TikTok returns to Pakistan, Apple launches a music-focused streaming station and SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites. This is your Daily Crunch for October 19, 2020.
The big story: Pakistan un-bans TikTok
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the video app 11 days ago, over what it described as “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar” videos. The authority said today that it’s lifting the ban after negotiating with TikTok management.
“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused,” it continued.
This isn’t the first time this year the country tried to crack down on digital content. Pakistan announced new internet censorship rules this year, but rescinded them after Facebook, Google and Twitter threatened to leave the country.
The tech giants
Apple launches a US-only music video station, Apple Music TV — The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour live stream of popular music videos and other music content.
Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool — The tool is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents.
Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram — The update means businesses will be able to integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations.
Startups, funding and venture capital
SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more than 800 — That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational.
Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2M seed round — Propseller combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly.
Ready Set Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class — Ready Set Raise has changed its programming to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.
Advice and analysis for Extra Crunch
Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election? — Several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making these decisions.
Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes — With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed.
Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups — Investors backed a record 88 megarounds of $100 million or more.
(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)
US charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack — Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”
Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion — SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora.
Original Content podcast: It’s hard to resist the silliness of ‘Emily in Paris’ — The show’s Paris is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that we’re happy to visit.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
It’s been a busy few weeks for smart speakers. Amazon kicked things off in late September with newer, rounder versions of both the Echo and Echo Dot. Less than a week later, Google updated the Home, after four years, with the rebranded Nest Audio. And then, last week, Apple unveiled the long-awaited $99 HomePod Mini, finally delivering an affordable version of its Siri speaker.
Amazon, for its part, has easily offered the most regular refreshes of the three. Both the Echo and Echo Dot are currently on their fourth iterations. The Echo Dot with Clock is only on its second (having just been introduced), but for all intents and purposes, the device is basically an Echo Dot — but, you know, with a clock.
The latest update to the line finds the company offering a kind of design uniformity across the smart speakers. The Dot really does look like a diminutive version of the standard Echo. I wasn’t entirely sure how large a difference there would be between the two products, but it’s definitely pronounced. The Echo is the size of a large grapefruit and the Dot is essentially the size of a softball.
The Dot’s size lends it a good deal more flexibility in terms of placement. I could definitely see placing them in nooks and crannies throughout my place to create a kind of makeshift sound system (though the in-box cable is on the short side, so you’ll likely need an extension if you’re not close to an outlet).
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The majority of the speaker is covered in fabric, though the hard plastic bottom arcs up on the back of the device, occupying a large portion of the back. This allows for the inclusion of two ports (power and auxiliary audio out), though it also limits the speaker surface area on the device, restricting a full 360 approach unlike the older hockey puck design. As such, the speaker is just front-facing, in spite of the round design.
The new Echo devices, it’s worth noting, are one in a growing number of devices from big companies that are included as part of a push toward climate consciousness. I won’t really address Amazon’s larger overall carbon footprint here, but it’s nice to see some of that trickling down into these products. According to the company, the plastics are 50% post-consumer recycled, while the fabric and aluminum (including the capable and adapter) are both 100%.
The setup process is as simple as ever. Tap a couple of buttons on the connected Echo app and you should be up and running. The status light ring has been moved to the bottom of the device — that seems to be more of a practical choice than anything. After all, the standard light ring wouldn’t really work at the top of a round, fabric-covered device.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Whether that’s a net positive kind of depends on where you put the Echo. If it’s around eye-level, great. If it’s below that, it moves the ring out of view, and you may have to rely on seeing how it reflects off the surface it’s sitting on. For my own use, it’s a small step in the wrong direction. The digital clock (the big differentiator between the two Dots) is also a bit low on the ball, leaving a lot of blank surface area up top.
Again, I think Amazon is anticipating people will stick it around eye level, which is certainly the case if you primarily use the clock while lying in bed. The clock itself is plenty bright. And honestly, it’s nice just having a simple digital display sometimes, versus a full-on smart screen. That’s especially the case if you plan to stick it near your bed. That, after all, is supposed to be a kind of refuge from screens. That’s doubly important these days when we’re seemingly never not in front of one.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
That said, the uses for the face are pretty much limited. You get a “Hello” at launch, the time (naturally), the weather when prompted and the volume level. That last bit can be adjusted with voice or with a pair of physical buttons up top. Those are joined by the Alexa button, which fires up the assistant and the always-important microphone off. That turns red when you tap it, along with a red ring on the bottom of the device to let you known the speaker has stopped listening until it’s reenabled.
The sound quality is basically the same — which is to say, kind of what you’d expect from a $50 to $60 smart speaker. It’s good for all of the voice functionality you need, but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it as my default home speaker — even with a couple of them paired up. As an alarm clock, however, sure, go for it. It certainly beats the speaker on your phone.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The $10 price difference between the Dot and Dot with Clock is a bit of a weird one. I’d anticipate in future generations, Amazon will just combine them into one product, priced the same as the standard Dot. For now, however, telling time at a glance is going to cost you a little extra.
The new Echo arrives October 22. The Dot with Clock won’t be available until November 5.
The European Union has switched on cross-border interoperability for a first batch of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps that use Bluetooth proximity to calculate the exposure risk of smartphone users after a pilot of the system last month.
National apps whose backends are now linked through the gateway service are Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, the Republic of Ireland’s COVID tracker, and Italy’s immuni app.
This means a user of one of those apps who travels to any of the other countries can expect their national app to send relevant exposure notifications in the same way it should if they had not travelled — without the need to download any additional software.
Collectively, the three national COVID-19 apps have been downloaded by around 30 million people which the EU said corresponds to two-thirds of such downloads in the region.
Image credit: EU Publications Office
Other national apps are expected to gain interoperability as they are added to the service in the coming weeks — with at least 18 more compatible national apps identified at this stage.
A second batch of national apps is expected to be added next week after a period of testing — namely: Czechia’s eRouška, Denmark’s smitte stop, Latvia’s Apturi COVID and Spain’s Radar Covid (although the latter still doesn’t have full coverage in Spain with the Catalonia region yet to integrate it with its regional healthcare system). Further compatible apps are slated to be added in November.
The gateway has been designed to work, in the first instance, with official coronavirus apps that have a decentralized architecture — meaning any that use a centalized architecture, such as France’s StopCovid app, aren’t currently compatible.
The UK’s collection of apps, meanwhile — for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — are unlikely to get plugged in, despite having a technically compatible app architecture, as the country is due to exit the trading bloc at the end of this year. (So interoperability would require a separate agreement between the UK and the EU.)
“About two third of EU Member States have developed compatible tracing and warning apps, and the gateway is open to all of them, once they are ready to connect. The connection will gradually take place during October and November, however apps can also connect at a later stage if national authorities wish so. An ‘onboarding protocol’ has been developed, setting out the necessary steps,” the Commission notes in an Q&A.
The cross-border system for the EU’s apps works via the use of a gateway server, developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP and operated from the Commission’s data centre in Luxembourg, which receives and passes on arbitrary identifiers between national apps.
“No other information than arbitrary keys, generated by the apps, will be handled by the gateway,” the EU notes in a press release. “The information is pseudonymised, encrypted, kept to the minimium, and only stored as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individual persons, nor to track location or movement of devices.”
Getting a cross-border system up and running so swiftly across a patchwork of national COVID-19 apps is an achievement for the EU, even as there are ongoing questions about the utility of Bluetooth-based coronavirus exposure notifications in the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus — with much of Europe now experiencing a second wave of the pandemic.
However EU commissioners suggested today that such apps can be a useful complement to other measures, such as manual contact tracing.
Commenting in a statement, StellaKyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety, said: “Coronavirus tracing and warning apps can effectively complement other measures like increased testing and manual contact tracing. With cases on the rise again, they can play an important role to help us break the transmission chains. When working across borders these apps are even more powerful tools. Our gateway system going live today is an important step in our work, and I would call on citizens to make use of such apps, to help protecting each other.”
“Free movement is an integral part of the Single Market — the gateway is facilitating this while helping save lives,” added Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market.
Before the 2016 election, Vice Ventures founder and general partner Catharine Dockery was bullish about the future of recreational cannabis in the United States.
“We saw quite a bit more optimism around national legalization, with the feeling that a wave of states legalizing recreational use would be the final push needed” to see drug reform, she said. It was good news for Dockery, who was planning to launch a firm investing in categories like cannabis, CBD, psychedelics and sextech.
She announced a $25 million fund in June 2019, but the national policy landscape had shifted considerably.
“The vitriol and division around the election really haven’t left room for substantive discussions. I think this will eventually change, but don’t have high hopes for much policy debate until the election is complete, if at all,” she said. “In a time of uncertainty, we’re taking a small step back.”
Along with many VC firms, Vice Ventures has raised the bar regarding which startups it will fund, but several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making decisions in the closing days of the presidential campaign. After a booming summer, some said momentum is increasing, while others told us that expectations have never been higher for startups.
“If anything, the pace is increasing,” said Alexa Von Tobel of Inspired Capital. Traditionally, she said founders scale back on fundraising efforts close to the winter holidays because investors’ vacation mentality is kicking in. This year, “I think we’ll continue to see founders taking advantage of the ample flow of capital right now and shore up resources so they can enter 2021 on strong footing,” she said.
While that may be good news for founders, Von Tobel said Inspired Capital is not giving too much weight to the election internally.
“We think of ourselves as patient capital, focused on looking for the best companies no matter the timing,” she said. “While we know the election will create noise and have an impact on businesses long-term, it does not have a place in our process right now.”
Inspired Capital invests more broadly in the early-stage environment, which plays a part in its ability to invest through crises and turbulence. It seems that firms that have more niche investment theses have been more likely to change their pace ahead of the election.
This has been a long time coming, but the OpenStack Foundation today announced that it is changing its name to “Open Infrastructure Foundation,” starting in 2021.
The announcement, which the foundation made at its virtual developer conference, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Over the course of the last few years, the organization started adding new projects that went well beyond the core OpenStack project, and renamed its conference to the “Open Infrastructure Summit.” The organization actually filed for the “Open Infrastructure Foundation” trademark back in April.
Image Credits: OpenStack Foundation
After years of hype, the open-source OpenStack project hit a bit of a wall in 2016, as the market started to consolidate. The project itself, which helps enterprises run their private cloud, found its niche in the telecom space, though, and continues to thrive as one of the world’s most active open-source projects. Indeed, I regularly hear from OpenStack vendors that they are now seeing record sales numbers — despite the lack of hype. With the project being stable, though, the Foundation started casting a wider net and added additional projects like the popular Kata Containers runtime and CI/CD platform Zuul.
“We are officially transitioning and becoming the Open Infrastructure Foundation,” long-term OpenStack Foundation executive president Jonathan Bryce told me. “That is something that I think is an awesome step that’s built on the success that our community has spawned both within projects like OpenStack, but also as a movement […], which is [about] how do you give people choice and control as they build out digital infrastructure? And that is, I think, an awesome mission to have. And that’s what we are recognizing and acknowledging and setting up for another decade of doing that together with our great community.”
In many ways, it’s been more of a surprise that the organization waited as long as it did. As the foundation’s COO Mark Collier told me, the team waited because it wanted to be sure that it did this right.
“We really just wanted to make sure that all the stuff we learned when we were building the OpenStack community and with the community — that started with a simple idea of ‘open source should be part of cloud, for infrastructure.’ That idea has just spawned so much more open source than we could have imagined. Of course, OpenStack itself has gotten bigger and more diverse than we could have imagined,” Collier said.
As part of today’s announcement, the group also announced that its board approved four new members at its Platinum tier, its highest membership level: Ant Group, the Alibaba affiliate behind Alipay, embedded systems specialist Wind River, China’s FiberHome (which was previously a Gold member) and Facebook Connectivity. These companies will join the new foundation in January. To become a Platinum member, companies must contribute $350,000 per year to the foundation and have at least two full-time employees contributing to its projects.
“If you look at those companies that we have as Platinum members, it’s a pretty broad set of organizations,” Bryce noted. “AT&T, the largest carrier in the world. And then you also have a company Ant, who’s the largest payment processor in the world and a massive financial services company overall — over to Ericsson, that does telco, Wind River, that does defense and manufacturing. And I think that speaks to that everybody needs infrastructure. If we build a community — and we successfully structure these communities to write software with a goal of getting all of that software out into production, I think that creates so much value for so many people: for an ecosystem of vendors and for a great group of users and a lot of developers love working in open source because we work with smart people from all over the world.”
The OpenStack Foundation’s existing members are also on board and Bryce and Collier hinted at several new members who will join soon but didn’t quite get everything in place for today’s announcement.
We can probably expect the new foundation to start adding new projects next year, but it’s worth noting that the OpenStack project continues apace. The latest of the project’s bi-annual releases, dubbed “Victoria,” launched last week, with additional Kubernetes integrations, improved support for various accelerators and more. Nothing will really change for the project now that the foundation is changing its name — though it may end up benefitting from a reenergized and more diverse community that will build out projects at its periphery.
Like countless other sectors of the entertainment industry, movie theaters have been devastated by a global pandemic with seemingly no end in sight. Initial closings stretched on for months, as distributors have delayed their biggest films, or simply cut out the middle man by skipping straight to video-on-demand services.
Even as theaters have begun to reopen in some states, actually getting moviegoers back in seats is far easier said than done as fears over catching the highly contagious virus persist. From pop-up drive-ins to popcorn delivery services, some clever individuals have looked to ways to stay afloat during a prolonged lockdown. A number of locations have also begun offering private theater rentals — a transitional approach that offers movie fans an opportunity to return to the movie-going experience without being surrounded by strangers.
As CNN notes, mega-chain AMC has begun to offer the option through its site, with prices for renting out a theater starting at a surprisingly reasonable $99 (though not in New York, Alaska and Hawaii). Split among 10 friends, and you’re already paying less than a normal movie ticket.
Attendees can invite as many as 20 people to a screening, which consists of classic titles like “Jurassic Park” and Halloween-centric fare like “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Prices go up from there. New titles like “Tenet” and “The New Mutants” cost up to $349 for a single screening. The former, helmed by blockbuster director Christopher Nolan, was set to be a kind of litmus test for moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters.
After months of delays, however, Warner Bros. took the relatively rare step of releasing the film internationally first, as the U.S. has continued to struggle with the spread of COVID-19. The United States’ ongoing struggles have also recently allowed China to overtake the country as the world’s largest box office. Over the summer, AMC noted that it had “substantial doubt” it would be able to withstand the pandemic.