realized that that was not a very good strategy,” Banerjea said. In Facebook’s case, the old ERP handled the inventory management for its data centers, among many other things. When that old system went down, the company couldn’t ship parts to its data centers.

“So what we started doing was we started peeling off all the business logic from our backend ERP and we started rewriting it ourselves on our own platform,” he explained. “Today, for our ERP, the backend is just the database, but all the business logic, all of the functionality is actually all custom written by us on our own platform. So we’ve completely rewritten our ERP, so to speak.”

In practice, all of this means that ideally, Facebook’s employees face far less friction when they join the company, for example, or when they need to replace a broken laptop, get a new phone to test features or simply order a new screen for their desk.

One classic use case is onboarding, where new employees get their company laptop, mobile phones and access to all of their systems, for example. At Facebook, that’s also the start of a six-week bootcamp that gets new engineers up to speed with how things work at Facebook. Back in 2016, when new classes tended to still have less than 200 new employees, that was still mostly a manual task. Today, with far more incoming employees, the Enterprise Engineering team has automated most of that — and that includes managing the supply chain that ensures the laptops and phones for these new employees are actually available.

But the team also built the backend that powers the company’s more traditional IT help desks, where employees can walk up and get their issues fixed (and passwords reset).

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To talk more about how Facebook handles the logistics of that, I sat down with Koshambi Shah, who heads up the company’s Enterprise Supply Chain organization, which pretty much handles every piece of hardware and software the company delivers and deploys to its employees around the world (and that global nature of the company brings its own challenges and additional complexity). The team, which has fewer than 30 people, is made up of employees with experience in manufacturing, retail and consumer supply chains.

Typically, enterprises offer their employees a minimal set of choices when it comes to the laptops and phones they issue to their employees, and the operating systems that can run on them tend to be limited. Facebook’s engineers have to be able to test new features on a wide range of devices and operating systems. There are, after all, still users on the iPhone 4s or BlackBerry that the company wants to support. To do this, Shah’s organization actually makes thousands of SKUs available to employees and is able to deliver 98% of them within three days or less. It’s not just sending a laptop via FedEx, though. “We do the budgeting, the financial planning, the forecasting, the supply/demand balancing,” Shah said. “We do the asset management. We make sure the asset — what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed — is there consistently.”

In many large companies, every asset request is double guessed. Facebook, on the other hand, places a lot of trust in its employees, it seems. There’s a self-service portal, the Enterprise Store, that allows employees to easily request phones, laptops, chargers (which get lost a lot) and other accessories as needed, without having to wait for approval (though if you request a laptop every week, somebody will surely want to have a word with you). Everything is obviously tracked in detail, but the overall experience is closer to shopping at an online retailer than using an enterprise asset management system. The Enterprise Store will tell you where a device is available, for example, so you can pick it up yourself (but you can always have it delivered to your desk, too, because this is, after all, a Silicon Valley company).

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For accessories, Facebook also offers self-service vending machines, and employees can walk up to the help desk.

The company also recently introduced an Amazon Locker-style setup that allows employees to check out devices as needed. At these smart lockers, employees simply have to scan their badge, choose a device and, once the appropriate door has opened, pick up the phone, tablet, laptop or VR devices they were looking for and move on. Once they are done with it, they can come back and check the device back in. No questions asked. “We trust that people make the right decision for the good of the company,” Shah said. For laptops and other accessories, the company does show the employee the price of those items, though, so it’s clear how much a certain request costs the company. “We empower you with the data for you to make the best decision for your company.”

Talking about cost, Shah told me the Supply Chain organization tracks a number of metrics. One of those is obviously cost. “We do give back about 4% year-over-year, that’s our commitment back to the businesses in terms of the efficiencies we build for every user we support. So we measure ourselves in terms of cost per supported user. And we give back 4% on an annualized basis in the efficiencies.”

Unsurprisingly, the company has by now gathered enough data about employee requests (Shah said the team fulfills about half a million transactions per year) that it can use machine learning to understand trends and be proactive about replacing devices, for example.

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Facebooks’ Enterprise Engineering group doesn’t just support internal customers, though. Another interesting aspect to Facebook’s Enterprise Engineering group is that it also runs the company’s internal and external events, including the likes of F8, the company’s annual developer conference. To do this, the company built out conference rooms that can seat thousands of people, with all of the logistics that go with that.

The company also showed me one of its newest meeting rooms where there are dozens of microphones and speakers hanging from the ceiling that make it easier for everybody in the room to participate in a meeting and be heard by everybody else. That’s part of what the organization’s “New Builds” team is responsible for, and something that’s possible because the company also takes a very hands-on approach to building and managing its offices.

Facebook also runs a number of small studios in its Menlo Park and New York offices, where both employees and the occasional external VIP can host Facebook Live videos.

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Indeed, live video, it seems, is one of the cornerstones of how Facebook employees collaborate and help employees who work from home. Typically, you’d just use the camera on your laptop or maybe a webcam connected to your desktop to do so. But because Facebook actually produces its own camera system with the consumer-oriented Portal, Banerjea’s team decided to use that.

“What we have done is we have actually re-engineered the Portal,” he told me. “We have connected with all of our video conferencing systems in the rooms. So if I have a Portal at home, I can dial into my video conferencing platform and have a conference call just like I’m sitting in any other conference room here in Facebook. And all that software, all the engineering on the portal, that has been done by our teams — some in partnership with our production teams, but a lot of it has been done with Enterprise Engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, there are also groups that manage some of the core infrastructure and security for the company’s internal tools and networks. All of those tools run in the same data centers as Facebook’s consumer-facing applications, though they are obviously sandboxed and isolated from them.

It’s one thing to build all of these tools for internal use, but now, the company is also starting to think about how it can bring some of these tools it built for internal use to some of its external customers. You may not think of Facebook as an enterprise company, but with its Workplace collaboration tool, it has an enterprise service that it sells externally, too. Last year, for the first time, Workplace added a new feature that was incubated inside of Enterprise Engineering. That feature was a version of Facebook’s public Safety Check that the Enterprise Engineering team had originally adapted to the company’s own internal use.

“Many of these things that we are building for Facebook, because we are now very close partners with our Workplace team — they are in the enterprise software business and we are the enterprise software group for Facebook — and many [features] we are building for Facebook are of interest to Workplace customers.”

As Workplace hit the market, Banerjea ended up talking to the CIOs of potential users, including the likes of Delta Air Lines, about how Facebook itself used Workplace internally. But as companies started to adopt Workplace, they realized that they needed integrations with existing third-party services like ERP platforms and Salesforce. Those companies then asked Facebook if it could build those integrations or work with partners to make them available. But at the same time, those customers got exposed to some of the tools that Facebook itself was building internally.

“Safety Check was the first one,” Banerjea said. “We are actually working on three more products this year.” He wouldn’t say what these are, of course, but there is clearly a pipeline of tools that Facebook has built for internal use that it is now looking to commercialize. That’s pretty unusual for any IT organization, which, after all, tends to only focus on internal customers. I don’t expect Facebook to pivot to an enterprise software company anytime soon, but initiatives like this are clearly important to the company and, in some ways, to the morale of the team.

This creates a bit of friction, too, though, given that the Enterprise Engineering group’s mission is to build internal tools for Facebook. “We are now figuring out the deployment model,” Banerjea said. Who, for example, is going to support the external tools the team built? Is it the Enterprise Engineering group or the Workplace team?

Chances are then, that Facebook will bring some of the tools it built for internal use to more enterprises in the long run. That definitely puts a different spin on the idea of the consumerization of enterprise tech. Clearly, not every company operates at the scale of Facebook and needs to build its own tools — and even some companies that could benefit from it don’t have the resources to do so. For Facebook, though, that move seems to have paid off and the tools I saw while talking to the team definitely looked more user-friendly than any off-the-shelf enterprise tools I’ve seen at other large companies.

Instagram says growth hackers are behind spate of fake Stories views

By Natasha Lomas

If you use Instagram and have noticed a bunch of strangers watching your Stories in recent months — accounts that don’t follow you and seem to be Russian — well, you’re not alone.

Nor are you being primed for a Russian disinformation campaign. At least, probably not. But you’re right to smell a fake.

TechCrunch’s very own director of events, Leslie Hitchcock, flagged the issue to us — complaining of “eerie” views on her Instagram Stories in the last couple of months from random Russian accounts, some seemingly genuine (such as artists with several thousand followers) and others simply “weird” looking.

A thread on Reddit also poses the existential question: “Why do Russian Models (that don’t follow me) keep watching my Instagram stories?” (The answer to which is: Not for the reason you hope.)

Instagram told us it is aware of the issue and is working on a fix.

It also said this inauthentic activity is not related to misinformation campaigns but is rather a new growth hacking tactic — which involves accounts paying third parties to try to boost their profile via the medium of fake likes, followers and comments (in this case by generating inauthentic activity by watching the Instagram Stories of people they have no real interest in in the hopes that’ll help them pass off as real and net them more followers).

Eerie is spot on. Some of these growth hackers probably have banks of phones set up where Instagram Stories are ‘watched’ without being watched. (Which obviously isn’t going to please any advertisers paying to inject ads into Stories… )

A UK social media agency called Hydrogen also noticed the issue back in June — blogging then that: “Mass viewing of Instagram Stories is the new buying followers of 2019”, i.e. as a consequence of the Facebook-owned social network cracking down on bots and paid-for followers on the platform.

So, tl;dr, squashing fakes is a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Let’s call it Zuckerberg’s bane.

“Our research has found that several small social media agencies are using this as a technique to seem like they are interacting with the public,” Hydrogen also wrote, before going on to offer sage advice that: “This is not a good way to build a community, and we believe that Instagram will begin cracking down on this soon.”

Instagram confirmed to us it is attempting to crack down — saying it’s working to try to get rid of this latest eyeball-faking flavor of inauthentic activity. (We paraphrase.)

It also said that, in the coming months, it will introduce new measures to reduce such activity — specifically from Stories — but without saying exactly what these will be.

We also asked about the Russian element but Instagram was unable to provide any intelligence on why a big proportion of the fake Stories views seem to be coming from Russia (without any love). So that remains a bit of a mystery.

What can you do right now to prevent your Instagram Stories from being repurposed as a virtue-less signalling machine for sucking up naive eyeballs?

Switching your profile to private is the only way to thwart the growth hackers, for now.

Albeit, that means you’re limiting who you can reach on the Instagram platform as well as who can reach you.

When we suggested to Hitchcock she switch her account to private she responded with a shrug, saying: “I like to engage with brands.”

Car2go hikes hourly rental rates by as much as a third

By Devin Coldewey

By-the-minute car rental service Car2go is raising its rates for short trips under the guise of variable pricing, the company announced to its users today. As we’ve seen with other variably priced services like delivery and ride hailing, in practice this means you never really know what it will cost but will have little choice but to pay.

In an email to users of its service, Car2go said that as a result of “constantly evaluating our product, packages, and pricing strategies” it had arrived at the new system, under which price will depend on time, location and day. The new cost structure takes effect next month.

For Car2go users, this will generally mean paying more. The company highlighted a new cheaper possible per-minute rate of 35 cents, significantly lower than the current $0.45 rate. But it’s easy to guess when that lower rate will be available: “times, locations and days” that no one is using the service. Meanwhile, it’s also possible to encounter a new higher per-minute rate of up to 49 cents when cars are in demand or in a high-use location.

Blocks of time from half an hour to four hours are all increasing in price: The current flat rates are now floor rates, with the possibility you’ll be paying as much as a third more than before. For example, a two-hour block currently costs $29; soon it will cost somewhere between $30 and $39. Again, you won’t know until you open the app to check it out, at which point you’re probably already committed.

Day-length packages are actually cheaper under the new system, but no longer include miles, so while a 24-hour pass used to be $79, now it’s $70 — but at 19 cents per mile, you’ll be in the red after less than 50 miles. And the price only goes up from there. Still, it’s conceivable you’ll pay less for a two or three-day rental if you’re not actually going anywhere distant, but just need a car for the weekend.

A newly instituted zone-based charge and refund system punishes drivers for leaving the city center and rewards those at the periphery for driving back toward heavy usage areas. There’s a $5 charge if you leave the central zone, and $5 refund — or the price of the trip, if less — if you bring a car in from the outer one. (Consult your local Car2go to see what the zones are in your city.)

Count the cards here and you can see the house always wins. If you’re going out, the full $5 fee always applies. If you’re coming in, it will be very difficult to nail that $5 ride — go under and Car2go is reimbursing less than the $5 (and thus comes out ahead), go over and you end up paying money anyway. It’s just one of those clever little traps businesses set up.

You can see the full changes in the chart below:

car2go ratesOh, and your first 200 trips this calendar year have an additional $1 fee. You’re welcome!

In case you can’t tell, this is bad news for consumers, though it would be too much to expect that these prices would stay stable for years. But variable pricing is fundamentally anti-consumer because of a lack of transparency under which the companies controlling it can pull all kinds of shenanigans. Sadly, that makes it a great choice for the bottom line.

These unwelcome changes come six months after Car2go joined the BMW-Daimler joint venture Share Now, which has a variety of car-share services around the world it intends to unify under a single brand soon (it already killed ReachNow, rather abruptly). Apparently larger scale and reduced competition don’t actually lead to lower prices — unfortunate for their customers. But overall the floating car-share services are an important one. Just not as cheap as they used to be.

Uber lost more than $5B last quarter

By Kate Clark

Uber disclosed earnings for the second time since becoming a public company, reporting revenues of $3.16 billion on losses of $5.2 billion for the second quarter of 2019.

Uber (NYSE: UBER) closed up more than 9% Thursday at $42.98 per share, just below its $45 IPO price, but took a nose dive more than 11% on the news.

$5.2 billion in net losses represents the company’s largest-ever quarterly loss. Revenue, for its part, is up only 14% year-over-year. The company says a majority of 2Q losses are a result of stock-based compensation expenses for employees following its May IPO. Stock compensation aside, Uber still lost $1.3 billion, up 30% from Q1.

Analysts had expected losses per share of $3.12 versus Uber’s $4.72. As for revenue, analysts, per CNBC, had expected $3.36 billion.

“While we will continue to invest aggressively in growth, we also want it to be healthy growth, and this quarter we made good progress in that direction,” Uber chief financial officer Nelson Chai said in the earnings document.

Uber’s had a rough few months since making the leaps to the public markets. The stock has tumbled as the business finds it footing. Recently, Uber announced it was laying off one-third of its 1,200-person strong marketing department in an effort to slash costs and make operations more efficient.News of Uber’s piling losses comes one day after its key U.S. competitor, Lyft, beat on revenue with $867 million for the quarter on net losses of $644 million. That’s up from $505 million in revenue in Q2 2018 on losses of $179 million. Lyft closed up 3% Thursday at $62 per share. The company’s stock sunk in after-hours trading Wednesday after it announced the IPO lockup period would end more than a month early.

Uber Eats “monthly active platform consumers,” or MAPCs, grey 140% YoY, Uber said. The company now works with 320,000 restaurants.

This story is updating.

Didi Chuxing and oil giant BP team up to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in China

By Catherine Shu

Ride-sharing and transportation platform Didi Chuxing announced today that it has formed a joint venture with BP, the British gas, oil and energy supermajor. to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in China. The charging stations will be available to Didi and non-Didi drivers.

The news of Didi and BP’s joint venture comes one week after Didi announced that it had received funding totaling $600 million from Toyota Motor Corporation. As part of that deal, Didi and Toyota Motor set up a joint venture with GAC Toyota Motor to provide vehicle-related services to Didi drivers.

BP’s first charging site in Guangzhou has already been connected to XAS (Xiaoju Automobile Solutions), which Didi spun out in April 2018 to put all its vehicle-related services into one platform.

XAS is part of Didi Chuxing’s evolution from a ride-sharing company to a mobility services platform, with its services available to other car, transportation and logistics companies. In June, Didi also opened its ride-sharing platform to other companies, enabling its users to request rides from third-party providers in a bid to better compete with apps like Meituan Dianping and AutoNavi, which aggregate several ride-hailing services on their platforms.

Didi says it now offers ride-sharing, vehicle rental and delivery services to 550 million users and covers 1,000 cities through partnerships with Grab, Lyft, Ola, 99 and Bolt (Taxify). The company also claims to be the world’s largest electric vehicle operator with more than 600,000 EVs on its platform.

It also has partnerships with automakers and other car-related companies like Toyota, FAW, Dongfeng, GAC, Volkswagen and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi to collaborate on a platform that uses new energy, AI-based and mobility technologies.

In a press statement, Tufan Erginbilgic, the CEO of BP’s Downstream business, said “As the world’s largest EV market, China offers extraordinary opportunities to develop innovative new businesses at scale and we see this as the perfect partnership for such a fast-evolving environment. The lessons we learn here will help us further expand BP’s advanced mobility business worldwide, helping drive the energy transition and develop solutions for a low carbon world.”

What happened to the sharing economy?

By Romain Dillet

A few years ago, Silicon Valley couldn’t stop using a trendy buzzword — the sharing economy. The good old top-down economic model with a clear separation between service providers and clients was falling apart. And huge tech companies disrupted entire industries, from Airbnb to Taskrabbit, Uber, Etsy and Getaround.

When you retrospectively look at the sharing economy boom of the early 2010s, many of the principles that defined that generation of startups have slowly disappeared. Instead of a huge societal shift, the sharing economy is slowly fading away.

What is the sharing economy?

In the past, if you wanted to buy a good or a service, you would ask a company or a professional to provide it.

You’d buy something from a company in particular because you knew it would be the exact thing you need. That’s why plenty of companies spent huge amounts of money to build a brand and a reputation. If you just bought a car, chances are you’ll see thousands of ads for cars before you buy your next car.

And that’s also why distribution channels have been key, especially in commoditized markets with low brand differentiation. For instance, when you buy a new printer, chances are you just head to an electronics store or type “printer” on your favorite e-commerce website. If HP doesn’t have a distribution deal with those stores, you’ll just buy an Epson printer.

If your neighbor wants a new printer in a couple of years, you might recommend the same printer, but you may have forgotten where you bought it. There’s little differentiation between distribution channels in that case.

The marketplace model

The sharing economy happened because a group of entrepreneurs wanted to invent new distribution channels. Sure, some traditional distribution channels secured exclusive rights to sell specific products.

But those startups made a radical change. They wanted to work on a completely new inventory of goods or services.

Sex tech companies and advocates protest unfair ad standards outside Facebook’s NY HQ

By Darrell Etherington

A group of sex tech startup founders, employees and supporters gathered outside of Facebook’s NY office in Manhattan to protest its advertising policies with respect to what it classifies as sexual content. The protest, and a companion website detailing their position we reported on Tuesday, are the work of “Approved, Not Approved,” a coalition of sex health companies co-founded by Dame Products and Unbound Babes.

These policies as applied have fallen out of step with “the average person’s views of what should or shouldn’t be approved of ads,” according to Janet Lieberman, co-founder and CTO of Dame Products.

“If you look at the history of the sex toy industry, for example, vibrators were sexual health products until advertising restrictions were put on them in the 1920s and 1930s — and then they became dirty, and that’s how the industry got shady, and that’s why we have negative thoughts towards them,” she told me in an interview at the protest. “They’re moving back towards wellness in people’s minds, but not in advertising policies. There’s a double standard for what is seen as obscene, talking about men’s sexual health versus women’s sexual health and talking about products that aren’t sexual, and using sex to sell them, versus taking sexual products and having completely non-sexual ads for them.”

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Credit: TechCrunch

It’s a problem that extends beyond just Facebook and Instagram, Lieberman says. In fact, her company is also suing NYC’s MTA for discrimination for its own ad standards after it refused to run ads for women’s sex toys in their out-of-home advertising inventory. But it also has ramifications beyond just advertising, because in many ways what we see in ads helps define what we see as acceptable in terms of our everyday lives and conversations.

“Some of this stems from society’s inability to separate sexual products from feeling sexual, and that’s a real problem that we see that hurts women more than men, but hurts both genders, in not knowing how to help our sexual health,” Lieberman said. “We can’t talk about it without being sexual, and that we can’t bring things up, without it seeming like we’re bringing up something that is dirty.”

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Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

“A lot of the people you see here today have Instagrams that have been shut down, or ads that have been not approved on Facebook,” said Bryony Cole, CEO at Future of Sex, in an interview. “Myself, I run Future of Sex, which is a sex tech hackathon, and a podcast focused on sex tech, and my Instagram’s been shut down twice with no warning. It’s often for things that Facebook will say they consider phallic imagery, but they’re not […] and yet if you look at images for something like HIMS [an erectile dysfunction medication startup, examples of their ads here], you’ll see those phallic practice images. So there’s this gross discrepancy, and it’s very frustrating, especially for these companies where a lot of the revenue in their business is around community that are online, which is true for sex toys.”

Online ads aren’t just a luxury for many of these startup brands and companies — they’re a necessary ingredient to continued success. Google and Facebook together account for the majority of digital advertising spend in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and it’s hard to grow a business that caters to primarily online customers without fair access to their platforms, Cole argues.

“You see a lot of sex tech or sexual wellness brands having to move off Instagram and find other ways to reach their communities,” she said. “But the majority of people, that’s where they are. And if they’re buying these products, they’re still overcoming a stigma about buying the product, so it’s great to be able to purchase these online. A lot of these companies started either crowdfunding, like Dame Products, or just through e-commerce sites. So the majority of their business is online. It’s not in a store.”

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Credit: Unbound / Dame Products

Earlier this year, sex tech company Lora DiCarlo netted a win in getting the Consumer Technology Association to restore its CES award after community outcry. Double standards in advertising is a far more systemic and distributed problem, but these protests will hopefully help open up the conversation and prompt more change.

Startups BRCK and Swvl partner on free Wi-Fi for Kenyan ride-hail buses

By Jake Bright

Nairobi-based internet hardware and service startup BRCK and Egyptian ride-hail venture Swvl are partnering to bring Wi-Fi and online entertainment to on-demand bus service in Kenya.

BRCK will install its routers on Swvl vehicles in Kenya and run its Moja service, which offers free public Wi-Fi — internet, music and entertainment — subsidized by commercial partners.

Founded in Cairo in 2017, Swvl is a mass transit service that has positioned itself as an Uber for shared buses. “Think ride hailing, but with a bus…and instead of the vehicle coming to you…you go to the bus, and the bus picks you up at a certain point and time,” Swvl’s general manager for Kenya, Shivachi Muleji, told TechCrunch via email.

The company raised a $42 million Series B round in June, with intent to expand in Africa, Swvl CEO Mostafa Kandil said in an interview.

In Kenya, BRCK has installed 15 of its units in Swvl buses and looks to offer its Moja Wi-Fi service in 700 by 2020, BRCK’s chief operating officer Nivi Sharma told TechCrunch. Swvl pays a monthly fee for the routers and for maintenance of the routers, Swvl confirmed.

Both BRCK and Swvl see a solid fit in pairing up their product offerings. “SWVL’s objectives to provide an alternative in the transportation industry line up nicely with BRCK’s objectives of providing connectivity to commuters,” said BRCK COO Nivi Sharma.

Backed by $10 million from investors including, Steve Case, BRCK built its platform around providing internet solutions in East Africa. Founder Erik Hersman has described Africa’s internet challenges — mainly the lowest penetration rates in the world — as shifting toward more of an affordability than availability problem.

“The demand on internet in Africa is largely driven by the 10 to 15 percent who can afford it. The real massive opportunity is trying to connect the 70 to 80 percent of the people who can’t,” Hersman told TechCrunch in 2017.

SupaPossibleLead1To that end, BRCK paired up its Africa-specific Wi-Fi routers to its Moja service to offer free internet and content supported by commercial partners. Users can access Moja on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops on public transportation or in public areas. They earn points from their browsing to apply to faster connectivity or premium content.

In 2018, BRCK began offering SupaBRCK devices to drivers of Nairobi’s highly used Matatu buses for Kenyan commuters to access Moja. In February, the startup acquired Nairobi-based internet provide Surf and its network of hotspots.

BRCK currently has 445,000 unique monthly active users on its Matatu-based Moja mobile network in Kenya and Rwanda and 150,000 unique monthly active users on its fixed network — including users connecting at cafes, barbershops and marketplaces, according to company data.

Swvl Bus with moja 2BRCK and Swvl wouldn’t confirm plans on expanding their mobile internet partnership to additional countries outside of Kenya.

Ride-hail markets in Africa have become an active sector for VC investment and global and local startups. The big players such as Uber and Bolt are competing in Kampala and Nairobi — where in addition to car-service they offer rickshaw taxis.

On-demand motorcycle startups are multiplying and piloting EVs with funds from international partners. And many ride-hail companies in Africa are adapting unique product solutions to local transit needs. The collective startup activity is making the continent home to a number of fresh mobility use cases, including the BRCK and Svl Wi-Fi partnership.

 

Uber lays off 400 as cost-cutting efforts ramp up

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber is laying off about 25% of its 1,200-person strong marketing department in an effort to slash costs and make operations more efficient following its public debut and first quarter losses of $1 billion.

The layoffs were first reported by The New York Times.

About 400 people in Uber’s marketing department were laid off across its 75 offices globally, according to the company. Uber’s latest public global headcount was 24,494 global employees as of March 31, 2019.

Jill Hazelbaker, who leads marketing and public affairs at Uber, and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told employees Monday that the marketing team would have a more centralized structure, according to an internal email viewed by TechCrunch. 

The reorganized marketing team will be under the leadership of Mike Strickman, vice president of performance marketing, joined from TripAdvisor a month ago and another soon-to-be-hired head of global marketing. Strickman will oversee performance marketing, CRM, and analytics, while the global marketing executive will manage the heads of product marketing, brand, Eats, B2B, research, planning and creative.

The layoffs are the latest cost-driven changes to occur at the company since it went public in May.

Many of Uber’s teams are “too big, which creates overlapping work, makes for unclear decision owners, and can lead to mediocre results,” Khosrowshahi said in an email sent to employees and shared with TechCrunch. “As a company, we can do more to keep the bar high, and expect more of ourselves and each other.”

Khosrowshahi said the restructuring aims to put the marketing team, and the company, back on track.

“Today, there’s a general sense that while we’ve grown fast, we’ve slowed down. You can see it in Pulse Survey feedback and All Hands questions, and you can feel it in much of our day-to-day work. This happens naturally as companies get bigger, but it is something we need to address, and quickly,” he wrote.

Uber’s first quarterly earnings report as a publicly traded company gave a snapshot of a growing business with stunning operational losses. Uber’s revenue grew 20% to 3.1 billion compared to $2.5 billion in the same period last year. And its gross bookings rose 34% to $14.6 billion in the first quarter, with Uber Eats driving much of that growth.

But it’s loss from operations exploded 116% to $1 billion in the first quarter compared to the same year-ago period.

In June, chief operating officer Barney Harford  and chief marketing officer Rebecca Messina stepped down as part of an organizational shakeup put into motion just a month after the ride-hailing company went public.

At the time, Khosrowshahi  explained in an email to employees, that the changes were prompted by his decision to more directly control core parts of the business. Khosrowshahi told employees that he wants to be even more involved in the day-to-day operations of its biggest businesses, the core platform of Rides and Eats, and has decided they should report directly to him.

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