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Snap’s exec team continues to shrink as more reports of internal drama surface

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 03:45 PM PST

Days after Snap announced the departure of its CFO, reports have emerged that the company’s HR chief was asked to leave following an internal investigation late last year that had led to the firing of its global security head.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Snap fired global security head Francis Racioppi late last year after an investigation uncovered that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an outside contractor he had hired. After the relationship ended, Racioppi terminated the woman’s contract, the report says.

Racioppi denied any wrongdoing in a comment to the Journal. A report from Cheddar also adds that one of Racioppi’s assistants was fired for aiding in an attempt to cover up the scandal.

The investigation’s findings reportedly contributed to CEO Evan Spiegel asking the company’s HR head Jason Halbert to step down. Halbert announced his plans to leave the company this week.

While today’s news pins two high-profile executive departures to a single incident, Snap’s executive team has seemed to be losing talent from its ranks at a quickening pace.

Snap did not comment on the reports.

Facebook fears no FTC fine

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 02:58 PM PST

Reports emerged today that the FTC is considering a fine against Facebook that would be the largest ever from the agency. Even if it were 10 times the size of the largest, a $22.5 million bill sent to Google in 2012, the company would basically laugh it off. Facebook is made of money. But the FTC may make it provide something it has precious little of these days: accountability.

A Washington Post report cites sources inside the agency (currently on hiatus due to the shutdown) saying that regulators have “met to discuss imposing a record-setting fine.” We may as well say here that this must be taken with a grain of salt at the outset; that Facebook is non-compliant with terms set previously by the FTC is an established fact, so how much they should be made to pay is the natural next topic of discussion.

But how much would it be? The scale of the violation is hugely negotiable. Our summary of the FTC’s settlement requirements for Facebook indicate that it was:

  • barred from making misrepresentations about the privacy or security of consumers' personal information;
  • required to obtain consumers' affirmative express consent before enacting changes that override their privacy preferences;
  • required to prevent anyone from accessing a user's material more than 30 days after the user has deleted his or her account;
  • required to establish and maintain a comprehensive privacy program designed to address privacy risks associated with the development and management of new and existing products and services, and to protect the privacy and confidentiality of consumers' information; and
  • required, within 180 days, and every two years after that for the next 20 years, to obtain independent, third-party audits certifying that it has a privacy program in place that meets or exceeds the requirements of the FTC order, and to ensure that the privacy of consumers' information is protected.

How many of those did it break, and how many times? Is it per user? Per account? Per post? Per offense? What is “accessing” under such and such a circumstance? The FTC is no doubt deliberating these things.

Yet it is hard to imagine them coming up with a number that really scares Facebook. A hundred million dollars is a lot of money, for instance. But Facebook took in more than $13 billion in revenue last quarter. Double that fine, triple it, and Facebook bounces back.

If even a fine 10 times the size of the largest it ever threw can’t faze the target, what can the FTC do to scare Facebook into playing by the book? Make it do what it’s already supposed to be doing, but publicly.

How many ad campaigns is a user’s data being used for? How many internal and external research projects? How many copies are there? What data specifically and exactly is it collecting on any given user, how is that data stored, who has access to it, to whom is it sold or for whom is it aggregated or summarized? What is the exact nature of the privacy program it has in place, who works for it, who do they report to and what are their monthly findings?

These and dozens of other questions come immediately to mind as things Facebook should be disclosing publicly in some way or another, either directly to users in the case of how one’s data is being used, or in a more general report, such as what concrete measures are being taken to prevent exfiltration of profile data by bad actors, or how user behavior and psychology is being estimated and tracked.

Not easy or convenient questions to answer at all, let alone publicly and regularly. But if the FTC wants the company to behave, it has to impose this level of responsibility and disclosure. Because, as Facebook has already shown, it cannot be trusted to disclose it otherwise. Light touch regulation is all well and good… until it isn’t.

This may in fact be such a major threat to Facebook’s business — imagine having to publicly state metrics that are clearly at odds with what you tell advertisers and users — that it might attempt to negotiate a larger initial fine in order to avoid punitive measures such as those outlined here. Volkswagen spent billions not on fines, but in sort of punitive community service to mitigate the effects of its emissions cheating. Facebook too could be made to shell out in this indirect way.

What the FTC is capable of requiring from Facebook is an open question, since the scale and nature of these violations are unprecedented. But whatever they come up with, the part with a dollar sign in front of it — however many places it goes to — will be the least of Facebook’s worries.

Curious 23andMe twin results show why you should take DNA testing with a grain of salt

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 02:08 PM PST

If you’ve ever enthusiastically sent your spit off in the mail, you were probably anxious for whatever unexpected insights the current crop of DNA testing companies would send back. Did your ancestors hang out on the Iberian peninsula? What version of your particular family lore does the science support?

Most people who participate in mail-order DNA testing don’t think to question the science behind the results — it’s science after all. But because DNA testing companies lack aggressive oversight and play their algorithms close to the chest, the gems of genealogical insight users hope to glean can be more impressionistic than most of these companies let on.

To that point, Charlsie Agro, host of CBC’s Marketplace, and her twin sister sent for DNA test kits from five companies: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA.

As CBC reports, “Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies.” That bit shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each company uses its own special sauce to analyze DNA, so it’s natural that there would be differences. For example, one company, FamilyTreeDNA, attributed 14 percent of the twins’ DNA to the Middle East, unlike the other four sets of results.

Beyond that, most results were pretty predictable — but things got a bit weird with the 23andMe data.

As CBC reports:

According to 23andMe’s findings, Charlsie has nearly 10 per cent less “broadly European” ancestry than Carly. She also has French and German ancestry (2.6 per cent) that her sister doesn’t share.

The identical twins also apparently have different degrees of Eastern European heritage — 28 per cent for Charlsie compared to 24.7 per cent for Carly. And while Carly’s Eastern European ancestry was linked to Poland, the country was listed as “not detected” in Charlsie’s results.

The twins shared their DNA with a computational biology group at Yale, which verified that the DNA they sent off was statistically pretty much identical. When questioned for the story, 23andMe noted that its analyses are “statistical estimates” — a phrase that customers should bear in mind.

It’s worth remembering that the study isn’t proper science. With no control group and an n (sample size) of one set of twins, nothing definitive can be gleaned here. But it certainly raises some interesting questions.

Update: A 23andMe spokesperson provided the following statement to TechCrunch to contextualize the results in question:

The variance in Charlsie's and Carly's 23andMe results are primarily within the "Broadly European" estimate. This category captures segments our algorithm could confidently identify as European, but not confidently classify more precisely, into countries for example. It's not inconsistent for one twin to have more “Broadly European” than the other. It means that for one individual the algorithm was not confident enough to make more granular predictions. For example, for one twin we were able to identify 2.6% French and German, whereas for the other that portion of the genome was assigned to Broadly European.

The company also emphasized “the distinction that [23andMe’s] ancestry testing is different from our health report testing, which is regulated by the FDA and meets the agency's standards for accuracy and clinical validity.”

Twin studies have played a vital role in scientific research for ages. Often, twin studies allow researchers to explore the effects of biology against those of the environment across any number of traits — addiction, mental illness, heart disease and so on. In the case of companies like 23andMe, twin studies could shed a bit of light on the secret algorithms that drive user insights and revenue.

Beyond analyzing the cold, hard facts of your DNA, companies like 23andMe attract users with promises of “reports” on everything from genetic health risks to obscure geographic corners of a family tree. Most users don’t care about the raw data — they’re after the fluffier, qualitative stuff. The qualitative reporting is where companies can riff a bit, providing a DNA-based “personal wellness coach” or advice about whether you’re meant to be a morning person or a night owl.

Given the way these DNA services work, their ancestry results are surprisingly malleable over time. As 23andMe notes, “because these results reflect the ancestries of individuals currently in our reference database, expect to see your results change over time as that database grows.” As many non-white DNA testing customers have found, many results aren’t nearly as dialed in for anyone with most of their roots beyond Europe. Over time, as more people of color participate, the pool of relevant DNA grows.

Again, the CBC’s casual experiment is by no means definitive science — but neither are DNA testing services. For anyone waiting with bated breath for their test results, remember that there’s still a lot we don’t know about how these companies come to their conclusions. Given the considerable privacy trade-off in handing over your genetic material to big pharma through a for-profit intermediary, it’s just some food for thought.

Free to play games rule the entertainment world with $88 billion in revenue

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:56 PM PST

They may be free, but they sure pay. Games with no upfront cost but a plethora of other ways to make money generated a mind-blowing $88 billion in 2018 according to SuperData’s year-end report — leaving traditional games (and indeed movies and TV) in the dust.

While it may not come as a surprise that F2P (as free to play is often abbreviated) is big business at the end of 2018, the Year of Fortnite, the sheer size of it can hardly fail to impress.

The total gaming market, as this report measures it, amounts to a staggering $110 billion, of which more than half (about $61 billion) came from mobile, which is of course the natural home of the F2P platform.

Credit: SuperData

The $88 billion in F2P revenue across all platforms is large enough to produce a dynamite top 10 and an enormously long tail. Fortnite, with its huge following and multi-platform chops, was far and away the top earner with $2.4 billion in revenue; after that is a jumble of PC, mobile, Asian and Western games of a variety of styles. The top 10 together brought in a total of $14.6 billion — leaving a king’s ransom for thousands of other titles to divide.

The vast majority of F2P revenue comes from Asia. Powerhouse companies like Tencent have been pushing their many microtransaction-based games

“Traditional” gaming, a term that is rapidly losing meaning and relevance, but which we can take to mean a game that you can pay perhaps $60 for and then play without significant further investment, amounted to about $16 billion across PCs and consoles worldwide.

An exception is the immensely popular PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the hits that touched off the “battle royale” craze, which took in a billion on its own — though how much of that is sales versus microtransactions isn’t clear. Amazingly, Grand Theft Auto V, a game that came out five years ago, generated some $628 million last year (mostly from its online portion, no doubt).

The top titles there are nearly all parts of a series, and all lean heavily toward the Western and console-based, with only pennies (comparatively) going to Asian markets. China is a whole different world when it comes to gaming and distribution, so this isn’t too surprising.

Lastly, it would be neglectful not to mention the explosion of viewership on YouTube and Twitch, which together formed half of all gaming video revenue, with Twitch ahead by a considerable margin. But the real winner is Ninja, by far the most-watched streamer on Twitch with an astonishing 218 million hours watched by fans. Congratulations to him and the others making a living in this strange and fabulous new market.

FanDuel co-founder Tom Griffiths just closed a seed round for his decidedly noncontroversial new startup, Hone

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:50 PM PST

Tom Griffiths has founded four companies, two of which “weren’t much to write home about,” he jokes. The third captured the world’s attention: FanDuel, the fantasy sports company that was routinely in the press — not always for desirable reasons — from nearly the day it launched, to its near merger with rival DraftKings, to its ultimate sale last May to the European betting giant Paddy Power Betfair in a deal that reportedly saw FanDuel’s founders, along with its employees, walk away with almost nothing at the end of their roller coaster ride.

Little wonder that Griffith’s new, fourth company, Hone, is targeting the comparatively undramatic world of workforce training. Specifically, Hone and his small team have built a platform for modern and distributed teams, inspired largely by FanDuel’s experience of becoming a unicorn at one point in just six years’ time, and growing its team from 5 to 500 people in the process. Looking back, says Griffiths, “We really didn’t have the manager training we wanted or needed.”

In fact, Griffiths had already left the company by the time it was acquired, around his 10th anniversary last year, to “go back to the start.” It was time, he says. FanDuel had grown like a weed. He was exhausted by the many regulators wrestling with whether FanDuel provided a legally acceptable form of gambling. He knew he wanted to work in education, too. “My mom was a teacher,” he offers simply.

Enter Griffith’s newest act, which is just 10 months old at this point. The goal of the San Francisco-based company is to improve people’s skills around leadership management and people management, specifically at companies that already have hundreds of employees and that are dealing with increasingly distributed and diverse teams.

Hone is obviously not the first company tackling the remote management training or team building. The market already attracts tens of billions of dollars each year. But he insists it will be one of the best, including because it’s unlike a lot of what’s available currently. For one thing, Hone is very anti-traditional workshop. Hone also eschews pre-recorded video, working instead with qualified professional coaches who have to audition for Hone and who are already teaching a growing number of customers 12 different modules, typically in online class sizes of eight to a dozen people.

A company simply signs up, chooses from the programs (these include an intensive manager bootcamp, for example, as well as a manager 101 program), then embarks on what are 60- to 90-minute sessions each week for seven weeks.

The idea, in part, is for the learnings to stick. According to Griffiths, trainees forget 70 percent of what they are taught within 24 hours of a training experience. Instilling new lessons and reiterating old ones produces a greater return on investment for Hone’s customers, he suggests.

Hone’s underlying platform is also a differentiator, he says. It contains a reporting interface, so companies can not only see who is in attendance, but they can measure learner feedback through students who are asked afterward to provide the company with details about what they’ve learned. Hone’s software can also track how many questions were asked to assess engagement.

The self-learning platform gives Hone an easier way to assess how successful, or not, a particular module proves to be, and it allows Hone to continue sharpening its products. In fact, Griffiths says that by working with early, paying customers that include WeWork, Clear, App Annie, Dashlane, Omada Health, SoulCycle and others, Hone has already learned much that it intends to bake into future products,.

“We were in pilot mode last year to get product-market fit.” Now, the company is ready for its close-up, he suggests.

Some new funding should help. In addition to taking the wraps off Hone and opening more widely for business, the company just raised $3.6 million in seed funding led by Cowboy Ventures and Harrison Metal. Other participants in the round include Slack Fund, Reach Capital, Rethink Education, Day One Ventures, Entangled Ventures and numerous relevant angel investors, like Masterclass CEO David Rogier and Guild Education CEO Rachel Carlson.

What the 10-month-old company isn’t sharing publicly just yet is its pricing, which may remain flexible in any case. Says Griffiths, “We work with customers to diagnose their needs, then we create a package, one that’s far more reasonable than classroom training. There’s no travel. No instructor having to come to you.”

Griffiths is more forthcoming when it comes to lessons learned at FanDuel. Among these is aligning one’s self with investors who share a company’s values. He points to Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee, calling her a “towering pillar of progressive values, equality, inclusion and diversity.” What he saw at FanDuel, he says, is that “investors can influence culture. So from the board down, you want people who share your same values.”

Griffiths also stresses the “importance of establishing a strong culture and a vision from the start, and to live that every day as you grow.

“It’s something we did well at FanDuel at some times,” he says, “and not so well at other times.”

Hone founders, left to right: Savina Perez, who was formerly a VP of marketing at CultureIQ, a platform that aims to helps companies strengthen their culture; Tom Griffiths; and Jeremy Hamel, who was formerly the head of product at CultureIQ.

Wine-by-the-glass subscription service Vinebox raises $5.9 million

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:04 PM PST

One SF startup wants you to get home from a day at work and polish off a bottle of wine by yourself.

Vinebox isn’t really trying to get you wasted though, these bottles are cute and tiny. The small startup is hoping that they can get consumers into the idea of buying premium quality wine-by-the-glass and they’ve convinced investors there’s something behind this concept as well.

The team has just closed a $5.9 million round of funding led by Harbinger Ventures.

Co-founders Rachel Vodofsky and Matt Dukes were both corporate lawyers several years ago with a taste for good wine, but when Dukes decided to move to France and dig deeper into his burgeoning interest in wineries, the founders set off to see how they could start a consumer business with wine discovery at its heart.

The Y Combinator-backed company began their mission with a quarterly and annual subscription service that set people up with new types of single-serve wine on a rolling basis (as well as a wonderful-sounding wine advent calendar) with the ultimate goal of exposing wine lovers to small-lot wineries they wouldn’t have otherwise come across. The 100ml bottles look more like something you would find in a laboratory than a liquor store.

A quarterly subscription is $78 per quarter and includes 9 wine samples with $15 off purchases of full-sized bottle.

A big drive of the subscription is helping members to discover new favorites. Subscription members can get discounts on full bottles if they stumble upon something that piques their interest. Vinebox says they’ve shipped one million glasses of wine so far.

The company is also now working on multi-packs of their single-serve bottles as they aim to shift consumer habits. With the Usual brand, Vinebox sells what are essentially half-bottles in 6, 12, and 24-packs. Right now  The pricing is similarly premium ( a 12-pack is $96), but Dukes says that they’re trying to reshape the attitudes toward single-serve wine.

“The biggest mold that we wanted to break when we were coming into this was the little bottles of wine you get on the airplane,” Dukes says. “It comes in the little plastic bottles and you just immediately associate with lesser quality, cheaper wine.”

Vinebox is selling a red blend from Sonoma County and a rosé from Santa Barbara under the Usual brand first, but says that they’ve gotten a lot of great customer feedback and can let that drive the direction for what types of wine they move to add next.

With this new bout of funding, the group is looking to grow its team and further scale their online distribution as they hope to get their single-serve bottles into more people’s hands.

Salesforce is building new tower in Dublin and adding hundreds of jobs

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 12:42 PM PST

Salesforce put the finishing touches on a tower in San Francisco last year. In October, it announced Salesforce Tower in Atlanta. Today, it was Dublin’s turn. Everyone gets a tower.

Salesforce first opened an office in Dublin back in 2001, and has since expanded to 1,400 employees. Today’s announcement represents a significant commitment to expand even further, adding 1,500 new jobs over the next five years.

The new tower in Dublin is actually going to be a campus made up of four interconnecting buildings on the River Liffey. It will eventually encompass 430,000 square feet with the first employees expected to move into the new facility sometime in the middle of 2021.

Artist’s rendering of Salesforce Tower Dublin rooftop garden. Picture: Salesforce

Martin Shanahan, who is CEO at IDA Ireland, the state agency responsible for attracting foreign investment in Ireland, called this one of the largest single jobs announcements in the 70-year history of his organization.

As with all things Salesforce, they will do this up big with an “immersive video lobby” and a hospitality space for Salesforce employees, customers and partners. This space, which will be known as the “Ohana Floor,” will also be available for use by nonprofits.They also plan to build paths along the river that will connect the campus to the city center.

Artist’s rendering of Salesforce Tower Dublin lobby. Picture: Salesforce

The company intends to make the project “one of the most sustainable building projects to-date” in Dublin, according to a statement announcing the project. What does that mean? It will, among other things, be a nearly Net Zero Energy building and it will use 100 percent renewable energy, including onsite solar panels.

Finally, as part of the company’s commitment to the local communities in which it operates, it announced a $1 million grant to Educate Together, an education nonprofit. The grant should help the organization expand its mission running equality-based schools. Salesforce has been supporting the group since 2009 with software grants, as well as a program where Salesforce employees volunteer at some of the organization’s schools.

Sony venture arm invests in geocoding startup what3words

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 12:20 PM PST

Sony’s venture capital arm has invested in what3words, the startup that has divided the entire world into 57 trillion 3-by-3 meter squares and assigned a three-word address to each one.

Financial details were not disclosed.

The startup’s novel addressing system isn’t the whole story. The ability to integrate what3words into voice assistants is what has piqued the interest and investment from Sony and others.

“what3words have solved the considerable problem of entering a precise location into a machine by voice. The dramatic rise in voice-activated systems calls for a simple voice geocoder that works across all digital platforms and channels, can be written down and spoken easily,” Sony Corporation’s senior vice president Toshimoto Mitomo said in a statement.

Last year, Daimler took a 10 percent stake in what3words, following an announcement in 2017 to integrate the addressing system into Mercedes’ new infotainment and navigation system — called the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX. MBUX is now in the latest Mercedes A-Class and B-Class cars and Sprinter commercial vehicles. Owners of these new Mercedes-Benz vehicles are now able to navigate to an exact destination in the world by just saying or typing three words into the infotainment system.

Other companies are keen to follow Daimler’s lead. TomTom and ride-hailing services like Cabify recently announced plans to enable what3words navigation to precise locations.

And more could follow. The startup says it plans to use the investment from Sony to focus on more initiatives in the automotive space.

Alphabet’s Verily scores FDA clearance for its ECG monitor

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:51 AM PST

Big week for Google wearable news — which, honestly, is not a phrase I expected to write in 2019. But a day after the company announced an agreement to purchase Fossil's wearable technology for $40 million, Alphabet-owned research group Verily just scored FDA clearance for its electrocardiogram (ECG) technology.

The clearance pertains specifically to the company's Study Watch. The device, which was announced back in 2017, shouldn't be confused with the company's more consumer-facing Wear OS efforts. Instead, the product is designed expressly for the purpose of gathering vitals for serious medical studies of conditions like MS and Parkinson's.

"The ability to take an on-demand, single-lead ECG, can support both population-based research and an individual's clinical care," Verily writes on its blog. "Receiving this clearance showcases our commitment to the high standards of the FDA for safety and effectiveness and will help us advance the application of Study Watch in various disease areas and future indications."

The Study Watch is a prescription-only device, but the clearance leaves one wondering how this might open the door for an upcoming Pixel Watch. After all, Fossil's most recent Wear OS devices had a decided health focus, in keeping with most recent smartwatches. After Apple's recent addition of ECG on the Series 4 Watch, it tracks that Google would want to go to market with a similar health-focused feature set.

Meantime, this news should open the door for the E Ink device’s ability to help collect some meaningful information for medical researchers.

Corruption at DJI may cost the company $150 million

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:25 AM PST

DJI, the world’s leading maker of consumer drones, said today that extensive corruption discovered within the company could lead to losses as great as $150 million in the 2018 financial year. The exact nature of the corruption is not stated, but it seems to involve dozens of people at the least.

The China Securities Journal, a state-operated finance-focused newspaper, got hold of an internal company report on a corruption investigation that said some 40 people had been investigated so far, but the numbers may also be as high as 100.

Reuters confirmed with the company that it “set up a high-level anti-corruption task force to investigate further and strengthen anti-corruption measures,” and that “a number of corruption cases have been handed over to the authorities, and some employees have been dismissed.”

When contacted for details, DJI offered a statement (just after this post went live) partly explaining the situation:

During a recent investigation, DJI itself found some employees inflated the cost of parts and materials for certain products for personal financial gain. We took swift action to address this issue, fired the bad actors, and contacted law enforcement officials. We continue to investigate the situation and are cooperating fully with law enforcement's investigation.

We are taking steps to strengthen internal controls and have established new channels for employees to submit confidential and anonymous reports relating to any violations of the company's ethical and workplace conduct policies.

It’s a little hard to believe that people padding invoices and giving sweetheart deals to certain contractors for kickbacks could amount to more than a million dollars per person involved, but then again, DJI makes a lot of hardware and a few well-placed people could siphon off quite a bit.

Veteran Googler heads to Lyft to lead team of 1,000-plus engineers

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:04 AM PST

Eisar Lipkovitz, a veteran Google executive who most recently led the video and display advertising team there, is leaving the company to head up engineering efforts at Lyft .

As executive vice president of engineering, Lipkovitz will be leading Lyft’s engineering team, which now eclipses 1,000 people.

Lipkovitz’s hiring comes on the heels of massive growth at Lyft, specifically its engineering team. The ride-hailing company’s engineering team doubled in size in the last year. It also follows the hiring of another Google engineering veteran Manish Gupta, who joined Lyft in August as vice president of engineering to build out the ride-hailing company's business platforms, including enterprise, partnerships and healthcare.

Gupta will report to Lipkovitz.

"It's clear that Lyft is tackling one of the most interesting and world-changing engineering challenges of our lifetime, and the team has done an exceptional job innovating through dispatch, matching, pricing and mapping to create the overall experience," Lipkovitz said. "The work Lyft is doing intersects with my passion of operating extremely complex systems efficiently while developing strong leaders in tech, and I couldn’t be more excited to join the team."

Lipkovitz will report directly to Logan Green, Lyft’s co-founder and CEO. Luc Vincent, who is vice president of Lyft’s autonomous vehicle technology program, operates separately.

During Lipkovitz’s 15 years at Google, he led the team that built Google display, video and apps advertising products. He previously worked on the infrastructure behind Google Search. He also worked at Akamai.

Lyft has aggressively ramped up its staff and coverage in the U.S. over the past two years. And it’s paid off. The company’s ride-hailing app has more than 96 percent coverage in the U.S. and 35 percent market share.

It has also expanded Lyft Business, the company's enterprise unit, through partnerships with organizations and companies like Starbucks, LAX,  Allstate, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, JetBlue, Delta and Blue Cross Blue Shield, as well as rolled out various other products such as a monthly subscription plan called Lyft's All-Access.

Reserve your demo table today for the TechCrunch Winter Party at Galvanize

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:00 AM PST

There are just three short weeks until Silicon Valley's startup community takes a night off to relax, connect and get down at the 2nd Annual TechCrunch Winter Party at Galvanize. It's not just an opportunity to have a great time — although you will. It's also the chance for promising early-stage startups to strut their stuff. We have a handful of demo tables available, but they won't last long. Why not book a demo table today? You never know who might attend the party and facilitate your big break.

Here's one legendary example. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington used to hold these parties in his back yard. And that's where Box founders Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith met one of their first investors, DFJ. Demo your early-stage startup at our Winter Party, and you just might start your own legend.

What can you expect at our Winter fete? Great food, delicious libations and outstanding company for starters. Last year, nearly 1,000 of the early-stage startup community — movers, shakers and star-makers — attended. Join us for a great night of community, networking and fun.

Here's the lowdown on the particulars:

  • When: Friday, February 8, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Galvanize, 44 Tehama St., San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Tickets: $85
  • Demo table: $1,500 (includes three attendee tickets)

Demo tables are open to early-stage startups with $3 million or less in funding.

Along with conversation and networking, every TechCrunch bash includes plenty of games, activities, photo ops, swag and giveaways. Who wants free tickets to Disrupt 2019? You do! So, book your demo table now, before they're gone. Come party with your people on February 8 and show us your stuff!

Facebook is secretly building LOL, a cringey teen meme hub

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:59 AM PST

How do you do, fellow kids? After Facebook Watch, Lasso and IGTV failed to become hits with teens, the company has been quietly developing another youthful video product. Multiple sources confirm that Facebook has spent months building LOL, a special feed of funny videos and GIF-like clips. It’s divided into categories like "For You," "Animals," "Fails," "Pranks" and more with content pulled from News Feed posts by top meme Pages on Facebook. LOL is currently in private beta with around 100 high school students who signed non-disclosure agreements with parental consent to do focus groups and one-on-one testing with Facebook staff.

In response to TechCrunch’s questioning, Facebook confirmed it is privately testing LOL as a home for funny meme content with a very small number of U.S. users. While those testers experience LOL as a replacement for their Watch tab, Facebook says there’s no plans to roll out LOL in Watch and the team is still finalizing whether it will become a separate feature in one of Facebook’s main app or a standalone app. Facebook initially declined to give a formal statement but told us the details we had were accurate. [Update: A Facebook spokesperson has now provided an official statement: “We are running a small scale test and the concept is in the early stages right now.”]

With teens increasingly turning to ephemeral Stories for sharing and content consumption, Facebook is desperate to lure them back to its easily-monetizable feeds. Collecting the funniest News Feed posts and concentrating them in a dedicated place could appeal to kids seeking rapid-fire lightweight entertainment. LOL could also soak up some of the "low-quality" videos Facebook scrubbed out of the News Feed a year ago in hopes of decreasing zombie-like passive viewing that can hurt people's well-being.

But our sources familiar with LOL's design said it still feels "cringey", like Facebook is futilely pretending to be young and hip. The content found in LOL is sometimes weeks old, so meme-obsessed teens may have seen it before. After years of parents overrunning Facebook, teens have grown skeptical of the app and many have fled for Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Parachuting into the memespehere may come off as inauthentic posing and Facebook could find it difficult to build a young fanbase for LOL.

In one of the recent designs for LOL, screenshots attained by TechCrunch show users are greeted with a carousel of themed collections called “Dailies” like “Look Mom No Hands” in a design reminiscent of Snapchat’s Discover section. Below that there’s a feed of algorithmically curated “For You” clips. Users can filter the LOL feed to show categories like “Wait For It”, “Savage”, “Classics”, “Gaming”, “Celebs”, “School”, and “Stand-Up”, or tap buttons atop the screen to see dedicated sub-feeds for these topics.

Once users open a Dailies collection or start scrolling the feed, it turns into a black-bordered theater mode that auto-advances after you finish a video clip for lean-back consumption. Facebook cuts each video clip up into sections several seconds long that users can fast-forward through with a tap like they’re watching a long Instagram Story. Below each piece of content is a set of special LOL reaction buttons for “Funny”, “Alright”, and “Not Funny”. There’s also a share button on each piece of content, plus users can upload videos or paste in a URL to submit videos to LOL.

Facebook has repeatedly failed to capture the hearts of teens with Snapchat clones like Poke and Slingshot, standalone apps like Lifestage, and acquisitions like TBH. Fears that it’s losing the demographic or that the shift driven by the youth from feeds to Stories that Facebook has less experience monetizing have caused massive drops in the company’s share price over the years. If Facebook can’t fill in this age gap, the next generation of younger users might sidestep the social network too, which could lead to huge downstream problems for growth and revenue.

That’s why Facebook won’t give up on teens, even despite embarrassing stumbles. Its new Tik Tok clone Lasso saw only 10,000 downloads in the first 12 days. Despite seeming like a ghost town, Facebook still updated it with a retweet-like Relasso and camera uploads today. Unlike the Tik Tok-dominated musical video space, though, the meme sharing universe is much more fragmented and there’s a better chance for Facebook to barge in.

Teens discover memes on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and exchange them in DMs. Beyond Imgur that encompasses lots of visual storytelling styles, there’s no super-popular dedicated meme discovery app. Instagram is probably already the leader, with tons of users following meme accounts to get fresh daily dumps of jokes. Facebook might have more luck if it built meme creation tools and a dedicated viewing hub in Explore or a second Stories tray within Instagram. As is, it mostly ignores meme culture while occasionally shutting down curators' accounts.

Facebook might seem out of touch, but the fact that it’s even trying to build a meme browser shows it recognizes the opportunity here. Sometimes our brains need a break and we want quick hits of entertainment that don’t require too much thought, commitment, or attention span. As Facebook tries to become more meaningful, LOL could save room for meaningless fun.

Backing Culture Genesis, T.I. launches Tech Cypha, an investment syndicate for tech deals

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:50 AM PST

With an inaugural investment into the Los Angeles-based entertainment startup Culture Genesis, Clifford Harris Jr., who’s better known as “T.I.”, has launched a new syndicated investment vehicle called Tech Cypha.

Launched by the music and cultural impresario with more hustle than hustle and his business partner Jason Geter, the new collaborative investment strategy focused on tech startups will allow high-net-worth individuals to participate in deals.

The strategy has evolved since Geter and Harris made their first investment 12 years ago into a company called Streetcred.com, a site that allowed fans to go online and share opinions about street culture. While that first deal didn’t work out, Geter and Harris both remained interested in the technology and startup scene and saw a new opportunity to leverage their networks and promote new businesses.

“We learned a lot,” says Harris. “Now we know where our demographic is.”

For Geter, that demographic is taking advantage of Atlanta’s surging position as a cultural and technological mecca in the United States. Indeed, Atlanta-area startups raised roughly $1.15 billion in 2018, a record for the region, according to data from PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association.

“Being in the city of Atlanta and with Georgia Tech producing so much talent, and coming from us being within the hip-hop culture, which is always influencing and promoting things, we saw an opportunity,” says Geter. “In the past, we were always looking through the glass window and looking at ways we can participate earlier. And that’s by coming together to pool our resources so we can invest more.”

Harris and Geter aren’t the first hip-hop entrepreneurs to branch out into tech investment.

Calvin Broadus Jr. (better known as Snoop Dogg) closed a $45 million investment fund last year; Sean Carter, or “Jay-Z” launched Marcy Venture Partners; the Chamillionaire, Hakeem Seriki, is an entrepreneur in residence at the LA-based firm Upfront Ventures and has his own app; and Nas, who founded Queensbridge Venture Partners, recently saw an exit when one of his companies, PillPack, was sold to Amazon for around $750 million.

“We are a group of guys and girls who’ve been doing business together over time. While we’ve been doing just fine on our own we thought that if we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and pool our resources together we could do much more together than on our own,” says Harris.

Investors and entrepreneurs should think of Tech Cypha as an open-ended investment syndicate — like a rap version of SV Angels out of Silicon Valley.

“It’s people around our constituency who wake up knowing that there is dealing to be done,” says Geter.

While the Culture Genesis crew out of Los Angeles may seem slightly out of the Atlanta-based wheelhouse for Tech Cypha, the company’s co-founder Cedric Rogers spent a lot of time in Atlanta.

“I lived in Atlanta for many years and [Geter] and I have grown a relationship over seven years,” says Rogers. “I’m excited to work with these guys.”

For Harris, the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished with the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid, the investment into Culture Genesis is indicative of the type of deal that the syndicate will make. It’s got a media component, it’s leveraging new technology and it taps into the incredibly tech-forward community that comprises the rising middle class audience of urban (for lack of a better word) consumers.

Now the only question is whether Harris and Geter can find out what’s up and what’s happening next.

Google starts pulling unvetted Android apps that access call logs and SMS messages

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:17 AM PST

Google is removing apps from Google Play that request permission to access call logs and SMS text message data but haven’t been manually vetted by Google staff.

The search and mobile giant said it is part of a move to cut down on apps that have access to sensitive calling and texting data.

Google said in October that Android apps will no longer be allowed to use the legacy permissions as part of a wider push for developers to use newer, more secure and privacy minded APIs. Many apps request access to call logs and texting data to verify two-factor authentication codes, for social sharing, or to replace the phone dialer. But Google acknowledged that this level of access can and has been abused by developers who misuse the permissions to gather sensitive data — or mishandle it altogether.

“Our new policy is designed to ensure that apps asking for these permissions need full and ongoing access to the sensitive data in order to accomplish the app’s primary use case, and that users will understand why this data would be required for the app to function,” wrote Paul Bankhead, Google’s director of product management for Google Play.

Any developer wanting to retain the ability to ask a user’s permission for calling and texting data has to fill out a permissions declaration.

Google will review the app and why it needs to retain access, and will weigh in several considerations, including why the developer is requesting access, the user benefit of the feature that’s requesting access and the risks associated with having access to call and texting data.

Bankhead conceded that under the new policy, some use cases will “no longer be allowed,” rendering some apps obsolete.

So far, tens of thousands of developers have already submitted new versions of their apps either removing the need to access call and texting permissions, Google said, or have submitted a permissions declaration.

Developers with a submitted declaration have until March 9 to receive approval or remove the permissions. In the meantime, Google has a full list of permitted use cases for the call log and text message permissions, as well as alternatives.

The last two years alone has seen several high-profile cases of Android apps or other services leaking or exposing call and text data. In late 2017, popular Android keyboard ai.type exposed a massive database of 31 million users, including 374 million phone numbers.

Daily Crunch: Tesla cuts its workforce

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:15 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Tesla to cut workforce by 7 percent and focus on Model 3 production

In an email to employees, CEO Elon Musk says the focus must be on delivering "at least the mid-range Model 3 variant in all markets." He also warns the employees who are not set to be axed that there are "many companies that can offer a better work-life balance, because they are larger and more mature or in industries that are not so voraciously competitive."

"We unfortunately have no choice but to reduce full-time employee headcount by approximately 7% (we grew by 30% last year, which is more than we can support) and retain only the most critical temps and contractors," he writes.

2. Nike's auto-laced future

Matthew Panzarino makes the case for the new Adapt BB, a Nike shoe with powered laces that tighten to a wearer's foot automatically.

3. Microsoft is calling an audible on smart speakers

Microsoft's smart assistant has its strong suits, but thus far statement of purpose hasn't been among them. CEO Satya Nadella appears to acknowledge as much this week during a media event at the company's Redmond campus.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JANUARY 06: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings delivers a keynote address at CES 2016 at The Venetian Las Vegas on January 6, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world’s largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 9 and is expected to feature 3,600 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to more than 150,000 attendees. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. Netflix adds 8.8M paid subscribers globally, says it now accounts for 10 percent of US TV screen time

In its most recent quarter, the company added 8.8 million subscribers, well above the 7.6 million that it had predicted at the beginning of the quarter. However, revenue was a bit lower than expected — $4.19 billion, compared to predictions of $4.21 billion.

5. These are all the federal HTTPS websites that'll expire soon because of the US government shutdown

We looked at domains of federal agencies and the executive branch, then poked every certificate to see if it had expired — and, if not, when it would stop working.

6. Twitter bug revealed some Android users' private tweets

Twitter accidentally revealed some users' "protected" (aka, private) tweets, the company disclosed yesterday. For some Android users over a period of several years, tweets were actually made public as a result of this bug.

7. Facebook says it will ask employees to take down glowing Portal reviews on Amazon

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose noticed something fishy in the Amazon reviews for Facebook’s new device, noting on Twitter that many of the verified reviewers bore the same names as Facebook employees.

Sling TV adds personalized recommendations, launching first on Apple TV

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:09 AM PST

Sling TV, Dish’s live TV streaming service, will now make personalized suggestions of what to watch. The company this week introduced a new recommendations feature that will highlight the shows, movies, sports and news content it believes you’ll like, based on your viewing history.

The feature is initially available on Apple TV, but will roll out to other platforms in the future, the company says.

To access recommendations, Apple TV users can visit a new “Recommended for You” ribbon in the “My TV” section, which will feature its suggestions of both live and on-demand content. The recommendations will also respect any parental control settings you’ve set up, so younger users won’t be able to watch the adult-themed content you’ve restricted.

Unfortunately, Sling TV doesn’t support user profiles, which means recommendations may be hit or miss.

It’s a little surprising that Sling TV hasn’t included recommended content like this, until now. Recommendations, and more broadly, personalization technology, have become table stakes in the streaming business — and beyond. Music services, podcast apps, news aggregators and even our voice assistants are becoming services we customize to our own liking. Or they leverage AI to put together unique suggestions for their individual users. Or both.

Sling TV, launched four years ago, was one of the first services to offer live TV over the internet. That means it’s had more time than newer rivals — like DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV or YouTube TV, for example — to develop its own recommendation system.

The company says that recommendations are the first of more personalization updates still to come.

In the months ahead, it also notes it will improve the content recommendations and will make the browsing experience easier.

That’s much needed because the way Sling TV has implemented recommendations — a ribbon of content — is fairly basic in comparison with others. Netflix, for instance, finds numerous ways to suggest content — “top picks” based on viewing history along with other suggestions based on specific shows you’ve been watching, for starters. And this is mixed in with editorial and categorized suggestions (e.g. “binge-worthy shows), new releases and popular and trending content, among other things.

Meanwhile, Hulu recently rolled out features that let users explicitly inform the service’s recommendation engine — like a “stop suggesting” button that tells Hulu you dislike a show. YouTube TV is capitalizing on its larger video network’s recommendation technology to make its own “top picks” suggestions, and it points users to suggested content on YouTube for whatever show or movie they’re viewing.

Sling TV will need to ramp up in terms of personalization quickly to better compete as these others become more advanced.

“The ‘Recommended for You’ ribbon is just the beginning of more personalization updates to come,” wrote  Sling TV’s vice president of product management, Jimshade Chaudhari, in the announcement. “We're working to improve personalization in the app and create a more engaging and interesting viewing experience, so you can expect Sling to debut more helpful features,” he said.

SaaS stocks are coming back to life

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:53 AM PST

Nasdaq’s BVP Emerging Cloud Index measures the performance of a portfolio of 45 SaaS stocks. Like much of the tech world, and the stock market in general, the final quarter of 2018 was not terribly kind. The good news is that there are signs of life.

On November 19th, SaaS stocks had a noteworthy bad day. Everything was down, way down. As we reported, some examples included:

  • Salesforce was down 8.7 percent to $121.01.
  • Box was down 6.93 percent to $16.66
  • Workday was down 7.57 percent to $124.07
  • Twilio was down 13.76 percent to $76.90

All of these stocks are part of that Emerging Cloud Index. That day, the index hit $792.95. It would not be the lowest point of 2018. That came about a month later, on December 21st, when it plunged to $778.39.

Jason Lemkin, managing director at SaaStr Fund, a firm that works with SaaS founders, says in spite of the last quarter, it wasn’t a terrible year for SaaS stocks. “Cloud stocks still way outperformed the broad market in 2018 — way outperformed. But they are not immune to the broader economy. It just has some insulation to it, due to recurring revenue and also the mission criticality on many B2B apps,” he told TechCrunch.

The day after I wrote the story on this cloud stock debacle, my colleague Jon Shieber looked at the overall tech stock losses, which totaled a staggering $1 trillion in the year-end slide. That’s a ton of lost value, but cloud stocks were taking a hit right along with the rest of tech, even when the future appeared very bright indeed.

Today, the Emerging Cloud Index is showing signs of recovering nicely, and all of that gloom and doom seems to be yesterday’s news. The index has been climbing steadily since that pre-Christmas low (to $956.46 as we went to press). There is no guarantee that will continue, but it certainly makes more sense given that earnings reports have been mostly positive and the market potential is still growing.

As Synergy Research’s John Dinsdale told me in November, “In terms of ongoing market growth and future prospects, absolutely nothing has changed. The market forecasts remain extremely healthy. Indeed, if anything our next forecast update will likely result in us nudging up our forecast growth rates a little.”

Perhaps, the SaaS market did not deserve to be Wall Street’s whipping boy in December, and the recovering index shows that investors have come to their senses where SaaS stocks are concerned.

Microsoft is calling an audible on smart speakers

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:20 AM PST

The Harman Kardon Invoke was fine. But let's be real — the first Cortana smart speaker was dead on arrival. Microsoft's smart assistant has its strong suits, but thus far statement of purpose hasn't been among them. CEO Satya Nadella appears to have acknowledged as much this week during a media event at the company's Redmond campus.

“Defeat” might be a strong word at this stage, but the executive is publicly acknowledging that the company needs to go back to the drawing board. In its current configuration, the best Microsoft can seemingly hope for with Cortana is a slow ramp up after a greatly delayed start. For all of the company's recent successes, the gulf between its offering and Alexa, Assistant and (to a lesser degree) Siri must seem utterly insurmountable.

The new vision for Cortana is an AI offering that works in tandem with products that have previously been considered its chief competitors. That's in line with recent moves. Over the summer, Microsoft and Amazon unveiled integration between the two assistants. Nadella used this week's event to both reaffirm plans to work with Alexa and Google Assistant and note that past categories probably don't make sense, going forward.

"We are very mindful of the categories we enter where we can do something unique," he told the crowd. "A good one is speakers. To me the challenge is, exactly what would we be able to do in that category that is going to be unique?"

It's a fair question. And the answer, thus far, is nothing. Like Samsung's Bixby offerings, the primary distinguisher has been the devices on which it has chosen to roll out — appliances for Bixby and PCs for Microsoft. And while moves by Apple, Amazon and Google have all been acknowledgements that desktops and laptops may play an important role in the growth of smart assistants moving forward, they were hardly a major driver early on.

I suspect this will also mean the company will invest less in pushing Cortana as a consumer-facing product for the time being, instead focusing on the ways it can help other more popular assistants play nicely with the Microsoft ecosystem.

Privacy campaigner Schrems slaps Amazon, Apple, Netflix, others with GDPR data access complaints

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 07:40 AM PST

European privacy campaigner Max Schrems has filed a fresh batch of strategic complaints at tech giants, including Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Spotify and YouTube.

The complaints, filed via his nonprofit privacy and digital rights organization, noyb, relate to how the services respond to data access requests, per regional data protection rules.

Article 15 of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides for a right of access by the data subject to information held on them.

The complaints contend tech firms are structurally violating this right — having built automated systems to respond to data access requests which, after being tested by noyb, failed to provide the user with all the relevant information to which they are legally entitled.

Indeed, noyb tested eight companies in all, in eight different countries in Europe, and says it found none of the services provided a satisfactory response. It’s filed formal complaints with the Austrian Data Protection Authority against the eight, which also include music and podcast platform SoundCloud; sports streaming service DAZN; and video on-demand platform Flimmit .

The complaints have been filed on behalf of 10 users, per Article 80 of the GDPR, which enables data subjects to be represented by a nonprofit association such as noyb.

Here’s its breakdown of the responses its tests received — including the maximum potential penalty each could be on the hook for if the complaints stand up:

Two of the companies, DAZN and SoundCloud, failed to respond at all, according to noyb, while the rest responded with only partial data.

Also, noyb points out that in addition to getting raw data, users have the right to know the sources, recipients and purposes for which their information is being processed. But only Flimmit and Netflix provided any background information (though again, still not full data) in response to the test requests.

"Many services set up automated systems to respond to access requests, but they often don't even remotely provide the data that every user has a right to,” said Schrems in a statement. “In most cases, users only got the raw data, but, for example, no information about who this data was shared with. This leads to structural violations of users' rights, as these systems are built to withhold the relevant information."

We’ve reached out to the companies for comment on the complaints. Update: Spotify told us: “Spotify takes data privacy and our obligations to users extremely seriously. We are committed to complying with all relevant national and international laws and regulations, including GDPR, with which we believe we are fully compliant.”

Last May, immediately after Europe’s new privacy regulation came into force, noyb lodged its first series of strategic complaints — targeted at what it dubbed “forced consent,” arguing that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Google’s Android OS do not give users a free choice to consent to processing their data for ad targeting, as consenting is required to use the service.

Investigations by a number of data protection authorities into those complaints remain ongoing.