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Xiaomi officially files for Hong Kong IPO to raise a reported $10 billion

Posted: 02 May 2018 09:20 PM PDT

Xiaomi’s much-speculated IPO process has kicked off officially after the Chinese smartphone giant filed to go public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The first draft of its filing does not include proposed financial details of its listing, but the South China Morning Post reports that the eight-year-old company is shooting to raise $10 billion at a valuation of $100 billion. Beyond the year’s largest IPO — and the world’s largest raise since Alibaba in New York in 2014 — the listing could make Xiaomi China’s third largest technology company based on market cap.

Xiaomi operates differently to most companies in that it sells smartphones and smart devices at waiver thin margins, relying on services and efficient use of components to pull in profit. Beyond phones, it operates its own retail business and internet services such as payments and streaming. That strategy — which CEO Lei Jun calls a “triathlon” — is focused on services for growth since Xiaomi has capped its maximum net profit for hardware at five percent.

Xiaomi said in its filing that it has over 190 million people using its MIUI version of Android — that’s a good insight into how many of its devices are in the market — while it has sold over 100 million connected devices, which include smartwatches, fitness bands, smart scales and more. The company claims its users are active on their phones for 4.5 hours per day, and that there are 1.4 million customers who own five or more connected devices.

The company is ranked fourth based on global smartphone shipments, according to analyst firm IDC, and it is one of the few OEMs to buck slowing sales in China.

The company’s financials are impressive.

The company booked sales of 114.6 billion RMB ($18 billion) in 2017, up from 68.4 billion RMB in 2016 and 66.8 billion in 2015.

Xiaomi posted a 43.9 billion RMB ($6.9 billion) loss in 2017 on account of issuing preferred shares to investors (54 billion RMB) but the growth story is healthy. Operating profit jumped to 12.2 billion RMB ($1.92 billion), up more than three-fold on the previous year.

Smartphones continue to represent the bulk of sales at 70 percent, with smart devices pulling in 20 percent more and services responsible for the remainder.

China is, as you’d expect, the primary revenue market but Xiaomi is increasingly less dependent on its homeland. For 2017 sales, China represented 72 percent, but it had been 94 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. India is Xiaomi’s most successful overseas venture, having built the business to the number one smartphone firm based on market share, and Xiaomi is pledging to double down on other global areas.

Interestingly there’s no mention of expanding phone sales to the U.S., but Xiaomi has pledged to put 30 percent of its IPO towards growing its presence in Southeast Asia, Europe, Russia “other regions.” Currently, it said it sells products in 74 countries, that does include the U.S. where Xiaomi sells accessories and non-phone items.

Another 30 percent is earmarked for R&D and product development, while a further 30 percent will be invested in Xiaomi’s internet of things and smart product ecosystem. The remaining 10 percent is down for working capital.

Xiaomi isn’t disclosing the exact percentage stakes that its major investors hold, but CEO Lei Jun is believed to be one of the most significant shareholders. The IPO could make him China’s richest man, according to reports which suggest he controls a stake of over 75 percent.

Elon Musk offers more detail about Tesla’s ridesharing network

Posted: 02 May 2018 03:49 PM PDT

On Tesla’s Q1 2018 earnings call today, Tesla CEO Elon Musk shed some light on the company’s ambitions to launch an autonomous-vehicle ridesharing network. The short answer is that, from a technical standpoint, Tesla will be ready by the end of next year, Musk said. It’s not yet clear, however, when Tesla would actually launch the network.

The longer answer involves discussion about regulation and the need to have full autonomy in place. That is, Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy that doesn’t require human intervention.

On the call, Musk described a world in which people share their cars, offering them as either a Lyft, an Uber or something like a Lyft/Uber-Airbnb combo “where you can own your car and have 100 percent usage of your car,” Musk said, and specify that it’s available to anyone who wants to use it while you’re not using it.

“This is the obvious thing that’s going to happen,” Musk said.

But in order to get that in place, he said, Tesla needs to solve for autonomy. Tesla also needs a software platform to manage the ridesharing network. As of right now, Musk said the cars Tesla is currently producing are totally capable of full autonomy, give or take a couple of computer updates pertaining to things like processing power and whatnot.

“I think we’re really well-positioned,” Musk said, for having “ultimately millions of shared, autonomous electric vehicles.”

In March, analyst Gene Munster said there’s a more than 50 percent chance Tesla will start operating its ridesharing fleet by 2023. That could add anywhere from $2 billion to $6 billion in revenue for Tesla, according to Munster.

Here are some other takeaways from the call:

  • Tesla will likely start producing the Model Y in early 2020. Musk says it will be a “manufacturing revolution.”
  • Tesla will begin publishing Autopilot safety statistics on a quarterly basis.
  • Tesla doesn’t plan to replace Jim Keller, the VP of Autopilot who left in April for Intel.

Columbus Collaboratory’s Jeff Schmidt talks about the future of security

Posted: 02 May 2018 03:16 PM PDT

In this episode of Technotopia I talk to Jeff Schmidt of the Columbus Collaboratory. He is well-versed in the future of security and our conversation ranged from the rise of the midwest to the future of cyberattacks.

The Columbus Collaboratory is a unique think tank dedicated to building security and system solutions for major clients. It’s a sort of Delta Force for major corporations headquartered in Columbus, and Schmidt has a lot to say about the value of a good security plan.

Technotopia is a podcast by John Biggs about a better future. You can subscribe in Stitcher, RSS or iTunes and listen the MP3 here.

Facebook tool warns developers of phishing attacks dangling lookalike domains

Posted: 02 May 2018 03:05 PM PDT

Phishing seems like a problem that will be here for the long haul, so I welcome any tools to combat it with open arms. Today Facebook announced one: a service for domain owners or concerned users that watches for sketchy versions of web addresses that might indicate a phishing attempt in the offing.

The developer only needs to specify the domain name they care about and our tool will take care of the rest,” explained Facebook security engineer David Huang. “For example, if you subscribe to phishing alerts for a legitimate domain ‘facebook.com,’ we'll alert you when we detect a potential phishing domain like ‘facebook.com.evil.com’ and other malicious variations as we see them.”

Hosting your phishing website as a subdomain of evil.com seems like kind of a giveaway. But there are subtler ways to fool people. If someone wanted to make you think that an email was coming from this website, for instance, they might register something like techcrunch-support.com or techcrunch.official.site and send it from there.

Hi Peter.

Small variations in spelling work, too: would you notice that an email came from techcruhch.com or techcrunoh.com if you were on your phone, walking down the street and trying not to be hit by people riding electric scooters? I think not. Back in the day even CrouchGear might have worked.

And lookalike characters that render differently inline are a strange new threat: whɑtsɑpp.com has an alpha (or something) instead of an a, and helpfully renders as xn—whtspp-cxcc.com. Look, I didn’t design the system. I just use it.

The tool looks for all these variations in domains it encounters by watching the stream of certificates being issued to new domains. “We have been using these logs to monitor certificates issued for domains owned by Facebook and have created tools to help developers take advantage of the same approach,” reads the Facebook blog post. Nice of them!

Developers can sign up here and submit domains they’d like to monitor. Facebook won’t do anything but alert you that it detected something weird, so if there’s a false positive you don’t need to worry about getting kicked off your domain. On the other hand, if scammers are setting up shop at a doppelgänger web address, you’ll have to do the legwork yourself to get it shut down and warn your own users to be on the lookout.

Fitbit beats revenue expectations slightly, but tracker sales are still down

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:52 PM PDT

Fitbit scored a small coup on earnings this week, ever so slightly beating revenue expectations for the quarter. The company pulled in $247.9 million, up over Wall Street's expected $247.3 million. Of course, that's still a notable drop from this time last year, when the company pulled in $298.9 million.

The numbers are down as the overall fitness tracking category has declined, and the company sold 2.2 million devices in the quarter, missing analyst expectations of 2.33 million. Fitbit has adjusted its second quarter revenue expectation, accordingly. "We expect results to be impacted by the reduced demand by the channel for trackers, partially offset by an increase in smartwatch revenue, driven primarily by Versa sales," the company wrote in a release announcing earnings. "We expect smartwatches to grow as a percentage of revenue, but our overall mix to continue to be skewed towards trackers."

That's in line with the company's overall strategy over the past year, which saw a marked shift into the world of smartwatches — a rare overall bright light in the fitness wearable space, thanks in large part to the success of the Apple Watch. Fitbit has invested a good chunk of change in acquisitions, resulting in the release of the Ionic and Versa. And given the devices’ higher per unit price, the company ultimately has to sell fewer to maintain revenue. 

The release mostly glosses over the existence of the Ionic, save for a mention of the fact that the device was announced in the past year — and that it helped reduce "development hours by around 45-percent on the Versa.” That makes perfect sense, of course — the hard work of incorporating all of its recent acquisitions and distilling all of those learnings into a hardware and software offering were mostly accomplished with the Ionic.

The point of all of that being that now Fitbit knows how to make a smartwatch, so doing so in the future should be less resource-intensive, moving forward. That will likely come in handy as the company seems poised to invest more and more of its resources into its growing healthcare sector.

Fitbit stock jumped recently, courtesy of its announced partnership with Google, which will help make health info tracked on its devices more easily accessible by doctors. There is, of course, plenty of money to be made in the healthcare sector, but Fitbit is going to have a bit of an uphill battle getting providers to take its offerings more seriously as medical devices.

"We continued to deepen our relationship with our users, investing in software and services that deliver on our promise of helping people achieve better health outcomes," CEO James Park said in a release tied to the earnings. "To this end, we closed the acquisition of Twine Health and, most recently announced a long-term collaboration with Google that will accelerate innovation in digital health and wearables." 

China could beat America in AR/VR long-term

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:14 PM PDT

America delivered more AR/VR revenue than China last year, but Chinese growth in the next five years could see it dominate AR/VR long-term — and not by a small margin. With the potential to take more than $1 of every $5 spent on AR/VR globally by 2022, the natural advantages of the Chinese AR/VR market are a golden opportunity (or threat) for domestic and international players. Combine China with other major countries in the region, and Asia could deliver around half of AR/VR global revenue in five years' time. Western companies might need to adopt a "we try harder" approach to compete at the same level.

Since 2015 we've said that ubiquitous AR could dominate focused VR long-term. While the two markets might merge into unified "XR" (or some other acronym) one day, they could have very different dynamics for the foreseeable future. AR (mobile AR, smart glasses) could approach 3.5 billion installed base and $85 billion to $90 billion revenue by 2022, while VR (console, PC, mobile, standalone) might deliver 50 to 60 million installed base and $10 billion to $15 billion revenue in the same time frame(Note: Digi-Capital's base case is that even with 900 million installed base for ARKit/ARCore by the end of this year, AR/VR revenue will only start to scale in 2019.)

To understand what's happening across the 55 major AR/VR countries and regions, let's start with VR.

America might win the battle for VR

VR's smaller installed base, lower mobility and exclusive immersion (i.e. limited plurality) focuses it on entertainment use cases and revenue streams. Entertainment (games, location-based entertainment, video) could take two-thirds of VR sector revenue long-term, with hardware taking just over a quarter due to limited unit sales and price competition.

The VR market's country dynamics have much in common with the wider video games market. The U.S. has a significant installed base of Sony's VR capable games consoles (banned in China until recently) and high-end VR-capable PCs. It also has highly profitable core gamer economics, which could give it an advantage if premium standalone VR (neither PC nor mobile tethered) hits its stride in a few years. While China has a much larger mobile installed base, mobile/standalone VR's trajectory took a fundamental hit last year, following the launch of mass-market mobile AR. Combined with lower ARPU for mobile/standalone VR, China is at a relative disadvantage to the West on a per user basis.

The U.S. could take around one-fifth of global VR revenue by 2022, making it slightly larger than China. But while the U.S. could win the VR battle, it might be a small victory. Combining China with other countries in the region (particularly Japan and South Korea), Asia could deliver just under half of global VR revenue in five years — over twice North America. Europe (led by the U.K., Germany, France) could also deliver, but the European region combined might only be slightly larger than either the U.S. or China individually.

China could win the war with AR

The dynamics of AR look very different. An installed base in the billions is coming for mobile AR. If and when Apple launches smartphone-tethered smart glasses (we've been forecasting 2020 for a while now), that market could grow from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions installed base in five years. Because of this distribution potential, a Cambrian explosion of new use cases and business cases is beginning to emerge. E-commerce sales (goods & services, not IAP), hardware sales, ad spend, app store (non-games and games), enterprise and location-based entertainment hold significant promise for AR long-term.

So where VR looks like a subset of the games market, AR's long-term dynamics could be more like mobile. That's where China's natural advantages give it the edge over every other country on the planet (including the U.S.).

Chinese ARCore could have an installed base approaching ARKit’s scale globally long-term. Add to that ARKit itself in China, plus domestic Chinese mobile AR from Tencent, Alibaba and others, and a clearer picture of Chinese scale emerges. Then from 2020, smartphone-tethered smart glasses could become premium peripherals to Apple and others' phones, again leveraging China's inherent mobile strength. This could see China dominate global mobile AR and smart glasses’ installed bases long-term.

Then there's China's market dynamics, business models and economics to consider:

What does all this mean for AR?

E-commerce could be the largest AR business model, where China (particularly Alibaba) might dominate. Smart glasses hardware sales could come next, with premium Chinese iPhone users core to Apple's potential long-term smart glasses dominance (whether they call them iGlasses or not). Tencent is in prime position for the third-largest business model of AR advertising, which explains its  battles with Alibaba (although Facebook Camera Effects could generate more revenue internationally). And that's not to mention Chinese iOS and Android AR app store revenues (both non-games and games), enterprise AR and location-based AR entertainment at scale.

Combining China's impending AR installed base, business models and economics, and it could see nearly one-quarter of all AR revenues globally by 2022. This is almost half again what the U.S. might produce in a similar time frame. Merging all the country data for a regional view, and Asia could take more than half, Europe less than one-quarter and North America less than one-fifth of global AR revenues.

It's a small world after all

Installed bases, use cases and economics are great levelers in tech markets, and so it is for AR/VR. While the U.S. might win VR, China could dominate much larger AR. So whoever wins AR also wins AR/VR globally — right now that looks like China by a country mile.

This is not to say that the U.S. and other western countries can't do very well from AR/VR long-term (indeed, we forecast that they should). However Asia, China in particular, is critical to the future of the market. Global players need to find a way to compete, or risk being left behind. While Apple could do well as always, for everyone else it's all to play for.

Nintendo’s new president aims to build a billion-dollar mobile gaming business

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:12 PM PDT

It’s a time of optimism and transition at Nintendo, where brisk sales of the Switch have bolstered its bottom line and new leadership signals a fresh approach to the market. Shuntaro Furukawa, the new president, told the Nikkei that one of his plans is to pursue mobile gaming with more vigor, aiming to build it into a billion-dollar business.

Furukawa is taking over from Tatsumi Kimishima, who took the helm temporarily after the tragic and sudden death of the beloved Satoru Iwata in 2015. He’s only 46, and clearly as a member of the younger generation has a different outlook on mobile, which the company completely avoided until very recently.

“The idea that something will emerge that transforms into something big, in the same manner as game consoles, is the defining motive of the Nintendo business,” he told the Nikkei. “From what I can see, smartphone games are the ones I want to expand the most.”

He said he envisions the smartphone side of the game company to become a 100 billion yen business — short of a billion at the present exchange rate, but why not round up? The company did a trillion yen in sales last year, so it’s not like we’re going to run out of zeroes.

The company’s tentative forays into the field have been a mixed success. Pokémon GO was, of course, a worldwide phenomenon, but widely criticized for half-baked gameplay and other issues. Mario Run was a perfectly fun game, but many mobile players balked at its high up-front price. Then Fire Emblem: Heroes has proven popular and a financial success — but its reliance on “loot box” mechanics and in-game microtransactions soured the experience for many.

A new game and franchise, Dragalia Lost, is coming this summer.

Clearly Nintendo is still finding its feet in this relatively unfamiliar territory, though long practice with the DS (in many ways very like a smartphone) means that mobile gaming, if not a core competency, is at least core-adjacent. And popular franchises like Advance Wars and Professor Layton are great matches for mobile.

No one should expect a smartphone equivalent to sprawling, beautiful games like Breath of the Wild, but Nintendo has handheld fun in its blood, and there’s no reason to think they won’t nail it after a few tries.

Tesla earnings show record revenues with record losses

Posted: 02 May 2018 01:21 PM PDT

Tesla reported its Q1 2018 earnings today, posting adjusted losses of $3.35 per share with revenues on $3.4 billion. This is technically a beat, as analysts expected Tesla to report a loss of $3.48 a share with revenues of $3.22 billion, up from $2.7 billion a year ago.

Tesla also ended Q1 with $2.7 billion in cash, down from $3.4 billion in cash at the beginning of the year.

This quarter, Tesla’s net losses were a record $784.6 million ($4.19 per share). So, while it’s revenue was higher than ever before, it also reported record losses.

In September 2017, Tesla stock hit a record high of $389.61 a share. At market close today, Tesla was trading at $301.15. In after-hours, Tesla is trading around $287.

In its letter to investors, Tesla provided some updates to its Model 3 production, noting it hit 2,270 cars produced per week for three straight weeks in April.

“Even at this stage of the ramp, Model 3 is already on the cusp of becoming the best-selling mid-sized premium sedan in the US, and our deliveries continue to increase,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk and CFO Deepak Ahuja wrote in a letter to investors. “Consumers have clearly shown that electric vehicles are simply more desirable when priced on par with their internal combustion engine competitors while offering better technology, performance and user experience.”

Model 3 production updates

Just as Tesla did in Q1, it plans to take planned downtime as part of its Model 3 production process. Prior to the downtime in April, Tesla said it had hit a record of producing 4,750 Model 3 vehicles in two weeks.

Once Tesla hits its ideal production rate of 5,000 Model 3 cars per week, which the company expects to do within about two months, the plan is to increase that goal to 10,000 Model 3 cars produced per week.

“In the end, this is all about having factories that are producing the world's highest quality cars as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible, and with as close to zero injuries as we can possibly get,” the investor letter states. “Our automation strategy is key to this and we are as committed to it as ever.”

However, Musk has previously said that Tesla over-relied on automation for the production of Model 3 cars. That’s something he still stands by, saying Tesla mistakenly added “too much automation too quickly” early in the process.

Musk and Ahuja added:

In those select areas where we have had challenges ramping fully automated processes, such as portions of the battery module line, part of the material flow system, and two steps of general assembly, we have temporarily dialed back automation and introduced certain semi-automated or manual processes while we work to eventually have full automation take back over.

Model S and Model X demand is “very strong”

Tesla Model S

Although much attention has been paid to the Model 3, Tesla said demand for the Model S and Model X is still quite strong. In Q1, Tesla had its highest order number ever, with demand exceeding supply. Tesla said it produced 24,728 Model S cars and X vehicles, while delivering a total of 21,815 of them.

“Short-term operational and logistical issues led to an increase in the number of Model S and Model X vehicles in transit to customers at the end of Q1,” the letter states.

Looking forward into Q2, Tesla expects Model S and X deliveries to be similar to the ones in Q1. But Tesla said that number will increase in Q3 in order for Tesla to hit its goal of 100,000 deliveries for 2018.

Tesla expects to be profitable in Q3

Assuming Tesla hits its 5,000 Model 3 cars produced per week goal, Tesla expects to be profitable in Q3 and Q4, excluding non-cash, stock-based compensation. Tesla also expects to achieve full GAAP profitability in Q3 and Q4 as well.

Analysts, regulators and customers alike have been paying close attention to Tesla over the past few months. In March, a Tesla owner died following a car crash that involved the Model X's Autopilot mode. In April, after cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board for the investigation, the NTSB removed Tesla as a party. That's because the NTSB was unhappy with the way Tesla released information pertaining to the crash to the public.

"The NTSB took this action because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB," the NTSB wrote in a press release. "Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public."

Spotify misses on revenue in first earnings report with 170M users

Posted: 02 May 2018 01:12 PM PDT

In Spotify’s first ever earnings report, the streaming music came up a little short, pulling in $1.36 billion revenue in Q1 2018. That’s compared to Wall Street’s estimates of $1.4 billion in revenue and an adjusted EPS loss of $0.34. Spotify hit 170 million monthly active users, up 6.9 percent from 159 million in Q4 2017 and 99 million ad-supported users. It also hit 75 million Premium Subscribers, up 30 percent year-over-year, and 75 million paid subscribers, up 5.6 percent from 71 million in Q4 and up 45 percent YoY.

Interestingly, the MAU count indicates that 4 million of Spotify’s 75 million subscribers pay but don’t listen. Spotify confirmed as much. For reference, Apple Music has roughly 40 million subscribers.

 

Spotify’s results were in line with the guidance it gave yet Wall Street was still disappointed. Spotify shares promptly fell over 8 percent in after-hours trading to around $156, beneath its IPO pop a month ago but still above its $149 day one closing price and $132 IPO pricing.

Spotify’s Gross Margin was 24.9 percent in Q1, over the top of its guidance range of 23-24 percent. Its operating loss was $48.9 million, which improved significantly, and come in under the $59 million to $95 million operating loss Spotify warned of. The music company now has $1.91 billion in cash and cash equivalents at the end of Q1.

As for Q2 guidance, Spotify expects 175 to 180 million MAU, 79 to 83 million paid subscribers, and $1.3 to $1.55 billion in revenue, excluding the impoact of foreign exchange rates. It’s planning an operating loss of $71 million to $167 million, in part due to a $35 million to $42 million expense related to its direct listing debut on the public markets.

During the earnings call, CEO Daniel Ek said he hasn’t seen any significant impact from increased promotion by its competitor Apple Music. In fact, churn hit an all-time low of 4.7 percent, and lifetime value to customer acquisition cost ratio is holding firm at 2.7:1. But overall, “We don’t see this as a winner takes all market” Ek says.

As for voice-activated smart speakers, Ek said “We view it longterm as an opportunity not a threat” since Spotify is available on Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices.

Spotify is hoping to boost paid subscriber numbers by first luring more users to its free ad-supported service. Last month it unveiled a revamped free tier that lets users listen to songs on-demand on particular Spotify-controlled playlists instead of only being able to play in shuffle mode. The idea is that once users get a taste of on-demand listening, they’ll pay to upgrade so they can listen to whatever they want across the whole catalog.

That strategy could not only boost subscriber numbers, but also give Spotify more leverage over the record labels. More than 30 percent of all Spotify listening now happens on its owned playlists. That gives it the power to choose what will become a hit, and in turn means record labels need to play nice. This could help Spotify secure more exclusive content and a better bargaining position in royalty negotiations.

BuzzFeed built its own editing tool for short, meme-y videos

Posted: 02 May 2018 12:21 PM PDT

Although the “pivot to video” has been notoriously challenging for most publishers, they can’t exactly give up on video. In fact, BuzzFeed has been ramping up production with a new editing tool called Vidder.

Vidder was created Senior Product Designer Elaine Dunlap and Senior Software Engineer Joseph Bergen. Dunlap recalled talking to Bergen more than a year ago and pointing out that while BuzzFeed is known for building its own publishing tools, “there wasn’t really the same opinionated software solution” for creating videos.

So they decided to build a video editing product that could be used by anyone, not just experienced producers and editors. Dunlap said the initial goal was to “demystify video production.”

“We basically started out with this hypothesis that if we gave a very simple tool to these editors who are constantly creating very funny, interesting things, they would really be able to fly,” Bergen added.

Fast forward to 2018 and BuzzFeed says Vidder is being used by 40 or 50 team members to create 200 videos each month, with 800 videos created in all since October. Almost none of BuzzFeed’s Vidder users are full-time video producers, and most of them had little to no experience with professional video editing software.

Vidder

For example, Kayla Yandoli was a member of BuzzFeed’s social team (she’s since transferred to the video) when she created this compilation of “shady” insults from The Golden Girls last fall. With 1.1 million shares, it was one of Vidder’s early success stories, and Yandoli estimated that it only took her only an hour and a half to edit.

We moved even faster when the Vidder team demonstrated the product for me last week. We started with a basic template, then customized it by uploading one or two video clips, typing in captions and subtitles, adding emojis, and we had a perfectly serviceable video ready to go in just a few minutes.

The experience had very little in common with the hours I’ve spent fiddling with timelines in FinalCut. It also benefits from being entirely web-based, with no software download needed.

The key to Vidder is simplicity. As Product Manager Chris Johanesen put it, “We’re not trying to recreate Adobe Premiere.” There are teams at BuzzFeed creating more in-depth, highly produced videos, and Vidder isn’t built for them. Instead, it might be used by an editor like Yandoli who wants to quickly translate a regular BuzzFeed post into a video for Facebook or Instagram.

“There was a really big boom with Facebook videos around pop culture, animals, babies and stuff,” Yandoli recalled. “People on my team were interested in creating videos, but everyone couldn’t download Premiere. We were yearning to just find an accessible tool so that we could create things for our social platforms.”

Vidder

And while you might think that Vidder has become less relevant with recent Facebook algorithm changes, Johanesen said the tool allows BuzzFeed to continue experimenting.

“Ever since the big Facebook algorithm changes that happened, our social strategy is less about longer videos and more about making things that will engage communities and conversations,” Johanesen said. “Vidder has helped teams move a little bit faster than might have been possible with other tools. I don't know that we've cracked it, but it’s helping us make progress.”

BuzzFeed is also using Vidder to adapt videos for different platforms, like creating a shorter video for Instagram or compiling several short videos into a longer cut for YouTube. The tool is also being used by international teams who might quickly create a localized version when they see that a BuzzFeed U.S. video is doing well. In fact, BuzzFeed says one international editor was able to “clone” eight Vidder videos in an hour.

Usage is spreading beyond social media teams, with the sales team potentially using it to create “BuzzCuts” for advertisers.  And of course Johanesen and his team are going to continue working on the product — for example, they have plans connect it to a library of licensed content.

Facebook teases major VR display upgrades with Oculus ‘Half Dome’ prototype

Posted: 02 May 2018 12:06 PM PDT

For the last couple of years the hardware upgrades that VR headsets have been getting have been pretty stale; there might be a resolution bump or the addition of eye-tracking or new controllers, but most of the advances have seemed to be on the software side. Facebook is focusing on some more fundamental display issues in their latest internal VR headset prototype, which they showed off at day 2 of F8.

Oculus “Half Dome” will focus on allowing users to see more of their environment at once inside the headset, while also making some sophisticated changes that will allow them to shift focus between objects.

The prototype will bring the field-of-view from 100 degrees to 140 degrees, allowing users to see more of the visual world in their periphery. What’s even more impressive is that Facebook has achieved this without creating an even bulkier design — the prototype maintains the size of the existing Rift headset thanks to their “continued advances in lenses.” It seems that there are some fundamental display issues the company is aiming to tackle before it shifts the focus to making the headset smaller. 

In terms of depth-of-field, existing headsets don’t give users multiple focal lengths. What that means is that if someone gives you something to read or another object you need to see clearly, they stick the focus around two meters from the user. This was one of the major issues that Magic Leap was claiming they had solved with their display technology, though it’s unclear what of their research is actually making it into the end product.

Oculus says they have been able to achieve variable focus in one of their newest prototypes by physically moving the screens inside the headset to accommodate the different depths of field. It works similarly to the auto-focus function in cameras, but won’t cause any noise or vibrations for users, the company says.

Oculus has talked about a lot of advances toward displays like this on the research side, but this shows how close to the real-deal they are with a headset that integrates the technology without increasing the bulk of current Oculus hardware. While Oculus has devoted much of its public attention on prototypes to standalone headsets, “Half Dome” showcases some big changes that will move the dial on the highest-end VR headset displays.

Google revamps its Google Maps developer platform

Posted: 02 May 2018 12:00 PM PDT

Google is launching a major update to its Google Maps API platform for developers today — and it’s also giving it a new name: the Google Maps Platform.

This is one of the biggest changes to the platform in recent years and it’ll greatly simplify the Google Maps developer offerings and how Google charges for access to those APIs, though starting June 11, all Google Maps developers will have to have valid API key and a Google Cloud Platform billing account, too.

As part of this new initiative, Google is combining the 18 individual Maps APIs the company currently offers into only three core products: Maps, Routes and Places. The good news for developers here is that Google promises their existing code will continue to work without any changes.

As part of this update, Google is also changing how it charges for access to these APIs. It now offers a single pricing plan with access to free support. Currently, Google offers both a Standard and Premium plan (where the premium plan included access to support, for example), but going forward, it’ll only offer a single one, which also provides developers with $200 worth of free monthly usage. As usual, there are also bespoke pricing plans for enterprise customers.

As Google also today announced, the company plans to continue to launch various Maps-centric industry-specific solutions. Earlier this year, the company launched a program for game developers who want to build real-world games on Maps data, for example, and today it announced similar solutions for asset tracking and ridesharing. Lyft already started using the ridesharing product in its app last year.

“Our asset tracking offering helps businesses improve efficiencies by locating vehicles and assets in real-time, visualizing where assets have traveled, and routing vehicles with complex trips,” the Maps team writes in today’s announcement. “We expect to bring new solutions to market in the future, in areas where we're positioned to offer insights and expertise.”

Overall, the Google Maps team seems to be moving in the right direction here. Google Maps API access has occasionally been a divisive issue, especially during times when Google changed its free usage levels. Today’s change likely won’t create this kind of reaction from the developer community since it’ll likely make life for developers easier in the long run.

Cambridge Analytica shuts down in light of ‘unfairly negative’ press coverage

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:56 AM PDT

Cambridge Analytica is done. In light of the sprawling controversy around its role in improperly obtaining data from Facebook users through a third party, the company will end its U.S. and U.K. operations.

In a press release confirming the decision, the company said that “unfairly negative media coverage” around the Facebook incident has “driven away virtually all of the Company's customers and suppliers,” making its business no longer financially viable. The same goes for the SCL Elections, a CA-affiliated company:

Earlier today, SCL Elections Ltd., as well as certain of its and Cambridge Analytica LLC's U.K. affiliates (collectively, the "Company" or "Cambridge Analytica") filed applications to commence insolvency proceedings in the U.K.  The Company is immediately ceasing all operations…

Additionally, parallel bankruptcy proceedings will soon be commenced on behalf of Cambridge Analytica LLC and certain of the Company's U.S. affiliates in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

On Wednesday, just before the company went public with its news, Gizmodo reported that employees of Cambridge Analytica’s U.S. offices learned that their jobs were being terminated when they were ordered to hand over their company keycards.

Given its already fairly shadowy business practices, it remains to be seen if this is really the end for Cambridge Analytica or just a strategic rebrand while it waits for the “siege” of negative media coverage to cool off.

Probably the latter, since the U.K.-based SCL Group, the mothership in the constellation of associated companies, is not going out of business. Nor are its many other ventures, including a new one, Emerdata, which several former CA leaders have recently moved to.

Stories are about to surpass feed sharing. Now what?

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:41 AM PDT

We’re at the cusp of the visual communication era. Stories creation and consumption is up 842 percent since early 2016, according to consulting firm Block Party. Nearly a billion accounts across Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Messenger now create and watch these vertical, ephemeral slideshows. And yesterday, Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox showed a chart detailing how “the Stories format is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends sometime next year.”

The repercussions of this medium shift are vast. Users now consider how every moment could be glorified and added to the narrative of their day. Social media platforms are steamrolling their old designs to highlight the camera and people’s Stories. And advertisers must rethink their message not as a headline, body text, and link, but as a background, overlays, and a feeling that lingers even if viewers don’t click through.

WhatsApp’s Stories now have over 450 million daily users. Instagram’s have over 300 million. Facebook Messenger’s had 70 million in September. And Snapchat as a whole just reached 191 million, about 150 million of which use Stories according to Block Party. With 970 million accounts, it’s the format of the future. Block Party calculates that Stories grew 15X faster than feeds from Q2 2016 to Q3 2017. And that doesn’t even count Google’s new AMP Stories for news, Netflix’s Stories for mobile movie previews, and YouTube’s new Stories feature.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even admitted on last week’s earnings call that the company is focused on “making sure that ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” When asked, Facebook confirmed that it’s now working on monetization for Facebook Stories.

From Invention To Standard

“They deserve all the credit”, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told me about Snapchat when his own app launched its clone of Stories. They sprouted as Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and his team reimagining the Facebook News Feed through the lens of its 10-second disappearing messages. But they've blossomed into the dominant way to see life from someone else’s perspective. Just as Facebook and Twitter took FriendFeed and refined it with relevancy sorting, character constraints, and all manners of embedded media, the Stories format is still being perfected. “This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it” Systrom followed up.

Snapchat is trying to figure out if Stories from friends and professional creators should be separate, and if they should be sorted by relevancy or reverse chronologically. Instagram and Facebook are opening Stories up to posts from third-party apps like Spotify that makes them a great way to discover music. WhatsApp is pushing the engineering limits of Stories, figuring out ways to make the high-bandwidth videos play on slow networks in the developing world.

Messenger is moving its camera from the navigation menu to the top corner, and settling in as a place to watch Stories shared from Facebook and Instagram (though you can still post there too). Meanwhile, Messenger is merging augmented reality, commerce, and Stories so users can preview products in AR and then either share or buy them. Instagram created a Stories carousel ad that lets businesses share a slideshow of three photos or videos together to string together a narrative. And perhaps most tellingly, Facebook is testing a new post composer for its News Feed that actually shows an active camera and camera roll preview to coerce you into sharing Stories instead of a text status. Companies who refuse the trend may be left behind.

Social Media Bedrock

As I wrote two years ago when Snapchat was the only app with Stories:

“Social media creates a window through which your friends can watch your life. Yet most social networks weren't designed that way, because phones, screen sizes, cameras, and mobile network connections weren't good enough to build a crystal-clear portal.

With all its text, Twitter is like peering through a crack in a fence. There are lots of cracks next to each other, but none let you see the full story. Facebook is mostly blank space. It's like a tiny jail-cell window surrounded by concrete. Instagram was the closest thing we had. Like a quaint living room window, you can only see in to the clean and pretty part they want you to see.

Snapchat is the floor-to-ceiling window observation deck into someone's life. It sees every type of communication humans have invented: video, audio, text, symbols, and drawings. Beyond virtual reality and 360 video — both tough to capture or watch on the go — it's difficult to imagine where social media evolves from here.” It turns out that over the next two years, social media would not evolve, but instead converge on Stories. 

What comes next is a race for more decorations, more augmented reality, more developers, and more extendability beyond native apps and into the rest of the web. Until we stop using cell phones all together, we’ll likely see most of sharing divided between private messaging and broadcasted Stories.

The medium is a double-edged sword for culture, though. While a much more vivid way to share and engender empathy, they also threaten to commodify life. When Instagram launched Stories, Systrom said it was because otherwise you "only get to see the highlights”.

But he downplayed how a medium for capturing more than the highlights would pressure people around the world to interrupt any beautiful scene or fit of laughter or quiet pause with their camera phone. We went from people shooting and sharing once or a few times a day to constantly. In fact, people plan their activities not just around a picture-perfect destination, but turning their whole journey into success theater.

If Stories are our new favorite tool, we must learn to wield them judiciously. Sometimes a memory is worth more than an audience. When it’s right to record, don’t get in the way of someone else’s experience. And after the Story is shot, return to the moment and save captioning and decoration for down time. Stories are social media bedrock. There’s no richer way to share, so they’re going to be around for a while. We better learn to gracefully coexist.

Soft Robotics raises $20 million to expand operations

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:24 AM PDT

Massachusetts-based Soft Robotics announced this week that it's raised $20 million in funding, courtesy of Scale Venture Partners, Calibrate Ventures, Honeywell Ventures and Tekfen Ventures, along with existing investors like robotics giant, ABB. The round follows a $5 million Series A the company closed back in late-2015.

The investment interest is pretty clear on this one. Picking and placing is the de rigueur industrial robotics challenge at the moment, and the company's soft, air-filled hands offer a novel approach to the issue. The rubbery materials that comprise the company's robotic grippers make them much more compliant and therefore more capable of picking up a variety of objects with minimal pre-programming and on-board vision systems.

Thus far, Soft has primarily found a spot for itself in the food industry, serving factories with delicate products like produce and pizza dough. It's also been adopted by Just Born Quality Confections, the people who bring you Peeps.

According to the company, the new round will help push Soft even further into the food and beverage categories, along with a larger presence in retail and logistics. The involvement of Honeywell and Yamaha’s investment wings could also signal interest from those companies’ own warehouses. With the right air pressure applied, the system should be strong enough to pick up more solid objects. 

Warehouse fulfillment has become increasingly strained in recent years, due to expectations from companies like Amazon, opening a space for robotics companies to address fast-paced but repetitive jobs like moving product onto and off of conveyor belts. Late last month, Soft showed off a low-cost, AI-driven warehouse system designed to retrieve products from bins to sort and fulfill retail orders with little oversight from its human counterparts.

Facebook animates photo-realistic avatars to mimic VR users’ faces

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:02 AM PDT

Facebook wants you to look and move like you in VR, even if you’ve got a headset strapped to your face in the real world. That’s why it’s building a new technology that uses a photo to map someone’s face into VR, and sensors to detect facial expressions and movements to animate that avatar so it looks like you without an Oculus on your head.

CTO Mike Schroepfer previewed the technology during his day 2 keynote at Facebook’s F8 conference. Eventually, this technology could let you bring your real-world identity into VR so you’re recognizable by friends. That’s critical to VR’s potential to let us eradicate the barriers of distance and spend time in the same “room” with someone on the other side of the world. These social VR experiences will fall flat without emotion that’s obscured by headsets or left out of static avatars. But if Facebook can port your facial expressions alongside your mug, VR could elicit similar emotions to being with someone in person.

Facebook has been making steady progress on the avatar front over the years. What began as a generic blue face eventually got personalized features, skin tones and life-like features, and became a polished and evocative digital representation of a real person. Still, they’re not quite photo-realistic.

Facebook is inching closer, though, by using hand-labeled characteristics on portraits of people’s faces to train its artificial intelligence how to turn a photo into an accurate avatar.

Meanwhile, Facebook has tried to come up with new ways to translate emotion into avatars. Back in late 2016, Facebook showed off its “VR emoji gestures,” which let users shake their fists to turn their avatar’s face mad, or shrug their shoulders to adopt a confused expression.

Still, the biggest problem with Facebook’s avatars is that they’re trapped in its worlds of Oculus and social VR. In October, I called on Facebook to build a competitor to Snapchat’s wildly popular Bitmoji avatars, and we’re still waiting.

VR headsets haven’t seen the explosive user adoption some expected, in large part because they lack enough compelling experiences inside. There are zombie shooters and puzzle rooms and shipwrecks to explore, but most tire of them quickly. Games and media lose their novelty in a way social networking doesn’t. Imagine what you were playing or watching 14 years ago, yet we’re still using Facebook.

That’s why the company needs to nail emotion within VR. It’s the key to making the medium impactful and addictive.

Facebook engineer and ‘professional stalker’ reportedly fired over creepy Tinder messages

Posted: 02 May 2018 10:42 AM PDT

There’s no shortage of Facebook news this week on account of F8, but this creepy Facebook-adjacent event with a good outcome seems worth noting. An engineer accused of abusing his access to data at the company in Tinder messages has been fired, Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch today.

The issue arose over the weekend: Jackie Stokes, founder of Spyglass Security, explained on Twitter that someone she knew had received some rather creepy messages from someone she personally confirmed was a Facebook engineer.

The engineer described themselves as a “professional stalker,” which however accurate it may be (they attempt to unmask hackers) is probably not the best way to introduce yourself to a potential partner. They then implied that they had been employing their professional acumen in pursuit of identifying their new quarry.

Note that the above isn’t the whole exchange, just an excerpt.

Facebook employees contacted Stokes for more information and began investigating. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, offered the following statement:

We are investigating this as a matter of urgency. It's important that people's information is kept secure and private when they use Facebook. It's why we have strict policy controls and technical restrictions so employees only access the data they need to do their jobs – for example to fix bugs, manage customer support issues or respond to valid legal requests. Employees who abuse these controls will be fired.

And fired he was, “immediately,” a Facebook spokesperson confirmed.

The company later responded to a question regarding what those controls were that should ostensibly have prevented the person from accessing the data of a prospective date. Access is logged and employees requesting data outside their purview are warned and the need for access confirmed, the spokesperson explained. Automated systems also exist to flag abuse, though they don’t seem to have helped much here.

It’s disturbing that someone in such a privileged position would use it for such tawdry and selfish purposes, but not really surprising. It is, however, also heartening that the person was fired promptly for doing so, and while everyone was busy at a major conference, at that.

(Updated with Facebook’s full statement and confirmation, and again with more information.)

Facebook’s open-source Go bot can now beat professional players

Posted: 02 May 2018 10:38 AM PDT

Go is the go-to game for machine learning researchers. It’s what Google’s DeepMind team famously used to show off its algorithms, and Facebook, too, recently announced that it was building a Go bot of its own. As the team announced at the company’s F8 developer conference today, the ELF OpenGo bot has now achieved professional status after winning all 14 games it played against a group of top 30 human Go players recently.

“We salute our friends at DeepMind for doing awesome work,” Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said in today’s keynote. “But we wondered: Are there some unanswered questions? What else can you apply these tools to.” As Facebook notes in a blog post today, the DeepMind model itself also remains under wraps. In contrast, Facebook has open-sourced its bot.

“To make this work both reproducible and available to AI researchers around the world, we created an open source Go bot, called ELF OpenGo, that performs well enough to answer some of the key questions unanswered by AlphaGo,” the team writes today.

It’s not just Go that the team is interested in, though. Facebook’s AI Research group has also developed a StarCraft bot that can handle the often chaotic environment of that game. The company plans to open-source this bot, too. So while Facebook isn’t quite at the point where it can launch a bot that can learn any game (with the right amount of training), the team is clearly making quite a bit of progress here.

Only 24 hours left on Disrupt SF super early-bird ticket prices

Posted: 02 May 2018 10:00 AM PDT

The final 24-hour shot clock is ticking, startup fans. That means you have one last day to get the best pricing on passes to Disrupt San Francisco 2018, which takes place September 5-7 at Moscone Center West. Come May 3, prices increase and your chance to save up to $1,800 disappears. Don't miss your shot. Buy your passes today.

There are so many great reasons to attend TechCrunch Disrupt SF. It's the essential tech conference for anyone who's anyone in the startup scene. It's where founders meet investors, movers meet shakers, ideas are born and partnerships are made. This year, we've supersized our flagship event and it promises to be epic.

That begins with more 10,000 attendees, more than 1,200 startups and exhibitors and a special (but not exclusive) focus on these tech categories: AI, AR/VR, Blockchain, Biotech, Fintech, Gaming, Healthtech, Privacy/Security, Space, Mobility, Retail and Robotics.

What's more, we've doubled the prize money for Startup Battlefield, the top startup pitch competition. This year, 15-30 of the best pre-Series A startups will launch their companies and strut their stuff on the Disrupt SF Main Stage — and compete for a $100,000 non-equity cash prize. We're still accepting applications, so if you think you've got what it takes, you can apply right here.

You can also exhibit in Startup Alley and get your company in front of thousands of prospective investors, partners, collaborators, technologists and media — more than 400 media outlets attend Disrupt SF. Who knows, you might even get to exhibit for free if TechCrunch editors designate your company as a TC Top Pick. Be sure to click on that link and apply.

Some of the leading founders, technologists and industry disruptors will speak at Disrupt SF, including Dr. Joseph DeSimone, co-founder and CEO of Carbon, the 3D printing startup. He'll join Eric Liedtke, Adidas executive board member, onstage to discuss a range of topics, including upending traditional manufacturing and the relationship between incumbents and disruptive startups.

And speaking of disrupting, we've done a bit of that ourselves. For the first time, we're launching the Virtual Hackathon. And what's more, we're offering a $10,000 prize to the top hack team. Of course, you can count on lots of other great sponsor prizes — and score free passes to Disrupt, too. Be sure to sign up for the Virtual Hackathon here for more information and to receive updates on how you can participate.

We're still just scratching the surface of what Disrupt SF 2018 has to offer. If you're a founder or an investor, be sure to check out CrunchMatch, our platform designed to simplify the vetting-and-setting meeting process. And you'll find plenty of opportunity for more networking at the TechCrunch after parties.

Disrupt SF 2018 is three programming-packed days of speakers, workshops, exhibits, networking, demos — and opportunity. You have 24 hours left for your shot to get the best price on passes.

Facebook is using your Instagram photos to train its image recognition AI

Posted: 02 May 2018 10:00 AM PDT

In the race to continue building more sophisticated AI deep learning models, Facebook has a secret weapon: billions of images on Instagram.

In research the company is presenting today at F8, Facebook details how it took what amounted to billions of public Instagram photos that had been annotated by users with hashtags and used that data to train their own image recognition models. They relied on hundreds of GPUs running around the clock to parse the data, but were ultimately left with deep learning models that beat industry benchmarks, the best of which achieved 85.4 percent accuracy on ImageNet.

If you’ve ever put a few hashtags onto an Instagram photo, you’ll know doing so isn’t exactly a research-grade process. There is generally some sort of method to why users tag an image with a specific hashtag; the challenge for Facebook was sorting what was relevant across billions of images.

When you’re operating at this scale — the largest of the tests used 3.5 billion Instagram images spanning 17,000 hashtags — even Facebook doesn’t have the resources to closely supervise the data. While other image recognition benchmarks may rely on millions of photos that human beings have pored through and annotated personally, Facebook had to find methods to clean up what users had submitted that they could do at scale.

The “pre-training” research focused on developing systems for finding relevant hashtags; that meant discovering which hashtags were synonymous while also learning to prioritize more specific hashtags over the more general ones. This ultimately led to what the research group called the “large-scale hashtag prediction model.”

The privacy implications here are interesting. On one hand, Facebook is only using what amounts to public data (no private accounts), but when a user posts an Instagram photo, how aware are they that they’re also contributing to a database that’s training deep learning models for a tech mega-corp? These are the questions of 2018, but they’re also issues that Facebook is undoubtedly growing more sensitive to out of self-preservation.

It’s worth noting that the product of these models was centered on the more object-focused image recognition. Facebook won’t be able to use this data to predict who your #mancrushmonday is and it also isn’t using the database to finally understand what makes a photo #lit. It can tell dog breeds, plants, food and plenty of other things that it’s grabbed from WordNet.

The accuracy from using this data isn’t necessarily the impressive part here. The increases in image recognition accuracy only were a couple of points in many of the tests, but what’s fascinating are the pre-training processes that turned noisy data that was this vast into something effective while being weakly trained. The models this data trained will be pretty universally useful to Facebook, but image recognition could also bring users better search and accessibility tools, as well as strengthening Facebook’s efforts to combat abuse on their platform.