General News

UK workplace rights reform doesn’t look disruptive to gig economy giants

TechCrunch - 7 hours 7 min ago

The UK government has set out a labor market reform package it bills as a major upgrade to workplace rights in the era of disruptive gig economy platforms.

The reforms, which include new legislation, are intended to take account of changes in working practices including those flowing from tech platforms.

But despite some gig economy platforms standing accused of exploiting workers, the government’s package does not look set to require a radical reworking of existing business models — and unions have attacked the reforms as weak and lacking substance, pointing out that, for example, a right to request a more stable contract doesn’t add up to much of a rights advance.

Among the measures being announced today (some of which have been trailed before) are:

  • a day one statement of rights for all workers setting out leave entitlements and pay, and also including detail on rights such as eligibility for sick leave and pay; and details of other types of paid leave, such as maternity and paternity leave
  • introducing a right for all workers, not just zero-hour and agency, to request a more predictable and stable contract, providing more financial security for those on flexible contracts
  • plans to bring forward proposals for a new single labour market enforcement body to ensure workers rights are properly enforced; and more resource for the Employment Agency Standards (EAS) Inspectorate
  • an end to the legal loophole which enables some firms to pay agency workers less than permanent staff (aka the ‘Swedish derogation’)
  •  an extension to the the holiday pay reference period from 12 to 52 weeks, to “ensure workers in seasonal or atypical roles get the paid time off they are entitled to”
  • enforcing vulnerable workers’ holiday pay for the first time
  • ensuring tips left for workers go to them in full

The government also says it is committed to legislate to improve the clarity of the employment status tests to “reflect the reality of the modern working relationships” — though it does not provide any detail on how exactly it intends to reform such tests.

The labor market package comes ten months after it unveiled a plan slated to expand workers rights. It also kicked off a number of consultations at that time.

With today’s package, the government is drawing heavily on an independent review of modern  working practices it commissioned, which was carried out by Matthew Taylor and published last summer.

It says it’s taking forward 51 of the 53 recommendations in the Taylor review — agreeing with him that banning zero hours contracts in their totality would “negatively impact more people than it helped”.

It has also accepted Taylor’s view that the flexibility of ‘gig working’ — where platforms distribute paid tasks via apps, and use digital technology to remotely manage what can be tens of thousands of individuals providing a service for the business — is “not incompatible with ensuring atypical workers have access to employment and social security protections”; and that platform-based working offers opportunities for “genuine two way flexibility”, as well as opportunities for those who may not be able to work in “more conventional ways”.

That’s likely music to the ears of gig economy giants that have built massive businesses by claiming to offer flexible work opportunities for the ‘self-employed’, using algorithms to distribute jobs and remote-manage a distributed workforce, thereby enabling them to massively shift employment risk onto the individuals who actually provide the core service.

Though the government also claims to be going further than Taylor in some instances.

Business secretary, Greg Clark, said the government’s intention is to build “an economy that works for everyone”, while also lauding what he dubbed “an effective balance between flexibility and worker protections” — which he credited for helping the UK have “the highest employment rate on record”.

Yet, at the start of this year, the government also committed itself to being “accountable for good quality work as well as quantity of jobs”.

And today’s package reiterates that the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will take a new responsibility to the ensure the “quality of work”.

So expect a lot of hot air to be expended in the future over what does — and does not — constitute ‘quality’ work. (Albeit, measuring working time is hard enough, from a legal point of view, let alone determining work “quality”… )

“The UK has a labour market of which we can be proud. We have the highest employment rate on record, increased participation amongst historically under-represent groups and wages growing at their fastest pace in almost a decade,” Clark said in a statement.

“This success has been underpinned by policies and employment law which strikes an effective balance between flexibility and worker protections but the world of work is changing, bringing new opportunities for innovative businesses and new business models to flourish, creating jobs across the country and boosting our economy.

“With new opportunity also comes new challenges and that is why the government asked Matthew Taylor to carry out this first of a kind review, to ensure the UK continues to lead the world, through our modern Industrial Strategy, in supporting innovative businesses whilst ensuring workers have the rights they deserve.”

“Today’s largest upgrade in workers’ rights in over a generation is a key part of building a labour market that continues to reward people for hard work, that celebrates good employers and is boosting productivity and earning potential across the UK,” he added.

Last year two parliamentary committees urged the government to close gig-economy employment law loopholes — saying they had enabled “dubious business practices” by letting digital work platforms use flexibility as a tool to circumvent workers rights and entitlements.

The committees went on to call for companies with a self-employed workforce above a certain size to be required to treat individuals as workers by default.

Today’s reform plan certainly does not look to be going so far.

Much will rest on how exactly the government changes the law around employment status tests — and that’s still tbc.

Rachel Farr, a senior professional support lawyer in the Employment, Pensions & Mobility group at law firm TaylorWessing, told us it’s also rather easier said than done — suggesting it’s difficult to see how the government will “truly improve clarity”.

This element of the reform is a key consideration where gig economy businesses are concerned, as they typically allow for so-called ‘multi-apping’ — meaning those providing a service on one platform can be logged into multiple (rival) platforms simultaneously available to work. So the issue — for employment law purposes — is how to determine what constitutes working time in a platform context. (Which you need to be able to measure in order to determine employment status.)

“Simply codifying the existing case law tests will still mean each case is dependent on its specific facts, so is the government proposing to change the boundaries with some ‘check box’ style tests as they have in other EU jurisdictions?” wondered Farr. “This means greater clarity through simplifying the law but would probably mean we lose the nuances of existing U.K. tests and that some people who are currently genuinely self-employed will find that they may become workers (or vice versa).”

Uber was back in court in the UK two months ago for its latest appeal against a 2016 employment tribunal ruling which found that a group of Uber drivers were workers, not self-employed contractors as it contends.

The company has previously suggested it would cost its UK business “tens of millions” of pounds if it reclassified the circa 50,000 ‘self-employed’ drivers operating on its platform as workers.

So the devil will be in the detail of the commitment to clarify employment status tests — and where those tests end up drawing the line.

But the government’s embrace of the overarching notion of a “balance” between flexibility and worker protections looks very friendly to current-gen gig economy business models.

A decision on Uber’s latest tribunal appeal is rumored to be due this week, though it’s not clear that it will provide much clarity on the multi-apping/working time issue. TaylorWessing litigator Sean Nesbitt also told us the tribunal has not been able to spend much time debating those elements.

Responding to the government’s reform package today, the ride-hailing giant sounded pleased. An Uber spokesperson said: “We welcome more clarity from the Government and look forward to working closely with them to make sure drivers can keep all the benefits that come from being your own boss.”

“The majority of drivers choose to partner with Uber because of the freedom and flexibility on offer. A recent Oxford University study found that most drivers want to choose if, when and where they drive,” it added.

At the same time UK unions offered a downbeat assessment of the reform package.

Reuters reports the Unite Union making critical comments. “People on zero hour contracts and workers in the insecure economy need much more than a weak right to request a contract and more predictable hours,” it quoted Unite general secretary Len McCluskey responding to the reform package.

While the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain general secretary, Jason Moyer-Lee, tweeted that “exploited workers are sick of press releases, rhetoric and self-congratulatory announcements”. He added that a “real update in rights and a serious enforcement regime” does not seem to be on offer with the government’s package.

The IWGB union has supported a number of legal and protest actions by gig economy workers in recent years, including a (so far unsuccessful) human rights challenge to Deliveroo’s opposition to collective bargaining for riders.

The Govn't has today belched another burst of hot air on the #GigEconomy. Exploited workers are sick of press releases, rhetoric & self-congratulatory announcements. What they need is a real upgrade in rights & a serious enforcement regime, neither of which appear to be on offer.

— Jason Moyer-Lee (@MoyerLee) December 17, 2018

This summer an inquiry into pay and conditions for Deliveroo riders, carried out by UK MP Frank Field, likened the model to casual labor practices at British dockyards until the middle of the 20th century — finding a dual labour market that he said works very well for some but very poorly for others.

In its response to Field’s report, as well as claiming Deliveroo riders choose flexibility, the company emphasized it had been pushing the government to update employment rules to end what it dubbed “the trade-off between flexibility and security and enable platforms to offer riders even more benefits without putting their employment status at risk”.

Responding to the government’s reform package today, a Deliveroo spokesperson reiterated this line, saying: “Court judgements have consistently found Deliveroo riders to be self-employed. However, Deliveroo has consistently said that we would like to see the rules change to end the trade-off between flexibility and security that currently exists in employment law, to allow companies such as ours to offer more benefits to riders.”

“Independent research has shown riders are consciously choosing to opt out of traditional employment in favour of new ways of working where they have more control,” the spokesperson added. “On-demand working is set to grow as people want to fit work around their lives, not vice versa, and we will work with the Government to ensure the interests of Deliveroo riders can be advanced.”

Categories: General News

Google is spending $1 billion to build a massive, new campus in New York

TechCrunch - 7 hours 20 min ago

Days after Apple announced a major expansion to its operations in the U.S. — including a new $1 billion campus in Austin — fellow tech giant Google has announced that it too will invest $1 billion as it sets up a new campus at Hudson Square in New York.

Google already has 7,000 staff located in New York and this strategy is aimed at doubling that headcount over the next ten years. Hudson Square will be a 1.7 million square-foot campus that’ll serve as “the primary location” for Google’s ‘Global Business Organization.’

Google expects two Hudson Square buildings to be operational for staff by 2020, with a building on 550 Washington Street coming online two years later. That’s in addition to Manhatten Chelsea Market, which it bought for $2.4 billion in March, and additional space at Pier 57 which it is planning to take.

All this adds up to a major hiring push outside of the Bay Area.

“Our investment in New York is a huge part of our commitment to grow and invest in U.S. facilities, offices and jobs. In fact, we’re growing faster outside the Bay Area than within it, and this year opened new offices and data centers in locations like Detroit, Boulder, Los Angeles, Tennessee and Alabama,” wrote Google CFO Ruth Porat.

Google and Apple’s commitments come after Amazon announced that New York would be the location for its much-anticipated “HQ2” following a long search that pulled in authorities from cities and states across the U.S.

The great Amazon swindle

Categories: General News

Starling’s Chief Platform Officer Megan Caywood has been recruited by Barclays

TechCrunch - 7 hours 30 min ago

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but in the increasingly competitive world of banking, perhaps poaching your best people also counts. In a move that is bound to raise eyebrows in London’s fintech ecosystem and beyond, Megan Caywood, who up until this week was Starling Bank’s Chief Platform Officer, is joining banking incumbent Barclays.

According to sources, Caywood, who led Starling’s marketplace banking efforts — a key pillar of the challenger bank — handed in her notice two weeks ago, whilst Starling Marketplace partners were informed last week. I understand she is currently on “gardening leave” and will officially become Managing Director, Head of Barclays Consumer Strategy early next year.

With an academic background in cognitive science research, and a Silicon Valley import — having worked at Xero and Intuit in the U.S. — Caywood joined Starling in June 2016 where she soon became an important lieutenant to Starling CEO and founder Anne Boden, often appearing publicly as the second face of the challenger bank. I understand, however, that the pair remain good friends and that Starling threw a leaving party for Caywood last week.

Megan Caywood speaking at a Startup Grind event in London moderated by TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear

Meanwhile, the move to Barclays is thought to be primarily motivated by the impact Caywood believes she can have at a large bank compared to an upstart, according to a source familiar with her thinking. Caywood has always talked passionately about making financial services work better for consumers and has long-argued that banks working with fintech startups is the best way to achieve this.

Related to this, Caywood’s new title at Barclays makes no reference to marketplaces, even though my fintech sources tell me Barclays is rumoured to be working on more third-party integrations. As a pointer, the incumbent bank has a number of existing partnerships, including with London startup Flux to offer itemised digital receipts and loyalty within the Barclays Launchpad app.

It is also noteworthy that Caywood’s title doesn’t include ‘UK’, and I understand that her remit is going to be international, perhaps expanding across the pond based on her Silicon Valley roots and the fact that she is American.

During her two and a half years at Starling, Caywood helped design and rapidly roll out the Starling Marketplace, which includes an open API and a marketplace of third-party financial services that sit inside of the Starling app. Marketplace partners include Flux, mortgage broker Habito, travel insurance provider Kasko, and investment products Wealthify and Wealthsimple, amongst others.

I’ve reached out to Caywood, who declined to comment, instead referring me to Barclays’ PR.

A Barclays spokesperson said:

“We can confirm that Megan Caywood is joining Barclays as our new Head of Consumer Strategy. Megan brings significant talent and expertise, and we look forward to welcoming her to the bank.”

Categories: General News

Byju’s targets global expansion for its digital education service after raising $540M

TechCrunch - 9 hours 44 min ago

India-based educational startup Byju’s was widely reported to have raised a massive $400 million round and now the company is making things official. The ten-year-old company revealed today it has pulled in a total of $540 million from investors to go after international opportunities.

The round is led by Naspers, the investment firm famous for backing Tencent that also includes educational firms Udemy, Codecademy and Brainly among its portfolio. The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) provided “a significant portion” of the round, according to an announcement which also revealed that the deal included some secondary share sales. A source told TechCrunch that’s from Sequoia India, an early investor which is cashing in a piece of its winnings.

This round takes Byju’s to $775 million from investors to date. Its backers include Tencent, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife — General Atlantic, IFC, Lightspeed Ventures and Times Internet.

The deal takes the company valuation to nearly $4 billion, a source told TechCrunch. That’s in line with what was reported by India media last week and it represents a major jump on the $800 million valuation that it commanded when it raised money from Tencent in July 2017. It also makes Byju’s India’s fourth highest-valued tech startup behind only Paytm, Ola and OYO.

Founded in 2008 by Byju Raveendran as on offline teaching center, it moved into digital courses as recently as 2015. The company specializes in grades 4-12 educational courses that use a combination of videos and other materials. Besides courses, the service covers exams, free courses and paid-for courses.

Byju’s says that 30 million students have registered for its online educational service Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

It claims to have registered over 30 million students, while more than two million customers have signed up for an annual paid subscription to date. Raveendran told TechCrunch in an interview that there are currently around 1.3 million paying users. He said that the service enjoys a renewal rate of around 80 percent, and that it is adding 1.5-2 million new students per month, some 150,000 of which are part of paying packages.

English learning for kids worldwide

This new money will go towards globalizing the service beyond India with a number of courses in English for children aged 3-8, an entirely new category for the company, set to launch next year. Those will include Math and Science.

Raveendran told TechCrunch that the service will target English-speaking markets, as well as other major international countries including India.

“There’s a growing percentage of people wanting to learn English or [in countries where] it is becoming aspirational. Slowly but surely it is happening around the world,” he said in an interview.

The company will release the new services at the beginning of local academic years — which vary worldwide — with the aim of appealing directly to kids. If the youngsters enjoy the app, parents can buy the full experience for them. It’s a logical way to find a global audience — families prepared to spend on English tuition exist worldwide — whilst also expanding into a new customer base that could become users of the core Byju’s service.

While the company has developed the core content aspect of the service, Raveendran said he is on the lookout for acquisitions and partnerships that can add more to the appeal.

“They will all be product-based acquisitions that will be value-adds on top of our core product,” he said. “Over the last 12 months, we’ve scouted for core product acquisitions but went the other way around and decided to build it ourselves.”

Further down the line, Byju’s may develop more localized services in countries where it sees high demand for the children’s product, Raveendran added.

Byju Raveendran started the company ten years ago, but it entered the digital education space in 2015 [Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Global investor base

That expansion is likely to be influenced by Naspers which has a very global portfolio, including deals in emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Asia. Indeed, the deal sees Russell Dreisenstock — head of international investments for Naspers — join the Byju’s board.

Tencent also has experience and connections, having backed China’s Yuanfudao education platform, which is now reportedly valued around $2.8 billion. Alongside Sequoia — another Byju’s investor — it is also part of VIPKid, a hugely successful platform that connects U.S-based teachers with English language learners in China.

Despite that, Raveendran said those investments are unlikely to be core to this global push.

“We expect [our investors] to help us finding partners through portfolio companies or others [but] there is no significant overlap with what we will do,” he explained.

In the case of VIPKid, he said that if Byju’s “ever decides to do anything in China” then it is likely that it will complement VIPKid’s tutor-led approach to learning rather than take it on directly.

Still, Raveendran expects the global business to become profitable and self-sustaining within the next three years. Already, the India-based business is profitable as of this year, he said, but its appeal has grown globally somewhat even before this new product launch. Overseas is currently 15 percent of revenue, a figure that the CEO puts down to the Indian diaspora globally.

Note, 12/17 03:58 PST: Article updated to explain that the English services will be Math and Science.

Categories: General News

Meeshkan raises €370K for its ‘ChatOps’ bot for training machine learning models

TechCrunch - 10 hours 3 min ago

Meeshkan, a Finnish startup that made quite a splash at the recent Slush conference, has quietly raised €370,000 in pre-seed funding to continue developing its “ChatOps” product for machine learning developers.

Deployed on Slack, the bot allows developers to “rapidly stop, restart, fork, tweak, monitor, deploy and test machine learning models” without interrupting the collaborative workflows they are accustomed to or being forced to go back and forth between disparate developer tools.

Under the hood, Meeshkan says it uses patent-pending tech for speedily partitioning of data-flow across distributed infrastructure. Related to this, the burgeoning company is currently partnering with Northeastern University and CUDA to develop “zero-downtime” checkpointing of ML models in TensorFlow and PyTorch.

In an email exchange, Meeshkan founder Mike Solomon explained that training ML models is currently done through command line interfaces and web dashboards, which is not optimum for collaboration. This is because teams typically need to communicate about ML model training, make decisions about models, act on these decisions instantly, and react to push notifications about a job’s status, none of which can conveniently happen through the command line or web dashboards.

“My generation writes less and less code, but we are iterating on it faster and faster with incremental changes,” he says. “In machine learning, this could be a small tweak in the learning rate of a model. In unit testing, this could be covering the corner case of an API that returns null values in certain circumstances. What unites these scenarios is that developers are dealing with externalities, like data or a third-party API, and trying to build fast on top of them. A world-class IDE, while it helps with lots of problems, does not provide much value for these small tweaks. We’ve found that what developers need is a frictionless environment to make the tweak/test/learn loop turn as fast as possible”.

To begin fixing this, Solomon tells me that Meeshkan set out to create a bot on Slack that helps teams monitor and tweak the training of their ML models in realtime. “For ML engineers, we found that they spent hours on Slack discussing what to do with their models but had to resort to arcane and byzantine hacks to apply, document and archive these changes,” he says.

“We made a simple bot where teams can turn their discussions on Slack about things like changing a learning rate or a batch size into action, right from Slack. From this simple idea, the floodgates opened. Developers really quickly let us know what they wanted to control from Slack, some of which is trivial to implement, some of which is profoundly difficult and leads us to uncharted engineering territory”.

Meeshkan has several patent-pending algorithms from the resulting work. Solomon also explained that the same underlying problem exists in continuous integration and “data wrangling” as well, and that the team is developing a suite of products that address this concern.

This includes a second product called unmock.io, which brings the same idea to testing and continuous integration and has seen traction at AWS re:Invent. “We look to be releasing more tools along this line during Q1 of 2018,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Meeshkan’s pre-seed backers include Risto Siilasmaa and Kim Groop (First Fellow Partners), Finnish angel Ali Omar, Christian Jantzen’s Futuristic.vc, and Neil Murray’s The Nordic Web Ventures.

Categories: General News

BMW’s premium ride-hailing service is now live in China

TechCrunch - 11 hours 20 min ago

BMW has joined a handful of automakers to compete with transportation upstart Didi Chuxing, which bought Uber’s Chinese business in 2016. Last Friday, the German luxury carmaker launched a premium ride-hailing service in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province with over 14 million people.

The new offer is part of BMW’s ReachNow carsharing brand that kicked off an electric vehicle rental business with a local partner last December. The new ride-hailing venture manages a crew of trained drivers to chauffer riders in a fleet of 200 BMW 5 Series, out of which half are plug-in-hybrid, according to the company.

“We are excited to offer our new premium ride-hailing service in Chengdu, one of the largest ride-hailing hubs in the world embracing mobility solutions for a sustainable urban future,” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, member of BMW AG’s board of management, in a statement.

ReachNow trips appear to be pricier than those on Didi’s “luxury” feature — which is currently only available in China’s top-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou — that also deploys BMW Series 5 and the likes of Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6. A 23-kilometer ride in Chengdu, for instance, costs 468 yuan or $68 at 3 p.m. on Monday. That’s about $3 per kilometer.

By comparison, a trip of similar distance in Shenzhen via Didi Luxury costs 210 yuan, or $30, at a rate of $1.3 per kilometer on a Monday afternoon.

BMW’s new move comes shortly after it became the first global carmaker to nab China’s ride-hailing operating license in late November and at a time when the country’s biggest player Didi faces public and government backlashes following two passenger murders.

Following the Didi incidents, Chinese authorities have applied deeper controls over the verification process in both drivers and their vehicles to step up safety for riders, leading to a shortage in both drivers and vehicles for Didi and its ride-hailing peers.

China’s transportation rules stipulate that drivers must hold two certificates — one for themselves and one for their vehicles — to be eligible to take passenger requests on ride-hailing apps. That turned a lot of part-time drivers away as they either don’t want to invest the time and money preparing for exams or scrap their passenger cars after eight years.

To cope with regulatory changes, Didi has introduced training programs to help drivers obtain the desired licenses. The mobility giant has also partnered with carmakers to make “purpose-built” vehicles for on-demand rides, although that process had started before the passenger deaths.

Like BMW, China’s oldfashioned carmakers also have their sights set on the car-hailing market. Among them are Volkswagen’s local partner SAIC Motor and Geely, which is partnering with Daimler to roll out a new ride-hailing venture.

Update: The headline has been corrected.

Categories: General News

Virtual reality gaming and the pursuit of “flow state”

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 18:30
Maggie Lane Contributor Share on Twitter Maggie Lane is a writer and producer of virtual reality experiences and covers the industry for various publications. More posts by this contributor

You need to stop procrastinating. Maybe it’s time for some…

Bulletproof Coffee, Modafinil, nootropics, microdoses of acid, caffeine from coffee, caffeine from bracelets, aromatherapy, noise-canceling headphones, meditation, custom co-working spaces, or productivity apps?

Whatever your choice, workers today (especially in the tech industry) will do just about anything to be more productive.

What we seek is that elusive, perfect focus or flow state. According to researchers, someone in flow will experience a lack of sense of self, a decline in fear, and time distortion. It is peak performance coupled with a euphoric high. All your happy neurotransmitters fire, and your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex performs differently –you do not second guess yourself, you quite simply just flow into the next stages of the activity at hand. And you happen to be performing at the highest level possible. Sounds amazing, right?

But how do we invite this state in? A detailed piece in Fast Company outlines how extreme sports (professional surfing, steep incline skiing, skydiving etc.) are the quickest way we’ve found to tap into human flow. Yet, these hobbies are just that — extreme. They require a large amount of skill and can be dangerous. For example, Steven Kotler, a pioneer in flow state research, broke almost 100 bones as a journalist researching the topic.

It all leads back to our collective (and very American) obsession with input versus output –are we achieving the most possible with the energy we put in? For all the bells and whistles at our disposal, we as a society are steadily declining in productivity as time goes on.

In 2014, a Gallup Poll found that the average American worker only spends a depressing 5% of their day in flow. A 2016 Atlantic article hypothesized that the main reason that we’re decreasing in productivity as a workforce is that we’re not introducing new technologies quickly enough. Tech like robotics and smartphones could add a productivity push, but aren’t being integrated into the workplace. Business models are for the large part not that different from 10 years ago. In essence, we’re bored — we’re not being challenged in an engaging way, so we’re working harder than ever but achieving less.

But what if getting into flow state could be as easy as playing a video game?

Gameplay in RaveRunner

I first met Job Stauffer, Co-Founder and CCO at Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment when I was, in fact, procrastinating from work. I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a clip of Job playing RaveRunner. As I love rhythm games, I immediately requested a build. Yet, I’d soon learn that this wasn’t just a simple VR experience.

RaveRunner was built for Vive, but easily ran on my Rift. When I first stepped into the game, I felt a bit overwhelmed — there was a lot of dark empty space; almost like something out of TRON. It was a little scary, which is actually very helpful for entering flow state. However, my fear soon dissipated as before me was a transparent yellow lady (Job calls her “Goldie”) dancing with the beat — providing a moving demo for gameplay. Unlike the hacking nature of Beat Saber where you smash blocks with lightsabers, in WaveRunner you touch blue and orange glowing circles with your controllers, and move your whole body to the rhythm of the music.

There’s a softer, feminine touch to WaveRunner, and it wasn’t just Goldie. Behind the design of this game is a woman, Ashley Cooper, who is the developer responsible for the gameplay mechanics that can help a player attain flow. “Being in the flow state is incredibly rewarding and we strive to help people reach it by creating experiences like RaveRunner,” says Cooper. RaveRunner is a game you can get lost in, and by stimulating so many senses it allows you to let your higher level thoughts slip away — you become purely reactionary and non-judgemental.

In essence — flow.

After playing in this world for an hour, I called Job and learned more about his company. Apart from RaveRunner, Orpheus has also rolled out two other experiences — MicrodoseVR and SoundSelf. I got my first hands-on demo of all three products in one sitting at a cannabis technology event in Los Angeles, Grassfed LA. Grassfed is specifically geared towards higher brow, hip tech enthusiasts; and the Orpheus suite of products fit right in.

As I lay in a dome with meditative lighting; a subwoofer purring below me; SoundSelf gave me one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in VR. I chanted into a microphone and my voice directly influenced the visuals before me. It felt like my spirit, the God particle, whatever you want to call it, was being stimulated from all these sensations. It was such a beautiful experience, but also was pure flow. I felt 2 minutes pass in the experience. I would have bet a hundred dollars on this. But I was inside for 10. Time didn’t make sense — a key indicator of flow state.

Next up was Microdose VR. I first tried Microdose VR in 2016 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen is the birthplace of the human potential movement, and so it was fitting that it was there, where I initially grasped the potential of VR for transformational experiences. Every other experience I had tried up to that point had been First Person Shooters or 360-video marketing pieces. And not to slight those experiences, but I felt that VR must be able to do MORE. Android Jones’ Microdose blew my mind. Like with SoundSelf, I completely lost track of time. I was directly impacting visuals with my body movements, and sound was a big factor as well. It was the first time I could easily imagine staying in VR for hours. Most of all, it was an experience that was only possible within VR. The game was the biggest euphoric rush I’ve felt in VR, and that feeling occurred again at this event.

We have the power as consumers to play games that tie in intrinsically with self care but often don’t have options available. Job was propelled down this path when he asked himself “if I invest one hour of my time per day into playing a video game, what will I personally gain from that time invested, and will I even have time left over to do genuinely good things for myself?”

Orpheus is pioneering the fusion of game design with traditional self-care practices like meditation, dance/exercise, listening to music and creating art: “In short, we simply want players to feel amazing and have zero regrets about their time spent playing our games, allowing them to walk away knowing they have leveled up themselves, instead of their in-game avatars alone.”

One thing that will make it easier for people to try these experiences are portable headsets such as the ViveFocus and the Oculus Quest. Being untethered will allow people to travel with VR wherever they may go. Job sees this fundamental shift right ahead of us, as “video games and self-care are about to become one in the same. A paradigm shift. This is why all immersive Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment projects will be engineered for this critically important wave of VR.”

Orpheus is not a VR-only company, although their first three experiences are indeed for VR. As they expand, they hope to open up to a variety of types of immersive experiences, and are continually looking for projects that align with their holistic mission.

At the end of the day, I love that Orpheus is attempting to tap into a part of the market that so desperately needs their attention. If we don’t make self-care a major part of VR today, then we’ll continue to use VR as a distraction from, as opposed as a tool to enhance, our daily lives.

As for me, along with the peppermint tea, grapefruit candle, and music that make my focus possible, I’ll now be adding some Orpheus games into my flow repertoire.

Categories: General News

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Mowgli’ offers a darker take on Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 17:01

At first, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” might seem like an afterthought — or maybe a failed exercise in franchise-building.

This new take on the story of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” comes just two years after Disney’s version made nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Plus, it seemed a little strange for director Andy Serkis to say he’d respect the “darkness” of the source material — this is, after all, a talking animal story. And Warner Bros’ last-minute decision to sell “Mowgli” to Netflix didn’t exactly suggest that it had much confidence in the film.

But as we argue in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “Mowgli” is actually a lot more interesting than the Disney film. It certainly has its flaws, including a rushed ending, but the increased darkness and maturity is surprisingly effective, giving real excitement and suspense to the action.

And thanks to Serkis’ background in performance capture (he played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes films), the animals turn out to be the real highlight. Each of them seems to be animated by their actor’s personality — for example, Benedict Cumberbatch brings a sense of sly menace to the tiger Shere Khan — and the relationship between Mowgli (Rohan Chand) and Bagheera (Christian Bale) ends up being the heart of the movie.

Before our review, we also cover the latest streaming headlines, namely casting details for “The Mandalorian” and growth at Facebook Watch.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Categories: General News

HQ Trivia and Vine co-founder Colin Kroll found dead of suspected overdose

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 11:56

Colin Kroll, the 34-year-old co-founder and CEO of the HQ Trivia app, has been found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his apartment, TechCrunch has confirmed.

A spokesman for the NYPD told us that a female called 911 for a wellness check on Kroll’s apartment and he was found dead inside at 08:00 hours today.

The police department said the investigation is ongoing but added that the cause of death is “allegedly a drug overdose”.

“We’re still waiting on the ME’s report to confirm that,” he added.

The story was reported earlier by TMZ — which cites a police source saying cocaine and heroin were believed to be involved.

In a brief statement, HQ said: “We learned today of the passing of our friend and founder, Colin Kroll, and it’s with deep sadness that we say goodbye. Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and loved ones during this incredibly difficult time.”

Tonight at 6pm pacific, HQ Trivia’s app will broadcast a memorial led by host Scott Rogowsky. There’ll be no game or push notifications sent, but people can open the app then for a moment of remembrance.

Kroll was only named CEO of the HQ Trivia mobile game show app three months ago, replacing fellow co-founder Rus Yusupov who moved over to serve as chief creative officer.

Prior to taking the CEO role Kroll served as HQ’s CTO. He co-founded the startup in 2015, a few months after moving on from Vine — the Twitter-owned short video format startup which got closed down in 2017.

It’s not clear who will take over the CEO role for HQ Trivia at this stage but Yusupov looks a likely candidate, at least in the interim.

In recent months the startup has been beta testing a follow up mobile game show, called HQ Words. Its original trivia format show airs twice per day and awards winners as much as $100,000 for successfully answering 12 questions.

The app debuted last August and was a viral success. But the question hanging over HQ Trivia and its co-founders has increasingly been how to sustain an early winning streak, once the novelty of the original show ran its course.

As we reported previously, HQ Trivia’s ranking in the app store has been steadily decreasing in recent months.

Kroll started his career as a software engineer at Right Media, which went on to be acquired by Yahoo in 2006. From then until 2011, he led the engineering team in Yahoo’s search and advertising tech group before joining luxury travel site Jetsetter as VP of Product — where he went on to be promoted to CTO.

In 2012 he left to start Vine with co-founders Dominik Hofmann and Yusopov.

So sad to hear about the passing of my friend and co-founder Colin Kroll. My thoughts & prayers go out to his loved ones. I will forever remember him for his kind soul and big heart. He made the world and internet a better place. Rest in peace, brother.

— Rus (@rus) December 16, 2018

This report was updated with comment from HQ Trivia and details of its memorial plan. We also corrected Kroll’s age; he was 34, not 35 as we initially reported

Categories: General News

3D-printed heads let hackers – and cops – unlock your phone

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 11:00

There’s a lot you can make with a 3D printer: from prosthetics, corneas, and firearms — even an Olympic-standard luge.

You can even 3D print a life-size replica of a human head — and not just for Hollywood. Forbes reporter Thomas Brewster commissioned a 3D printed model of his own head to test the face unlocking systems on a range of phones — four Android models and an iPhone X.

Bad news if you’re an Android user: only the iPhone X defended against the attack.

Gone, it seems, are the days of the trusty passcode, which many still find cumbersome, fiddly, and inconvenient — especially when you unlock your phone dozens of times a day. Phone makers are taking to the more convenient unlock methods. Even if Google’s latest Pixel 3 shunned facial recognition, many Android models — including popular Samsung devices — are relying more on your facial biometrics. In its latest models, Apple effectively killed its fingerprint-reading Touch ID in favor of its newer Face ID.

But that poses a problem for your data if a mere 3D-printed model can trick your phone into giving up your secrets. That makes life much easier for hackers, who have no rulebook to go from. But what about the police or the feds, who do?

It’s no secret that biometrics — your fingerprints and your face — aren’t protected under the Fifth Amendment. That means police can’t compel you to give up your passcode, but they can forcibly depress your fingerprint to unlock your phone, or hold it to your face while you’re looking at it. And the police know it — it happens more often than you might realize.

But there’s also little in the way of stopping police from 3D printing or replicating a set of biometrics to break into a phone.

“Legally, it’s no different from using fingerprints to unlock a device,” said Orin Kerr, professor at USC Gould School of Law, in an email. “The government needs to get the biometric unlocking information somehow,” by either the finger pattern shape or the head shape, he said.

Although a warrant “wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement” to get the biometric data, one would be needed to use the data to unlock a device, he said.

Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project On Government Oversight, said it was doable but isn’t the most practical or cost-effective way for cops to get access to phone data.

“A situation where you couldn’t get the actual person but could use a 3D print model may exist,” he said. “I think the big threat is that a system where anyone — cops or criminals — can get into your phone by holding your face up to it is a system with serious security limits.”

The FBI alone has thousands of devices in its custody — even after admitting the number of encrypted devices is far lower than first reported. With the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, now even more powerful with high-resolution cameras and facial recognition software, it’s easier than ever for police to obtain our biometric data as we go about our everyday lives.

Those cheering on the “death of the password” might want to think again. They’re still the only thing that’s keeping your data safe from the law.

FBI reportedly overestimated inaccessible encrypted phones by thousands

Categories: General News

Ten pieces of friendly VC advice for when someone wants to buy your company

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 09:30
David Frankel Contributor David Frankel is a managing partner at Founder Collective. More posts by this contributor

I’ve been fortunate to have been part of half a dozen exits this year, and have seen the process work smoothly, and other times, like a roller coaster with only the most tenuous connection to the track. Here are ten bits of advice I’ve distilled from these experiences in the event someone makes you an offer for your startup.

1. Understand the motivations of your acquirer.

The first thing you need to understand is why the acquiring company wants your startup. Do you have a strategic product or technology, a unique team, or a sizable revenue run rate? Strategic acquirers, like Google and Facebook, likely want you for your tech, team, or sometimes even your user traction. Financial acquirers, like PE firms, care a great deal more about revenue and growth. The motivations of the buyers will likely be the single-biggest influencer of the multiple offered.

It’s also essential to talk price early on. It can be somewhat awkward for less experienced founders to propose a rich valuation for their company but it’s a critical step towards assessing the seriousness of the discussion. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for an acquirer to put your company through a distracting process for what amounts to an underwhelming offer, or worse, a ploy to learn more about your strategy and product roadmap.

2. Don’t “Test the waters.” Pass, or fully commit.

Going through an M&A process is the single most distracting thing a founder can do to his or her company. If executed poorly, the process can terminally damage the company. I’d strongly advise founders to consider these three points before making a decision:

Is now the right time? The decision to sell can be a tough choice for first-time founders. Often the opportunity to sell the company comes just as the process of running it becomes enjoyable. Serial entrepreneurship is a low-percentage game, and this may be the most influential platform a founder will ever have. But the reflex to sell is understandable. Most founders have never had a chance to add millions to their bank accounts overnight. Moreover, there is a team to consider; usually all with mortgages to pay, college funds to shore up, and the myriad of other expenses and their needs should factor into the decision.

Is it actually your choice to make? Most investors look at M&A as a sign your company could be even bigger and as an opportunity to put more capital to work. However, when VCs have lost confidence and see a fair offer come in, or they hear a larger competitor is looking at entering your space, they may push you to sell. Of course, the best position to be in is one where you can control your destiny and use profitability as the ultimate BATNA (“best alternative to a negotiated agreement”).

How long do you have to stay? In the case of competing offers, you may have limited ability to negotiate price, but other deal terms could be negotiable. One of the most important is the amount of time you have to stay at the company, and how much of the sale price is held in escrow, or dependent on earn-outs.

3. Manage your team.

As soon as you attract interest from an acquirer, start socializing the idea that most M&A deals fall apart — because they do. This is important for two reasons.

First, your executive team will likely start counting their potential gains, and they just may let KPIs key to running the business slip. If the deal fails to close, the senior team will be dejected, demotivated, and you may start to hear some mutinous noises. This attitude quickly percolates through the team and can be deadly for the culture. What was supposed to be your moment of triumph can quickly turn into a catastrophe for team morale.

This is typically the toughest part of the M&A process. You need the exec team to execute to close a deal, but you’re running into some of the deepest recesses of human nature too. Recognize the fact that managing internal expectations is as important as managing the external process.

4. Raise enough money to stay flush for a year.

Assuming you’re selling your company from a position of strength, make sure you have enough capital so that you don’t lose leverage due to a balance sheet lacking cash. I’ve seen too many companies start M&A discussions and take their foot off the gas in the business, only to see the metrics drop and runway shorten, allowing the acquirer to play hardball. In an ideal scenario, you want at least 9 months of cash in the bank.

5. Hire a banker.

If you get serious inbound interest, or if you’re at the point where you want to sell your company, hire a banker. Your VCs should be able to introduce you to a few strong firms. Acquisition negotiations are high stakes, and while bankers are expensive, they can help avoid costly rookie mistakes. They can also classically and plausibly play the bad cop to your good cop which can also contribute positively to your post-merger relations.

My only caveat is that bankers have a playbook and tend not to get creative enough. You can still be additive in helping fill the funnel of potential acquirers, especially if you’ve had communication with unlikely acquirers in the past.

6. Find a second bidder… and a third… and a fourth.

The hardest bit of advice is also the most valuable. Get a second bidder ASAP. It’s Negotiation 101, but without a credible threat of a competitive bid, it is all too easy to be dragged along.

Hopefully, you’ve been talking with other companies in your space as you’ve been building your startup. Now is the time to call your point of contact and warn them that a deal is going down, and if they want in, they need to move quickly.

Until you’re in a position of formal exclusivity, keep talking with potential acquirers. Don’t be afraid to add new suitors late in the game. You’d be amazed at how much info spreads through M&A back channels and you may not even be aware of rivalries that can be extremely useful to your pursuit.

Even when you’re far down the road with an acquirer, if they know you have a fallback plan in mind it can provide valuable leverage as you negotiate key terms. The valuation may be set, but the amount paid upfront vs. earnouts, the lock-up period for employees and a multitude of other details can be negotiated more favorably if you have a real alternative. Of course, nothing provides a better alternative than your simply having a growing and profitable business!

7. Start building your data room.

Founders can raise shockingly large sums of money with pitch decks and spreadsheets, but when it comes time to sell your startup for a large sum, the buyer is going to want to get access to documentation, sometimes down to engineering meeting minutes. Financial records, forward-looking models, audit records, and any other spreadsheet will be scrutinized. Large acquirers will even want to look at information like HR policies, pay scales, and other human resources minutiae. As negotiations progress, you’ll be expected to share almost every detail with the buyer, so start pulling this information together sooner rather than later.

One CEO said that during the peak of diligence, there were more people from the acquirer in his office than employees. Remember to treat your CFO and General Counsel well – chances are high that they get very little rest during this process.

8. Keep your board close, your tiny investors far away.

Founders are in a tough situation in that they’re starving for advice, but they should avoid the temptation to share info about negotiations with those who don’t have alignment. For instance, a small shareholder on the cap table is more likely to blab to the press than a board member whose incentives are the same as yours. We’ve seen deals scuttled because word leaked and the acquirer got cold feet.

Loose lips sink startups.

9. Use leaks when they inevitably happen.

Leaks are annoying and preventable, but if they do happen, try using them as leverage. If the press reports that you’ve been acquired, and you haven’t been, and also haven’t entered a period of exclusivity, try to ensure that other potential bidders take notice. If you’ve been having trouble drumming up interest with potential bidders, a report from Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, or TechCrunch can spark interest in the way a simple email won’t.

10. Expect sudden radio silence.

There’s a disconnect between how founders perceive a $500M acquisition and how a giant like Google does. For the founder, this is a life changing moment, the fruition of a decade of work, a testament to their team’s efforts. For the corp dev person at Google, it’s Tuesday.

This reality means that your deal may get dropped as all hands rush to get a higher-priority, multi-billion dollar transaction over the finish line. It can be terrifying for founders to have what were productive talks go radio silent, but it happens more often than you think. A good banker should be able to back channel and read the tea leaves better than you can. It’s their day job not yours.

No amount of advice can prepare you for the M&A process, but remember that this could be one of the highest quality problems you’re likely to experience as a founder. Focus on execution, but feel good about achieving a milestone many entrepreneurs will never experience!

Categories: General News

In the winds of crypto winter

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 09:00

Well, it was surreal while it lasted, by which I mean the 2017-18 cryptocurrency bubble. For a while there, Coinbase was #1 in the App Store, Bitcoin was above $10K, and there were more notional crypto zillionaires out there than you could shake a Merkle tree at.

Those were the crazy days. Now, though, a rude awakening has come. Now Bitcoin is down to $3200 and counting, other cryptocurrencies are down well over 90%, and worst of all, none of the billions of dollars which poured into cryptocurrencies during the bubble have led to anything even remotely like a killer app. Instead the crypto space remains a giant casino of penny stocks, with little to no utility outside of financial speculation. Don’t kid yourself — this is nothing like the dot-com crash.

Yes, this cryptocurrency downturn is totally like the dot-com crash — if half the dot-com bubble had consisted of shares in companies with no web site; Internet growth had been flat in 2000; and no ordinary people had ever used Amazon, eBay, or Hotmail.

— Jon Evans (@rezendi) November 21, 2018

What comes next? Not much, at least not soon. I am sorry to report that we have entered the crypto winter, as the estimable Michael Casey puts it, and, like that in Game of Thrones, it’s likely to be a long one. Herein please find your guide to the icy landscape ahead, and some predictions of what we’ll find there:

The Business Side

We’re going to see sizable numbers of both cryptocurrencies, and the businesses built on them, simply collapse. In fact we’re seeing that already: Steemit has laid off 70% of its staff, and even mighty Consensys has cut 13%. Of the more than 2000 cryptocurrencies tracked by CoinMarketCap, hundreds upon hundreds will wither into disuse until their liquidity turns to ice and their price to zero. Meanwhile, many who run their own blockchains will find themselves increasingly vulnerable to 51% attacks. In the winter, only the strong survive; the weak are culled.

We’ll also see more infighting. The schism within a schism which has marked Bitcoin Cash of late is only the beginning. A rising tide has room for many ships, but they’ll have to fight to survive this ebb. Which blockchain will become the default for smart contracts — Ethereum, EOS, or Tezos? It’s hard to see all three remaining relevant. (My money’s on the first and last.) Which will be the privacy-preserving cryptocurrency: Monero, ZCash, or an upgraded Bitcoin? Here it’s easier to see room for all three, but it’s by no means guaranteed.

Meanwhile, as the winter leads to widespread losses, regulators will grow ever more intrusive, trying to minimize or stop future losses due to fraud or negligence. We’ll see more regulatory tightening, more fines, more bans, and, I predict, at least one case of serious criminal fraud by a major player in the cryptocurrency world. Will it be Tether? Will it be an exchange? Who can say? But I’d be extremely surprised if that didn’t happen.

Let’s look to the brighter side. I predict we’ll also see two welcome new interesting developments; at least one interesting and unexpected use case for cryptocurrencies in the developing world, and at least one more from a major tech player. (Facebook would be a pretty good bet, but it’s not the only one.) These will not lead to a massive upswing in the whole space though. Which is good, because the way all cryptocurrencies trade in lockstep is one of the most compelling proofs that they’re not currently not even close to a real market.

That said, trading will continue to thrive, because traders love volatility — but exchanges will shrink their short-term aspirations as their fees plateau and/or decrease. What’s more, trading will increasingly focus on a smaller number of cryptocurrencies with real tech/biz differentiation, eg ZCash, Monero, Tezos, and Binance Coin. (Say what you like about Binance — I don’t like them much either — but their token, unlike almost all tokens, has an actual business model.)

While this all happens we’ll see increasing Bitcoin dominance, as a “flight to quality” continues; clearly, if only one cryptocurrency were to survive, it would be that one. Meanwhile, its hashrate will continue to decrease, which is good for the world, as that means less electricity consumption.

Businesses will not adopt private blockchains en masse, or really at all, because if you want replicated write-once-read-many databases whose contents are cryptographically signed, it’s easier to just … use replicated write-once-read-many databases whose contents are cryptographically signed, rather than a spectacularly inefficient blockchain. What makes blockchains interesting is their permissionlessness.

Conversely, ether will continue to shrink in value until/unless a dapp actually takes off, which seems unlikely in the near future. I know this sounds harsh, and technically I’m a fan of Ethereum — my own pet crypto projects are built on it — but its value proposition is built around dapps, and no dapp hits means no value. Unlikely, but not impossible; we’re seeing green shoots of on-chain security tokens, the most likely near-term prospect for actual meaningful usage of Ethereum smart contracts. I predict that at some point during the crypto winter some bright startup will make its own equity, and its own cap table, into an on-chain Ethereum security token.

The Technical Side

Technically, the crypto winter will consist of a lot of grotty, important work being done underneath the snowbanks: infrastructure, scaling, privacy, usability, identity, etcetera. I predict that Ethereum’s transition to Proof-of-Stake will be slow and hesitant: it’s essentially a whole new consensus algorithm, and one which substantially more complex (and therefore with a broader attack surface) than Proof-of-Work. I also predict that even the most interesting and useful dapps (eg FOAM, Grid+, and Augur) will see slow if any growth until their fundamental usability issues are solved.

I do think that will sort of happen — that a de facto, painful, hard-to-use but viable “crypto suite” of tools for true believers, especially digital nomads, will arise. This will include a “sovereign identity” protocol, a social network, a decentralized exchange which includes peer-to-peer fiat-to-crypto, data storage, maybe even email — all decentralized, all relatively hard to use, but adopted by a tiny hardcore minority. I furthermore predict that this suite will be roughly evenly split between “built on Ethereum” and “built on Blockstack.”

I also believe there’ll be a great deal of technically fascinating cross-chain (eg Cosmos, Polkadot) and second-layer or off-chain (eg Lightning, Plasma, Celer) work done, laying the groundwork for future connectivity and scalability. This will happen along with decentralized work which is not actually crypto-related, eg Scuttlebutt and IPFS, and that which is only tangentially related, eg Blockstack. In general there will be a great and welcome increase in projects’ code-to-prose ratio now that empty prose is no longer rewarded by lucrative ICOs.

And, my final prediction: cryptocurrencies will become seen as a weird alternative space for the 1% of hardcore traders, believers and techies, like Linux desktop users … until we finally emerge from the crypto winter. When will that happen? Not next year, and probably not the year after that. What will cause that emergence to happen? Here’s my most outré prediction of all: something entirely new, something so weird and unexpected that we can hardly even imagine it right now.

Categories: General News

Epic sheathes Infinity Blade after Fortnite fan backlash

TechCrunch - Sun, 12/16/2018 - 06:20

Epic, the maker of the insanely popular, cross-platform third-person shooter online game Fortnite, has ‘fessed up to a gameplay misstep when it dropped a super powerful new weapon into the battle royale arena earlier this month — triggering a major fan backlash.

Complaints boiled down to it being unfair for the overpowered weapon to exist in standard game modes, given the massive advantage bestowed on whoever happened to be lucky enough to find it.

Earlier this month Epic had trailed the forthcoming Infinity Blade as “a weapon fit for a king”.

Coming soon… a weapon fit for a King

Categories: General News

The business case for serverless

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 18:30
Zack Kanter Contributor Zack Kanter is the co-founder of Stedi. More posts by this contributor

While serverless is typically championed as a way to reduce costs and scale massively on demand, there is one extraordinarily compelling reason above all others to adopt a serverless-first approach: it is the best way to achieve maximum development velocity over time. It is not easy to implement correctly and is certainly not a cure-all, but, done right, it paves an extraordinary path to maximizing development velocity, and it is because of this that serverless is the most under-hyped, under-discussed tech movement amongst founders and investors today.

The case for serverless starts with a simple premise: if the fastest startup in a given market is going to win, then the most important thing is to maintain or increase development velocity over time. This may sound obvious, but very, very few startups state maintaining or increasing development velocity as an explicit goal.

“Development velocity,” to be specific, means the speed at which you can deliver an additional unit of value to a customer. Of course, an additional unit of customer value can be delivered either by shipping more value to existing customers, or by shipping existing value—that is, existing features—to new customers.

For many tech startups, particularly in the B2B space, both of these are gated by development throughput (the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because new customer onboarding is often limited by onboarding automation that must be built by engineers). What does serverless mean, exactly? It’s a bit of a misnomer. Just as cloud computing didn’t mean that data centers disappeared into the ether — it meant that those data centers were being run by someone else, and servers could be provisioned on-demand and paid for by the hour — serverless doesn’t mean that there aren’t any servers.

There always have to be servers somewhere. Broadly, serverless means that you aren’t responsible for all of the configuration and management of those servers. A good definition of serverless is pay-per-use computing where uptime is out of the developer’s control. With zero usage, there is zero cost. And if the service goes down, you are not responsible for getting it back up. AWS started the serverless movement in 2014 with a “serverless compute” platform called AWS Lambda.

Whereas a ‘normal’ cloud server like AWS’s EC2 offering had to be provisioned in advance and was billed by the hour regardless of whether or not it was used, AWS Lambda was provisioned instantly, on demand, and was billed only per request. Lambda is astonishingly cheap: $0.0000002 per request plus $0.00001667 per gigabyte-second of compute. And while users have to increase their server size if they hit a capacity constraint on EC2, Lambda will scale more or less infinitely to accommodate load — without any manual intervention. And, if an EC2 instance goes down, the developer is responsible for diagnosing the problem and getting it back online, whereas if a Lambda dies another Lambda can just take its place.

Although Lambda—and equivalent services like Azure Functions or Google Cloud Functions—is incredibly attractive from a cost and capacity standpoint, the truth is that saving money and preparing for scale are very poor reasons for a startup to adopt a given technology. Few startups fail as a result of spending too much money on servers or from failing to scale to meet customer demand — in fact, optimizing for either of these things is a form of premature scaling, and premature scaling on one or many dimensions (hiring, marketing, sales, product features, and even hierarchy/titles) is the primary cause of death for the vast majority of startups. In other words, prematurely optimizing for cost, scale, or uptime is an anti-pattern.

When people talk about a serverless approach, they don’t just mean taking the code that runs on servers and chopping it up into Lambda functions in order to achieve lower costs and easier scaling. A proper serverless architecture is a radically different way to build a modern software application — a method that has been termed a serverless, service-full approach.

It starts with the aggressive adoption of off-the-shelf platforms—that is, managed services—such as AWS Cognito or Auth0 (user authentication—sign up and sign in—as-a-service), AWS Step Functions or Azure Logic Apps (workflow-orchestration-as-a-service), AWS AppSync (GraphQL backend-as-a-service), or even more familiar services like Stripe.

Whereas Lambda-like offerings provide functions as a service, managed services provide functionality as a service. The distinction, in other words, is that you write and maintain the code (e.g., the functions) for serverless compute, whereas the provider writes and maintains the code for managed services. With managed services, the platform is providing both the functionality and managing the operational complexity behind it.

By adopting managed services, the vast majority of an application’s “commodity” functionality—authentication, file storage, API gateway, and more—is handled by the cloud provider’s various off-the-shelf platforms, which are stitched together with a thin layer of your own ‘glue’ code. The glue code — along with the remaining business logic that makes your application unique — runs on ultra-cheap, infinitely-scalable Lambda (or equivalent) infrastructure, thereby eliminating the need for servers altogether. Small engineering teams like ours are using it to build incredibly powerful, easily-maintainable applications in an architecture that yields an unprecedented, sustainable development velocity as the application gets more complex.

There is a trade-off to adopting the serverless, service-full philosophy. Building a radically serverless application requires taking an enormous hit to short term development velocity, since it is often much, much quicker to build a “service” than it is to use one of AWS’s off-the-shelf. When developers are considering a service like Stripe, “build vs buy” isn’t even a question—it is unequivocally faster to use Stripe’s payment service than it is to build a payment service yourself. More accurately, it is faster to understand Stripe’s model for payments than it is to understand and build a proprietary model for payments—a testament both to the complexity of the payment space and to the intuitive service that Stripe has developed.

But for developers dealing with something like authentication (Cognito or Auth0) or workflow orchestration (AWS Step Functions or Azure Logic Apps), it is generally slower to understand and implement the provider’s model for a service than it is to implement the functionality within the application’s codebase (either by writing it from scratch or by using an open source library). By choosing to use a managed service, developers are deliberately choosing to go slower in the short term—a tough pill for a startup to swallow. Many, understandably, choose to go fast now and roll their own.

The problem with this approach comes back to an old axiom in software development: “code isn’t an asset—code is debt.” Code requires an entry on both sides of the accounting equation. It is an asset that enables companies to deliver value to the customer, but it also requires maintenance that has to be accounted for and distributed over time. All things equal, startups want the smallest codebase possible (provided, of course, that developers aren’t taking this too far and writing clever but unreadable code). Less code means less surface area to maintain, and also means less surface area for new engineers to grasp during ramp-up.

Herein lies the magic of using managed services. Startups get the beneficial use of the provider’s code as an asset without holding that code debt on their “technical balance sheet.” Instead, the code sits on the provider’s balance sheet, and the provider’s engineers are tasked with maintaining, improving, and documenting that code. In other words, startups get code that is self-maintaining, self-improving, and self-documenting—the equivalent of hiring a first-rate engineering team dedicated to a non-core part of the codebase—for free. Or, more accurately, at a predictable per-use cost. Contrast this with using a managed service like Cognito or Auth0. On day one, perhaps it doesn’t have all of the features on a startup’s wish list. The difference is that the provider has a team of engineers and product managers whose sole task is to ship improvements to this service day in and day out. Their exciting core product is another company’s would-be redheaded stepchild.

If there is a single unifying principle amongst a startup’s engineering team, it should be to write as little code—and be responsible for as few non-core services—as humanly possible. By adopting this philosophy, a startup can build a platform that can process billions of transactions at an extremely predictable, purely-variable cost with nearly zero devops oversight.

Being this lazy takes a surprising amount of discipline. Getting good at managing a serverless codebase and serverless infrastructure is nontrivial. It means building extensive practices around testing and automation, which means an even larger upfront time investment. Integrating with a managed service can be unbelievably painful, with days spent trying to understand all of the gaps, gotchas, and edge cases. The temptation to implement a proprietary solution can be incredible, especially when it means a story can be done in a matter of minutes or hours instead of days or longer.

It means writing wonky workarounds when a service only accommodates 80% of a developer’s needs. And as the missing 20% of functionality is released, it means refactoring code to remove the workaround, even when it is working just fine and there is no near-term benefit to changing it. The substantial early time investment means that a serverless/managed-service-first approach is not right for every startup. The most important question to ask is, over what time scale do we need to be fast? If the answer is days or weeks, as is the case for many very early-stage startups, it is probably not the right approach.

But if the timescale for velocity optimization has shifted from days or weeks to months or years, it is worth taking a close look at going serverless.

Recruiting great engineers is extraordinarily hard—and only getting harder. It is a tremendous competitive advantage to task those engineers with building differentiated business functionality while your competitors build services that do commoditized, undifferentiated heavy lifting, and then remain stuck with the maintenance of those services for years to come. Of course, there are certain cases where serverless just doesn’t make sense, but those are disappearing at a rapid rate (for example, Lambda’s 5-minute timeout was recently tripled to 15 minutes)—and reasons such as lock-in or latency are generally nonsense or a thing of the past.

Ultimately, the job of a software startup—and therefore the job of the founder—is to deliver customer value above and beyond the capability of the competition. That job comes down to maximizing development velocity, which, in turn, comes down to mitigating complexity wherever possible. It may be that every codebase, and therefore every startup, is destined to become “a big ball of mud”—the term coined in a 1997 paper to describe the “haphazardly structured, sprawling, sloppy, duct-tape-and-baling-wire, spaghetti-code jungle” that every software project seems eventually destined to become.

One day, complexity will grow past a breaking point and development velocity will begin to decline irreversibly, and so the ultimate job of the founder is to push that day off as long as humanly possible. The best way to do that is to keep your ball of mud to the minimum possible size— serverless is the most powerful tool ever developed to do exactly that.

Categories: General News

Cydia shuts down purchasing mechanism for its jailbreak app store

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 16:23

Years after becoming one of the go-to destinations for iOS jailbreaks, Cydia’s app store is disabling purchases. Users will be able to access existing downloads through the store and access purchases via third-parties, but beginning this week, they’ll no longer be able to buy apps through the store.

Founder Jay “Saurik “ Freeman revealed the news via a Reddit post this week recommending users remove PayPal accounts from their profile. Freeman notes his initial plan to shut the service down by year’s end, before ultimately opting to close down the purchasing mechanism this weekend over the PayPal issue.

The software engineer cites the toll running the service has taken on his personal life and finances in making the decision. “[T]his service loses me money and is not something I have any passion to maintain: it was a critical component of a healthy ecosystem,” he writes, “and for a while it helped fund a small staff of people to maintain the ecosystem, but it came at great cost to my sanity and led lots of people to irrationally hate me due to what amounted to a purposeful misunderstanding of how profit vs. revenue works.”

Cydia was launched 10 years ago, shortly after the first iPhone was jailbroken. The service has offered users a way to bypass Apple’s own App Store lockdown, building up a rabid fanbase in the process. Ultimately, however, jailbreaking’s popularity has waned in the intervening users.

The exact future of the Cydia community remains unclear, though Freeman has promised a “more formal post” about his plans next week. We’ve reached out for further comment.

Categories: General News

The limits of coworking

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 13:07

It feels like there’s a WeWork on every street nowadays. Take a walk through midtown Manhattan (please don’t actually) and it might even seem like there are more WeWorks than office buildings.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Co-working has permeated cities around the world at an astronomical rate. The rise has been so remarkable that even the headline-dominating SoftBank seems willing to bet the success of its colossal Vision Fund on the shift continuing, having poured billions into WeWork – including a recent $4.4 billion top-up that saw the co-working king’s valuation spike to $45 billion.

And there are no signs of the trend slowing down. With growing frequency, new startups are popping up across cities looking to turn under-utilized brick-and-mortar or commercial space into low-cost co-working options.

It’s a strategy spreading through every type of business from retail – where companies like Workbar have helped retailers offer up portions of their stores – to more niche verticals like parking lots – where companies like Campsyte are transforming empty lots into spaces for outdoor co-working and corporate off-sites. Restaurants and bars might even prove most popular for co-working, with startups like Spacious and KettleSpace turning restaurants that are closed during the day into private co-working space during their off-hours.

Before you know it, a startup will be strapping an Aeron chair to the top of a telephone pole and calling it “WirelessWorking”.

But is there a limit to how far co-working can go? Are all of the storefronts, restaurants and open spaces that line city streets going to be filled with MacBooks, cappuccinos and Moleskine notebooks? That might be too tall a task, even for the movement taking over skyscrapers.

The co-working of everything

Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov / iStock via Getty Images

So why is everyone trying to turn your favorite neighborhood dinner spot into a part-time WeWork in the first place? Co-working offers a particularly compelling use case for under-utilized space.

First, co-working falls under the same general commercial zoning categories as most independent businesses and very little additional infrastructure – outside of a few extra power outlets and some decent WiFi – is required to turn a space into an effective replacement for the often crowded and distracting coffee shops used by price-sensitive, lean, remote, or nomadic workers that make up a growing portion of the workforce.

Thus, businesses can list their space at little-to-no cost, without having to deal with structural layout changes that are more likely to arise when dealing with pop-up solutions or event rentals.

On the supply side, these co-working networks don’t have to purchase leases or make capital improvements to convert each space, and so they’re able to offer more square footage per member at a much lower rate than traditional co-working spaces. Spacious, for example, charges a monthly membership fee of $99-$129 dollars for access to its network of vetted restaurants, which is cheap compared to a WeWork desk, which can cost anywhere from $300-$800 per month in New York City.

Customers realize more affordable co-working alternatives, while tight-margin businesses facing increasing rents for under-utilized property are able to pool resources into a network and access a completely new revenue stream at very little cost. The value proposition is proving to be seriously convincing in initial cities – Spacious told the New York Times, that so many restaurants were applying to join the network on their own volition that only five percent of total applicants were ultimately getting accepted.

Basically, the business model here checks a lot of the boxes for successful marketplaces: Acquisition and transaction friction is low for both customers and suppliers, with both seeing real value that didn’t exist previously. Unit economics seem strong, and vetting on both sides of the market creates trust and community. Finally, there’s an observable network effect whereby suppliers benefit from higher occupancy as more customers join the network, while customers benefit from added flexibility as more locations join the network.

… Or just the co-working of some things

Photo: Caiaimage / Robert Daly via Getty Images

So is this the way of the future? The strategy is really compelling, with a creative solution that offers tremendous value to businesses and workers in major cities. But concerns around the scalability of demand make it difficult to picture this phenomenon becoming ubiquitous across cities or something that reaches the scale of a WeWork or large conventional co-working player.

All these companies seem to be competing for a similar demographic, not only with one another, but also with coffee shops, free workspaces, and other flexible co-working options like Croissant, which provides members with access to unused desks and offices in traditional co-working spaces. Like Spacious and KettleSpace, the spaces on Croissant own the property leases and are already built for co-working, so Croissant can still offer comparatively attractive rates.

The offer seems most compelling for someone that is able to work without a stable location and without the amenities offered in traditional co-working or office spaces, and is also price sensitive enough where they would trade those benefits for a lower price. Yet at the same time, they can’t be too price sensitive, where they would prefer working out of free – or close to free – coffee shops instead of paying a monthly membership fee to avoid the frictions that can come with them.

And it seems unclear whether the problem or solution is as poignant outside of high-density cities – let alone outside of high-density areas of high-density cities.

Without density, is the competition for space or traffic in coffee shops and free workspaces still high enough where it’s worth paying a membership fee for? Would the desire for a private working environment, or for a working community, be enough to incentivize membership alone? And in less-dense and more-sprawl oriented cities, members could also face the risk of having to travel significant distances if space isn’t available in nearby locations.

While the emerging workforce is trending towards more remote, agile and nomadic workers that can do more with less, it’s less certain how many will actually fit the profile that opts out of both more costly but stable traditional workspaces, as well as potentially frustrating but free alternatives. And if the lack of density does prove to be an issue, how many of those workers will live in hyper-dense areas, especially if they are price-sensitive and can work and live anywhere?

To be clear, I’m not saying the companies won’t see significant growth – in fact, I think they will. But will the trend of monetizing unused space through co-working come to permeate cities everywhere and do so with meaningful occupancy? Maybe not. That said, there is still a sizable and growing demographic that need these solutions and the value proposition is significant in many major urban areas.

The companies are creating real value, creating more efficient use of wasted space, and fixing a supply-demand issue. And the cultural value of even modestly helping independent businesses keep the lights on seems to outweigh the cultural “damage” some may fear in turning them into part-time co-working spaces.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:
Categories: General News

California says all city buses have to be emission free by 2040

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 12:58

On the heels of a dire government report published last month about climate change and its devastating impacts, many cities and states are scrambling to find ways to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten their air quality, not to mention their economies.

As is often the case, California is leading the charge, yesterday becoming the first state to mandate that mass transit agencies purchase fully electric buses only beginning in 2029, and that public transit routes be populated by electric buses alone by 2040.

The new rule is expected to require the production and purchase of more than 14,000 new zero-emission buses.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air and Resource Board (CARB) that voted unanimously to make California the first state with such a commitment, told the outlet Trucks.com earlier this month that California has “to push standards that are more progressive” than the federal government because of the state’s chronic air pollution, which is linked to asthma and heart disease, among other things.

The move is reportedly the result of several years of CARB’s work with industry and public-health groups, and it flies in the face of moves by the Trump administration to push for lower fuel efficiency standards and to promote the use of fossil fuels.

Indeed, the Trump administration has questioned from the outset how much the U.S. is responsible for cutting back emissions, and the newest government report seemingly didn’t alter anything for the President. Asked last month about the government’s findings that, unchecked, global warming will have catastrophic implications for the U.S. economy, he said, “I don’t believe it.” He added: “People like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers.”

Instead of wait on the administration to change its mind, California’s new Innovative Clean Transit rule will force California’s public bus lines — many of which currently run on natural gas or diesel fuel — to shift to either electric power or hydrogen fuel cells.

The move could be a boon for electric bus companies like Proterra, a 14-year-old, Burlingame, Ca., company that has raised roughly half a billion dollars from investors to build its zero-emission, battery-electric buses. It could also potentially help the publicly traded Chinese automaker giant BYD, which, as TC has reported, has been on a partnership spree with cities across China to electrify their public transportation systems and is now extending its footprint across the globe.

The new ruling is not the only line of attack that California is adopting. As The Hill notes, earlier this year, California also voted to become the first state to mandate new homes be retrofitted with solar panels. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will require the state to transition to a 100 percent renewable energy electric grid by 2045.

CARB has also worked to advise the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last month announced what it called its Cleaner Trucks Initiative. EPA officials say that via the initiative, the agency plans to revise truck pollution standards in a way that lowers their nitrogen oxide emissions while also doing away with requirements that the industry has complained are financially onerous.

As reported by the L.A. Times, despite the announcement, no one yet knows if the EPA is planning more stringent emissions limits or anything as strict as the 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide pollution that CARB has said is needed to clean smog to health standards.

Categories: General News

Tony Hawk goes mobile

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 12:00

For three years, Tony Hawk has been conspicuously absent from the video store shelves. For most game developers, that’s little more than a blip between titles. When your name and face are attached to 16 titles in 15 years, however, everyone starts to notice when you’re gone.

“It’s usually the first topic of discussion with me,” Hawk laughs. The first, that is, once the world’s most famous skateboarder’s identity has been firmly established.

That question was finally answered this week with the arrival of Skate Jam, the first of Hawk’s titles created exclusively for a mobile platform. The game also marks the skater’s first collaboration with mobile app acquisition group Maple Media — marking a split with longtime publisher Activision.

It was a partnership that ended with a whimper, with the arrival of 2015’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. The final installation of the beloved series was heavily criticized for being uninspired and rushed, and Hawk ultimately opted to move on from a relationship that helped turn his name into a $250 million a year brand at its peak.

The unceremonious end of the Activision deal left the future of the franchise in jeopardy, with Hawk exploring his options. “My contract with Activision ended, and I was exploring a few options, including some VR stuff,” he tells TechCrunch. While he says he’s still open to a future Tony Hawk virtual reality title, the medium ultimately proved too tricky for the first skater to land a 900. “It’s a pretty daunting task to figure out how to make skateboarding work in VR without people getting sick.”

Advances in mobile platforms, on the other hand, have made a smartphone version far more appealing than it would have been at the height of the franchise’s success. “Maple Media came and said they would like to expand on their skate games,” says Hawk. “When I played their most recent engine, I felt there was something there, akin to what I felt when I first played the THPS engine. I felt that, with my input and expertise, we could make something that would be truly authentic for gamers and skaters alike, for a new generation.”

As far as whether Skate Jam’s release portends the rebirth of the franchise, Hawk is ultimately a bit more cagey. He explains that the team is more focused on building out the current title than committing to Pro Skater’s annual release schedule.

“We’re going to see a lot more development in terms of growing this title,” Hawk says. “It’s much more streamlined and we can do it on a regular basis. We’re not planning to develop a new title, per se, but are planning to grow and develop this one.”

Skate Jam is now available for Android and iOS.

Categories: General News

Workers protest outside Minnesota Amazon warehouse

TechCrunch - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 10:19

Yesterday afternoon, Somali-American workers marched outside of Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, chanting “hear our voice.” Estimates of the exact number of marches vary from source to source, but The Minneapolis Star Tribune puts it at around 100.

It’s a fairly familiar refrain for the company, after years of reports about questionable working conditions. Some of that came to a head earlier this year when pressure from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders led the company to adopt a $15 minimum wage for warehouse workers.

The protesters cited unfair working conditions and the insensitive treatment of a local workforce that’s approximately 40 percent East African. “We needed secured jobs, we are not robots,” one employee told a local Fox affiliate.

The protest comes the same week employees at a New York City warehouse announced plans to unionize. It is, of course, an inopportune time for the online retail giant, with the Christmas holiday a mere 10 days away.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company expressed “disappointment,” telling Gizmodo,  “The majority of the people participating in today’s events are not Amazon associates because most Amazon associates are at work today sending out thousands of holiday packages for customers. We are disappointed in today’s efforts to undermine the dedicated and hard-working people who are the life and soul of our business. For them, it was business as usual.”

The spokesperson goes on to defend the company’s work and safety record and inclusion of paid prayer breaks, writing, “Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and productivity expectations are not adjusted for such breaks. Associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”

Categories: General News

Discord announces 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles on upcoming games store

TechCrunch - Fri, 12/14/2018 - 19:36

After gaming chat app startup Discord announced in August that they were building out a games store, today, they’ve detailed that they’ll be pursuing a very competitive 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles in 2019. In addition, the company revealed that they now have 200 million active users on their chat app, up from 130 million users in May.

The announcement follows a storefront launch from Epic Games last week with an 88/12 revenue split. Valve’s Steam store had typically offered a constant 70/30 revenue split for all developers regardless of the revenues they were pulling in. The company recently announced that Steam would give a more favorable split to devs pulling in more revenue.

Discord called up some of their thinking in a company blog post:

Why does it cost 30% to distribute games? Is this the only reason developers are building their own stores and launchers to distribute games? Turns out, it does not cost 30% to distribute games in 2018.

Fortnite-maker aims for Steam’s head with Epic Games Store

Steam’s efforts are largely focused on holding onto big developers, but indie devs now have to balance what advantages they’re earning by establishing their central home on a platform filled with tons of titles that’s also taking a more substantial cut.

This leaves some room for Discord to attract the self-publishing indies, though it’s still an uphill battle for the company that’s up against some big competitors.

Categories: General News