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Walmart retreats from its UK Asda business to hone its focus on competing with Amazon

15:46 | 30 April

Walmart’s strategy to get itself fighting fit against Amazon saw one more development today.

This morning, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s announced a deal with Walmart to buy a majority stake in Asda, Walmart’s wholly-owned UK subsidiary. The deal values Asda at £7.3 billion, and (if it closes) will net Walmart £2.975 billion in cash, a 42 percent share of the combined business as a “long-term shareholder”, and 29.9 percent voting rights in the combined entity, which will include 2,800 Sainsbury’s, Asda and Argos stores and 330,000 employees in the country.

The news underscores how Walmart, off the back of a challenging quarter of e-commerce sales in the crucial holiday period (news that shook investors enough to send Walmart’s sock tumbling), is still trying to figure out the right mix of its business to fight off not just current retail competition, but also whatever form its competition might take in the future. At the moment, the one big common rival in both of those scenarios is Amazon.

In the US, Walmart has been trying out multiple routes for consumers to shop in new ways that address the kinds of options that the likes of Amazon now offers them. Targeting different geographies and demographics, Walmart has made big bets like its $3 billion acquisition of; expanding its own new delivery services, and payment and return methods; as well as running pilots with various third parties like Postmates and DoorDash.

Internationally, it’s a different story. Walmart has a significantly reduced presence — its international business in aggregate is around one-third the size of its US business, $118 million in FY2017 versus $318 million. And with no clearly dominant position in any of its international markets, this has led the company to consider a variety of other options to figure out the best way forward.

“This proposed merger represents a unique and bold opportunity, consistent with our strategy of looking for new ways to drive international growth,” said Judith McKenna, president and CEO of Walmart International, in a statement. “Asda became part of Walmart nearly 20 years ago, and it is a great business and an important part of our portfolio, acting as a source of best practices, new ideas and talent for Walmart businesses around the world. We believe this combination will create a dynamic new retail player better positioned for even more success in a fast-changing and competitive UK market. It will unlock value for both customers and shareholders, but, at the same time, it’s the colleagues at Asda who make the difference, and this merger will provide them with broader opportunities within the retail group.  We are very much looking forward to working closely with Sainsbury’s to deliver the benefits of the combined business.”

The UK market is a prime example of the kind of scenario that hasn’t been working as well for Walmart as it could, and I think that the decision for Walmart to move back from its UK business has a strong link to the Amazon effect on the market.

In the UK, Asda is number-three in supermarket share, with a 15.6 percent stake, after leader Tesco and Sainsbury’s. All three of the leaders focus on traditional supermarket formats, and their modern-day UK twists. This translates to huge stores with multiple selections for each product ranging from bargain tiers to more expensive, premium varieties; sizeable chains of smaller convenience store-style locations; and online delivery of varying popularity.

The three tiers of operations may sound like diversification, but it’s actually very undiversified within its category, making for extreme price competition on products themselves (and that happens both before and after you buy: another smaller competitor, the online grocery delivery Ocado, regularly refunds me money, unprompted, on products it says are sold for less at competing stores).

On top of that, the big three have all been cannibalised in recent times — in part because of the insurgence of smaller, discount stores like Aldi and Lidl that forego brand names in favor of a smaller selection of often their own brands at a cheaper price (a little like Trader Joe’s, which is owned by Aldi, but often much less expensive); and in part because of a big shift to shopping online, an area where Amazon is hoping to only get bigger and is investing a lot. In addition to Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition, in the UK specifically, this has included rumors that it’s eyed up the online-only shopping service Ocado, and it partners with another UK supermarket chain, Morrisons.

The fact that Amazon is now also branching into physical locations on the back of its strong online sales and corresponding logistics record is a major threat to Walmart and others that have built physical businesses first, and I think that Walmart has assessed all of the above and decided to throw in the towel on trying to tackle it on its own.

Notably, while Walmart on its own has been unable to reach a number-one position in the UK market, combined with Sainsbury’s (and as a minority partner) it will. Asda and Sainsbury’s would have a market share of over 31 percent (Sainsbury’s today has 15.8 percent; Asda 15.6 percent), putting it ahead of current leader Tesco (27.6 percent). That also means that the deal will face regulatory scrutiny, and might get suppered, or come with sell-off caveats, to go ahead.

The news about Asda in the UK comes amid a series of other chops and changes in Walmart’s business outside of its core US market.

In India, Walmart is inching closer to a deal to acquire a majority stake in online retailer Flipkart, the largest online retailer in the country that itself is feeling a lot of heat from Amazon.

Walmart’s $10 billion – $12 billion deal for Flipkart, which is now expected to be close at the end of June, would give the company a 51 percent stake of Flipkart, valuing the Indian online giant at about $18 billion. Amazon has made India — a fast-growing economy with strong consumer trends embracing digital commerce — a large priority in its international strategy, with plans to invest some xx billion into its efforts in the country.

Looking ahead, Walmart is also rumored to be looking at stepping away from Brazil.

It’s a long-term plan for the company. Two years ago, Walmart placed its e-commerce efforts in China into a venture with Alibaba’s as a partial retreat from that market.

After that Walmart seemed to put its efforts there on hold — its local Chinese corporate site ceasing to update after 2016 but not disappearing altogether. But more recently, just last month in fact, in a signal of how it hopes to continue to combine physical and digital retail — or online-to-offline, as its often called — Walmart opened a pared-down “high tech” supermarket. Here people can shop for a select number of food and other items, as well as browse for these and many more to buy online on JD Daojia (the JD venture) while in-store, and have them delivered.

The latest store in China, and Walmart’s approach there, could be an interesting template for what we might expect in the UK if its sale gets the green light from regulators. Sainsbury’s also owns Argos, a retailer that has essentially been built on the catalog and online sales model: there is no large-presence retail floor, and instead, people order items — either at a counter in the store itself, or online — and either have them delivered or pick them up at another counter in the shop itself. Could we see a scenario of similar “high-tech” supermarkets open in the UK, where the Asda brand is used in a similar turn with subsequently greatly reduced retail footprints?




Evolve Foundation launches a $100 million fund to find startups working to relieve human suffering

01:58 | 4 November

It seems there’s nothing but bad news out there lately, but here’s some good news — the nonprofit Evolve Foundation has raised $100 million for a new fund called the Conscious Accelerator to combat loneliness, purposelessness, fear and anger spreading throughout the world though technology.

Co-founder of Matrix Partners China Bo Shao will lead the fund and will be looking for entrepreneurs focusing on tech that can help people become more present and aware.

“I know a lot of very wealthy people and many are very anxious or depressed,” he told TechCrunch. A lot of this he contributes to the way we use technology, especially social media networks.

“It becomes this anxiety-inducing activity where I have to think about what’s the next post I should write to get most people to like me and comment and forward,” he said. “It seems that post has you trapped. Within 10 minutes, you are wondering how many people liked this, how many commented. It was so addicting.”

Teens are especially prone to this anxiety, he points out. It turns out it’s a real mental health condition known as Social Media Anxiety Disorder (SMAD).

“Social media is the new sugar or the new smoking of this generation,” Shao told TechCrunch.

He quit social media in September of 2013 but tells TechCrunch he’s been on a journey to find ways to improve his life and others for the last 10 years.

His new fund, as laid out in a recent Medium post announcement, seeks to maximize the social good, find solutions to the issues now facing us through technology, not just investing in something with good returns.

Shao plans to use his background as a prominent VC in a multi-billion-dollar firm to find those working on the type of technology to make us less anxious and more centered.

The Conscious Accelerator has already funded a meditation app called Inside Timer. It’s also going to launch a parenting app to help parents raise their children to be resilient in an often confusing world.

He’s also not opposed to funding projects like the one two UC Berkeley students put together to identify Russian and politically toxic Twitter bots — something Twitter has been criticized for not getting a handle on internally.

“The hope is we will attract entrepreneurs who are conscious,” Shao said.

Featured Image: Yann Cœuru/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE



Boeing will build DARPA’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane

22:00 | 24 May

You can hear the champagne corks popping here in Seattle as Boeing is awarded the contract to make DARPA’s cool experimental spaceplane. The company was competing with Northrup Grumman and Masten Space Systems to design the craft.

The XS-1, as it’s called, would allow for relatively cheap and simple trips to space for launching and testing satellites and all that sort of thing. The goal is to get costs down to as little as $5 million per launch all told, and be able to fly at least ten times a year.

It’s meant to be a fusion of all the high-tech stuff from NASA, the Air Force, and private sector aerospace, like lightweight cryogenic propellant tanks and super strong and durable composite wings that can handle re-entry temperatures. It should be able to go at speeds up to Mach 10, and deliver payloads weighing up to 3,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.

As is the usual case for these multi-million-dollar super high-tech programs, there’s a demonstration video that looks like it was put together by a middle-schooler in 2005:

“We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight,” said DARPA program manager Jess Sponable in a news release.

This second phase of the design process goes through 2019, during which time the design will be finalized and the propulsion system (a modified Space Shuttle engine) tested thoroughly. After that, a dozen flight tests are scheduled for 2020. The final trial will be to fly 10 times over 10 days going at least Mach 5.

You can follow the project’s updates and view more details on the testing and capabilities over at DARPA’s website.



Is a “robot tax” really an “innovation penalty”?

19:30 | 22 April

When Bill Gates recently suggested robots should pay income tax like any other employee, I didn’t immediately disagree. I applaud Gates’ bold thinking to help solve one of society’s biggest upcoming challenges: embracing automation in a way that “lifts all boats” instead of leaving large swaths of society behind.

A robot tax would help offset the reduced revenues flowing into public coffers as machines take some jobs previously held by humans.

However, before we start taxing companies that deploy robotics, let’s first agree on what a robot actually is.

When we think of robots, we typically conjure up images of giant arms building cars on an assembly line, or autonomous delivery vehicles ferrying goods around warehouses. But the classic definition of a robot is fairly simple: a combination of technologies that together sense, evaluate, and act to carry out a defined task.

The problem with this definition is that it’s so broad, it would categorize almost all technology – including most modern household appliances, computers, and smartphones – as robots. So where do we draw the line? Indeed, why single out robots to be taxed and not other technology that increases automation, productivity, or quality?

Is the technology that translates a surgeon’s hand movements into more precise movements of tiny instruments considered a robot? How about an ATM, an automated grocery checkout station, or a refrigerator that tells you when you need milk?

We could narrow the definition of a robot to include only those machines that do tasks once done by a human, but then we’d have to include Microsoft’s vast hardware and software offerings, since computers do things like word processing, transcribing, calculating mathematical formulas, and analyzing data – all of which used to be human tasks.

When you think of all the once-human tasks now done by machines, it quickly becomes clear how difficult it would be to separate certain automation technologies into the  “robot” category.  And if a robot tax was imposed, why wouldn’t a company simply classifying their new automation technology as “computers”, “appliances” or “equipment”?

Of course, implementing a robot tax wouldn’t just be difficult due to the challenge of defining what is and isn’t a robot. It would also be nearly impossible to prove a direct correlation between the implementation of automation technology and the net loss of jobs. In some rare instances, a company might deploy an automation device and then simultaneously lay off a person. But most companies don’t operate like this.

They continually deploy new technologies to improve productivity, laying off some workers while hiring others. In fact, if a robot causes one person to lose a job, perhaps three new people will be hired – one to run the robot and two others because the robot improves overall productivity, allowing for expansion hiring.

In reality, robots, like most automation, help people be more efficient and productive, rather than replace them. That’s been the case for centuries. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the Deloitte report.

When Gates talks about a robot tax, in essence, he’s talking about financially penalizing companies that deploy the latest automation technology — a sort of “innovation tax” — which, to me, is a backward tax.

Shouldn’t our government support companies that embrace innovation in an effort to improve productivity and boost revenues? That’s what will make the US economy strong and competitive on a global scale.

Perhaps a better way to ensure that automation improves the lives of all citizens — instead of becoming a wedge that creates a bigger and bigger divide between the haves and have-nots — is to ensure corporations pay tax on their profits.

The more profitable a company becomes due to automation and increased productivity, the more income taxes it should pay into the collective system. Of course, closing loopholes that allow US corporations to dodge taxes will be difficult, but it’s critical to the long-term health of the global economy.

Getting companies to pay their fair share of taxes won’t solve the larger societal challenge that automation will eventually displace low-skilled workers, nor would a robot tax. Instead, governments should focus on using corporate tax revenues to create free or low-cost education programs to prepare people to work alongside automation.

For those unable to find work in tomorrow’s tech-driven society, governments could provide universal basic income or other safety nets for the least-advantaged.

There are no easy answers to the growing divide between rich and poor, which will only accelerate in an automated age that leaves unskilled workers at a distinct disadvantage. But a robot tax is not the answer to this problem.

Featured Image: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images



Twitter Is Testing A Dedicated GIF Button On Mobile

08:44 | 4 February

Twitter wants you to share more GIFs, that’s why the company is testing a new GIF button inside its mobile app.

Some lucky users are seeing a button that appears between the camera and poll icons inside the Twitter for Android app. We haven’t managed to replicate this ourselves here at TechCrunch (on Android or iOS) but one user — Phil Pearlman — told us that pushing the button lets you select trending GIFs, or click through to choose based on mood categories. That’s much like the dedicated GIF button inside Facebook Messenger, which pulls up content from Riffsy and Giphy. But at this point, we don’t know which partner/partners Twitter is working with.

Pearlman posted a screenshot of what he saw but, right after doing so, the button mysteriously disappeared from his app before he was able to provide us with screenshots. (He’s not the only one who lost it.)

If people aren't seeing it yet twttr is testing way cool gif feature. cc @bluechoochoo

— Phil Pearlman (@ppearlman) February 4, 2016

Twitter often conducts tests of new features and changes among small userbases, so there’s nothing new here.

When we reached out to the company for comment, though, it provided us with the following response.

Ha ha, we see what you did there, Twitter, 👍👏😉

Pearlman isn’t alone in seeing the button, plenty of other users are tweeting about it, and — unsurprisingly — their tweets include GIFs, such as:

New gif button on Twitter…

— TWD ~ RT or FAV (@WalkerBait_TWD_) February 4, 2016

Twitter has a gif button

— |CG| ArmoredDeath (@ArmoredDeath) February 4, 2016

A gif button? Congratulations @twitter

— Lee Carruthers (@Skooshbag) February 4, 2016


— Lex (@Lexiilu22) February 4, 2016

I guess that’s what you call a promising early rollout — let’s see if/when the button becomes an official feature for all users.

At this point GIFs might just be a bit of fun and an opportunity to brighten up tweets, but there may be commercial value to them in the future. Messaging app Kik just launched its first branded GIFs, and, with Twitter already monetizing emojis to the (reported) tune of $1 million a pop per brand, it seems plausible that GIFs could become a money-maker, too.

Featured Image: REddit



Apple’s Next iPhone Rumored To Debut On September 9th

23:45 | 7 August

I’m not a betting man — but if someone were to say “Quick! When will Apple announce the next iPhone?!”, I’d say September. It’s… just what they do.

Sure enough: word around the rumor mill is now that the next announcement will come on September 9th.

No official invites have been sent out yet, but the quite-often-correct John Paczkowski is saying that Apple is planning an event for the week of September 7th, with the 9th currently looking most likely.

Whatever might they announce at this special event?

The iPhone 6 was announced in September 2014.

The iPhone 5s was announced in September 2013.

The iPhone 5 was announced in September 2012.

You can see where I’m going here. If Apple is to debut an iPhone in 2015, it’ll probably happen in September.

These dates also line up with previous rumors that Apple was working on an AppleTV announcement for September, delaying a debut said to have been originally planned for WWDC.



AncestryDNA And Google’s Calico Team Up To Study Genetic Longevity

07:25 | 22 July

Plenty in Silicon Valley have set their sites on ending death, or at least extending it a bit – including those within the walls of Google. Now AncestryDNA, one part of the largest online family research organization, has buddied up with Google’s cloistered longevity research company Calico to figure out why some people’s genes help them live longer.

AncestryDNA hosts the genomic data of more than one million people and family trees that can be traced back hundreds of years.

The plan is to analyze that anonymized data from the millions of public family trees within Ancestry’s database to try to determine the role genes play in longevity. Calico will then work on the developing and commercializing of potential therapeutics based on that research, according to the two companies.

“Our common experience suggests that there may be hereditary factors underlying longevity, but finding the genes responsible using standard techniques has proven elusive,” Calico’s chief scientific officer David Botstein said in a statement. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to address a fundamental unanswered question in longevity research using high quality human pedigrees.”

Scientists have already identified certain genes that determine if you will live longer than others. And research on gene therapy involving mice showed that manipulating our DNA could hold promise in the search for life eternal…or at least a longer time on Earth.

But, as Google’s “futurist” Ray Kurzweil once said, “Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow.”

Featured Image: Aluminium DNA Helix/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE



U.K. Push For Better Broadband For Startups

13:29 | 25 June

U.K. telecoms regulator Ofcom has called for more to be done to improve broadband services for startups and SMEs, publishing a report assessing the problem and setting out an action plan to improve broadband provision for businesses with under 250 employees.

Just yesterday, during an event focused on pro-startup city government policymaking, Rohan Silva, former senior policy adviser to the U.K. Prime Minister and co-founder of the Second Home co-working space in East London, was joking about having to ‘beg, borrow and steal’ to procure a 2Gbps broadband connection for the co-working space.

There’s no doubt that getting fast fibre broadband remains a pain point for U.K. startups, even in the epicenter of London’s ‘Tech City’. And even where fibre is available, the time it takes to get broadband installed can be another frustration.

Ofcom said today it has secured agreements from three of the largest U.K. ISPs, BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media, to work on a new Code of Conduct for business broadband services.

There is already a U.K. Code for consumer broadband services, which requires providers to give an accurate estimate of broadband speeds to a customer prior to installation; fix technical problems that might reduce speed; and enables customers to exit a contract if speeds remain below a minimum level.

Ofcom says the business broadband Code is expected to cover similar areas but notes it may need some additional tailoring for SMEs and startups — such as offering commitments relating to upload speeds as well as download speeds. It’s unclear if it will offer any commitments on reducing the time it takes to get a broadband line installed. The regulator is aiming to publish the Code this fall.

Ofcom is also actively looking at fibre broadband coverage for SMEs, noting that in June last year only 56 per cent of SME premises had access to superfast broadband, vs 75 per cent of all UK premises.

The government is continuing to invest in expanding broadband coverage but Ofcom says it’s concerned not all SMEs will benefit under current industry and government plans, citing analysis that suggests that by 2017, when 95 per cent of all premises are due to have access, almost a fifth (18 per cent) of SMEs “may still not be able to receive superfast broadband”. Today it’s recommending the government sets explicit targets for business broadband coverage to ensure SMEs aren’t left lagging behind.

It also wants SMEs to have the option to be able to pay for faster fault repairs — something that Openreach offers but which not all broadband providers offer to their business customers.

Earlier this month Ofcom introduced new rules making it easier for SMEs of less than 10 employees (and consumers) to switch broadband providers over BT’s network by only having to deal with their new supplier.



CrunchWeek: Apple Makes Music, Oculus Aims For Mainstream, Twitter CEO Shakeup

03:59 | 13 June

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Apple's WWDC, Oculus Consumer Rift, Twitter's CEO Resigns | CrunchWeek

It’s Friday afternoon, and that means it’s time for CrunchWeek, the show that brings a few TechCrunch writers together to talk about the biggest stories from the past seven days in tech news.

This time around I was joined by Matthew Lynley and Darrell Etherington to talk about the big takeaways from Apple’s WWDC conference (one of which was the launch of Apple Music,) the debut of Oculus’ first consumer-focused Rift VR headset, and the news that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is stepping down from the helm of the company and handing the reins back to the company’s co-founder Jack Dorsey.

This is a bittersweet episode for me, since today is my last day at TechCrunch, and I’m heading out for new adventures. Working here for the past 3.5 years has been an absolute honor and so much fun, and I’ll especially miss the TechCrunch TV team and our CrunchWeek crew. Thank you for watching, and make sure to keep tuning in.



An Interview With Shaquille O’Neal: Businessman, Investor And Video Game Star

22:50 | 12 June

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Shaq On His Mobile Games and Tech Investments

Shaquille O’Neal — former champion NBA center and businessman — was on a plane one day when someone was playing a slots game next to him. He liked the game so much he downloaded it, played it for four hours on a flight, and now has games made by them where he’s the star.

Those games are Shaq Jack and Caddy Shaq, two Las Vegas-themed games made by a company called MyVegas.

“I’ve seen slots before, and it was dark, but the graphics were lighting this whole plane up,” Shaq said. “Like, boom boom, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.”

So Shaq came in and decided to build those games with MyVegas, which offers rewards to players like free hotel suites, an invite to a party later this month, and even signed basketballs by Shaq.

This isn’t Shaq’s first foray into games, nor is it his first time working with a company. In addition to being one of the most famous and successful basketball players in the world, Shaq has an MBA and has worked with a lot of startups like live-streaming app Tout — where he announced his retirement. He takes about four pitches a week from startups, he said.

“Never talk about money; that’s never been an issue,” he said. “It’s all about opportunity, about having fun and having a good time. The first things I always ask myself are, ‘Do I believe in this product? Is it fun? What’s the out?’ A lot of guys say they want to grow this flower to a big tree and sell it to Redwood City. I’m more interested in a hard-working partnership. I don’t like guys who say this is our out.”

While Silicon Valley sometimes glorifies college dropouts, Shaq said both ways — going to college and dropping out to come to the Bay Area and start a company — work.

Shaq, who spends around $1,000 a week on apps and has always liked being the first jumping onto new technology, is also a big fan of drones. “I got like 50 drones,” he said, but he pled the fifth on whether he’d talk about how many times he’d crashed them. He also has an Apple Watch.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find out what apps he has on his home screen. “That’s G14 classified,” he said.

For the basketball fans out there, we also asked Shaq at the end whether the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors would win the NBA championship, with the series being tied 2-2 right now and the finals heading back to California. You can see his response in the video below.

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Shaq On The NBA Finals
Featured Image: MyVegas


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Walmart retreats from its UK Asda business to hone its focus on competing with Amazon
Peter Short
Good luck
Peter Short

Evolve Foundation launches a $100 million fund to find startups working to relieve human suffering
Peter Short
Money will give hope
Peter Short

Boeing will build DARPA’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane
Peter Short
Peter Short

Is a “robot tax” really an “innovation penalty”?
Peter Short
It need to be taxed also any organic substance ie food than is used as a calorie transfer needs tax…
Peter Short

Twitter Is Testing A Dedicated GIF Button On Mobile
Peter Short
Sounds great Facebook got a button a few years ago
Then it disappeared Twitter needs a bottom maybe…
Peter Short

Apple’s Next iPhone Rumored To Debut On September 9th
Peter Short
Looks like a nice cycle of a round year;)
Peter Short

AncestryDNA And Google’s Calico Team Up To Study Genetic Longevity
Peter Short
I'm still fascinated by DNA though I favour pure chemistry what could be
Offered is for future gen…
Peter Short

U.K. Push For Better Broadband For Startups
Verg Matthews
There has to an email option icon to send to the clowns in MTNL ... the govt of India's service pro…
Verg Matthews

CrunchWeek: Apple Makes Music, Oculus Aims For Mainstream, Twitter CEO Shakeup
Peter Short
Noted Google maybe grooming Twitter as a partner in Social Media but with whistle blowing coming to…
Peter Short

CrunchWeek: Apple Makes Music, Oculus Aims For Mainstream, Twitter CEO Shakeup
Peter Short
Noted Google maybe grooming Twitter as a partner in Social Media but with whistle blowing coming to…
Peter Short