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State attorneys general to launch antitrust investigation into big tech companies, reports say

10:05 | 20 August

The state attorneys in more than a dozen states are preparing to begin an antitrust investigation of the tech giants, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported Monday, putting the spotlight on an industry that is already facing federal scrutiny.

The bipartisan group of attorneys from as many as 20 states is expected to formally launch a probe as soon as next month to assess whether tech companies are using their dominant market position to hurt competition, WSJ reported.

If true, the move follows the Department of Justice, which last month announced its own antitrust review of how online platforms scaled to their gigantic sizes and whether they are using their power to curb competition and stifle innovation. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission formed a task force to monitor competition among tech platforms.

It won’t be unprecedented for a group of states to look at a technology giant. In 1998, 20 states joined the Justice Department in suing Microsoft . The states could play a key role in building evidence and garnering public support for major investigations.

Because the tentacles of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple reach so many industries, any investigation into them could last for years.

Apple and Google pointed the Times to their previous official statements on the matter, in which they have argued that they have been vastly innovative and created an environment that has benefited the consumers. Amazon and Facebook did not comment.

Also on Monday, Joseph Simons, the chairman of FTC, warned that Facebook’s planned effort to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp could stymie any attempt by the agency to break up the social media giant.

“If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed and all the eggs are scrambled,” Simons told the Financial Times.

 


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These are the games coming to Google Stadia

21:30 | 19 August

Google’s game streaming service isn’t set to launch until November, but the company kept the hype train going through the mid-August doldrums with a Gamescom Stadia Connect livestream. As promised, the online press conference was “all about the games,” featuring what looks to be a nearly complete list of launch (and some post-launch) titles.

The games include some top names like Cyberpunk 2077, Final Fantasy XV, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Mortal Kombat 11. It also enlists a number of top publishers, including Bethesda, Square and Ubisoft. A number of key publishing partners have opted to keep their lists under wraps until closer to (or at) launch, however, including EA, Capcom and Rockstar.

As previously noted, the service will run $10 a month, including access to games and discounts on purchases. A base version of the service will also be available at some point next year. When it launches in November, the service will be available in 14 countries, including US, Canada, UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Finland. More will be added in 2020.

Google is currently offering up a “Founder’s Edition” pre-order for $130. That includes a controller, Chromecast Ultra and three months of the service for you and a friend.

Here’s the list of titles so far,

  • Bandai Namco – Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2
  • Bethesda – DOOM Eternal, DOOM 2016, Rage 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, Wolfenstein: Youngblood
  • Bungie – Destiny 2, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Expansion
  • CD PROJEKT RED – Cyberpunk 2077
  • Chump Squad – KINE
  • Coatsink – Get Packed
  • Codemasters – GRID
  • Dotemu – Windjammers 2
  • Deep Silver – Metro Exodus
  • Drool – Thumper
  • Giants Software -Farming Simulator 19
  • Larian Studios – Baldur’s Gate 3
  • nWay Games – Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid
  • Omega Force – Attack on Titan 2: Final Battle
  • Pandemic Studios – Destroy All Humans!
  • Robot Entertainment – Orcs Must Die 3
  • Sega – Football Manager
  • SNK – Samurai Shodown
  • Square Enix – Final Fantasy XV – Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Marvel’s Avengers
  • SUPERHOT – SUPERHOT
  • 2K – NBA 2K, Borderlands 3
  • Tequila Works – Gylt
  • Warner Bros – Mortal Kombat 11
  • THQ – Darksiders Genesis
  • Ubisoft – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Just Dance , Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint , Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 , Trials Rising, The Crew 2, Watch Dogs: Legion

 


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Ally raises $8M Series A for its OKR solution

20:40 | 19 August

OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, are a popular planning method in Silicon Valley. Like most of those methods that make you fill in some form once every quarter, I’m pretty sure employees find them rather annoying and a waste of their time. Ally wants to change that and make the process more useful. The company today announced that it has raised an $8 million Series A round led by Access Partners, with participation from Vulcan Capital, Founders Co-op and Lee Fixel. The company, which launched in 2018, previously raised a $3 million seed round.

Ally founder and CEO Vetri Vellore tells me that he learned his management lessons and the value of OKR at his last startup, Chronus. After years of managing large teams at enterprises like Microsoft, he found himself challenged to manage a small team at a startup. “I went and looked for new models of running a business execution. And OKRs were one of those things I stumbled upon. And it worked phenomenally well for us,” Vellore said. That’s where the idea of Ally was born, which Vellore pursued after selling his last startup.

Most companies that adopt this methodology, though, tend to work with spreadsheets and Google Docs. Over time, that simply doesn’t work, especially as companies get larger. Ally, then, is meant to replace these other tools. The service is currently in use at “hundreds” of companies in more than 70 countries, Vellore tells me.

One of its early adopters was Remitly . “We began by using shared documents to align around OKRs at Remitly. When it came time to roll out OKRs to everyone in the company, Ally was by far the best tool we evaluated. OKRs deployed using Ally have helped our teams align around the right goals and have ultimately driven growth,” said Josh Hug, COO of Remitly.

Desktop Team OKRs Screenshot

Vellore tells me that he has seen teams go from annual or bi-annual OKRs to more frequently updated goals, too, which is something that’s easier to do when you have a more accessible tool for it. Nobody wants to use yet another tool, though, so Ally features deep integrations into Slack, with other integrations in the works (something Ally will use this new funding for).

Since adopting OKRs isn’t always easy for companies that previously used other methodologies (or nothing at all), Ally also offers training and consulting services with online and on-site coaching.

Pricing for Ally starts at $7 per month per user for a basic plan, but the company also offers a flat $29 per month plan for teams with up to 10 users, as well as an enterprise plan, which includes some more advanced features and single sign-on integrations.

 


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US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

19:28 | 15 August

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.

Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.

The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.

Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.

Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.

“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”

“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other issues while at the same time respecting freedom of speech.”

The international committee met for its first session in London last November — when it was forced to empty-chair Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who had declined to attend in person, sending UK policy VP Richard Allan in his stead.

Lawmakers from nine countries spent several hours taking Allan to task over Facebook’s lack of accountability for problems generated by the content it distributes and amplifies, raising myriad examples of ongoing failure to tackle the democracy-denting, society-damaging disinformation — from election interference to hate speech whipping up genocide.

A second meeting of the grand committee was held earlier this year in Canada — taking place over three days in May.

Again Zuckerberg failed to show. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also gave international legislators zero facetime, with the company opting to send local head of policy, Kevin Chan, and global head of policy, Neil Potts, as stand ins.

Lawmakers were not amused. Canadian MPs voted to serve Zuckerberg and Sandberg with an open summons — meaning they’ll be required to appear before it the next time they step foot in the country.

Parliamentarians in the UK also issued a summons for Zuckerberg last year after repeat snubs to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s enquiry into fake news — a decision that essentially gave birth to the international grand committee, as legislators in multiple jurisdictions united around a common cause of trying to find ways to hold social media giants to accounts.

While it’s not clear who the grand committee will invite to the next session, Facebook’s founder seems highly unlikely to have dropped off their list. And this time Zuckerberg and Sandberg may find it harder to turn down an invite to Dublin, given the committee’s ranks will include a homegrown lawmaker.

In a statement on joining the next meeting, Cicilline said: “We are living in a critical moment for privacy rights and competition online, both in the United States and around the world.  As people become increasingly connected by what seem to be free technology platforms, many remain unaware of the costs they are actually paying.

“The Internet has also become concentrated, less open, and growingly hostile to innovation. This is a problem that transcends borders, and it requires multinational cooperation to craft solutions that foster competition and safeguard privacy online. I look forward to joining the International Grand Committee as part of its historic effort to identify problems in digital markets and chart a path forward that leads to a better online experience for everyone.”

Multiple tech giants (including Facebook) have their international headquarters in Ireland — making the committee’s choice of location for their next meeting a strategic one. Should any tech CEOs thus choose to snub an invite to testify to the committee they might find themselves being served with an open summons to testify by Irish parliamentarians — and not being able to set foot in a country where their international HQ is located would be more than a reputational irritant.

Ireland’s privacy regulator is also sitting on a stack of open investigations against tech giants — again with Facebook and Facebook owned companies producing the fattest file (some 11 investigations). But there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to go around, with the DPC’s current case file also touching tech giants including Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

 


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Huawei’s new OS isn’t an Android replacement… yet

20:38 | 12 August

If making an Android alternative was easy, we’d have a lot more of them. Huawei’s HarmonyOS won’t be replacing the mobile operating system for the company any time soon, and Huawei has made it pretty clear that it would much rather go back to working with Google than go at it alone.

Of course, that might not be an option.

The truth is that Huawei and Google were actually getting pretty chummy. They’d worked together plenty, and according to recent rumors, were getting ready to release a smart speaker in a partnership akin to what Google’s been doing with Lenovo in recent years. That was, of course, before Huawei was added to a U.S. “entity list” that ground those plans to a halt.

 


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Adobe’s Amit Ahuja will be talking customer experience at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise

23:00 | 9 August

As companies collect increasingly large amounts of data about customers, the end game is about improving the customer experience. It’s a term we’re hearing a lot of these days, and we are going to be discussing that very topic with Amit Ahuja, Adobe’s vice president of ecosystem development, next month at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise in San Francisco. Grab your early-bird tickets right now – $100 savings ends today!

Customer experience covers a broad array of enterprise software and includes data collection, analytics and software. Adobe deals with all of this including the Adobe Experience Platform for data collection, Adobe Analytics for visualization and understanding and Adobe Experience Cloud for building applications.

The idea is to begin to build an understanding of your customers through the various interactions you have with them, and then build applications to give them a positive experience. There is lots of talk about “delighting” customers, but it’s really about using the digital realm to help them achieve what they want as efficiently as possible, whatever that means to your business.

Ahuja will be joining TechCrunch’s editors along with Qualtrics chief experience officer Julie Larson-Green and Segment CEO Peter Reinhardt to discuss the finer points of what it means to build a customer experience, and how software can help drive that.

Ahuja has been with Adobe since 2005 when he joined as part of the $3.4 billion Macromedia acquisition. His primary role today involves building and managing strategic partnerships and initiatives. Prior to this, he was the Head of Emerging businesses and the GM of Adobe’s Data Management Platform business, which focuses on advertisers. He also spent 7 years in Adobe’s Corporate Development Group where he helped complete the acquisitions of Omniture, Scene7, Efficient Frontier, Demdex and Auditude.

Amit will be joining us on Sept 5 in San Francisco along with some of the biggest influencers in enterprise including Bill McDermott from SAP, Scott Farquhar from Atlassian, Aparna Sinha from Google, Wendy Nather from Duo Security, Aaron Levie from Box and Andrew Ng from Landing AI.

Early-bird savings end today, August 9. Book your tickets today and you’ll save $100 before prices go up.

Bringing a group? Book our 4+ group tickets and you’ll save 20% on the early-bird rate. Bring the whole squad here.

 


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What tech gets right about healthcare

22:36 | 6 August

Why is tech still aiming for the healthcare industry? It seems full of endless regulatory hurdles or stories of misguided founders with no knowledge of the space, running headlong into it, only to fall on their faces.

Theranos is a prime example of a founder with zero health background or understanding of the industry — and just look what happened there! The company folded not long after founder Elizabeth Holmes came under criminal investigation and was barred from operating in her own labs for carelessly handling sensitive health data and test results.

But sometimes tech figures it out. It took years for 23andMe to breakthrough FDA regulations — it’s since more than tripled its business and moved into drug discovery.

And then there’s Oscar Health, which first made a mint on Obamacare and has since ventured into Medicare. Combined with Bright, the two health insurance startups have pulled in a whopping $3 billion so far.

It’s easy to shake our fists at fool-hardy founders hoping to cash in on an industry that cannot rely on the old motto “move fast and break things.” But it doesn’t have to be the code tech lives or dies by.

So which startups have the mojo to keep at it and rise to the top? Venture capitalists often get to see a lot before deciding to invest. So we asked a few of our favorite health VC’s to share their insights.

Phin Barnes – First Round Capital

 


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Hardware startup North’s big pivot bet on wearable computing and platform shifts

19:02 | 6 August

Waterloo, Canada-based hardware startup North is a rare bird when it comes to the tech sector: It began life as an entirely different kind of hardware startup as Thalmic Labs in 2012, and launched a major pivot and re-brand in 2018.

The shift included a new name, and an entirely new product focus. It launched its Focals smart glasses last year, and earlier in 2019 sold the tech behind its original product a gesture control armband called Myo, to CTRL-labs.

This kind of system-shocking directional change can cause whiplash at even far less ambitious software startups, but when I spoke to co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake about the change and the company’s new focus, he spoke of the about-face more as a natural evolution long in the making than a late-stage shift.

“It goes way back when we started Thalmic in 2012,” Lake said. “Actually, we were working on our Myo product, which was an input for heads-up displays, VR headsets, etc. We realized back then, when we were pairing it up with the early versions of [Google] Glass and a whole variety of other displays and smart glasses, that the glasses were so far from being the consumer product that we actually wanted to wear and use. And we said, ‘We think directionally this is going to exist, we think there’s this future where we can bring technology with us into the world end up being less distracted, more present, but still get those benefits we get from computing today.’ Instead of the future of staring at screens, or being cut off in like Ready Player One world in the future, actually bringing technology and make it a seamless part of our world.”

Basically, Lake positions the problem as a kind of classic ‘cart before the horse’ dilemma: How could its interface device for a future class of devices achieve meaningful purchase if that class of devices was off to a slower start than anticipated? A less ambitious startup might’ve refocused on innovating accessories for an established device market, but Lake says his company instead took aim at pioneering an entirely new class of consumer device.

 


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SoftBank-backed Fair taps three executives to lead vehicle subscription app expansion

19:00 | 5 August

Fair, the vehicle subscription startup backed by SoftBank, is loading its executive team with veterans in the tech, venture and automotive industries as it seeks to build out its Uber leasing program and expand beyond North America.

Fair.com today announced three key hires to lead the development of its car subscription app, financing department and leasing program with Uber.

Jay Trinidad, a former Google and Discovery Networks executive, is now chief product officer. Trinidad will direct the company’s app development and technology efforts. Former chief accounting officer of TrueCar John Pierantoni has been hired as senior vice president of finance and risk.

Pat Wilkison, general partner of venture firm Exponential Partners — an early investor in Fair — will run the startup’s Uber program.

The three hires are critical additions for the three-year-old startup as it tries to convince consumers to try its car-as-a-service platform over buying or leasing a vehicle from a traditional dealership or other online sales upstarts. The advantage for Fair, aside from the $1.5 billion treasure chest it has amassed — is the platform itself.

The company was founded by automotive, retail and banking executives, including Scott Painter, former founder and CEO of TrueCar, on the premise that today’s consumers, including those in the gig economy, want flexibility.

Fair has tweaked the traditional lease to give consumers more options. Users can subscribe to the program and switch vehicles through the term of their “lease.”

It’s a capital-intensive business model that requires the kind of experience that Painter believes these three executives can deliver.

The hires will help drive Fair’s aggressive efforts around payment, infrastructure and financial planning as it scales its flexible car ownership model internationally and tries to make a name for itself on the global stage.

“A critical part of our transformation effort is deepening our bench of talented executives to set us up for success now and into the future,” Painter said.

The three hires come on the heels of rapid growth, a critical acquisition and huge Series B funding round of $385 million led by SoftBank, with participation from Exponential Ventures, Munich Re Venture’s ERGO Fund, G Squared and CreditEase.

“After closing $385M in our Series B, it’s time to put that capital to work for us to buy cars and propel growth—with this new executive team providing us with important insights and leadership.” Painter said in a statement. “Jay will eliminate execution risk and bring in operational and strategic expertise, Pat is an investor-turned-employee crusader, while John is a world-class financial and accounting expert around whom we can build a sound subscription business and strong auto insurance division.”

Fair acquired in January 2018 the active leasing portfolio of Xchange Leasing, a service Uber first established in 2015 to lease new and nearly new vehicles to drivers who did not come to the service with their own cars.

That acquisition laid the foundation for what has become a big piece of Fair’s business today. Some 45% of Fair’s cars are used by Uber drivers today.

Fair also has aspirations to expand beyond the U.S., Trinidad told TechCrunch in a recent interview. The company hasn’t publicly disclosed which countries it might go to first. Europe and Asia, particularly considering Trinidad’s long background in the region, would be the most likely markets for Fair.

In the next year, the company hopes to move into international markets and grow its workforce, which will likely mean moving into a bigger office, Trinidad said.

“I really think in a year’s time, at least in the markets we’re targeting such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, you’ll start to hear ‘Why not Fair a car instead of buying or leasing one?’ It will be a third option people consider.”

 


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Wall St analyst Laura Martin on the fate of Netflix, breaking up Google, EU regulation, and a decade of more money for Hollywood

19:00 | 30 July

The rise of streaming video platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has upended traditional power balances in Hollywood and is reorganizing the way we consume films and TV series as consumers.

Following her talk at the recent Banff World Media Festival in Canada, I interviewed Laura Martin, the senior analyst covering entertainment and internet stocks at leading investment bank Needham & Company, to sort out how the pieces are moving in this chess game between content creators, streaming services, consumers, and government regulators.

We discuss why Netflix is still at risk of a downfall, the effect of EU content quotas, why Martin thinks regulators should break up Google, and why video streaming and game streaming are likely to merge into the same subscription products.

Here is the transcript of our discussion, edited for length and clarity:


Eric Peckham: There’s an optimistic case that the rise of online video streaming is a win for both consumers and content creators because it creates a vast landscape of content platforms. Onstage in Banff, you argued that the number of content platforms (and thus the number of content buyers) will in fact shrink. Why do you see it going that direction?

Laura Martin: There are 4,000 video apps on the Roku platform today (and similarly on Samsung and on Amazon Fire). What you’ll see is a consolidation in the industry as we get big players like the Walt Disney Company, AT&T, and Apple coming into the DTC business with big, deep pockets. Although we have more buyers of content today, it’s driving prices up.

It is likely that the big players are just battling out between themselves, putting smaller players out of business. Over a 10-year time frame, I expect just three or four winners, and that will bring more discipline back into the financial aspects of the business.

Peckham: What will separate the winners from the losers here?

 


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