SpaceX delivers 88 satellites to orbit, lands first stage onshore for first time in 2021

SpaceX launched 85 satellites for external customers, as well as three Starlink satellites, to orbit on Tuesday, marking the second successful launch of the company’s dedicated rideshare missions. While the Transporter-2 mission will deliver fewer objects to space than the first rideshare mission (the Transporter-1 sent up 143 satellites, a new record), it launched more mass to orbit overall.

The Transporter launches are part of the company’s rideshare business model. Announced in 2019, these missions split up the rocket’s payload capacity amongst multiple customers, resulting in lower costs for each – many of whom are smaller companies that may find the expenses associated with getting to orbit otherwise impossible to pay. SpaceX still ends up with a full launch and the revenue to operate it.

The Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at around 2:32 PM. It’s the twentieth Falcon 9 launch in 2021 and the first launch this year that featured the first stage returning to land onshore, rather than on a drone ship at sea. The first stage booster separated at around 2:34 PM and returned to Cape Canaveral and successfully landed around 8 minutes after liftoff. This was its eighth flight.

The mission includes nearly ten customers, some of whom are launch service providers who are themselves organizing customer payloads – like Spaceflight Inc., who is launching 36 small satellites on behalf of 14 customers, as well as its electric propulsion vehicle dubbed Sherpa-LTE. It also includes the first satellite launch for space intelligence company Umbra and Loft Orbital’s “rideshare” satellites, YAM-2 and YAM-3, each of which are equipped with 5 independent sensors for separate customers.

As this was SpaceX’s twentieth launch this year (and 127th mission to date), it’s pretty safe to assume that the company will far surpass last year’s record of 26 launches.

This was the second attempt of the Transporter-2 launch, which was originally scheduled for June 29. That launch was halted at T-11 seconds after a rotary aircraft entered the flight zone. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the regulatory system broken in response.

Source: Tech Crunch

BMW i Ventures announces new $300 million fund to invest in sustainable technology

BMW i Ventures, the venture capital arm of BMW Group, has announced a new $300 million fund to further its investment in technologies that make transportation, manufacturing and supply chains more sustainable. 

The firm doesn’t operate as a traditional corporate venture capital fund, but rather acts independently from BMW while being fully backed by the German automaker. Its previous €500 million (about $525 million at the time) fund, which was announced when the firm moved to Silicon Valley in 2016, is now at the end of its period for new investments. From now on, new investments  will come from Fund II. 

Fund I focused more on autonomous and digital vehicle technology, customer experience and advanced production. For example, autonomous truck company Kodiak Robotics, which last week announced an investment from BMW i Ventures, was a part of this fund. Fund II will further emphasize sustainability and zero emissions in all the sectors that lead up to designing, manufacturing and building a car, rather than specifically investing in core car technology.

“Sustainable supply chain is one of the things we’re really interested in right now,” Marcus Behrendt, managing partner at BMW i Ventures, told TechCrunch. “BMW Corp has announced that it wants to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, and therefore it’s looking at all ways of producing this, not just emission from the vehicles, but also the emissions that are produced when manufacturing and developing the cars.”

BMW i Ventures started dipping its toes into such sustainable investments at the end of 2019, investing in Turntide Technologies – a company developing a smart electric motor system – Solid Power – a solid state battery technology company – and Boston Metal – a company looking to decarbonize the metal industry. Its most recent investments, says Behrendt, are indicative of what Fund II will bring. The firm has already made its first investment out of the new fund with U.K.-based Motorway, a used car marketplace. 

“We have two goals right now, so the first is the financial goal and that’s our most important driver,” Kasper Sage, managing partner at BMW i Ventures, told TechCrunch. “Certain CVCs out there don’t really care for the return on investment, they just get to benefit from the business deal that comes with the investment, which could actually hurt the business they’re investing in. Our goal is to make the company as successful as we possibly can.”

BMW i Ventures’ second goal is to provide strategic value back to the “mothership,” or BMW Group in Munich. By mainly investing in early stage companies, the firm has an early market signal that it can convey back to BMW. 

“In some cases it’s just making them aware that this new technology exists and might be coming your way,” said Sage. “For example, we invested in Lime, so that’s micromobility, nothing that will ever make its way into a car. But it is important to understand that this is a part of the future of how people move from A to B.”

Behrendt and Sage both said BMW i Ventures has no intentions of acquiring any of its investments, but rather wants to be at the forefront of finding companies with high potential that can work with BMW or the rest of the industry in the future. 

Sage said the firm has had 12 exits so far, plus six public companies at the moment and one that recently filed for a S-1 and will soon be public.

“We don’t need corporate buy-in to make an investment,” said Behrendt. “We do consult our engineers for due diligence and we also connect them with other startups. We’re trying to combine the best of both worlds. So we are acting like a financial VC, we’re taking board seats, we’re leading rounds, we can make quick decisions. And on the other hand we’re providing all the connections within our organization to the company.”

The startups that BMW i Ventures invests in get the benefit of networking with BMW engineers and employees and learning from a legacy company how the automotive ecosystem works. Behrendt says for a company like Solid Power, where the technology is is another four or five years out, there’s a strong collaboration between BMW’s business unit and the company to help them grow.

“This is a win-win situation,” said Behrendt. “We are introducing them and will bring them into the company, they will be talking to the right engineers. There’s no guarantee that they will get a contract in, but they will start working together and exploring and getting help and maybe helping out with quick solutions.”

Source: Tech Crunch

Women’s social network Peanut launches microfund StartHER to invest in pre-seed stage startups

Peanut, the maker of a social networking app for women, is entering into the investing space with today’s launch of a microfund called StartHER. As the name implies, the new fund will focus on investing in women as well as other historically excluded founders “of all ages, life stages, ethnicities and sexual orientations,” the company says. In particular, StartHER aims tackle the difficulties specific groups have in raising their first capital — something typically referred to as the “friends and family round.”

Peanut argues there’s inherent bias in assuming that every startup founder has access to what are, essentially, wealthy friends or family who can spare a little startup capital. These rounds often range in size from $10,000 to as large as $150,000 or more, and can make a difference when it comes to getting a new company off the ground.

“The assumption that founders should have networks able to invest in their businesses creates an unfair starting line for most groups. If we don’t remove barriers to that initial funding by providing access to capital, how can we ever hope to see a changing founder profile further through the fundraising funnel?” says Peanut CEO Michelle Kennedy, in a statement about the fund’s launch. “Peanut’s StartHER fund opens the door to founders looking for that early funding. It’s our opportunity to finally level the playing field. We want to be the family these founders can turn to, opening the door to our professional networks too.”

The lack of access to funds for female founders may have gotten worse during the pandemic, as Crunchbase data indicates female-founded startups globally saw a 27% decrease in funding in 2020 as compared to 2019. The pandemic shut down access to in-person networking opportunities and disproportionately impacted the family caretakers, who tend to be women, as schools, daycares and other childcare assistance businesses closed their doors. These changes may have contributed to the decline, though it’s hard to pinpoint.

But even outside the pandemic’s impacts, women are underrepresented in venture investing — including on the firm’s side. Only 13% of decision-makers at VC firms are women, which can influence what startups receive funding.

“It’s no secret that the venture capital industry is dominated by those with privilege and lucrative connections. As a member of the Female Founders Fund, I’m excited to be a part of StartHER’s investment committee to help these entrepreneurs, who have not been adequately recognized, grow their networks in the venture capital community,” said Anu Duggal, Founding Partner of Female Founders Fund, who joined SheHER’s investment committee.

StartHER says it’s looking to step in to fill that gap by offering small investments to early stage, pre-seed businesses focused on making a positive impact on society, healthcare, or the environment. According to its online application, StartHER will write checks of between $25,000 and $50,000 — likely one of the first checks a new startup may receive. The overall fund is $300,000 in size, and will make 3-4 investments in 2021.  Peanut will not take an equity stake in the companies it invests in.

“Moving forward, we’ll be considering other factors such as deal flow to help inform how we invest and the companies we choose to invest in,” explains Kennedy. :We’re heavily focused on making the right investments that will have the most impact versus simply making returns. For StartHER, our goal is not to make X number of investments for X returns, but to diversify the VC funnel by serving as an entry point to capital for underrepresented founders,” she says.

Along with Duggal and Kennedy, the investment committee for the fund includes femtech journalist and angel investor Bérénice Magistretti; Chief Business Officer at Conde Nast Britain, Vanessa Kingori MBE; Founder of Shiffon Co. and Startup Girl Foundation, Shilpa Yarlagadda, and Author, Columnist and Brand Strategist, Elizabeth Uviebinene.

Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and the committee meets every six months to consider the fund’s applications. Beyond the investment, startups who receive SheHER funds will also be given access and office hours to the networks of the committee members, the website says.

Source: Tech Crunch

Volvo Cars sets the tone for its next-gen vehicles with ‘Concept Recharge’ EV

Volvo Cars wants to completely electrify its lineup by 2030 and on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how it plans to get there and what its next generation of vehicles might look like.

But it’s not going to do it alone. Although the automaker plans on developing its own in-car operating system and other parts of the car, Volvo Cars detailed how it plans to work with partners like Northvolt, Google and Luminar to build out its future vehicles lineup. It also unveiled the first images of “Concept Recharge,” a concept EV that has flat floors, two interior screens and rear “suicide doors” that open from the middle of the vehicle.

Volvo Concept Recharge. Image Credits: Volvo Cars

The Concept Recharge is also outfitted with Luminar sensors, in line with an announcement earlier this month that Volvo Cars’ forthcoming flagship electric SUV will be equipped with Luminar’s technology stack as standard.

On the battery front, Volvo Cars is working with Swedish battery developer Northvolt on a pack that it says will enable a range of up to around 621 miles — a massive achievement of energy density, should Northvolt pull it off. The two companies are aiming to build a gigafactory in Europe by 2026 in a new 50-50 joint venture, with a potential annual capacity of up to 50 gigawatt hours. Volvo Cars will also source 15 GWh of batteries from Northvolt’s battery plant in Skellefteå, Sweden from 2024.

Future Volvo Cars vehicles will be capable of bidirectional charging, a capability that can turn the EV into a mobile generator or a mini power plant, offloading excess energy to the electricity grid.

Volvo said its OS, VolvoCars.OS, will act as an “umbrella system” for underlying operating systems, including its infotainment system led by Google and tech from Linux, QNX and AUTOSAR. While the vehicle will contain up to 100 electrical control units, these will run on a core computing system made up of three main computers being developed in partnership with Nvidia.

The automaker also discussed in more detail its plans to equip its flagship electric SUV with Luminar’s sensor suite and technology from Volvo’s software arm Zenseact. Executives shirked questions asking to specify the level of the autonomous system — referring to the scale developed by the Society of Automobile Engineers to measure the level of autonomy in a driving system — saying that they preferred to discuss the forthcoming AV driving system in terms of supervised or unsupervised. Under those terms, Volvo said the two modes — Cruise and Ride— would require driver supervision and no supervision, respectively. It said it would gradually launch unsupervised functionality at some point in the future.

The forthcoming system will generate tons of driving data from customers, and Volvo doesn’t intend on it to go to waste. The automaker said it aims to build a data factory to process information it collects from customers that use its autonomous drive safety features (with their consent). It would use this data to make improvements on the system, which it would push to vehicles via over-the-air updates.

“We need to transform this company from just a premium conventional company. We need to transform it into a leader in the new premium electric segment, which is growing very fast,” Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson said. “We need to understand batteries in the same way we understand the combustion engine.”

Source: Tech Crunch

How to cut through the promotional haze and select a digital building platform

Everyone from investors to casual LinkedIn observers has more reasons than ever to look at buildings and wonder what’s going on inside. The property industry is known for moving slowly when it comes to adopting new technologies, but novel concepts and products are now entering this market at a dizzying pace.

However, this ever-growing array of smart-building products has made it confusing for professionals who seek to implement digital building platform (DBP) technologies in their spaces, let alone across their entire enterprise. The waters get even murkier when it comes to cloud platforms and their impact on ROI with regard to energy usage and day-to-day operations.

Breaking down technology decisions into bite-sized pieces, starting with fundamental functions, is the most straightforward way to cut through the promotional haze.

Facility managers, energy professionals and building operators are increasingly hit with daily requests to review the latest platform for managing and operating their buildings. Here are a few tips to help decision-makers clear through the marketing fluff and put DBP platforms to the test.

The why, how and what

Breaking down technology decisions into bite-sized pieces, starting with fundamental functions, is the most straightforward way to cut through the promotional haze. Ask two simple questions: Who on your team will use this technology and what problem will it solve for them? Answers to these questions will help you maintain your key objectives, making it easier to narrow down the hundreds of options to a handful.

Another way to prioritize problems and solutions when sourcing smart-building technology is to identify your use cases. If you don’t know why you need a technology platform for your smart building, you’ll find it difficult to tell which option is better. Further, once you have chosen one, you’ll be hard put to determine if it has been successful. We find use cases draw the most direct line from why to how and what.

For example, let’s examine the why, how and what questions for a real estate developer planning to construct or modernize a commercial office building:

  • Why will people come? — Our building will be full of amenities and technological touches that will make discerning tenants feel comfortable, safe and part of a warm community of like-minded individuals.
  • How will we do it? — Implement the latest tenant-facing technology offering services and capabilities that are not readily available at home. We will create indoor and outdoor environments that make people feel comfortable and happy.
  • What tools, products and technology will we use?

This last question is often the hardest to answer and is usually left until the last possible moment. For building systems integrators, this is where the real work begins.

Focus on desired outcomes

When various stakeholder groups begin their investigations of the technology, it is crucial to define the outcomes everyone hopes to achieve for each use case. When evaluating specific products, it helps to categorize them at high levels.

Several high-level outcomes, such as digital twin enablement, data normalization and data storage are expected across multiple categories of systems. However, only an enterprise building management system includes the most expected outcomes. Integration platform as a service, bespoke reports and dashboarding, analytics as a service and energy-optimization platforms have various enabled and optional outcomes.

The following table breaks down a list of high-level outcomes and aligns them to a category of smart-building platforms available in the market. Expanded definitions of each item are included at the end of this article.

Source: Tech Crunch

Facebook’s newsletter platform Bulletin is now live

The cool new thing on Facebook is for Mark Zuckerberg to drop product news in live audio rooms. So today, Zuckerberg took to his brand’s Clubhouse competitor to announce its next new thing: Bulletin, a newsletter platform.

Bulletin is built on a separate platform from Facebook — on its website, the FAQ states that this is to “enable creators to grow their audience in ways that are not exclusively dependent on the Facebook platform.” You don’t need a Facebook account to subscribe to a newsletter, but Bulletin relies on Facebook’s infrastructure, including the use of Facebook Pay to purchase premium subscriptions and join subscriber-only groups and live audio rooms.

Competitors like Substack take a “hands-off” approach to content moderation, allowing anyone to start a newsletter. But every writer currently on Facebook’s Bulletin was hand-picked to contribute. Still, Substack has received scrutiny for subsidizing anti-trans rhetoric through its controversial Substack Pro program, which commissioned particular writers to write on Substack. So, Bulletin won’t be immune to the issues that plague Substack despite its heavily curated model.

The initial slate of writers on Bulletin includes Malcom Gladwell, Mitch Albom, Erin Andrews and Tan France — the FAQ also notes that its beta program is U.S.-centric, with only two international writers at the moment (“We will look to include more international creators after our beta program launch,” Bulletin says.) Facebook is paying its writers up front for their contributions, and so far, doesn’t plan to take a cut of their profits. If writers choose to move off the platform, they will have the ability to take their subscriber lists with them.

Source: Tech Crunch

How VCs can get the most out of co-investing alongside LPs

It has rarely been easier for people looking to invest. Nontraditional investors, which include anyone outside of traditional VC firms investing in venture capital deals, are increasingly making their presence felt in the investing community.

McKinsey found that the value of co-investment deals has more than doubled to $104 billion from 2012 to 2018. And by some counts, there are as many as 1,600 “nontraditional” investors helping to fund venture capital deals in 2021.

The primary motivator for nontraditional investors is seeking better returns, and investing alongside VC funds is a great way to achieve that. A recent Preqin study shows co-investing funds significantly outperform traditional funds.

Research shows that 80% of investors found their co-investments outperforming private equity fund investments, with 46% outperforming by a margin of more than 5%. Investors also benefit from a generally less expensive fee structure compared to traditional private equity or VC funds.

When evaluating deals, keep in mind that most companies are not going to be the next tech unicorn, so set realistic views on exits.

Co-investors can also profit by sharing the investment risk, which benefits all investors and builds loyalty and trust. And because this kind of investing requires a hands-on approach, investors get the chance to work closely with top sponsors — the general partners (GPs) — to foster deeper relationships and gain a better understanding of the GPs’ investment strategies and deal review processes. For new investors, building these relationships is essential for strengthening their own investment skills in the long run.

Why VCs love alternative investors

Alternative investors aren’t the only ones who benefit from co-investing, it’s also a boon for GPs. They gain a broader array of funding options by partnering with alternative investors, and they can leverage their own capital more effectively with prospective investments.

VCs have other benefits too: While co-investing LPs remain passive in the business, the VC can use that voting power to preserve investor rights and consolidate decision-making. It also allows them to put more money to work in any company while staying within diversification limits.

Source: Tech Crunch

The engineering daring that led to the first Chinese personal computer

China is one of the world’s wealthiest digital economies today, with a hardware supply chain that is unrivaled and a panoply of prominent and massively profitable companies like Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance taking a leading role in the world. Yet, all of this cutting-edge innovation rests on a 40-year-old solution to one of the great computing challenges: the development of Chinese word processing.

Beginning in the early 1980s, China dramatically expanded its computing purchases from the United States and the West, importing just 600 foreign-built microcomputers in the year 1980, as compared to 130,000 in 1985. Companies in the United States, Japan and Europe clamored to get in on this “buying binge,” as one observer called it.

There was a major problem, however, both for potential Chinese computer users and Western manufacturers: No Western-built personal computer, printer, monitor, operating system, program or otherwise was capable of handling Chinese character input or output — not in the early- and mid-1980s, anyway, and certainly not “out of the box.” Without some major overhauls, mass-manufactured personal computers were effectively useless for anyone wanting to operate in Chinese.

The major problem for both potential Chinese computer users and Western manufacturers was that no Western-built personal computer, printer, monitor, operating system, program or otherwise was capable of handling Chinese character input or output.

One of the most important reasons was the problem of memory — specifically the memory required for Chinese fonts. At the advent of Latin alphabetic computing, Western engineers and designers determined that a font for English could be built upon a 5-by-7 bitmap grid — requiring only 5 bytes of memory per symbol. Although far from aesthetically pleasing, this grid offered sufficient resolution to render the letters of the Latin alphabet legibly on a computer terminal or a paper printout. Storing the 95 printable characters of U.S. ASCII required just 475 bytes of memory — a tiny fraction of, for example, the Apple II’s then 48 KB of motherboard memory. 

To achieve comparable, bare-minimum legibility for Chinese characters, the 5-by-7 grid was far too small. When designing a bitmap font for Chinese, engineers had no choice but to increase the size of the Latin alphabetic grid geometrically, from 5-by-7 pixels to upward of 16-by-16 pixels or larger, or at least 32 bytes of memory per Chinese character. The total memory required to store just the bitmaps (in either simplified or traditional form, but not both, and with no accompanying metadata) would equal approximately 256 KB for the 8,000 most commonly used Chinese characters, or four times the total capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s. All this, even before accounting for the RAM requirements for the operating system and application software.

Draft bitmaps from the Sinotype III Chinese font, prepared prior to digitization. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Such is the context for one of the great engineering histories of modern computing, a tale of entrepreneurial daring and engineering ingenuity that provides a unique look into the global development of the digital revolution.

This is the first of two articles on TechCrunch in which I examine the Sinotype III, an experimental machine that was among the first personal computers to handle Chinese-language input and output. Built atop a store-bought Apple II — but outfitted with a custom-programmed word processor and operating system — Sinotype III served as a “proof of concept” that demonstrated how one could “translate” Western-manufactured computers into Chinese, and thereby open up a vast new marketplace.

In this first part, I will examine the profound technical challenges around computer memory, fonts and operating systems faced by the creators of Sinotype III, and how they devised novel solutions to overcome them.

“The chutzpah of a newly minted graduate who had no immediate job prospects”

Our story begins with the Graphic Arts Research Foundation (GARF) — the organization where, arguably, Chinese computing was born. The Ideographic Composing Machine, also known as the Sinotype, was invented in the late 1950s by MIT electrical engineer Samuel Hawks Caldwell with GARF funding. Following his untimely death in 1960, the project came to a standstill. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Sinotype project was kept alive by a number of different parties, including the Itek Corporation, RCA, and finally, GARF once again.

Keyboard of Sinotype I, designed by Samuel Caldwell in the late 1950s. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Sinotype’s homecoming was thanks in large part to one man: Louis Rosenblum. Born in 1921 in New York City, he was yet another member of the MIT family, graduating in 1942 with an undergraduate degree in Applied Math. Studying under Harold Edgerton, the world-renowned professor of electrical engineering (and who shot the famous “milk drop coronet” photo in the 1930s), Rosenblum took a job at Polaroid immediately following graduation, working with Edwin Land on a variety of projects, including the development of instant photography. In 1954, he moved to Photon — where he worked on photocomposition of non-Latin writing systems. Deeply familiar with the late Caldwell’s pioneering work on Sinotype, Rosenblum effectively adopted the project, and revived it when he joined GARF as a consultant in the mid-1970s.

Diagram showing configuration of Sinotype II system, running on a Nova 1200 CPU. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

GARF continued to work on the Sinotype project well into the early 1980s, by which point it had developed an advisory board featuring a host of renowned scholars, as well as those with deep China experience. Harvard linguist Susumo Kuno came on board; as did Richard Solomon, known for his pivotal role in Richard Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972 and then head of the Social Science Department at the RAND Corporation.

As stellar as this brain trust was, however, GARF’s major breakthrough on the Sinotype project — the leap from a minicomputer-based system (Sinotype II) to one based on a microcomputer (Sinotype III) — was catalyzed by a college student whose only experience at GARF to date was a brief, two-week gig working on data management for the Sinotype II project in 1979. He was Bruce Rosenblum, Louis Rosenblum’s son.

Bruce Rosenblum using the Sinotype III system. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and an aspiring photojournalist, Bruce was balancing his time between coursework and his role as photo editor for the independent student-run newspaper Daily Pennsylvanian. The paper was remarkably advanced in terms of the equipment it ran, as well as the deep expertise of the students in charge.

By the fall of Bruce’s junior year, the paper’s existing typesetting equipment (two Compugraphic typesetters) were on their last legs and needed to be replaced. Along with three of his student colleagues at the paper, Bruce assisted in the process of researching potential replacements, eventually settling on a combined $125,000 contract with two companies: Mycro-Tek in Wichita, Kansas, and Compugraphic, in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

As for the Sinotype project — one that Bruce was well aware of, thanks to his father, but with which he had no involvement — a pivotal moment came in early May 1981. Bruce had just completed his final exams, and stopped by the offices of the paper. His colleague Eric Jacobs was there, hard at work on a TRS-80 Model II personal computer from Radio Shack. Jacobs was contemplating how this microcomputer might be used to run the newspaper’s business operations. Bruce observed for perhaps 30 minutes, before heading on with his day. 

Those 30 minutes stuck with him, however. “It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone work on a microcomputer,” Bruce recalled by email to me, “and those few minutes were the inspiration that triggered the whole Sinotype III project and eventually my career in computers.”

Later that same week, Bruce made a somewhat off-the-cuff remark in a phone call with his father. Referencing the immense cost of the Data General hardware GARF was then using to build Sinotype II, Bruce remarked that someone could probably program something equivalent or better on a microcomputer for a fraction of the cost — perhaps with as little as $10,000 worth of hardware, as compared to the more than $100,000 price tag for the equipment GARF was currently funding.

His father was intrigued. Louis asked Bruce if he himself might be up to the task of programming such a machine. Bruce boasted no formal training in computer science, although he had worked extensively with computers in high school and taught himself both PDP-8 assembly language and BASIC. “Sure,” he responded to his father’s query with “the chutzpah of a newly minted graduate who had no immediate job prospects.”

During his world tour, Bruce Rosenblum continued to work on the Sinotype III project, including on notepaper from New Delhi. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections.

In June 1981, Bruce had a formal meeting in New York with Bill Garth, Prescott Low and his father Louis to present his Sinotype III proposal. Bruce dressed for the part, arriving in a three-piece suit. In Bruce’s formal proposal, he cited a total of $7,500 in hardware costs, with an additional $5,000 for programming fees. The plan promised a Chinese word processor, running on an Apple II, delivered in approximately four months. If this worked, it would reduce the cost of such a machine by an order of magnitude.

Bruce got the job and went on to program Sinotype III from June to November 1981, balancing time between this and his full-time job as a tour guide for the National Park Service at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. During daytime breaks he would write out assembly code by hand, transcribing it at night. When Labor Day in 1981 came, and Bruce’s tour guide job ended, he dedicated two months straight to finishing the code and delivered it to GARF.

Memory hacking 

The first problem that GARF and the Rosenblums faced was that of computer memory. Developers of early Chinese personal computers explored every available option in their effort to juice as much memory as possible out of their systems. We will explore two strategies in particular, sometimes employed in isolation, but often in concert: Adaptive Memory and Chinese Character Cards.

The Sinotype III system comprised five components: a Sanyo DM5012CM 12-inch monitor; an Epson MX-70 printer; a Corvus 10 MB “Rigid Disk Storage” for storing the Chinese character bitmap database and their corresponding “descriptor codes”; an Apple Disk Drive “for storage of text files”; and the Apple II itself.

Out of the box, the Apple II came with 32 KB of RAM, extensible to 48 KB on the motherboard. “We maxed that out even before the Apple II left the store,” Bruce Rosenblum remarked by email to me. 48 KB of memory was still far too little for his purposes, however, and so Bruce opted for what, at the time, was a fully standard modification, commonly employed by so-called “power users” of the era: namely, to insert an additional 16 KB memory card in slot 0, thereby bringing the total available memory to 64 KB. 

Even this was too little, however. “I needed more RAM to store a full encoding system,” he said, “and also the 16-by-16 bitmaps for the 100 most frequent ideographs.”

He began to explore a “mod” of the Apple II that few if any others had tried before. “Somehow,” he said, “I figured out I could put a second 16 KB board in slot 2 of the Apple II, and that gave me a total of 80 KB. Completely nonstandard,” he continued, “but it worked with off-the-shelf components.”

This modification pushed the machine past its own limitations, however. The 6502 microprocessor on the Apple II was only capable of accessing 64 KB of memory directly — meaning that, even with the additional 16 KB Bruce had managed to bootstrap in with the second memory board, there was simply no built-in way for the Apple II to simultaneously access these additional addresses in memory. So “nonstandard” was this mod that, when he told an Apple engineer about it during one of his many conversations, the Apple rep was shocked — he had never heard of, or thought of, doing such a thing. 

To enable the Apple II to access 80 KB of memory, rather than just 64 KB, Bruce dispensed with the out-of-the-box operating system and programmed his own in assembly language. Key to his custom-designed program was the possibility of “selecting between two banks of 16 KB that overlap each other.” In other words, although only 64 KB worth of memory locations would be accessible at any one instant, by rapidly oscillating between the two memory expansion cards, he could in effect trick the computer into accessing both at speeds that, from the perspective of the user, would have been negligible. That squeezed 25% more memory out of the system, enabling the inclusion of perhaps as many as 400 more Chinese characters in on-board memory.

Bruce delivered the final code to GARF the week before Thanksgiving, and then set out on a world backpacking tour that would take him across Europe and Asia. From this point on, development of Sinotype III would be largely in the hands of Louis Rosenblum and GARF, although Bruce continued to serve as a consultant, exchanging frequent correspondence with his father from wherever in Europe, China, India or elsewhere he found himself at the moment.

Speeding toward real-time Chinese typing

Even with his ingenious mod, however, Louis and Bruce estimated that a mere 600 to 1,000 Chinese characters would be able to fit in on-board memory. When accounting for the size of Sinotype III’s operating system, program applications and the memory requirements of each Chinese character, the vast majority of Chinese characters in the machine’s lexicon would need to be stored somewhere else, whether on floppy disks, an external hard drive or via some other hardware solution. 

Sinotype III Computer Monitor. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Early on, Bruce briefly contemplated using PROM (programmable read-only memory) chips — but this idea quickly revealed itself to be a dead end. Circa 1981 and 1982, the largest PROM chips on the market maxed out at 2 KB of memory, which translated into a mere 28 to 51 Chinese characters. In order to store 7,000 Chinese characters in this fashion, then, Bruce would have needed either 138 or 250 PROM chips. “That’s a lot of chips,” he remarked.

Bruce then considered the possibility of storing characters on floppy disks. This, too, proved unworkable, not only because of the large number of disks it would have required, but also the slow access and retrieval speeds involved in fetching character bitmaps from floppy drive storage. GARF opted instead for a third solution: to outfit Sinotype III with an external hard drive, which at the time was an almost unheard-of microcomputer accessory. In order to overcome the profound memory limitations, GARF would store thousands of lower-frequency Chinese characters “off-site” in the system’s external hard drive: a 10 MB Corvus “Rigid Disk Storage.”

This had negative implications for the operating speed of Sinotype III, however. Within the space-time continuum of computing, in which most operations take place at blazing subsecond speeds, hard drives were cumbersome beasts. Particularly at this time, they relied on rigid magnetic disks — “platters” — that rotated within the device, not unlike a record player. The contents of various “tracks” were read by a head, similar to how the grooves on a record are read by the needle. Retrieval speeds depended upon the location of the head, and the particular rotational position of the disk at the moment of the retrieval request. Not unlike arriving at the stop to find that the bus has just departed, one had no option except to wait until the bus came back around again.

In concrete terms, retrieval times for Chinese characters stored on the hard drive were 10 times slower than those stored in RAM. Specifically, the retrieval time for those Chinese characters stored in RAM could be achieved in approximately 100 milliseconds per character — a unit of time imperceptible by human cognition. As for the characters stored in external storage, however, the input of any of these characters required as much as a full second to access and retrieve — a unit of time well within the threshold of human perception.

A one-second input time would have proven devastatingly slow within the context of mid-1980s personal computing, where users in English-language contexts were quickly becoming accustomed to real-time typing. In addition, one second is, obviously, 10 times as long as 100 milliseconds, meaning that the average user would be able to feel this differential each and every time they wished to input lower-frequency characters.

In order to mitigate this problem, Louis Rosenblum hit upon an idea that he referred to as “adaptive temporary storage.” Sinotype III would be able to adjust the set of characters stored in RAM depending upon what the user had recently inputted. Upon initial boot, Sinotype III’s on-board RAM would be outfitted only with a predetermined set of high-frequency characters. The inputting of any hard-drive-based infrequent character would take up to one second, as noted above. However, “as each of the less frequent ideographs is keyboarded,” he explained in a letter at the time, “its code and dot matrix pattern will be noted in the random access memory.” In other words, such characters would be temporarily copied from the hard drive to on-board RAM cache, thereby reducing subsequent retrieval times.

Internal GARF document showing Sinotype III character database and metadata. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections


Even with recourse to toggling and adaptive memory, there remained many thousands of characters that fell beyond the limits of such strategies. While high-frequency Chinese characters accounted for a large percentage of overall usage, the production of any kind of technical or specialist content would have certainly brought the user repeatedly into the “off-site” repository of Chinese characters. More of these “low-frequency” characters needed to be brought “on-site” if the experience of Chinese computing was ever going to approach the same feeling of instantaneity enjoyed by English-language counterparts. 

Engineers in the late 1970s and early 1980s began to explore a different hardware solution, referred to as “Chinese Character Cards” (Hanka), “Chinese Cards” (Zhongwenka), “Chinese Character Generators,” “Chinese Font Generators” (Hanzi zimo fashengqi) or, as one article delightfully referred to them, “Chinese-on-a-Chip.” Much like memory cards and graphic cards, “Chinese character cards” were designed to be installed directly into motherboard expansion slots. Hardwired into these cards were thousands of Chinese bitmaps and input encodings. In effect, they served the same role as an external hard drive, but at far faster speeds and with more reliable performance. 

“Chinese-on-a-chip” cards were not the focus of research at GARF. Rather, they grew out of the earlier era of custom-designed Chinese systems, all prior to the personal computing revolution. These included systems such as the Ideographix IPX, by Chan Yeh, and the Olympia 1011, which were outfitted with microprocessors whose sole purpose was the generation of character bitmaps and the storage of input descriptors. On the Olympia 1011 Chinese word processor — basically a single-purpose electric Chinese typewriter — one of the three Intel 8085 processors was dedicated exclusively to Chinese character generation.

During the early 1980s, such character generators were commoditized and turned into salable products themselves. No longer did one need to buy a full-fledged word processor, such as the Olympia 1011, to gain access to this kind of on-board character generator. Instead, one could purchase a “Chinese Character Card” and then install it on one’s personal computer of choice. 

Among the earliest centers of Chinese computing to focus on Chinese Character Cards was Tsinghua University, where researchers developed an early card capable of storing approximately 6,000 Chinese bitmap patterns in 32-by-32 dot matrix format. By the mid- and late-1980s, there were dozens of different “Hanka” on the market, manufactured and marketed by companies across Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere.

By the mid- and late-1980s, the “Chinese-on-a-chip” approach became so important and common that practically all computers boasting Chinese or Japanese-language capabilities featured a character generator card of one sort or another.

Thus, from the 1950s with Caldwell’s Sinotype to the duo father-son Rosenblum team and GARF around Sinotype III in the 1980s, solving the memory problems associated with Chinese characters was the linchpin to opening the Chinese market to computing. Hacking computers with more memory, creating adaptive memory algorithms for prioritizing characters, and building dedicated hardware bridged the problem and initiated the computer revolution in China.

Yet, the next step was how to expand beyond the computer itself to everything that might connect to it. In part two of this series, coming up shortly on TechCrunch, our discussion will continue with a deep dive into the challenges of designing and programming early computer monitors, printers and other peripherals capable of handling Chinese text output. 

Source: Tech Crunch

Zomato’s $100 million investment to turn Grofers into a unicorn

Indian food delivery giant Zomato, which is working to explore the public markets later this year, has reached an agreement to invest $100 million in online grocer Grofers for about 10% stake in the seven-year-old startup, according to a source and multiple others familiar with the matter.

The proposed investment values Grofers, which counts SoftBank as its largest investor, at over $1 billion. (Indian regulator, the Competition Commission of India, needs to approve the investment.) Zomato’s proposed investment is part of a broader round, in which others including Tiger Global and SoftBank Vision Fund 2 are expected to chip in some capital. Zomato said it had no comment.

The leadership teams at Grofers and Zomato have long been close friends and began exploring this investment earlier this year. Both the firms are also open to the idea of Zomato acquiring a majority stake in Grofers in the coming quarters, though a decision hasn’t been reached and won’t be fully explored until Zomato becomes a publicly traded company, the source told TechCrunch.

Zomato, which acquired Uber’s Indian food delivery business early last year, has told some of its major investors that it envisions a future where the Gurgaon-based firm has expanded much beyond the food delivery category, the source said, requesting anonymity as the talks are private.

Grofers operates an online grocery delivery service in India. The startup has witnessed a sharp surge in its popularity in the past year as several Indian states enforced strict lockdown restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. The startup competes with BigBasket, which recently sold its majority stake to Indian conglomerate Tata Group.

The Indian online grocery market has seen a new player emerge in the past one year, Reliance Industries, India’s most valuable firm. Reliance, which operates the largest retail chain in India, last year launched JioMart.

“JioMart’s growth is a testament to its already loyal customer base, 80% of whom are repeat shoppers. JioMart New commerce’s aim is to transform and grow the small merchant ecosystem, so our merchant partners prosper. Over the past year, over 300,000 merchant or shopkeeper partners across 150 cities were enabled and empowered to transform their businesses both physically and digitally,” said Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, earlier this month.

In a note to clients earlier this year, Bank of America analysts estimated that the online grocery delivery market could be worth $12 billion in India by 2023.

“Competition is high in the sector with large verticals like BigBasket/Grofers and horizontal like Amazon/Flipkart trying to convert the unorganized market to organized one. Till recently the No 1 player in the space was BigBasket, with it hitting $1 billion annualized GMV & selling over 300,000 orders every day. Reliance Industries also threw its hat with the company launching its JioMart app in May-20 across 200 cites,” they wrote.

Source: Tech Crunch

Family app Life360 announces $2.1M investment round from celebs and influencers

Family communication and tracking app Life360 has announced a new investment round that will see the company bringing on board a number of “celeb” investors and influencers who, combined, will form a new “Family Advisory Council” to help shape Life360’s future product direction and marketing. The round, which is approximately $2.1 million in size, was led by Bryant Stibel, the firm co-founded by the late Kobe Bryant and business partner Jeff Stibel. Others in the round included Vanessa Bryant, Joanna and Chip Gaines, Tony Hawk, Chris and Jada Paul, TikTok influencer Billy Perry, and Nicole and Michael Phelps.

Life360 has traded on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) since listing two years ago, so this round is more about bringing on new stakeholders who can also help attract more attention to Life360’s service. The company says it’s currently on track to top $110 million USD in revenue this year for its app now used by over 28 million monthly users across 195+ countries. As of March 2021, 916,000 families are paying for Life360’s service.

The celeb investors along with Life360 will form the Family Advisory Council which will draw on the advisors’ own family experiences to help inform feature developments and shape the future of the product and marketing strategy, Life360 says.

The company has been working to be more responsive to family members’ concerns, as it wants to position its app as something all family members want to use — not just helicopter parents snooping on their kids. In fact, Life360 CEO Chris Hulls took to TikTok last year to listen to teens’ complaints about their lack of privacy, then used that to develop a more privacy-respecting feature called “Bubbles.” The feature shows a bubble around a general location, not a blue dot with an exact location. This is meant to give teens a sense of the freedom they crave, while also helping parents and kids establish better trust.

The new Family Advisory Council could help Life360 streamline similar sorts of input from families, it appears.

“Investing and advising in companies is typically an adult thing, not something you do with your children,” said Hulls, in a statement about the investment. “We’re creating a unique opportunity to advise on a product side by side with your kids. Having the support of these icons speaks volumes to our long term vision to be the leading provider in family safety services. Life360 wants to create a brand that feels meaningful and relevant for both parents and kids. So it’s only natural that we would ask our investors to participate in the same spirit,” he added.

“One of my passions is ensuring children get the opportunities they deserve,” noted new investor, Vanessa Bryant (Kobe’s widow). “Life360 helps families feel safe and protected by making carpooling, pickup and drop-offs easier for parents, while also providing locations at their kids’ schools, activities and sports practices. Having modern tools like driving information, speed and phone usage makes me feel a lot more at ease, especially with my teenage driver. I love the fact that I can see my daughter’s location and speed in a vehicle whether she’s driving or as a passenger,” her statement said.

Though best known for its location services, Life360 has been working to establish itself as more than just a family tracker, given the competition from apps like Find My that now come built into mobile devices, as well as services provided by mobile operators. Today, Life360’s suite of family tools includes those for driving safety, emergency assistance, identity protection, and more.

Earlier this year, Life360 also announced the acquisition of wearable device maker Jiobit to expand its tracking abilities to include family members without phones, like young children and even pet.

That $37 million deal will close in about 30 days, the company tells us.

The addition of the new investors follows Life360’s appointment of Randi Zuckerberg to its Board of Directors earlier this year, and last year’s addition of new C-Suite execs, CFO Russell Burke and CPO Jonathan Benassaya, to focus on the company’s business mode and product offerings, respectively.

Source: Tech Crunch