Posted on

AWS brings the Mac mini to its cloud

AWS today opened its re:Invent conference with a surprise announcement: the company is bringing the Mac mini to its cloud. These new EC2 Mac instances, as AWS calls them, are now available in preview. They won’t come cheap, though.
The target audience here — and the only one AWS is targeting for now — is developers who want cloud-based build and testing environments for their Mac and iOS apps. But it’s worth noting that with remote access, you get a fully-featured Mac mini in the cloud, and I’m sure developers will find all kinds of other use cases …

Read More

Posted on

Hulu UX teardown: 5 user experience fails and how to fix them

Hulu is the first major streaming platform to offer a social watching experience. And with most major league sports now being allowed to resume behind closed doors, Hulu’s combined proposition with ESPN will likely help entertain the service’s 30+ million users over the winter months.

But users have a surplus in choice of streaming services right now, so how will Hulu stay competitive?

With the help of UX expert Peter Ramsey from Built for Mars, we’re going to give Hulu an Extra Crunch UX teardown, demonstrating five ways it could improve its overall user experience. These include easy product comparisons, consistent widths, proportionate progress bars and other suggestions.

Comparing features inside packages

If your product/service has different tiers/versions, ensure that the differences between these options are obvious and easy to compare.

The fail: Hulu has four different packages, but the listed features are inconsistent between options, making it incredibly difficult to compare. Instead of using bullet points, they’ve buried the benefits within paragraphs.

The fix: Break the paragraphs down into bullet points. Then, make sure that the bullet points are worded consistently between options.

Steve O’Hear: I’m really surprised this one got past the marketing department. Not a lot to say except that I would argue that when UX, including layout and copywriting decisions, become decoupled from business goals and customer wants, a company is in trouble. Would you agree that’s what has happened here?

Peter Ramsey: Honestly, this happens all the time. I think it’s just a symptom of the designers building things that look nice, not things that work nicely. I probably raise this issue on about one-third of the private audits I do — it’s that common.

Keep a consistent width

Try to maintain a consistent page width throughout a single journey — unless there’s a major benefit to changing the width.

The fail: During the Hulu sign-up process, the page width doubles at a totally unnecessary point. This is disorienting for the user, with no obvious rationale.

The fix: Hulu has a pretty consistent first-half of their journey and then it drops the ball. I’d redesign these “extra-wide” pages to be the default width.

Read More

Posted on

Mac-optimized TensorFlow flexes new M1 and GPU muscles

A new Mac-optimized fork of machine learning environment TensorFlow posts some major performance increases. Although a big part of that is that until now the GPU wasn’t used for training tasks (!), M1-based devices see even further gains, suggesting a spate of popular workflow optimizations like this one are incoming.

Announced on both TensorFlow and Apple’s blogs, the improved Mac version shows in the best case more than a 10x improvement in speed for common training tasks.

That’s worth celebrating on its own for anyone who works in ML and finds themselves constantly waiting for their models to bake. But the fact that previous versions of TF only utilized the CPU on Macs and not the powerful parallel processors in the GPU probably limited the pool of people who inflict that problem on themselves in the first place. (Most large-scale ML training is done using cloud computing.)

The change from CPU-only to CPU+GPU could account for a great deal of the improvement, as the benchmarks on an Intel-based Mac Pro show huge gains on the same hardware. Training times once in the 6-8 second range are now measured in fractions of a second.

That’s not to say the M1 isn’t capable, but the new M1 Macs also have new GPUs, meaning the jump from nearly 10 seconds for a task on a 2019 MacBook Pro to less than 2 on a new M1 machine can only be partly attributed to Apple’s fancy first-party silicon.

I contacted Apple for more information, such as a number for an M1 device running non-optimized code (which would elucidate the improvements nicely) but a representative said it does not have those numbers.

At any rate perhaps more important for developers will be the improved battery life and heat management of the M1 devices. Performance bumps are all well and good, but if it made your machine into a hot plate, blasted your fan and made you run for the outlet in under an hour — not so good. Fortunately the M1 seems to be demonstrating remarkable efficiency under load, neither draining its reserves or heating up too much.

You can probably expect a lot of these “now works better on M1” stories now that the new Macs are out and all the major companies can ship the updates they’ve been sitting on for the last few months.

Read More

Posted on

China’s smartphone giant Oppo ratchets up AR push

Tech companies around the world are still identifying the “next big thing” enabled by 5G connections. Some, such as Oppo, are betting it will be augmented reality.

The Chinese smartphone firm showcased its progress in AR at a Tuesday event swarmed by hundreds of reporters, analysts, and partners in Shenzhen. Green strobe light, the color of its brand, beamed as vice president Liu Chang unveiled the Oppo AR Glass 2021, a lightweight headset slightly chunkier than regular glasses.

Still in the concept phase, the headset comes with fisheye cameras, tracks hands in milliseconds, and can supposedly simulate the experience of watching a 90-inch screen from three meters away.

The concept product is the result of Oppo’s three-year-plan, unveiled last year, to spend 50 billion yuan ($7.62 billion) on futuristic tech including AR.

Smartphone makers from Xiaomi to Huawei are embracing AR as they design headsets that can tether to smartphones, taking advantage of the latter’s computing power. The Oppo AR Glass 2021, for instance, is designed to link to the Oppo Find X2 Pro which contains a Snapdragon 865 chipset.

It’s unclear when Oppo’s AR glasses will hit the shelf, but the firm is actively building the ecosystem needed for mass-market adoption, from working with content providers like video streaming site iQiyi to launching a developer initiative next year to make development tools widely available.

At the same event, Oppo also flaunted a concept phone with a “scrolling” OLED screen that could make an alternative to existing foldable phones. Oppo declined to disclose who the display maker is.

Read More

Posted on

Gretel announces $12M Series A to make it easier to anonymize data

As companies work with data, one of the big obstacles they face is making sure they are not exposing personally identifiable information (PII) or other sensitive data. It usually requires a painstaking manual effort to strip out that data. Gretel, an early stage startup, wants to change that by making it faster and easier to anonymize data sets. Today the company announced a $12 million Series A led by Greylock. The company has now raised $15.5 million.

Gretel co-founder and CEO Alex Watson says that his company was founded to make it simpler to anonymize data and unlock data sets that were previously out of reach because of privacy concerns.

“As a developer, you want to test an idea or build a new feature, and it can take weeks to get access to the data you need. Then essentially it boils down to getting approvals to get started, then snapshotting a database, and manually removing what looks like personal data and hoping that you got everything,”

Watson, who previously worked as a GM at AWS, believed that there needed to be a faster and more reliable way to anonymize the data, and that’s why he started Gretel. The first product is an open source, synthetic machine learning library for developers that strips out personally identifiable information.

“Developers use our open source library, which trains machine learning models on their sensitive data, then as that training is happening we are enforcing something called differential privacy, which basically ensures that the model doesn’t memorize details about secrets for individual people inside of the data,” he said. The result is a new artificial data set that is anonymized and safe to share across a business.

The company was founded last year, and they have actually used this year to develop the open source product and build an open source community around it. “So our approach and our go-to-market here is we’ve open sourced our underlying libraries, and we will also build a SaaS service that makes it really easy to generate synthetic data and anonymized data at scale,” he said.

As the founders build the company, they are looking at how to build a diverse and inclusive organization, something that they discuss at their regular founders’ meetings, especially as they look to take these investment dollars and begin to hire additional senior people.

“We make a conscious effort to have diverse candidates apply, and to really make sure we reach out to them and have a conversation, and that’s paid off, or is in the process of paying off I would say, with the candidates in our pipeline right now. So we’re excited. It’s tremendously important that we avoid group think that happens so often,” he said.

The company doesn’t have paying customers, but the plan is to build off the relationships it has with design partners and begin taking in revenue next year. Sridhar Ramaswamy, the partner at Greylock, who is leading the investment, says that his firm is placing a bet on a pre-revenue company because he sees great potential for a service like this.

“We think Gretel will democratize safe and controlled access to data for the whole world the way Github democratized source code access and control,” Ramaswamy said.

Read More

Posted on

Mirantis brings extensions to its Lens Kubernetes IDE, launches a new Kubernetes distro

Earlier this year, Mirantis, the company that now owns Docker’s enterprise business, acquired Lens, a desktop application that provides developers with something akin to an IDE for managing their Kubernetes clusters. At the time, Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me that the company wants to offer enterprises the tools to quickly build modern applications. Today, it’s taking another step in that direction with the launch of an extensions API for Lens that will take the tool far beyond its original capabilities

In addition to this update to Lens, Mirantis also today announced a new open-source project: k0s. The company describes it as “a modern, 100% upstream vanilla Kubernetes distro that is designed and packaged without compromise.”

It’s a single optimized binary without any OS dependencies (besides the kernel). Based on upstream Kubernetes, k0s supports Intel and Arm architectures and can run on any Linux host or Windows Server 2019 worker nodes. Given these requirements, the team argues that k0s should work for virtually any use case, ranging from local development clusters to private datacenters, telco clusters and hybrid cloud solutions.

“We wanted to create a modern, robust and versatile base layer for various use cases where Kubernetes is in play. Something that leverages vanilla upstream Kubernetes and is versatile enough to cover use cases ranging from typical cloud based deployments to various edge/IoT type of cases.,” said Jussi Nummelin, Senior Principal Engineer at Mirantis and founder of k0s. “Leveraging our previous experiences, we really did not want to start maintaining the setup and packaging for various OS distros. Hence the packaging model of a single binary to allow us to focus more on the core problem rather than different flavors of packaging such as debs, rpms and what-nots.”

Mirantis, of course, has a bit of experience in the distro game. In its earliest iteration, back in 2013, the company offered one of the first major OpenStack distributions, after all.

As for Lens, the new API, which will go live next week to coincide with KubeCon, will enable developers to extend the service with support for other Kubernetes-integrated components and services.

“Extensions API will unlock collaboration with technology vendors and transform Lens into a fully featured cloud native development IDE that we can extend and enhance without limits,” said Miska Kaipiainen, the co-founder of the Lens open-source project and senior director of engineering at Mirantis. “If you are a vendor, Lens will provide the best channel to reach tens of thousands of active Kubernetes developers and gain distribution to your technology in a way that did not exist before. At the same time, the users of Lens enjoy quality features, technologies and integrations easier than ever.”

The company has already lined up a number of popular CNCF projects and vendors in the cloud-native ecosystem to build integrations. These include Kubernetes security vendors Aqua and Carbonetes, API gateway maker Ambassador Labs and AIOps company Carbon Relay. Venafi, nCipher, Tigera, Kong and StackRox are also currently working on their extensions.

“Introducing an extensions API to Lens is a game-changer for Kubernetes operators and developers, because it will foster an ecosystem of cloud-native tools that can be used in context with the full power of Kubernetes controls, at the user’s fingertips,” said Viswajith Venugopal, StackRox software engineer and developer of KubeLinter. “We look forward to integrating KubeLinter with Lens for a more seamless user experience.”

Read More

Posted on

Stark raises $1.5M for a toolkit that helps developers and others create more inclusive design

Diversity and inclusion are slowly, slowly moving away from being an afterthought (or worse, a no-thought) in the tech world. And to underscore the new attention the area is getting — in every aspect of the concept — today a startup that’s building tools to help designers and developers make their end products more accessible to people with visual impairments is announcing some funding.

Stark, a New York-based startup that lets designers others building with design software run their files through an integrated tool that checks it and provides color edits and other suggestions to help them meet guidelines for people who see less well, has picked up $1.5 million.

Stark plans to use the funding to continue building integrations into commonly-used design apps and create integrations for developers (where it will read and provide guidance on code: next up is a Github integration), and continue building out its business with expanded pricing and usage tiers.

Currently, users can use plugins of Stark on Figma, Sketch & Adobe XD that let them access a Contrast Checker, Smart Color Suggestions, 8 Colorblind Simulations, a Colorblind Generator, and Rapid Contrast Checking (on Adobe XD).

Longer term, the plan is to build and end-to-end platform and to address inclusivity for other kinds of needs beyond visual impairments, and, since accessibility can come in physical forms, too, to consider more than just software, and to create more ways to automatically correct details.

As Cat Noone — the now-European-based CEO who co-founded the company with Michael Fouquet (the team is working remotely, she said) — describes it, the ambition is to “become the Grammarly for accessibility in software.”

The funding, a pre-seed round, is coming from a wide and interesting group of backers. It was led by Daniel Darling and Pascal Unger from Darling Ventures, with participation also from Jason Warner, the CTO of Github; Indicator Ventures; Kleiner Perkins’ Scout Fund; and Basecamp Ventures. Individual backers include the product lead for accessibility at Atlassian, the director of equitable design & impact at Culture Amp, a director of design at DuckDuckGo, a former VP of software development at Oracle, and more.

Part of the reason that Stark has gotten attention from all of these investors is because of its traction.

Early versions of the software have been out for eight months now, in the form of the plugins for Sketch, Adobe XD and Figma, and in that time it’s clocked up 300,000 users, mostly designers, engineers, and product managers across those three design platforms, with current customers including people from Microsoft, Oscar Health, US Bank, Instagram, Pfizer, Volkswagen, Dropbox and more.

It also has 10,000 people in its “community”, which includes people engaging with Stark more directly (rather than just using its plugins), on platforms like Slack, getting its newsletter and more.

Diversity and inclusion have been in the headlines this year, which is good news, even if the reason for it has been not so good — the sorry state of how minorities are treated by law enforcement. Partly because of the profile of those incidents and the subsequent protests, much of the world has associated the concept of D&I very closely with racial inclusion. While that story continues to unfold (and we hopefully continue see more positive and sustained efforts to address it), the kind of diversity and inclusion Stark is addressing is of a different sort.

It’s a logical, if often overlooked area: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that (as of 2018) around one in every four adults in the U.S. alone live with some form of disability (a figure that doesn’t count children), with the biggest of these being cognitive disabilities. This essentially means that while a lot of design (and tech in general) is not really built to address this wider group, it’s a very sizable market.

At a time when technology is regularly made out to be the bad guy — and the reasons are many, touching on mental health; physical health; and economic, environmental, civil and legal impacts — designing software and hardware that is more inclusive could go a very long way in bridging some of those gaps that tech has created with (and within) society.

“We’re talking about the largest minority group in the U.S.,” Noone said. “You wouldn’t build a building today without a wheelchair ramp, so why aren’t we accounting for those individuals in our software design?”

Noone said that she and Fouquet originally landed on the idea of Stark when they were doing some work for another firm, building an emergency services app that would get used by the elderly. They built a very early version of the tool for themselves to use in that work. Showing it to others, they found people asking if they could use it, too. “And then it just kind of snowballed,” she said.

She then said that she found herself going down a “rabbit hole into the world of design and accessibility” and realised that not only were there no tools really built to address this out there, but that there was “so much more to the problem than colors.” (Colors was where Stark started, hence the great name.)

There is an interesting stick and carrot in the bigger market with things like inclusive design: for some it might be an issue of having to comply, others simply believe it’s the right thing to do, while yet others may not care but (rather cynically) believe being inclusive is a good look. Whatever the motivation is, the trick with Stark is that it’s making it easy to be inclusive for more people, and lowering the barrier at the end of the day can only be a good thing.

“No software product should exclude a disadvantaged minority of their users. It’s bad for business and bad for society,” said Darling in a statement. “We’re seeing dramatic increasing awareness amongst software designers, developers and executives to ship products that are universally accessible. Stark has quickly earned the trust of the industry and is on a path to become an important part of software infrastructure. We’re thrilled to partner with such a mission driven company that is already improving how software is produced around the world.”​

Read More

Posted on

The No-Code Generation is arriving

In the distant past, there was a proverbial “digital divide” that bifurcated workers into those who knew how to use computers and those who didn’t.[1] Young Gen Xers and their later millennial companions grew up with Power Macs and Wintel boxes, and that experience made them native users on how to make these technologies do productive work. Older generations were going to be wiped out by younger workers who were more adaptable to the needs of the modern digital economy, upending our routine notion that professional experience equals value.

Of course, that was just a narrative. Facility with using computers was determined by the ability to turn it on and login, a bar so low that it can be shocking to the modern reader to think that a “divide” existed at all. Software engineering, computer science, and statistics remained quite unpopular compared to other academic programs, even in universities, let alone in primary through secondary schools. Most Gen Xers and millennials never learned to code, or frankly, even to make a pivot table or calculate basic statistical averages.

There’s a sociological change underway though, and it’s going to make the first divide look quaint in hindsight.

Over the past two or so years, we have seen the rise of a whole class of software that has been broadly (and quite inaccurately) dubbed “no-code platforms.” These tools are designed to make it much easier for users to harness the power of computing in their daily work. That could be everything from calculating the most successful digital ad campaigns given some sort of objective function, or perhaps integrating a computer vision library into a workflow that calculates the number of people entering or exiting a building.

The success and notoriety of these tools comes from the feeling that they grant superpowers to their users. Projects that once took a team of engineers some hours to build can now be stitched together in a couple of clicks through a user interface. That’s why young startups like Retool can raise at nearly a $1 billion and Airtable at $2.6 billion, while others like Bildr, Shogun, Bubble, Stacker, and dozens more are getting traction among users.

Of course, no-code tools often require code, or at least, the sort of deductive logic that is intrinsic to coding. You have to know how to design a pivot table, or understand what a machine learning capability is and what might it be useful for. You have to think in terms of data, and about inputs, transformations, and outputs.

The key here is that no-code tools aren’t successful just because they are easier to use — they are successful because they are connecting with a new generation who understands precisely the sort of logic required by these platforms to function. Today’s students don’t just see their computers and mobile devices as consumption screens and have the ability to turn them on. They are widely using them as tools of self-expression, research and analysis.

Take the popularity of platforms like Roblox and Minecraft. Easily derided as just a generation’s obsession with gaming, both platforms teach kids how to build entire worlds using their devices. Even better, as kids push the frontiers of the toolsets offered by these games, they are inspired to build their own tools. There has been a proliferation of guides and online communities to teach kids how to build their own games and plugins for these platforms (Lua has never been so popular).

These aren’t tiny changes. 150 million play Roblox games across 40 million user-created experiences, and the platform has nearly 350,000 developers. Minecraft for its part has more than 130 million active users. These are generation-defining experiences for young people today.

That excitement to harness computers is also showing up in educational data. Advanced Placement tests for Computer Science have grown from around 20,000 in 2010 to more than 70,000 this year according to the College Board, which administers the high school proficiency exams. That’s the largest increase among all of the organization’s dozens of tests. Meanwhile at top universities, computer science has emerged as the top or among the top majors, pulling in hundreds of new students per campus per year.

The specialized, almost arcane knowledge of data analysis and engineering is being widely democratized for this new generation, and that’s precisely where a new digital divide is emerging.

In business today, it’s not enough to just open a spreadsheet and make some casual observations anymore. Today’s new workers know how to dive into systems, pipe different programs together using no-code platforms, and answer problems with much more comprehensive — and real-time — answers.

It’s honestly striking to see the difference. Whereas just a few years ago, a store manager might (and strong emphasis on might) put their sales data into Excel and then let it linger there for the occasional perusal, this new generation is prepared to connect multiple online tools together to build an online storefront (through no-code tools like Shopify or Squarespace), calculate basic LTV scores using a no-code data platform, and prioritize their best customers with marketing outreach through basic email delivery services. And it’s all reproducible, since it is in technology and code and not produced by hand.

There are two important points here. First is to note the degree of fluency these new workers have for these technologies, and just how many members of this generation seem prepared to use them. They just don’t have the fear to try new programs out, and they know they can always use search engines to find answers to problems they are having.

Second, the productivity difference between basic computer literacy and a bit more advanced expertise is profound. Even basic but accurate data analysis on a business can raise performance substantially compared to gut instinct and expired spreadsheets.

This second digital divide is only going to get more intense. Consider students today in school, who are forced by circumstance to use digital technologies in order to get their education. How many more students are going to become even more capable of using these technologies? How much more adept are they going to be at remote work? While the current educational environment is a travesty and deeply unequal, the upshot is that ever more students are going to be forced to become deeply fluent in computers.[2]

Progress in many ways is about raising the bar. This generation is raising the bar on how data is used in the workplace, in business, and in entrepreneurship. They are better than ever at bringing together various individual services and cohering them into effective experiences for their customers, readers, and users. The No-Code Generation has the potential to finally fill that missing productivity gap in the global economy, making our lives better while saving time for everyone.

[1] Probably worth pointing out that the other “digital divide” at the time was describing households who had internet access and households who did not. That’s a divide that unfortunately still plagues America and many other rich, industrialized countries.

[2] Important to note that access to computing is still an issue for many students and represents one of the most easily fixable inequalities today in America. Providing equal access to computing should be an absolute imperative.

Read More

Posted on

The RIAA is coming for the YouTube downloaders

In ye olden days of piracy, RIAA takedown notices were a common thing — I received a few myself. But that’s mostly fallen off as tracking pirates has gotten more difficult. But the RIAA can still issue nastygrams — to the creators of software that could potentially be used to violate copyright, like YouTube downloaders.

One such popular tool used by many developers, YouTube-DL, has been removed from GitHub for the present after an RIAA threat, as noted by Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Parker Higgins earlier today.

This is a different kind of takedown notice than the ones we all remember from the early 2000s, though. Those were the innumerable DMCA notices that said “your website is hosting such-and-such protected content, please take it down.” And they still exist, of course, but lots of that has become automated, with sites like YouTube removing infringing videos before they even go public.

What the RIAA has done here is demand that YouTube -DL be taken down because it violates Section 1201 of U.S. copyright law, which basically bans stuff that gets around DRM. “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.”

That’s so it’s illegal not just to distribute, say, a bootleg Blu-ray disc, but also to break its protections and duplicate it in the first place.

If you stretch that logic a bit, you end up including things like YouTube-DL, which is a command-line tool that takes in a YouTube URL and points the user to the raw video and audio, which of course have to be stored on a server somewhere. With the location of the file that would normally be streamed in the YouTube web player, the user can download a video for offline use or backup.

But what if someone were to use that tool to download the official music video for Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off”? Shock! Horror! Piracy! YouTube-DL enables this, so it must be taken down, they write.

As usual, it only takes a moment to arrive at analogous (or analog) situations that the RIAA has long given up on. For instance, wouldn’t using a screen and audio capture utility accomplish the same thing? What about a camcorder? Or for that matter, a cassette recorder? They’re all used to “circumvent” the DRM placed on Tay’s video by creating an offline copy without the rights-holder’s permission.

Naturally this takedown will do almost nothing to prevent the software, which was probably downloaded and forked thousands of times already, from being used or updated. There are also dozens of sites and apps that do this — and the RIAA by the logic in this letter may very well take action against them as well.

Of course, the RIAA is bound by duty to protect against infringement, and one can’t expect it to stand by idly as people scrape official YouTube accounts to get high-quality bootlegs of artists’ entire discographies. But going after the basic tools is like the old, ineffective “Home taping is killing the music industry” line. No one’s buying it. And if we’re going to talk about wholesale theft of artists, perhaps the RIAA should get its own house in order first — streaming services are paying out pennies with the Association’s blessing. (Go buy stuff on Bandcamp instead.)

Tools like YouTube-DL, like cassette tapes, cameras and hammers, are tech that can be used legally or illegally. Fair use doctrines allow tools like these for good-faith efforts like archiving content that might be lost because Google stops caring, or for people who for one reason or another want to have a local copy of some widely available, free piece of media for personal use.

YouTube and other platforms, likewise in good faith, do what they can to make obvious and large-scale infringement difficult. There’s no “download” button next to the latest Top 40 hit, but there are links to buy it, and if I used a copy — even one I’d bought — as background for my own video, I wouldn’t even be able to put it on YouTube in the first place.

Temporarily removing YouTube-DL’s code from GitHub is a short-sighted reaction to a problem that can’t possibly amount to more than a rounding error in the scheme of things. They probably lose more money to people sharing logins. It or something very much like it will be back soon, a little smarter and a little better, making the RIAA’s job that much harder, and the cycle will repeat.

Maybe the creators of Whack-a-Mole will sue the RIAA for infringement on their unique IP.

Read More

Posted on

Sanity, a platform to build and manage content flows on sites, raises $9.3M from Ev Williams, Threshold and more

There are more than 2 billion websites in existence in the world today, millions of apps, and a growing range of digital screens where people and businesses present constantly changing arrays of information to each other. But all that opportunity also has a flip side: how can you say what you want, just how you want to say it, without technical hurdle after hurdle getting in your way?

A startup called Sanity has built a platform to help businesses (and their people) do that more easily with a SaaS platform that lets developers create code and systems to manage content. Now, after picking up some 25,000 customers, from “traditional” publishers like Conde Nast and National Geographic through to hundreds of others like Sonos, Brex, Figma, Cloudflare, Mux, Remarkable, Kleiner Perkins, Tablet Magazine, MIT, Universal Health Services, Eurostar, and Nike, it is announcing funding of $9.3 million to fuel its growth.

The funding, a Series A, is being by Threshold Ventures (the VC formerly known as Draper Fisher Jurvetson, rebranded in 2019 after none of the namesakes remained at the firm), with a really interesting cast others also participating. They include Ev Williams (who knows a thing or two about ‘content’ as the co-founder of Blogger, Twitter and most recently Medium); Adam Gross, ex-CEO of Heroku; Guillermo Rauch, inventor of NextJS and CEO and co-founder of Vercel; Stephanie Friedman (ex-Xamarin and Microsoft); and Monochrome Capital, the new firm launched by Ben Metcalfe (the co-founder of WP Engine, among many other roles).

Heavybit and Alliance Venture, which led its seed round of $2.4 million last year, also participated. Other existing investors include Matthias Biilman and Chris Bach, co-founders of Netlify; Jon Dal CEO and co-founder of Mux; and Edvard Engsæth, co-founder of NURX.

Sanity bills itself as a “content platform”, and the open-ended idea of what that could possibly mean is essentially the essence of what the company is about.

Led by co-founder and CEO Magnus Hillestad, it has crafted a set of tools that can help developers structure how and where content gets created, input and eventually presented to people, with its target audience being any organization or person that might be putting together a digital experience whose content is regularly updated and is not static.

Hillestad said that thinking of content as a separate and dynamic element in digital experiences represents a “paradigm shift” in terms of how the web and other content experiences are developing. The idea, he said, is for an organization “not to be held back by features but to have the code to make the components they want.” He described it as a progression along the same trajectories of “what Twilio did by coming in with APIs for communications, and Figma did with its concept of collaboration.”

While e-commerce has typically been a major customer of such “headless” platforms — they will use services like these to help design and manage the front end, with another service like Shopify to manage the commerce at the back end — it’s actually a basic framework that has been applied to a pretty wide range of use cases at Sanity.

They do include e-commerce experiences, but also companies building interactive tools for customers to look at, mix, and match various light fixtures from a lighting consultancy; more standard publishing services; and for helping tailor materials for emergency medical training services.

These days, the medium, as they say, is the message, and in that regard “publishing” has taken on a new meaning in the digital age. Whereas in the past it only referred to materials prepared for print, such as books, magazines and newspapers, these days it can be any kind of content prepared for the web or any other endpoint where it will not only be “read” but potentially manipulated in some way, and likely also changed by the producers as well. The very un-static nature of that content makes it fun and interesting, but also a pain to manage.

Sanity has a notable origin that speaks to how it has always given a wide berth and prime positioning to the sanctity of content. It was built originally by an agency in Oslo, Norway, as part of a remit to rethink and recast how to present works for a new website for OMA, the architecture firm co-founded by the iconic Dutch designer Rem Koolhaas. 

The information matrix and content management system concept that they put together was strong enough to use the agency to build more sites using the CMS, and eventually the firm spun Sanity out as its own independent firm, founded by Even Westvang, Hillestad, Oyvind Rostad and Simen Svale Skogsrud.

Part of the team, including Hillestad, relocated to the Bay Area to build the startup and integrate it deeper with the bigger tech ecosystem in the region and build out the concept under a SaaS model, while others remained in Oslo.

In its move to the US, Sanity has over the past few years been tapping into a growing market for services to enable those who rely on the web to do business do it in a more creative and dynamic way.

“A decade ago, I co-founded WP Engine with the goal of bringing the power of WordPress to the enterprise and small business buyer,” said Metcalfe in a statement. “Not only are we moving away from monolithic codebases to API-driven services, but the way we think about content is changing; as we create once and expect it to appear across web, apps and even IoT devices. Sanity has reimagined the headless CMS, bringing content closer to the developer where it can exist as the defacto content system of record across an entire organization. With CMS so close to my roots, I couldn’t be more delighted that Sanity is the inaugural investment for Monochrome Capital.”

It is not the only company in this wider area getting a lot of attention. Last week, Shogun — which focuses only on e-commerce and front-end design, raised $35 million. Others include Commercetools, Commerce Layer, Strapi, Contentful, and ContentStack. Sanity stands out partly by keeping its focus wider than e-commerce and by not using the words “content” or “commerce” in its name.

“We’re seeing a tidal wave of companies transform and digitize every aspect of their business, but the tools they use limit their progress,” said Josh Stein, partner, Threshold Ventures, in a statement. “Sanity’s content platform liberates content and content owners by enabling a truly collaborative and customizable experience, while treating content as data to maximize content velocity across all customer touchpoints and surfaces. We’re excited to back the Sanity team and their impressive developer-focused content management platform.”

Stein and Jesse Robbins, a partner at Heavybit, are both joining Sanity’s board of directors with this round.

Read More