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Marc Benioff Sets His Sights on Microsoft

SAN FRANCISCO — Five years ago, Marc Benioff negotiated to sell Salesforce, the software company he co-founded in 1999 and has run ever since, to Microsoft. If the deal had gone through, he would have been richly rewarded — but, in the end, just another employee of the tech colossus.With Tuesday’s news that Salesforce was buying Slack for $27.7 billion, Mr. Benioff did something much more difficult. He is now set to directly compete against Microsoft, one of the world’s most valuable companies, in its own favored territory.Microsoft has been slugging it out with Slack in the pandemic-fueled rush to …

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Salesforce to Acquire Slack for $27.7 Billion

Salesforce, which provides marketing and sales software, among other products, has been highly acquisitive as it looks to grow. Under Mr. Benioff, Salesforce has bought at least 60 companies, including 27 in the last five years, according to S&P Capital IQ.Salesforce stock has climbed nearly 40 percent this year, valuing the company at $220 billion. On Tuesday, it said its revenue rose 20 percent to $5.24 billion in the three months ending with October.In February, Salesforce paid $1.3 billion for Vlocity, a mobile software provider. Last year, it bought Tableau, a data analytics provider, for $15.3 billion; in 2018, it bought MuleSoft, a data integration company, …

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A bug meant Twitter Fleets could still be seen after they disappeared

Twitter is the latest social media site to allow users to experiment with posting disappearing content. Fleets, as Twitter calls them, allows its mobile users post short stories, like photos or videos with overlaying text, that are set to vanish after 24 hours.

But a bug meant that fleets weren’t deleting properly and could still be accessed long after 24 hours had expired. Details of the bug were posted in a series of tweets on Saturday, less than a week after the feature launched.

The bug effectively allowed anyone to access and download a user’s fleets without triggering a notification that the user’s fleet had been read and by whom. The implication is that this bug could be abused to archive a user’s fleets after they expire.

Using an app that’s designed to interact with Twitter’s back-end systems via its developer API. What returned was a list of fleets from the server. Each fleet had its own direct URL, which when opened in a browser would load the fleet as an image or a video. But even after the 24 hours elapsed, the server would still return links to fleets that had already disappeared from view in the Twitter app.

When reached, a Twitter spokesperson said a fix was on the way. “We’re aware of a bug accessible through a technical workaround where some Fleets media URLs may be accessible after 24 hours. We are working on a fix that should be rolled out shortly.”

Twitter acknowledged that the fix means that fleets should now expire properly, it said it won’t delete the fleet from its servers for up to 30 days — and that it may hold onto fleets for longer if they violate its rules. We checked that we could still load fleets from their direct URLs even after they expire.

Fleet with caution.

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Josh.ai launches a ‘nearly invisible’ Amazon Echo competitor that’s the size of a coin

In the past several weeks we’ve seen refreshes and product expansions from about every facet of the smart home virtual assistant world. Apple launched the HomePod Mini, Google offered a long-overdue refresh of the Google Home and Amazon found even more speaker shapes to shove Alexa into.

Today, we’re getting an addition from a startup competitor. Josh.ai has aimed to build out a niche in the space by building a smart assistant product that’s designed to be professionally installed alongside other smart home wares, and they announced a new product this afternoon.

The device, Josh Nano, fully buys into a more luxury home-focused niche with a low-profile device that appears to be a little bit bigger than a half-dollar, though the bulk of the device is embedded into the wall itself and wired back to a central unit via power-over-ethernet. The device bundles a set of four microphones eschewing any onboard speaker, instead opting to integrate directly with a user’s at-home sound system. Josh boasts compatibility with most major AV receiver manufacturers in addition to partnerships with companies like Sonos . There isn’t much else to the device; a light for visual feedback, a multi-purpose touch sensor and a physical switch to cut power to the onboard microphones in case users want extra peace of mind.

Image via Josh.ai

The aim of the new hardware is to hide the smart features of a home and move away from industry-standard touchscreen hubs with dated interfaces. By stripping down a smart home product to its essential feature, Josh.ai hopes it can push more users to buy in more fully with confidence that subsequent hardware releases won’t render their devices outdated and ugly. The startup is taking pre-orders for the device (available in black and white color options) now and hopes to start shipping early next year.

Powering these devices is a product the company calls Josh Core, a small server which basically acts as a hub for everything Josh talks to in a user’s home, ensuring that interactions between smart home devices can occur locally, minimizing external requests. The startup will also continue selling its previously released Josh Micro, which integrates a dedicated speaker into the wall-mounted hardware.

Though Josh.ai partners directly with professional installers on the hardware, the startup has been scaling as a software business, offering consumers a license to their technology on an annual, five-year or lifetime basis. The price of that license also differs depending on what size home they are working with, with “small” rollouts being classified as homes with fewer than 15 rooms. In terms of hardware costs, Josh.ai says that pricing varies, but for most jobs, the average cost for users works out to be something like $500 per room.

Massive tech companies naturally design their products for massive audiences. For startups like Josh.ai this fact provides an in-road to design products that aren’t built for the common needs of a billion users. In fact, the selling point for plenty of their customers comes largely from the fact that they aren’t buying devices from Google, Amazon or Apple and hard-wiring microphones that feed back to them inside their home.

Though 95% of the startup’s business today focuses on residential, going forward, the company is also interested in scaling how their tech can be used in commercial scenarios like conference rooms or even elevators, the startup tells me.

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Bridgefy launches end-to-end encrypted messaging for the app used during protests and disasters

Offline-messaging app Bridgefy — which innovatively uses Bluetooth and Wi-fi — became known as the go-to app by thousands of protesters around the world to keep communications going even when oppressive regimes blocked or shut down the Internet. Recently, activists in Nigeria and Thailand have urged supporters to download the app, as last year, when protesters in Hong Kong downloaded Bridgefy to face the government’s censorship of phone services or data connections. In the last 12 months, the startup says it’s reached 2 million downloads. And since the events of the weekend, when Turkey and Greece were hit by an earthquake, the app is now trending on app stores for those regions.

Bridgefy is now publishing a major new update, with a new, crucial feature for activists: end-to-end encrypted messages. This will allow people to securely send and receive messages when they don’t have access to data and will use the same encryption protocol used by Signal, Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger .

Bridgefy launched in 2014 (and appeared on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage in 2017) when the founders identified the problem of not being able to communicate during the earthquakes in Mexico City. It started as a mobile app, and an SDK was added a few years later so other apps could also work without the Internet. The Bridgefy SDK is now licensed to companies on an annual subscription model, based on user volume and is integrated by more than 40 companies across payments, messaging, gaming, social media, dating, and natural disaster apps. Technically-speaking, its competitors include GoTenna and the moth-ball gathering Firechat, although Bridgefy has become better known in the activist space.

The startup is now raising a Seed round and has already raised $800,000 USD, with investors including Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, Alchemist Accelerator and GAN Ventures.

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TikTok stars got a judge to block Trump’s TikTok ban

TikTok has won another battle in its fight against the Trump administration’s ban of its video-sharing app in the U.S. — or, more accurately in this case, the TikTok community won a battle. On Friday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued an injunction that blocked the restrictions that would have otherwise blocked TikTok from operating in the U.S. on November 12.

This particular lawsuit was not led by TikTok itself, but rather a group of TikTok creators who use the app to engage with their million-plus followers.

According to the court documents, plaintiff Douglas Marland has 2.7 million followers on the app; Alec Chambers has 1.8 million followers; and Cosette Rinab has 2.3 million followers. The creators argued — successfully as it turns out — that they would lose access to their followers in the event of a ban, as well as the “professional opportunities afforded by TikTok.” In other words, they’d lose their brand sponsorships — meaning, their income.

This is not the first time that the U.S. courts have sided with TikTok to block the Trump administration’s proposed ban over the Chinese-owned video sharing app. Last month, a D.C. judge blocked the ban that would have removed the app from being listed in U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google.

That ruling had not, however, stopped the November 12 ban that would have blocked companies from providing internet hosting services that would have allowed TikTok to continue to operate in the U.S.

The Trump administration had moved to block the TikTok app from operating in the U.S. due to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, claiming it was a national security threat. The core argument from the judge in this ruling was the “Government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posed by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical.”

That hypothetical risk was unable to be stated by the government, the judge argued, to be such a risk that it outweighed the public interest. The interest, in this case, was the more than 100 million users of TikTok and the creators like Marland, Chambers and Rinab that utilized it to spread “informational materials,” which allowed the judge to rule that the ban would shut down a platform for expressive activity.

“We are deeply moved by the outpouring of support from our creators, who have worked to protect their rights to expression, their careers, and to help small businesses, particularly during the pandemic,” said Vanessa Pappas, Interim Global Head of TikTok, in a statement. “We stand behind our community as they share their voices, and we are committed to continuing to provide a home for them to do so,” she added.

The TikTok community coming to the rescue on this one aspect of the overall TikTok picture just elevates this whole story. Though the company has been relatively quiet through this whole process, Pappas has thanked the community several times for its outpouring of support. Though there were some initial waves of “grief” on the app with creators frantically recommending people follow them on other platforms, that has morphed over time into more of a “let’s band together” vibe. This activity coalesced around a big swell in voting advocacy on the platform, where many creators are too young to actually participate but view voting messaging as their way to participate.

TikTok has remained active in the product department through the whole mess, shipping elections guides and trying to ban QAnon conspiracy spread, even as Pakistan banned and then un-banned the app.

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Developer productivity tools startup Raycast raises $2.7M from Accel

Workplace SaaS tools for teams have seen rocket ship growth in the past several years, and that adoption has given rise to a host of software tools geared towards improving individual productivity. Many of the startups behind these tools see building a cult following among individual users as the best way to set themselves up for later enterprise-wide success.

Raycast is a developer-focused productivity tool that aims to be the quickest way to get common tasks done. Today, it’s launching into public beta and sharing with TechCrunch that the team has raised new funding from Accel months after graduating from Y Combinator.

The company has closed a $2.7 million seed round led by Accel with participation from YC, Jeff Morris Jr.’s Chapter One fund as well as angel investors Charlie Cheever, Calvin French-Owen and Manik Gupta .

The desktop software takes a note from peers like Superhuman and Command E, allowing users to quickly pull up and modify data with keyboard shortcuts. Users can easily create and re-modify issues in Jira, merge pull requests in Github and find documents. The software is very much a developer-focused version of the Apple’s Spotlight search that aims to help software engineers navigate all of the parts of their job that aren’t development work with a single tool.

Image via Raycast.

Like plenty of workplace tools startups, one of the keys for Raycast is building out a network of extensions that can encompass a user’s workflow. For now, the software supports integrations from Asana, Jira, Zoom, Linear, G Suite, Calendar, Github and Reminders alongside core functionality that can help manage system settings and a calculator that can handle complex math problems. As the startup launches out of public beta, they’re looking to double down on extensions and are rolling out a developer program for early access to their API.

The Mac-only software is free while in public beta, but the company does plan on charging a monthly subscription for the service eventually, though they aren’t quite ready to talk about pricing yet.

Raycast’s team is interested in appealing to individual users for now, but might eventually expand to becoming a teams-level enterprise product that could help onboard new employees faster by quickly orienting them with their office’s software suite, but that’s all a bit down the road, the team says.

“We’re staying focused on single-player mode for a while,” CEO Thomas Paul Mann tells TechCrunch.

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Week in Review: Snapchat strikes back

Hello hello, and welcome back to Week in Review. Last week, I wrote about the possibility of a pending social media detente, this week I’m talking about a rising threat to Facebook’s biz.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here. And while I have you, my colleague Megan Rose Dickey officially launched her new TechCrunch newsletter, Human Capital! It covers labor and diversity and inclusion in tech, go subscribe!


Image: TechCrunch

First off, let me tell you how hard it was to resist writing about Quibi this week, but those takes came in very hot the second that news dropped, and I wrote a little bit about it here already. All I will say, is that while Quibi had its own unique mobile problems, unless Apple changes course or dumps a ton of money buying up content to fill its back library, I think TV+ is next on the chopping block.

This week, I’m digging into another once-maligned startup, though this one has activated quite the turnaround in the last two years. Snap, maker of Snapchat, delivered a killer earnings report this week and as a result, investors deemed to send the stock price soaring. Its market cap has nearly doubled since the start of September and it’s clear that Wall Street actually believes that Snap could meaningfully increase its footprint and challenge Facebook.

The company ended the week with a market cap just short of $65 billion, still a far cry from Facebook $811 billion, but looking quite a bit better than it was in early 2019 when it was worth about one-tenth of what it is today. All of a sudden, Snap has a new challenge, living up to high expectations.

The company shared that in Q3, it delivered $679 million in reported revenue, representing 52% year-over-year growth. The company currently has 249 million daily active users, up 4% over last quarter.

Facebook will report its Q3 earnings next week, but they’re still in a different ballpark for the time being, even if their market cap is just around 12 times Snap’s, their quarterly revenue from Q2 was about 28 times higher than what Snap just reported. Meanwhile, Facebook has 1.79 billion daily actives, just about 7 times Snapchat’s numbers.

Snap has spent an awful lot of time proving the worth of features they’ve been pushing for years, but the company’s next challenge might be diversifying their future. The company has been flirting with augmented reality for years, waiting patiently for the right moment to expand its scope, but Snap hasn’t had the luxury of diverting resources away from efforts that don’t send users back to its core product. Some of its biggest launches of 2020 have been embeddable mini apps for things like ordering movie tickets or bite-sized social games that bring even more social opportunities into chat.

Snap’s laser focus here has obviously been a big part of its recovery, but as expectations grow, so will demands that the company moves more boldly into extending its empire. I don’t think Snapchat needs to buy Trader Joe’s or its own ISP quite yet, but working towards finding its next platform will prevent the service from settling for Twitter-sized ambitions and give them a chance at finding a more expansive future.


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Trends of the Week

These next few weeks are guaranteed to be dominated by U.S. election news, so enjoy the diversity of news happenings out there while it lasts…

Quibi is dead
Few companies that have raised so much money have appeared quite dead-on-arrival as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile video startup Quibi. This week, the company made the decision to shut down operations and call it quits. More here.

Pakistan unbans TikTok
It appears that the cascading threat of country-by-country TikTok bans has stopped for now. This week, TikTok was unblocked in Pakistan with the government warning the company that it needed to actively monitor content or it would face a permanent ban. Read more here.

Facebook Dating arrives in Europe
Facebook Dating hasn’t done much to unseat Tinder stateside, but the service didn’t even get the chance to test its luck in Europe due to some regulatory issues relating to its privacy practices. Now, it seems Facebook has landed in the tentative good graces of regulatory bodies and has gotten the go ahead to launch the service in a number of European countries. Read more here.

Until next week,

Lucas M.

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Kite adds support for 11 new languages to its AI code completion tool

When Kite, the well-funded AI-driven code completion tool, launched in 2019, its technology looked very impressive, but it only supported Python at the time. Earlier this year, it also added JavaScript and today, it is launching support for 11 new languages at once.

The new languages are Java, Kotlin, Scala, C/C++, Objective C, C#, Go, Typescript, HTML/CSS and Less. Kite works in most popular development environments, including the likes of VS Code, JupyterLab, Vim, Sublime and Atom, as well as all Jetbrains IntelliJ-based IDEs, including Android Studio.

This will make Kite a far more attractive solution for a lot of developers. Currently, the company says, it saves its most active developers from writing about 175 “words” of code every day. One thing that always made Kite stand out is that it ranks its suggestions by relevance — not alphabetically as some of its non-AI driven competitors do. To build its models, Kite fed its algorithms code from GitHub .

The service is available as a free download for Windows users and as a server-powered paid enterprise version with a larger deep learning model that consequently offers more AI smarts, as well as the ability to create custom models. The paid version also includes support for multi-line code completion, while the free version only supports line-of-code completions.

Kite notes that in addition to adding new languages, Kite also spent the last year focusing on the user experience, which should now be less distracting and, of course, offer more relevant completions.

Image Credits: Kite

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What Is Happening With the Antitrust Suit Against Google?

The Justice Department sued Google on Tuesday, accusing the company of illegally abusing its dominance in internet search in ways that harm competitors and consumers.

The suit is the first antitrust action against the company, owned by Alphabet, to result from investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and 50 states and territories. State attorneys general and federal officials have also been investigating Google’s behavior in the market for online advertising. And a group of states is exploring a broader search case against Google.

Here is what you need to know about the suit.

This is one step against a single company. But it is also a response to the policy question of what measures, if any, should be taken to curb today’s tech giants, which hold the power to shape markets, communication and even public opinion.

Politics steered the timing and shape of this suit. Attorney General William P. Barr wanted to move quickly to take action before the election, making good on President Trump’s pledge to take on Big Tech. Eleven states joined the suit.

This is a monopoly defense case. The government says that Google is illegally protecting its dominant position in the market for search and search advertising with the deals it has struck with companies like Apple. Google pays Apple billions of dollars a year to have its search engine set as the default option on iPhones and other devices.

The Justice Department is also challenging contracts Google has with smartphone makers that use Google’s Android operating system, requiring them to install its search engine as the default.

The Justice Department also investigated Google’s behavior and acquisitions in the overall market for digital advertising, which includes search, web display and video ads. Online advertising was the source of virtually all of Alphabet’s $34 billion in profit last year.

But the search case is the most straightforward, giving the government its best chance to win. To prevail, the Justice Department has to show two things — that Google is dominant in search, and that its deals with Apple and other companies hobble competition in the search market.

In short: We’re not dominant and competition on the internet is just “one click away.”

That is the essence of recent testimony in Congress by Google executives. Google’s share of the search market in the United States is about 80 percent. But looking only at the market for “general” search, the company says, is myopic. Nearly half of online shopping searches, it notes, begin on Amazon.

Next, Google says the deals the Justice Department is citing are entirely legal. Such company-to-company deals violate antitrust law only if they can be shown to exclude competition. Users can freely switch to other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo Search, anytime they want, Google insists. Its search service, Google says, is the runaway market leader because people prefer it.

Consumer harm, the government argues, can result in several ways. Less competition in a market means less innovation and less consumer choice in the long run. That, in theory, could close the market to rivals that collect less data for targeted advertising than Google. Enhanced privacy, for example, would be a consumer benefit.

Goods that are free to consumers are not exempt from antitrust oversight. In the landmark Microsoft case of the late 1990s, the software giant bundled its web browser for free into its dominant Windows operating system. Microsoft lost because, using restrictive contracts, it bullied personal computer makers and others to try to prevent them from offering competing web browser software — competition that could have undermined the Windows monopoly.

Unless the government and Google reach a settlement, they’re headed to court. Trials and appeals in such cases can take years.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Google will face continued scrutiny for a long time.