Microsoft and Xiaomi to collaborate on AI, cloud computing and hardware

Microsoft and Xiaomi to collaborate on AI, cloud computing and hardware

After Microsoft signed a deal to test Windows 10 on Xiaomi devices in 2015 and then Xiaomi bought a trove of patents to help run other Microsoft services on its devices in 2016, today the two companies announced another chapter in its collaboration. Xiaomi and Microsoft have signed a Strategic Framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work more closely in the areas of cloud computing, AI (including Microsoft’s Cortana business) and hardware.

To date, Xiaomi has largely focused its mobile phone strategy in Asia Pacific, where Gartner revealed yesterday that it (and Huawei) were the only two vendors to increase their market shares at a time of general decline. This deal could point to how Xiaomi is looking to raise its game in the West, specifically in the US.

On the side of Microsoft, it’s particularly interesting given that the company has largely pulled back on a lot of its hardware efforts, and has visibly had some major stumbles in this area especially in mobile — most recently with its failure to take on and grow the Nokia mobile business and Windows Mobile.

Understanding that mobile isn’t an area that Microsoft can quite step away from altogether (“I just can’t quite Zune”, “Too much too Zune!” quipped two of my very funny TC colleagues), it seems that the company is going to have one more go now on with a different partner (one that is still on the rise) and a different approach.

“Xiaomi is one of the most innovative companies in China, and it is becoming increasingly popular in various markets around the world,” said Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, in a statement. “Microsoft’s unique strengths and experience in AI, as well as our products like Azure, will enable Xiaomi to develop more cutting-edge technology for everyone around the world.”

“Microsoft has been a great partner and we are delighted to see both companies deepening this relationship with this strategic MoU,” Wang Xiang, Global Senior Vice President and Head of International Business, Xiaomi, added in his statement. “Xiaomi’s mission is to deliver innovation to everyone around the world. By collaborating with Microsoft on multiple technology areas, Xiaomi will accelerate our pace to bring more exciting products and services to our users. At the same time, this partnership would allow Microsoft to reach more users around the world who are using Xiaomi products.”

The deal covers four major areas of services for the two companies.

Cloud support will include Xiaomi using Microsoft Azure for data storage, bandwidth and computing and other cloud services. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s efforts in laptops and “laptop-style devices” that run Windows will be co-marketed by Microsoft. Then Microsoft is also going to be talking with Xiaomi on how to improve collaboration on AI-powered speakers using Cortana.

That appears to be just the start for the company’s AI collaborations. They also “intend to explore multiple cooperative projects based on a broad range of Microsoft AI technologies, such as Computer Vision, Speech, Natural Language Processing, Text Input, Conversational AI, Knowledge Graph and Search, as well as related Microsoft AI products and services, such as Bing, Edge, Cortana, XiaoIce, SwiftKey, Translator, Pix, Cognitive Services and Skype,” Microsoft said in a statement.

No financial terms to the arrangement are being given but we are asking.

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Is Uber selling its Southeast Asia business to Grab?

Is Uber selling its Southeast Asia business to Grab?

If you read the tech press, you might have seen reports that Uber is pursuing a sale in Southeast Asia that would see Grab, its Singapore-headquartered rival valued at $6 billion, acquire Uber’s business in the region.

Rumors of such a tie-in have been rife for a while. Uber sold its China business in exactly such an arrangement in 2016, and it made a similar exit from Russia last year. In both cases, the firm’s motivation was to purportedly shape up for a potential IPO by offloading loss-making units that had lost the local market.

Why not, then, extend that into Southeast Asia and sell to Grab?

There is competition.

Reliable data is hard to come by, but it is fairly widely accepted that Uber, once the leader in Southeast Asia, has dropped behind Grab across the region as a whole, while both companies trial local startup Go-Jek — a unicorn itself, too — in Indonesia, the only market Go-Jek operates in.

There are challenges.

Despite a cumulative population that exceeds six billion people, Southeast Asia’s ride-sharing business did just $5.1 billion last year, according to estimates from a report authored by Google and investment firm Temasek. Uber is not expected to be profitable in the region “in the near future,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said last year.

There is the motivation.

Uber and Grab share a common investor in SoftBank. The Japanese firm first backed Grab back in 2014, and it recently pumped in $2 billion in fresh capital alongside China’s Didi Chuxing — the company that bought Uber China and, by virtue of that deal, is also an Uber stockholder. SoftBank, of course, secured a much-publicized investment in Uber in January.

Pitting two of its portfolio together in a loss-making market probably doesn’t make sense to SoftBank at this point.

Someone, somewhere, seems very keen to make a deal happen, and so we have the reports.

Last week, CNBC cited two people “with knowledge of the matter” who said that Uber “is preparing to sell Southeast Asia unit to Grab.”

The news was widely re-reported by a number of other media. But if you skip down to the second line of the original CNBC article, the transaction seems less definitive that the title suggests.

“No deal has been reached yet, and the timing of any such deal is uncertain,” CNBC reporter Alex Sherman wrote.

Uber and Grab both declined to comment on the report when we asked.

The Grab office in Singapore

The deal can make sense in financial terms, as above, but in practice there are certainly some question marks.

Uber may have fallen behind Grab, but it still has the brand. Uber invented ride-hailing, and it can continue to maintain a sizable market share, if not close the gap with some investment.

The word Uber is already a verb to many people, such is the company’s profile, and that isn’t just limited to the English language. There’s a huge amount of consumer awareness that Uber trades on, even when its competitors push hard with discounts, marketing and other strategies, is very much alive in Southeast Asia.

The market in the region is tipped to grow massively.

The same Google-Temasek report noted that the ride-hailing market in Southeast Asia has grown four-fold since 2015 and it is tipped to reach $20.1 billion by 2025. More generally, Southeast Asia is now the world’s third-largest region for internet users — with more people online than the entire U.S. population — with upwards of 3.8 million people coming online for the first time each month.

It might be hasty for Uber to retreat at this time. Certainly, the chips are down and things have been better, but the game is far from won as it was in China, where Uber had little mainstream recognition and was spending over $1 billion just to try to keep up with Didi.

There hasn’t been much of a reaction to the reports from Uber, but this week Khosrowshahi — who was in India as part of his first Asia tour with Uber — made a series of bullish comments that seemed to reaffirm a commitment to Southeast Asia, according to Reuters.

“We expect to lose money in Southeast Asia and expect to invest aggressively in terms of marketing, subsidies etc,” Khosrowshahi told reporters in New Delhi, adding there is huge potential in the region thanks to a big population and fast internet user growth.

You could, of course, offer a counter argument that Khosrowshahi is playing hard to get or making negotiations with Grab tougher. But the Uber CEO also pointed out to press that Uber is just one shareholder and thus its aims and objective don’t represent the path that the company will take.

From Reuters again:

Khosrowshahi said SoftBank is an investor but Uber, which has a valuation of around $68 billion, will take any final decisions along with the board on mergers and partnerships.

There has certainly been some suspicion that the leaks may be coming from the investor side of Uber/Grab, given the benefits that consolidation might bring. The fact that these leaks have also intensified since SoftBank became interested in an Uber investment, certainly gives credence to that theory.

Indeed, SoftBank board member Rajeev Misra — who joined the Uber board following the investment — told the Financial Times that Uber should focus on Western markets and cut its losses in emerging regions.

Is SoftBank the source of these new leaks? You can draw your own conclusions.

So, while a deal might make some sense on paper, reports of an imminent acquisition seem wide of the mark. That said, this is the ride-hailing industry, and anything can happen.

Featured Image: ANTHONY WALLACE/Getty Images

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Technology News – Visualizing the slave insurance industry

Visualizing the slave insurance industry

Similar to the way people insure their cars, houses and lives, slave-owners would sometimes insure their slaves.

Fearful of not getting their money’s worth from their slaves, owners would sometimes take out insurance policies on them.

In the 1800s, for example, some slave-owners who rented out their slaves would insure them so that, in the event their slaves died or were severely injured in the hands of someone else, the owners would not suffer too much of an economic loss, according to The Treasury of Weary Souls.

The Treasury of Weary Souls, created by New York University Professor Michael Ralph and engineers from Resilient Coders, examines what slavery looked like after the trade was outlawed in 1808, but continued to exist via the smuggling, breeding and renting of slaves within the United States. Ralph spent a solid seven years researching slave policies, and when it came time to sharing it with the world, he hired a handful of coders from Resilient Coders.

Resilient Coders is a nonprofit organization that trains people of color for jobs in the tech industry as software engineers. The bootcamp trains people of color for 14 weeks in semantically structured HTML, responsive CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, git and more.

For the last year or so, a handful of Resilient Coders worked with Ralph through the concept, design and the ultimate creation of the project, which utilized JavaScript data visualization tool D3.js. The project was spearheaded by Resilient Labs’ Muigai Unaki, a senior at Northwestern University pursuing a dual BFA degree in graphic design and interactive media.

Map of insurance policies taken out on slaves (Source: The Treasury of Weary Souls)

As Ralph’s research shows, slave owners sometimes relied on financial firms like Aetna, AIG and New York Life Insurance to insure the slaves whose skills were highly valued. In Alabama, New York Life, which was known as The Nautilus Insurance Company at the time, was the largest slave insurer, according to the Treasury of Weary Souls. Between 1845 and 1848, NYLI sold policies to slaveholders to insure their slaves against damages or death.

By the 1840s, the number of slaves insured in the South was about the same as the number of free whites with life insurance, according to Ralph. Of that number, however, Ralph said he never saw a plantation slave insured in his seven years researching 1,300 policies.

“Even though plantation slaves were valuable in the marketplace, they were never insured,” Ralph said. “They were viewed more as livestock. They enhanced the value of the plantation but their skills weren’t seen as valuable or premium.”


Instead, slave owners would insure coal miners, blacksmiths, carpenters, railroad workers and other slaves with valued skills. Miners, for example, made up 15.4 percent of the insured slave workforce, according to the project. Steamboat workers accounted for 12.6 percent of those insured and domestic workers accounted for 14.6 percent of the insured slave population, according to the ledger.

In January 1855, a slave owner by the name of Thomas Doswell insured seven slaves to work in the coal pits in what is now West Virginia. Two of the older slaves were insured for $500 each and the younger ones were insured for $700 each. In 1855, the average price for a slave was $600, according to Ralph’s research.

Ralph says the Treasury of Weary Souls is the most comprehensive ledger of skilled slaves who built America. In his research, Ralph said he found these slaves had more mobility than plantation slaves. Sometimes they were able to negotiate their work schedules and other terms of forced labor, he said. The market for slave insurance was mostly in urban areas.

“On one hand, this is about a new tier of slaves who emerged in the last decades of legalized slavery who were more elite,” Ralph said. “There were ways in which they were more valuable even though they were less free than free white people.”

Ralph’s research is based on data from the California Department of Insurance, Slavery Era Insurance Registry, Illinois Department of Insurance, Slavery Era Insurance Policies Registry and other sources. The archives are incomplete but Ralph says his evidence suggests at least 85 percent of policy records may have been lost.

In his upcoming book, Life: Slavery and Insurance in US History, Ralph explores how the life insurance industry took off as slavery was drawing to a close. He argues the slave insurance industry helped establish the life insurance industry for free citizens. At the time, Americans were skeptical of placing monetary value on a life, he said.

“With urbanization, more people started to become open to the idea of finding some way to insure against potential loss of income if they happen to pass away,” he said. “The industry of slave insurance created the appreciation for what that mechanism can do.”

Featured Image: Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images/Getty Images

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Technology News – Facebook says it’s clarifying its ad metrics

Facebook says it’s clarifying its ad metrics

Facebook is looking to clean up and clarify the way advertisers measure their campaign performance.

Over the past couple of years, the company has had to acknowledge multiple mistakes in its ad metrics. Last fall, researchers even pointed out that Facebook’s purported reach was greater than the US Census population in every state.

So making these kinds of tweaks (and taking other steps to increase transparency) could help restore advertisers’ confidence in the company’s numbers.

Facebook laid out the changes in a blog post, and also at a press event this morning, where Vice President of Marketing Science Brad Smallwood was joined by Edward Gaffney, director of implementation research at ad agency GroupM. (Gaffney is part of Facebook’s Measurement Council.)

The first change comes in the way these metrics will be labelled. Facebook will now explicitly point out when an ad metric is an estimate, in development, or both.

Gaffney said that advertisers are used to working with estimates, but he recalled that even in the Measurement Council, there was some uncertainty around which numbers were estimated versus directly measured. So this kind of clarity is needed “to understand that an estimate is just that — it’s better than a guess, but it is not the absolute truth.”

Meanwhile, Smallwood said that it’s natural for Facebook to experiment with the most effective ways to present its data. By labeling a measurement as in development, the company is telling advertisers to expect those measurements to change. (As Gaffney put it: “Don’t build a complex model around that.”)

Some of the metrics might eventually disappear entirely if they’re not helpful to advertisers. In fact, Smallwood said Facebook plans to remove 20 of them in July because they were judged redundant, outdated, not actionable or infrequently used.

For example, he said the social reach metric (which shows how often people saw an ad accompanied with context like a comment from their friend) turned out to be not that different from a standard reach metric, and advertisers didn’t know how to use the data to improve their campaigns. So it’s getting cut.

Lastly, Smallwood said Facebook will be launching a new initiative called Measure What Matters, combining in-person events, online events and online content to help advertisers understand more about how to measure and improve their campaigns.

Featured Image: TechCrunch

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Technology News – MyBagCheck lets you drop off your bags anywhere

MyBagCheck lets you drop off your bags anywhere

MyBagCheck is a clever system that ensures that you’ll be able to spend that extra few hours in a foreign city without having to lug around fifty pounds of Samsonite. The founder, Micah B. Lewis, created the app to allow people who have bags to get those bags picked up and stored during the day, something every traveler would love.

The app is self-funded and Lewis spent $60,000 of his own money to build it out. It is in the iOS App Store now.

“We are the only on-demand mobile application that picks up, stores, and delivers bags/luggage in the NYC Metro 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Lewis. “No other company does this in the United States.

“I’ve created an entire new segment of business,” he said.

Prices vary based on your location and duration but Lewis’ team will pick up and store your bag from nearly anywhere in New York.

Lewis says the inspiration for the app came when he spent a day in New York and had to lug a laptop bag and shopping around the city and couldn’t get back to his hotel to drop them off.

“With my hands full I had miss out on the impromptu bar crawl because I didn’t want to lug all that stuff around. While walking to the train, I thought to myself there needs to be a better way to get this stuff home so I can stay out and have fun with friends,” he said.

The service is in beta now and he already has a number of paying – and hands-free – customers.

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Technology News – UPS is working on a fleet of 50 custom-built electric delivery trucks

UPS is working on a fleet of 50 custom-built electric delivery trucks

UPS will work with partner Workhorse, a battery-electric transportation technology company, to develop and deploy a fleet of 50 custom-built plug-in electric delivery trucks with zero emissions.

The goal is to make trucks that cost as much to buy as do traditional fuel-based delivery vehicles – even without taking into account subsidies. The Workhorse designed-vehicles, will be all-electric, and are designed to run on a single charge throughout a normal delivery day and then charge back up overnight.

Workhorse says they’ll have a 100 mile range, which is a good fit for in-city routes, and the trucks will first enter testing in urban areas in various parts of the U.S., including Atlanta, Dallas, and LA. The test will lead to fine-tuning, which will lead to a larger fleet deployment targeting 2019.

UPS’ goal with this is to help meet its corporate renewable energy and carbon footprint goals, as well as to hopefully reap benefits in terms of vehicle operation efficiency, and the cost of maintenance (which should be far less using all-electric trucks).

Featured Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Technology News – Proven wants to sell AI distilled custom skincare

Proven wants to sell AI distilled custom skincare

YC-backed startup Proven wants to make it suck less for women to find skincare that works for them. The co-founders are taking what they describe as a “rational, logic-based” approach to figuring out which ingredients might be most appropriate for each individual.

As a TC Disrupt battlefield founder once memorably put it during her on-stage pitch, the beauty industry makes a whole lot of money from a whole lot of BS. And skincare falls squarely into the ‘full of it’ category, with its expensively marketed pseudoscientific claims touting ‘miracle’ fixes that most definitely aren’t.

Proven’s co-founders, Ming Zhao and Amy Yuan, say frustration when battling with this BS via their own skincare issues ultimately led them to found the business together. Zhao had had a stressful job in private equity which she credits with “really wrecking my skin”, while Yuan suffered adolescent skin problems and also has allergies that can affect it.

“After trying numerous products and investing — I saw it as an investment, in expensive ‘miracle’-promising products — nothing really worked for me,” says Zhao. “So I became very frustrated and I felt betrayed by our beauty industry. And eventually what actually worked for me were customized products that were made for my by a few different facialists. So that’s how the optimize idea of tailoring products to exactly someone’s situation, someone’s skin, first came to my mind numerous years ago.”

Yuan’s computational physics background informed the data-focused approach they’re taking with Proven. “I’ve done a lot of big scale supercomputing simulations,” she says. “And, I thought, given my background why don’t I just write an AI engine that gathers reviews for me to find skincare products that are automatically fitting to my skin. And when I talked to Ming about it we immediately had this spark — and started crawling data.”

Their core idea is to see whether deep learning and machine learning algorithms can distill useful information from millions of online testimonials for skincare products, plus a much smaller subset of publicly available peer reviewed scientific research papers — turning a mountain of what is obviously very variable data into, what they hope, is a formula for programming customized skincare products that work.

They’re focusing on skincare purely for women because it’s women who’ve written the millions of online product reviews underpinning this data + AI play.

“The average person spends 45 minutes to 1.5 hours researching products before they buy any beauty products and even after they buy based on the research that they’re able to do, 55% of people are still unsatisfied post-purchase. And that’s because of the proliferation of information that’s out there. No single person is capable of reading the amount of information there is in order to make a sound decision,” argues Zhao when asked why they think their approach can work. “Which is why we’ve built the largest database of beauty.”

Their database combines data on hundreds of thousands of skincare products culled from millions of users reviews. At this point Zhao says they’ve used their AI engine to analyze more than 8 million reviews and testimonials — “of basically anybody who’s bought a skincare product, a beauty product and has written a comment about it online”.

“In this database it also has more than a hundred thousand beauty products that have been talked about. So basically everything that’s on the market. As well as more than 20,000 ingredients — as well as 4,000 peer reviewed scientific articles on skin and on ingredients and on what works for skin,” she continues. “So it is not just reviews but it’s combined with scientific research.

“On our team we also have an award winning cosmetic chemist who is the person who helped to formulate all of our products. We also have dermatologist advisors on our team who put the human touch on top of the big database knowledge base.”

Potential buyers must first fill out a survey on Proven’s website, answering questions about things like their age, ethnicity, skin type and their skincare priorities. After which they’ll be emailed custom products they can buy — which will in turn be blended by drawing on Proven’s database of AI-distilled testimonials to match crowdsourced learnings to what an individual customer knows (or at least claims to know) about their own skin.

The service isn’t live yet — but will be soft launched in the US next week.

“The database is really powerful. It has all of the information and has more than 10 years of consumer testimonials on various skincare products,” adds Yuan. “One surprise that we had going into this space is how little research was out there on people’s skin and then what kind of ingredients would be effective on what kind of skin and in which environment.

“And then we feel like… why they’ve researched so little is because there’s not enough data to back it up — unlike pharmaceutical research where funding can go in and there’s clinical trials and a lot of different funding sources. Skincare is sort of in an awkward position.”

Globally, the skincare, beauty and cosmetics industry is estimated to be worth some $445BN at this point — a figure that’s only set to keep growing in an age of selfie obsession and perpetual digital self promotion.

So any skincare company that can come up with a slicker formula to help women find effective products could be a real game changer.

But, at the same time, there’s undoubtedly a lack of high quality data to drive genuine change. And without regulation of BS claims, well, misinformation is free to masquerade as eye-catching marketing. And that’s why pseudoscientific nonsense is so lucrative. And why there’s little incentive for the industry to change.

Proven’s founders say they’ve done a lot of cleaning and structuring of the data in their database before processing it for patterns. Even using fraud detection algorithms to try to weed out sources of fake reviews. On top of the cleaned and structured data they’re then applying various machine learning and deep learning algorithms to try to link particular ingredients with beneficial outcomes for different types of users.

But the big question is whether poor and/or low quality data — even if you’ve managed to scrape together an awful lot of it — can really lead to useful AI-powered decisions.

Where skincare is concerned, that remains unproven — unlike this startup’s name.

And with so many other unseen factors at play that can also affect people’s skin, such as diet, exercise, lifestyle, even genetic conditions, which won’t necessarily be being expressed within the limited confines of an online review, well, it’s just not clear whether anything of real worth can be distilled from such partial and fuzzy data.

Although there would certainly be poetic justice if the beauty industry ends up being successfully disrupted thanks to millions of user reviews debunking its not-so-miracle cures.

We’ve not been able to test Proven’s service at this nascent stage. And clearly it’ll take time for its own user testimonials to roll in. But if you look online, you’ll find skincare reviews are rife with dissatisfaction.

So even if all Proven offers is doing some of the legwork to help people decide what to buy (or avoid buying) that’s at least a partial incentive — given that many women will already be spending lots of their own time and money locked in a frustrating trial and error process of looking for skincare that works.

The co-founders also say they’re looking at ways to visualize the learnings they’ve extracted from their database — to try to make that information more accessible.

Away from the mainstream beauty market, the even more expensive skincare option is to pay for custom products from a dermatologist or other skin specialist. A route that can be effective, as it was for Zhao, but can also be prohibitively expensive. Certainly it’s not accessible to the mass market.

Zhao and Yuan say they want Proven’s skincare products to be accessible but they also argue that beauty products priced too cheaply can be perceived by women as ineffective or undesirable. So they also won’t be setting the price bar too low.

“One of our goals is to make beauty inclusive, and that is inclusive from many different angles — in that we’re not just making products for a certain subtype within a certain ethnicity. We want to be able to help many people with their skin issues, across ethnicities, across geographic locations,” says Zhao. “So in terms of pricing too we want to be approachable. But what is funny though, we know from our data that women don’t consider a product to be of high quality unless it is above a certain price bar. That’s just how we’re built. So we try to signal that our products are of the highest quality — because they are.”

For people with sensitive skin the challenge of finding effective skincare can be a full on nightmare. (Nothing says ‘unhappy customer’ quite like having paid for a emollient that actually makes your skin even worse.) So if Proven can narrow the risk of encountering irritants that’s also going to be compelling for at least a subset of consumers.

Though product customization can also be risky from a business point of view. Because if a personalized product ends up disappointing a customer will have few avenues to explore to come back for more.

The mainstream skincare industry does claim to cater to different skin types. But its categories tend to be fairly broad-brush, and arguably just make matters worse by creating yet more skincare products which buyers need to factor in to ‘buy and try’.

The lack of regulation on the beauty industry also makes it impossible for consumers to be confident in any of the claims being made by any of these products. A ‘miracle’ snake oil can (and frequently does) sit on a shelf next to a more basically packaged and less expensive moisturizer that contains essentially the same ingredients.

The same could be true of ‘AI-distilled skincare’ too of course. So for now it remains to be seen whether Proven’s personalized skincare products end up delivering more effective skincare than the average pot of cream plucked off the shelf.

After all “personalized” is just another word that sounds good but doesn’t in itself mean very much. So “personalized skincare” may end up being just another nice sounding but hollow claim.

On the other hand, if their “AI engine” actually manages to distill some valuable intelligence from millions of product reviews it could be a very winning formula. Beauty industry product promises that don’t disappoint would be a disruptive innovation indeed.

Proven says it will initially manufacture its skincare products itself, in the US, using an ingredients philosophy the co-founders sum up as “just what you need and nothing that you don’t”. They are also excluding some common but controversial beauty product ingredients, such as SLS, parabens, alcohol, triclosans and animal byproducts. (Although their products are not equivalent to fresh cosmetics, such as the custom preparations you might get from a dermatologist, as they do include some preservatives.)

While they’re starting with skincare — offering a small range of day and night serums, toners and creams to begin with — Zhao also says they see potential to expand into other wellness products if the personalized touch flies.

“We’re starting with skincare but we’d love to do the same thing… within all of the wellness category, because there’s nothing more intimate for me personally and for a lot of women I know than their skincare, than their bodycare, than their haircare,” she says. “The things that they put on and therefore are absorbed into their body. So we want to help everyone to have a more personalized experience with these essential, important categories.”


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Technology News – Travel activities platform KKDay raises $10.5M led by Japanese travel firm H.I.S.

Travel activities platform KKDay raises $10.5M led by Japanese travel firm H.I.S.

KKDay, a startup from Taiwan that operates a platform that helps travelers find local activities, has raised $10.5 million.

The funding round was led by Japanese travel operator H.I.S. with participation from existing backer MindWorks Ventures, the Hong Kong-based VC.

KKDay is one of a number of services that cater to Asia’s burgeoning regional tourism market. The idea is to allow travelers to find experiences, tours and travel in their destination city, for example, a river cruise, museum visit, or city sightseeing tour. Since we all have a smartphone these days,  KKDay lets people browse their options and book their choices ahead of time or on-the-ground while taking a cut of the transaction.

The target is to digitize and then take a slice of the travel tour and activities market that is predicted to grow by one-third to reach $183 billion by 2020, according to travel-focused analyst firm Phocuswright.

To get there, KKDay is turning to a traditional player for help.

H.I.S. was established in 1980 and today it employs close to 17,000 people with offices in over 150 cities in some-80 countries worldwide. The company, which recorded more than $5.5 billion in annual sales, is an old school, bricks and mortar travel firm, whereas three-year-old KKDay is a new, digital entrant that’s predominantly Asia-focused. Hence there is plenty of potential to work together.

“H.I.S. is not just a financial investor, but is valued as a strategic investor. Their product can use our platform and internet channel to expand their business globally,” KKDay CEO Ming Chen told TechCrunch in an interview.

On the reverse side, KKDay benefits by boosting its inventory with H.I.S.’s decades-old business. On the customer support-side, its network of country-based offices and agents can give KKDay customers a physical point of call if they need it, or simply the peace of mind that comes with that.

The match sounds ideal, so why not go the full hog and bring the two companies together? That’s not happening, according to KKDay CFO Weichun Liu.

“We made it very clear that this partnership is a means for both us to do what we are best at. There is no discussion on merger and acquisition so far,” she explained to TechCrunch.

But Liu believes that the relationship is essentially preparation for when large online travel giants enter the travel activity space.

“If a Priceline or Expedia jumps into the market, they have more resources,” she explained. “We will try to get an early start on the finer and more difficult parts to reach first [so that] even when the bigger guys enter the market we are ahead of the game.”

Ahead of the game means taking control of the experiences themselves rather than just selling them. Already, Liu said, KKDay tailors its packages by using its own people — for example as tour guides and by renting buses itself — or works closely with contractors, but H.I.M.’s firepower and presence can supercharge that.

To illustrate the ultimate goal, Liu turns to e-commerce where, she said, consumers are happier to buy products through Amazon rather than direct from retailers.

“Amazon means a certain level of quality and guarantee, that’s our aspiration,” she said.

Longer-term goals aside, KKDay is initially looking to grow its customer numbers in China and among Western markets like Europe and the U.S.. As of now, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea are its largest countries, according to CEO Chen, while the H.I.M. alliance is likely to massively boost its Japan-based business.

India, another huge population, isn’t in the plans right now because outbound travel numbers from the country are lower than the likes of Korea and Japan, Liu explained.

China may be a hugely challenging market, but Chen is convinced that there’s potential for travel products if they are presented and done right.

“We can provide very high-quality products. Young Chinese today expect high-quality travel services, not only those that are cheap. They once were price sensitive before but they are now more affluent,” he said.

Beyond more traditional travel services, KKDay’s most direct rival is Klook, a business that is predominantly focused on China. The Hong Kong-based startup has raised over $90 million, including a recent $60 million Series C round in October, from investors that include Goldman Sachs, Sequoia and Matrix Partners.

Klook said it clocked five million bookings in 2016 and its claims to process one million bookings per month. KKDay doesn’t provide booking numbers, but the service claims to host over 10,000 experiences from 500-plus cities in more than 80 countries.

Featured Image: Hamza Butt/Flickr (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

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Technology News – Gartner reports first ever global decline in smartphone sales

Gartner reports first ever global decline in smartphone sales

Global smartphone sales have not been firing on all cylinders for several years now but Gartner’s latest figures record the first ever decline since the analyst began tracking the market all the way back in 2004. (Though it’s not the first analyst to call a decline.)

Gartner’s figures peg sales of smartphones to end users in Q4 2017 at nearly 408 million units — a 5.6 per cent decline over its Q4 2016 figure.

It says No.1 ranked smartphone maker Samsung saw a year-on-year unit decline of 3.6 per cent in Q4, while sales of Apple’s iPhones fell 5 per cent in the holiday quarter, though it says Cupertino stabilized its second-place marketshare.

Gartner says two main factors led to the Q4 sales drop: A slowing of upgrades from feature phones to smartphones due to a lack of quality “ultra-low-cost” smartphones; and existing smartphone owners selecting quality models and keeping them for longer, lengthening the replacement cycle.

Apple’s performance in Q4 was also impacted by the later availability of its new top-of-the-range iPhone X, which drove slower upgrades of its other two new smartphones, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. While component shortages and manufacturing capacity constraints also contributed to a long delivery cycle for the iPhone X.

Gartner says it’s expecting a delayed sales boost for Apple in the first quarter of 2018, now that the flagship’s delivery cycle has returned to normal.

It’s also expecting a boost for Samsung in Q1 as it unpacks its successor Galaxy flagships.

For full year 2017, Samsung carved out a 20.9 per cent marketshare to Apple’s 14.0 per cent.

Far East

Last month analyst Canalys reported a first annual decline in smartphone shipments in China — which for years took up the baton on smartphone growth from saturated Western markets. But even Chinese buyers appear to be getting tapped out.

It’s still a growth story for Chinese OEMs, though. And Gartner says the combined market share of Chinese vendors in the top five increased by 4.2 percentage points in 2017, while the market share of the top two, Samsung and Apple, remained unchanged.

China’s Huawei and Xiaomi were the only smartphone vendors to actively increase their market shares in Q4, according to Gartner, with year-on-year unit growth in the holiday quarter of 7.6 and 79 per cent, respectively.

The analyst credits Huawei’s uplift to broadening the appeal of its portfolio with new handset launches in the quarter. It also says Xiaomi’s “competitive” portfolio accelerating its growth in the emerging APAC market and helped it win back lost share in China.

Huawei remained in third place in the global smartphone vendor rankings, taking a 9.8 per cent share in full year 2017 and shrinking the gap with Apple and Samsung.

Overall, Gartner says total smartphone sales exceeded 1.5 billion units in 2017 — a year-on-year increase of 2.7 per cent.

On the OS front, Google’s Android platform extended its lead in 2017, taking an 86 per cent share of the total market, up 1.1 percentage points from a year ago. While iOS took 14 per cent. (The “other OS” category shriveled to a nearly non-existent 0.1 per cent.)

And as the world’s biggest mobile tradeshow, MWC, rolls around again, there will be some fresh Android-powered handsets being unboxed in the coming days — including from Samsung, Nokia-branded HMD and others.

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Technology News – Twitter is (finally) cracking down on bots

Twitter accused of dodging Brexit botnet questions again

Twitter is cracking down on bots after it announced changes to its API that will massively reduce the impact of services that allow links and content to be shared across multiple accounts, i.e. the software that powers Twitter bots.

So that means an end to services that let those controlling large numbers of accounts to batch tweet, follow users, retweet or like tweets. Twitter will continue to allow content to be posted to accounts using software, for example, weather alerts, RSS feed updates and more, but they will now be limited to a single account going forward.

“These changes are an important step in ensuring we stay ahead of malicious activity targeting the crucial conversations taking place on Twitter — including elections in the United States and around the world,” Yoel Roth, who heads up API policy and product trust, for Twitter explained in a blog post.

There is a small caveat for public service-related information.

“As a sole exception to this rule, applications that broadcast or share weather, emergency, or other public service announcements of broad community interest (for example, earthquake or tsunami alerts) are permitted to post this content across multiple accounts who have authorized an app,” Roth wrote.

The new measures are a clarification of a crackdown that Twitter first announced in January in response to concerns around how the platform was used in relation to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Overall, it’s a shame. Bots can be great when put to work properly — researchers have come to that very conclusion — but some internet people are inherently bad and bot networks can be used to give them oversized influence and power. For example, Twitter itself has confirmed that there were over 50,000 Russia-linked bots that attempted to interfere with the election.

It isn’t exactly clear what size audience those bots reached overall, but it is likely to be some way lower than the Russia-backed election meddling efforts on Facebook, which are said to have reached nearly 150 million of the social network’s users.

“Since June 2017, we’ve removed more than 220,000 applications in violation of our rules, collectively responsible for more than 2.2 billion low-quality Tweets,” Twitter said last month.

For anyone who has been at the receiving end of bots — whether it be spam or more serious incidents such as harassment — Twitter’s move to restrict what is possible is long overdue. App developers have until March 23 of this year to make the necessary changes to comply with this new policy so we’ll get a chance to see what a difference this makes right after that date.

Already there has been some controversy after the social network removed large numbers of suspected bot accounts from its service this week. In doing so, some users’ follower counts were reduced. The numbers seemed to particularly hurt conservative and right-wing opinionated users who cried foul play, as Gizmodo reports.

Twitter told Gizmodo that it acted without political bias in response to accounts that it suspected were bots or had violated its policy.

Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias. As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse. We also take action on any accounts we find that violate our terms of service, including asking account owners to confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it. That’s why some people may be experiencing suspensions or locks. This is part of our ongoing, comprehensive efforts to make Twitter safer and healthier for everyone.

Hold on to that popcorn, more drama to come soon.

Related: Twitter has a big bot problem

Featured Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

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Technology News – ParkBee closes €5M funding to open up private car parks to public bookings

ParkBee closes €5M funding to open up private car parks to public bookings

ParkBee, a Netherlands-founded startup that lets private car parks monetize underutilized spaces by making them bookable to the public, has picked up €5 million in new funding

The round is led by German-based Statkraft Ventures, with participation from existing investors. Statkraft Ventures is backed by the Statkraft Group, which claims to be Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy.

Originally launched in Amsterdam in early 2016 where it now has over 60 parking locations, ParkBee says the new capital will be used for further U.K. expansion after the burgeoning company recently brought its offering to London. It already has over 20 private car parks using the startup’s wares in the U.K. capital city.

Specifically, this consists of hardware ParkBee had to develop that is retrofitted to a private car park’s existing barrier or security system. Then there is a cloud platform that controls the bookings and unlocking of spaces and lets the car park owner handle inventory management.

The whole thing is also integrated with consumer-facing car parking space booking apps RingGo and Parkmobile, which let you unlock your booked space.

“Parking is an enormous hassle in every large city, and streets are only getting fuller, whilst the parking capacity is there but not yet accessible for the general public,” ParkBee commercial director Wouter de Bruijne tells me.

“It’s hard to believe that there are so many unused parking spaces in London, Amsterdam and almost any large city. The car parks of office buildings, apartment buildings but also hotels, business centres or sport venues have a lot of capacity, usually secure behind a closed speed gate or barrier. ParkBee opens up these locations to the public”.

Furthermore, de Bruijne argues there is major upside for landlords and other private car park owners with underutilized inventory. “The real-estate sector is always looking for ways to optimise the use of space. We optimise the use of their buildings and provide an additional revenue stream, he says.

To that end, the list of private property companies ParkBee is already working with include JLL, BT and local councils in the U.K.

Meanwhile, the ParkBee business model is straightforward. The company shares revenue generated through hiring out each parking space with the owner or at a larger location it rents the parking spots directly from the owner, therefore taking on a little more risk. In addition, the startup splits the fee it charges consumers with RingGo or Parkmobile.

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Technology News – Walmart launches a new home shopping site for furniture and home décor

Walmart launches a new home shopping site for furniture and home décor

Following a slowdown in e-commerce sales over the holidays, Walmart today is readying a new strategy to attract online shoppers with an increased focus on home goods. The retailer is now launching a redesigned Home shopping experience on the web which will better highlight home products, like furniture, accessories, and other decorative items.

The new site’s home page will feature curated collections across nine style categories, including modern, mid-century, traditional, glam, industrial, bohemian, farmhouse, transitional and Scandinavian. Unlike Walmart’s typical shopping experience, it will also use editorial-style imagery and will include design tips written by in-house staff.

The new initiative is part of Walmart’s reorganization of its Home group division, announced last year. This included two additional executive appointments, with Anthony Soohoo, previously the CEO at home furnishings brand Dot & Bo, becoming SVP and GM of the Home group across all U.S. e-commerce retail within, Hayneedle and, plus Scott Doughman as Hayneedle’s president.

“As the head of Home for Walmart U.S. eCommerce, and admittedly design-obsessed, I’m personally excited about the changes we’re making to help our customers shop the high-quality, on-trend and, of course, affordable home assortment we offer on,” said Soohoo, in a statement about the launch.

According to the retailer, shopping for home goods online has to take a different approach. While categories like groceries and consumables are more transactional in nature, the home goods category needs to more “inspirational.” That is, online shoppers want a site that’s more about browsing and getting ideas, rather than just the traditional “add to cart” experience.

Walmart doesn’t break out what portion of its sales are home goods, or how much of its overall assortment fits in this category. But it did say that it’s nearly doubled its assortment over the past year, aided by introductions of new furniture and home décor lines, like its IKEA-esque Scandinavian kids’ furniture, for example.

The new Home shopping site will also help showcase Walmart’s own private label and Walmart-exclusive brands, like  MainstaysBetter Homes and Gardens and Pioneer Woman. This is an area rival Amazon recently moved into as well, when it launched its first home furnishing lines in November. Target, too, is steadily expanding its home goods offerings, with brands like ThresholdProject 62Hearth & Hand with Magnolia, and as of just a couple of days ago, a new, eclectic brand called Opalhouse.

Walmart, meanwhile, will focus heavily on competing on price, with low-cost products, like sofas that start at $159, twin mattresses starting at $59, and rugs starting at $17. That means it will also be challenging other furniture retailers that promote affordability, like IKEA and Wayfair, for instance.

The new site will go live on across web and mobile as a slow rollout over the next few weeks. It also offers a preview of Walmart’s larger e-commerce site design, scheduled for later this year.

  1. Traditional Living Room

  2. Scandinavian Dining Room

  3. Modern Dining Room

  4. Mid-century Living Room

  5. Mid-century Bedroom

  6. Industrial Bedroom

  7. Glam Living Room

  8. Colorful Kitchen

  9. Bohemian Living Room

  10. Bohemian Bedroom

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Technology News – Camera rental startup KitSplit raises $2.1M

Camera rental startup KitSplit raises $2.1M

KitSplit, which operates an online rental marketplace for creative equipment, is announcing that it’s raised $2.1 million in seed funding.

The equipment available can include cameras, lights and lenses, but also VR gear and drones. Renters get access to this equipment for a lower price (CEO Lisbeth Kaufman estimated KitSplit usually costs 30 to 50 percent less than traditional rentals), while the owners get to make some extra money from equipment when they’re not using it.

I first wrote about KitSplit in 2016, and president Kristina Budelis (a former video producer for The New Yorker) said that since then, the service has grown from 5,000 to 30,000 members. It’s also acquired one of its competitors, CameraLends.

Customers include NBC, Vox and National Geographic. According to Kaufman (daughter of Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman), KitSplit is being used in all kinds of productions, but some of the strongest interest is coming from digital media companies as they try to the meet the constant demands of online video production. (The industry’s “pivot to video” may be hitting a rocky patch, but the need for video content isn’t going away.)

Investors in the seed round include HearstLab (which also invested in KitSplit’s pre-seed funding), Entrepreneurs Roundtable, 3311 Ventures, NYU Innovation Venture Fund, WTI and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger.

Kristina Budelis, Lisbeth Kaufman

Among other things, the funding should help KitSplit continue to expand its presence in Los Angeles — users can rent gear anywhere in the United States, but the company is currently focused on the NYC and LA markets.

Eventually, Kaufman said she wants KitSplit to become a “one-stop shop for content creators.”

“We’re reimagining the Hollywood production studio as a local marketplace,” she added. “We want to make resources like gear and staffing and location more accessible to all content creators.”

Budelis pointed to things like KitSplit’s insurance options, its concierge service (to help with the logistics of actually transporting the equipment) and its events as early signs of how the company is “starting to dabble” in areas beyond just being a marketplace.

Update: An earlier version of the story described KitSplit as a peer-to-peer marketplace, but Budelis said that’s not quite accurate anymore, since there are now businesses among the renters and the equipment owners.

Featured Image: KitSplit

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Technology News – Startup that sells your salary data to VCs gets bought by Solium

Startup that sells your salary data to VCs gets bought by Solium

Investors don’t want their portfolio companies to pay you too much, or too little. So they pay Advanced-HR for its compensation data pulled from 2,500 startups. With a generic name, the service has flown somewhat under the radar since launching 20 years ago.

As startups grow more professional while staying private longer, they’re getting serious about how they structure equity compensation plans to retain talent. Solium sells them stock option planning software.

But together, they hope to offer the most accurate view of how much salary and stock other companies offer to help startups figure out exactly how to pay their employees. Today Solium announced that it’s acquiring the tech and whole team of Advanced-HR, which will continue to sell its Option Driver software-as-a-service.

It’s part of an acquisition spree that comes from a war chest of $50 million that Solium has told the public markets is going to buying companies and developing new products. In October Solium bought Capshare, which helps 10,000 smaller startups manage their equity compensation plans. In March, it bought NASDAQ’s ExactEquity planning business. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but you could expect it’s a modest chunk of the $50 million that’s being spread across multiple deals.

The plan seems to be working, as Solium’s share price is up 35 percent this year. Though Solium went public in 2001 and became profitable in 2004, it raised a $48 million financing last year to capitalize on the shift toward startups staying private longer and equity becoming an increasingly important way to keep talent from skipping off to somewhere with a higher salary.

“The other over-arching trend is that startups are taking over control of managing their equity,” says Lopez. “Equity has been historically managed with spreadsheets in a startup while the official ledger/cap table sat with a law firm. With equity management platforms like Shareworks there is now a system of record that the company controls and can give access to legal counsel, investors and other stakeholders as desired.”

Dee DiPietro started AHR as a consultant practice back in 1997 as a solo female founder. Eventually she took over running the popular Venture Capital Executive Compensation Survey from Benchmark. Its sponsors, including heavy hitters like Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia and Y Combinator, pay $4,000 a year to submit their data and get everyone else’s. The service has evolved from models in Excel to automated compensation planning software used by 120 top VC firms.

“We launched the first private company compensation survey, the first internet-based salary survey, the first real-time compensation data delivery system,” says DiPietro. “And more recently, the first compensation planning platform for scaling private companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

Still, what the industry really needs is a better tool for employees to vet their own job offers. It can be quite tough to predict what your stock options will be worth depending on vesting schedules, multiple rounds of funding and dilution. And then there’s the heavy upfront costs and risks of actually exercising your stock options.

The sad truth of the matter is that unless a company is an extraordinary 1-in-10,000 success, few teammates beyond the founders or very first employees stand to gain a life-changing windfall. Yet employees number 10 to 50 are often tasked with unrelenting deadlines and long hours that might only really benefit the C-level executives. Software like Advanced-HR and Solium make sure startups don’t pay too much, but it’s the rank-and-file workers that need to know if they’re earning enough.

Featured Image: studiostoks/Shutterstock

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Technology News – Hear360 begins shipping its ASMR-ready omni-binaural microphone, the 8ball

Hear360 begins shipping its ASMR-ready omni-binaural microphone, the 8ball

Magic 8-Balls have been known to hold some disappointing, trivial answers to teenage life’s hardest questions, but one LA startup is hoping to find success in them. Hear360 has just begun shipping pre-orders of 8ball, a souped-up binaural 360 microphone rig geared toward professionals that are all about experimenting in new immersive mediums.

The 8ball is an “omni-binaural” microphone, meaning it captures 360 audio of a space using four pairs of omnidirectional mics. The effect is 8 tracks of sound that envelops the listener wherever they turn, something pretty essential for virtual reality specifically. The unique design involves a custom clamping mechanism that means the rig can be mounted below a 360 camera and stay out of the shot, capturing sophisticated audio invisibly as a result. Buyers of the $2,500 8ball will get a bunch of pro plug-in tools so they can fit the product into their editing pipeline with ease. The system is available for order here.

CEO Matt Marrin and his co-founder CTO Greg Morgenstein got together in 2016 with the idea of a high-end microphone system that got everything right. The audio engineers bootstrapped the company the best way they knew how, funding the project by continuing to mix records on the side. Last year, the team closed a $1 million round of funding from creative audio agency Grayson Matthews.

Capturing live action VR has always been a bit of a hacker’s enterprise. Different projects generally need different solutions for getting high-quality video and audio. Attempts at creating all-in-one audio/video professional solutions haven’t gone all that swimmingly; last year Nokia shut down its Ozo VR camera unit and laid off hundreds. The general feeling from the people I’ve been chatting with has been that there’s still a big demand for companies and tools to create VR well, but the scale has been overblown and the timelines are going to need to fall a bit more in line with reality.

“There’s definitely an evolving perspective on this space,” Marrin told TechCrunch. “As there’s a little bit of pullback in some areas, I think that there are other areas that are creeping into VR.”

With tools like 8ball, the team at Hear360 hopes that creators keep exploring 360 content, but they’re not putting all their eggs in the VR basket. The startup says that outside of VR production, there’s an opportunity to be had in the burgeoning and bizarre world of ASMR videos.

“If you do just one thing, and you only do it a certain way then it can be tough, and we’re seeing people fall off right now,” Marrin said.

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos are slightly unsettling clips that generally involve someone whispering into a camera and making noises in a way that makes viewers feel a tingle in the back of their neck, which some have called a “brain orgasm.” The videos have tens of millions of views on YouTube and they are growing increasingly popular. Given that so much of the sensation comes from what viewers are hearing, there’s a lot of potential for a high-end mic maker.

Whether brain orgasms and VR are enough to build a successful audio startup is anyone’s guess, but as Hear360 begins shipping out “hundreds” of its high-end microphone rigs, they’re looking for that answer… in the 8ball.

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