Author - badsha

Ford becomes the latest automotive giant to work with Lyft on self-driving cars

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Unlike Uber and China’s Didi, Lyft isn’t developing its own self-driving cars. But the U.S. company sure is signing up major names to help it bridge the gap.

This week it announced Ford as its latest autonomous car partner. Ford joins big names Jaguar, GM and Alphabet’s Waymo as well startups Nutonomy and Drive.ai as Lyft allies.

Recently recognized as top of the industry when it comes to self-driving cars, Ford said recently that it is committed to working with partners to bring its vehicles to market in ways that actually help consumers. One such early partner is Dominos Pizza — because self-driving cars for pizza deliveries… — while has been testing the social aspect of self-driving cars through an interesting trial that featured a man driving a car while disguised as a seat.

Taxis is an obvious areas for the company to push into, but there isn’t likely to be any immediate impact. The duo appear to be taking a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ approach.

That’s according to a blog post from Ford’s Sherif Marakby — who heads up autonomous and electric vehicles within the automotive giant — which also appeared to pour shade on Uber, which is also his former employer:

Some view the opportunity with self-driving vehicles as a race to be first. But we are focusing our efforts on building a service based around actual people’s needs and wants. We are placing a high priority on safety and dependability so customers will trust the experience that our self-driving technology will one day enable.

2017 has been a year of progress for Lyft, achieved in no small measure thanks to a series of disasters for Uber.

Lyft reached one million daily rides in July and, while that lags Uber’s daily average of 5.5 million worldwide, data reported by Bloomberg weeks later suggested that Lyft is actually growing faster than its rival.

Revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace, former CEO Travis Kalanick being caught of video berating a driver, and the use of a controversial greyball program to side-step law enforcement officials are among the disasters that eventual led to Kalanick quitting the company in June.

Featured Image: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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Revolut launches cell phone insurance in the U.K.

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Fintech startup Revolut is trying so many things at once that it’s hard to keep track of everything. This time, the company is partnering with Simplesurance to launch a new insurance product. You can now insure your cell phone for £1 per week/£42 per year, which represents $1.35 per week/$56.50 per year.

Most telecom companies already provide cell phone insurance options. But they tend to be more expensive than Revolut’s offering in the U.K. Revolut already talked about launching phone insurance, but today marks the launch of this new product.

Revolut’s insurance covers accidental, water and operational damage everywhere around the world. It covers cracked screen and you can start insuring your device as long as your phone is less than six months old. You can usually get it repaired or replaced in less than 48 hours.

Revolut asks you the device you’re using. So it sounds like it could get a bit more expensive than this price tag with super premium phones.

Revolut is going to take advantage of its app to sign up new users to this new product. You can sign up directly from the company’s app and Revolut Premium users will get a 20 percent discount. Unfortunately, you have to contact Simplesurance directly if you want to find a claim.

Under the hood, Simplesurance and Revolut work with Allianz Worldwide Partners. Simplesurance usually works with other companies to provide B2B insurance products.

But you can also sign up to a similar phone insurance product on Simplesurance’s consumer website. Simplesurance operates in dozens of countries. So Revolut users in other countries can expect to see today’s new insurance product in the future.

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Hoop app for millennial parents secures £2.4M in a round led by BGF Ventures

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You’d think that parents being able to find stuff for their kids to do would have been a solved problem by now, but apparently not. Indeed, the trend is towards more on-demand content on phones in this area which is why the Sawyer, based out of New York managed to close a round of financing recently, that included the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The trend has now hit the UK with Hoop, the family app that “helps parents discover and book what’s on for their kids” securing £2.4 million in a round led by BGF Ventures, the UK-focused fund. Other investors include ustwo, the company behind hit game Monument Valley.

The key to their interest is that Hoop is aimed at parents with children 11yrs and under. In other words, ‘late millennials’ who now have kids. They tend to be more demanding of their services and won’t sit on Google for hours searching for activities. They live in an on-demand world.

Hoop appeals to them because it takes privacy seriously (users are asked only for their postcode and also the age, rather than the date of birth, of their children); it uses an app to allow for location-based searching by time, distance from home and age; and there are of course lots of social features.

Launched in London in 2016, Hoop is rapidly expanding across the country with over 600,000 users and 50,000 different activities each month. The app was picked as one of Apple’s Top 10 apps in 2016 and was started by the entrepreneurs behind VoucherCodes.

Even in 2017 there’s little aggregation of information on children’s events, activities, and classes. Parents and carers have to check a variety of online listings, noticeboards and council websites, while looking out for posters and flyers in public places like coffee shops and libraries. I’m sure parents will find this a familiar scenario.

Hoop helps families discover fun things they’ll love to do in a few taps. Through personalized lists of events and classes, Hoop identifies those activities best suited for children based on their age, location, and interests. From local baby and toddler groups and family concerts to drama classes and creative workshops.

Launched in 2016 in London, Hoop has rapidly expanded this year to cover the whole of Britain, now listing more than 50,000 different activities each month. With 600,000 parents using the app, businesses that run activities for children have a digital marketing platform to reach new customers. Hoop taps into the multi-billion pound market for family activities and was founded by the entrepreneurs behind VoucherCodes, Europe’s largest coupon business, acquired by a US voucher business in 2011.

The app responds to the needs of a new generation of parents that manage their life on a smartphone.

Daniel Bower, co-founder of Hoop, says: “We believe that the influence of smartphones on modern families is going to increase significantly in the next few years as more Millennials become parents for the first time. This new generation of parents blend technology seamlessly into their lives and are confident using apps to manage their day to day life. They have grown up using Deliveroo, Uber and WhatsApp to organise their lives, and want to manage their family time in the same way, expecting information to be accessible at a moment’s notice.”

He says Millennial parents value experiences and activities more than accumulating items, hence why experience apps will win.

Harry Briggs, partner at BGF Ventures, said: “Hoop is far and away the best mobile app for solving the age-old question of “What shall we do with the children that’s fun, interesting and doesn’t break the bank?”. Hoop is one of those rare teams who not only have the talent and focus to build a revolutionary product, but are also on a mission to make family time more rewarding on a global scale. We’re incredibly excited to be joining them on that journey.”

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Signal update keeps your address book secret, keeps it safe

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No one would use a secure messaging service like Signal if you couldn’t find out who else was on it — but how can you trust Signal and others not to snoop when you submit your contacts for it to check against its list of users? You shouldn’t have to — it should be impossible. That’s the intention of an update to the app that makes contact discovery even more private.

It’s not that Signal or someone else was collecting this info to begin with — it’s encrypted the whole way, so really it’s already pretty safe. But say Signal were to be hacked or secretly taken over by the NSA. If this evil-twin Signal looked really closely, it could probably figure out who certain users were searching for monitoring for known hashes. That info could be used to de-anonymize users.

Moxie Marlinspike (Open Whisper Systems) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017

Signal’s Moxie Marlinspike, who hinted at this upcoming feature at Disrupt last week, writes up the team’s approach to making sure that even that far-flung possibility is impossible.

The technical details I’ll leave to him to explain for obvious reasons, but the gist is this: Conceivably, Signal’s servers could be surreptitiously logging every tiny action being taken, from which user info is being accessed to the exact location in memory where a response is written.

Think of it like this: Even if what someone is reading or writing is hidden from you, if you watch closely you can tell where the pencil is and what movements it’s making. If you know the list is alphabetical, and that the first name is X letters long, that narrows it down considerably.

This kind of ultra-low-level attack, on the level of RAM monitoring and so on, has to be considered or you risk underestimating your adversary.

Fortunately, fast becoming a standard in chips is a “secure enclave” that can perform certain operations or store certain data that’s inaccessible to the rest of the OS. Apple has one for Touch ID and Face ID, for instance, so the rest of the OS never sees your biometric information — and therefore can’t give it up to hackers or three-letter agencies.

By using this enclave and carefully manicuring its technique in querying the main database, Marlinspike and the team made it possible for users to check their address book against the main Signal list without anyone but the users themselves seeing the list or results. The enclave also checks to make sure Signal’s servers are running the code they’re supposed to be.

There are still a few opportunities for this hypothetical evil Signal to snoop, but they’re decidedly limited — much more so than before. That reduces the amount of trust you have to place in them — though you still need to trust the secure enclave, the encryption method, and so on. But the fewer links in the trust chain, the better.

This feature hasn’t rolled out to everyone yet; it’s still a “beta technology preview,” but is planned to roll out after testing in the next couple of months.

Featured Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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Following AWS, Google Compute Engine also moves to per-second billing

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A week ago, AWS announced that it would soon move to per-second billing for users of its EC2 service. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise, then, that Google today announced a very similar move.

Google Compute Engine, Container Engine, Cloud Dataproc, and App Engine’s flexible environment virtual machines (VMs) will now feature per-second billing, starting immediately (AWS users still have to wait until October 2). This new pricing scheme extends to preemptible machines and VMs that run premium operating systems, including Windows Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Enterprise Linux Server. With that, it one-ups AWS, which only offers per-second billing for basic Linux instances and not for Windows Server and other Linux distributions on its platform that currently feature a separate hourly charge.

Like AWS, Google will charge for a minimum of one minute.

It’s worth noting that Google already featured per-second billing for its Persistent Disks, GPUs and committed use discounts.

While Google argues that, for most use cases, per-second billing will only result in very small billing changes, the company also notes there are plenty of applications where being able to quickly scale up and down makes a lot of sense (websites, mobile apps and data processing jobs, for example).

“This is probably why we haven’t heard many customers asking for per-second,” Paul Nash, Group Product Manager for Compute Engine, writes in today’s announcement. “But, we don’t want to make you choose between your morning coffee and your core hours, so we’re pleased to bring per-second billing to your VMs, with a one-minute minimum.”

So while Google doesn’t quite come out and say it, this is clearly a reaction to Amazon’s move, even though the company mostly sees it as another checkbox in a feature comparison between the two cloud computing services.

So what about Microsoft?

So far, Microsoft hasn’t made a similar move. “With Azure Container Instances we’ve actually led the way for per-second billing, with a service that spins up in seconds and spins down in seconds, we realized it was incredibly critical to give customers this granularity in costs,” Corey Sanders, Microsoft’s head of product for Azure Compute, told me at the Microsoft Ignite conference when I asked him about his company’s plans. “I’m excited to see other clouds follow suit and offer customers the best flexibility for their pricing.”

As for regular virtual machines, Sanders stayed on message and noted that Microsoft wanted to focus on containers because it’s there that per-second billing makes the most sense. “We’re always looking to improve billing constructs across our platform and to make it easier and more agile for our customers to use,” he said. I’d be very surprised if Microsoft didn’t make a move to also check the per-second billing checkbox in the near future, though.

Featured Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Google suddenly removes YouTube access from the Amazon Echo Show

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YouTube pulled a no-show on Amazon’s Echo Show today.

Google pulled the video service from the smart speaker this afternoon, a move Amazon doesn’t seem too happy about. Echo Show owners weren’t given any advance warning previous to the removal.

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the service had been pulled in a statement, also implying that the move came as a surprise to them.

Google made a change today around 3 pm. YouTube used to be available to our shared customers on Echo Show. As of this afternoon, Google has chosen to no longer make YouTube available on Echo Show, without explanation and without notification to customers. There is no technical reason for that decision, which is disappointing and hurts both of our customers.

In a statement given to The Verge, which first reported the removal, Google contradicts the Amazon statement, saying that they’ve been working with the company, but that the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates the service’s ToS.

We’ve been in negotiations with Amazon for a long time, working towards an agreement that provides great experiences for customers on both platforms. Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates our terms of service, creating a broken user experience. We hope to be able to reach an agreement and resolve these issues soon.

We’ve reached out to Google for more information.

For the time being the messaging coming out from both companies is pretty contradictory, but Google’s statement inspires some hope that YouTube will be returning to the Echo Show if Amazon deigns to make the changes that Google allegedly wants them to. Amazon probably doesn’t have much of a choice here, losing YouTube would be a pretty massive blow to the company’s only smart speaker with a screen.

A more pronounced war between Amazon and Google wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone given the essential services both companies offer, but given the interconnectedness of the companies best interests suggest this would be pretty unlikely.

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Alibaba’s Ant Financial partners with Hutchison to develop its Alipay service in Hong Kong

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Ant Financial, the Alibaba affiliate that operates payment service Alipay and other digital finance products, has continued its Asia expansion with a move into Hong Kong.

Alipay and Alibaba’s MyBank digital bank dominate in China, where they are used by over 450 million consumers, and this year Ant has broadened its presence with deals in Southeast Asia, Korea and India.

The idea is to recreated the Alipay services stack — digital payments, banking and other financial services — across Asian markets whilst working with partners to ensure that the content and offerings are tailored with local consumers.

Now it is turning to Hong Kong through a partnership with telecom giant CK Hutchison. The two will form a joint venture that will operate the ‘AlipayHK’ service which was first introduced to Hong Kong last year.

Beyond helping the digital payment app become more widely accepted in Hong Kong — where it is already covered by 4,000 retailers, the companies said — the joint venture will work to offer additional services, including insurance, loyalty programs, offers and more. The digital payment landscape is already competitive, so going above and beyond the basics is one approach to standing out and attracting users.

Featured Image: Andrey Pavlov/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

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Kik raises nearly $100M in highest profile ICO to date

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The highest profile ICOs from a consumer internet company to date has come to a close after messaging app Kik raised nearly $100 million from its token sale.

The exact amount is 168,732 ETH — around $47.5 million based on today’s $282 ETH price — came from over 10,000 backers. Combined with $50 million raised in a pre-sale for institutional investors the grand total is around $97.5 million.

The Canada-based startup initially planned to raise as much as $125 million from backers, but it elected for a sale system that imposed a purchase cap on buyers of its ‘Kin’ token. Although unclaimed tokens were resold, it was never likely to sell out to the full amount. Added to that, Kik opted to prevent Canada-based individuals from taking part after regulators deemed its token to be a security, which didn’t help its cause.

Still though CEO Ted Livingston said the sale was a success.

“We are really excited,” he told TechCrunch. “If you had told me back in January that we would sell $100 million of a new cryptocurrency in September, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

ICOs, also known as token sales, are a wild west right. Companies have used them to raise over $1.7 billion this year but investors are concerned at the potential for scams and less legitimate offerings. Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, Pantera Capital’s Dan Morehead — whose firm runs a $100 million fund dedicated to ICOs — cautioned that the space is even more speculative than the dot-com era, with more than 60 token sales happening each week.

At nearly 10 years old, and with 15 million monthly users and a valuation of more than $1 billion, Kik stands out as the highest profile ICO company to date — but the token sale itself is also notable because Kik chose against additional VC financing.

The goal is audacious. Livingston previously explained in some detail that the aim is to develop a decentralized ecosystem that is not reliant on revenue from advertising or e-commerce. Instead, developers earn Kin tokens based on interactivity and attention from users, the idea then being that they develop Kik apps and bots that focus only on the user experience.

As I wrote earlier this month, it is likely to be a case study for how consumer internet companies can embrace the blockchain regardless of the success of the project. With the money now banked, Kik needs to get to work and make good on its vision.

Featured Image: Kik

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Oculus will start refunding users for bad VR content

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Oculus wants people to keep buying VR content, but one bad experience with an overpriced piece of crap game can rub a user the wrong way.

Today, the company announced that they’re putting formal processes in place for users to get refunds for VR content that didn’t meet their expectations.

There are obviously stipulations, the major one being that for Rift titles you must have purchased the titles within the last two weeks and can’t have dropped more than two hours into it. For Samsung Gear VR content, it’s a lot tighter. Users can’t exceed 30 minutes of playtime and have to have purchased the title within the past three days. The refund policy also will not apply to movies, bundles or in-app purchases.

Users can request refunds through the purchase history page.

People have been saying VR has a problem with content quantity and quality, and while the former definitely appears to be getting solved as time goes on, the latter is a bit trickier. It isn’t in anybody’s best interest for people to download a game, have an awful experience and then grow discouraged from investing in future content. For Oculus, the content team has to get people comfortable with paying for high quality stuff.

Nevertheless this is all a bit complicated for developers. Users who drop $20 on a title expecting what they’d get from a comparable console game are never going to be pleased with VR. The market is so much smaller that unless devs have substantial VC subsidization, the margins aren’t going to allow them to basically give away content their teams labored away on. I would expect some backlash from developers, especially regarding the length of time users can play a game before deciding they don’t want to keep it.

The new refund policy is live now, the company details that the process should take no more than five days to initiate a refund if the request is eligible.

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The Inside, a maker of so-called fast furniture, lands $1.5 million from Forerunner

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Seventeen years ago, Christiane Lemieux created DwellStudio, a popular catalog and e-retailer that built one brick-and-mortar store in SoHo before getting acquired for undisclosed terms in 2013 by the online store Wayfair.

Now, she’s back with The Inside, a two-person, New York-based direct-to-consumer home decor brand that’s creating fashionable made-to-order furniture, and which just raised $1.5 million from renowned e-commerce investor Kirsten Green and her firm, Forerunner Ventures.

The items, which are made of wood and foam and made-to-order printed fabric, are priced around $300 on average and include everything from chairs, couches and beds, to screens, ottomans and benches. (It’s making kids furniture, too.)

As an added enticement, The Inside, which relies on 3D imaging and digital printing, also promises fast delivery. Specifically, it says it can make its furniture in just to six to nine days and ship it directly via UPS from where it’s made in Chicago. (Typically, custom upholstered pieces take anywhere from eight to twelve weeks to create.)

We talked with Lemieux earlier today to understand better what she’s aiming to do. Our exchange has been edited slightly for length.

TC: Why pursue this idea right now?

CL: What consumers have had up until now is a sea of gray product that all looks the same. Anyone in furniture retail knows this formula: inventory plus protracted design cycles plus large minimum order quantities plus long lead times plus and onerous logistics equals big pain points — also known as the traditional supply chain.

Like most retail companies, at DwellStudio, we also followed this cycle: design, sample, manufacture and import. This process typically takes 18 months from start to finish and because of the minimum order quantity from manufacturing partners, the selection becomes narrow quickly to avoid inventory exposure.

I really saw a hole in the market here – where consumers were lacking choices in design, fashionably fun furniture and accessibility, as well as fast shipping. With The Inside, we’re aiming to reimagine the furniture industry by leveraging virtual manufacturing and a zero inventory model to offer unique designs made with incredible speed.

TC:  What is the full range of furniture pieces that can be made?

CL: The Inside has over 800 SKUs and an incredibly wide-ranging selection of fabric patterns, so in addition to choice, we also want to give shoppers a very curated offering. We have tons of amazing guest designers in the pipeline — right now we’re launching with Peter Som and Claire V — that we’ll be rolling out post-launch.

TC: What type of fabrics are you using?

CL: The printed upholstery is cotton linen or linen. This is the most popular ground cloth for furniture.

TC: What is the company’s return policy?

CL: We have a 30-day return policy.

TC: What are some of the prices that customers can expect to pay?

CL: Products are priced for shoppers who love to mix it up by exploring different styles and trying new trends without having to commit to long-term investments. The Inside’s prices start at $219 with an average price point of $300: Our Queen-size headboards start at $499, for example, and the average price is $559. Our Ottomans start at $219 and the average cost is $429. Our accent chairs start at $349 and average $489.

TC: Where is this furniture available to buy? Are you partnering with other stores or is it available through your site only? 

CL: Yes, everyone can find our products on [our site].

TC: What would you say is most unique about its construction?

CL:  Everything is made-to-order, so we carry no inventory. We digitally print the fabric, so the footprint stays amazingly small and there’s no fabric waste. We use virtual manufacturing, a digital design process that uses 3D models to allow for products to be adaptive.

TC: How do you overcome the concern that “fast furniture” could suggest slightly shoddier furniture, as with fast fashion?

CL: Consumers can expect our furniture to still be high quality, as well as unique to many other choices out there. With our zero-inventory model, we’re able to offer unique designs at attainable prices as a solution to the cost-efficient imports that inundate the market while maintaining a precise attention to detail and an emphasis on quality.

TC: Forerunner is known for a portfolio of companies that use innovative marketing tactics. What’s in Inside’s bag of tricks? Print catalogs? Facebook ads? 

CL: We’re of the mindset that you need to try everything, because the landscape is changing constantly.  Because we’re creating beautiful interiors, imagery and content will be central to our marketing. We will also be partnering with a wide range of collaborators allowing us to speak to consumers in unique ways. And we see some of the more traditional routes like direct mail as being an important part of the acquisition strategy.

TC: Everyone has pieces they’d probably love to refurbish affordably. Do you see a day when The Inside refurbishes existing furniture with its fabrics or is that too far afield from what you’re working on?

CL: This is definitely something we’re considering for the future. We’re just focusing on launch right now.

TC: What do you see as the company’s target demographic?

CL: Consumers who crave style, exclusivity, and adaptability to accommodate their transient and urban lifestyles.

Our goal is to turn “social media inspo” into a reality with signature assortments of stylish and eclectic furniture, purposefully curated to bring all of the most Instagram-worthy Pinterest boards to life.

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