Google rolls back SameSite cookie changes to keep essential online services from breaking

Google today announced that it will temporarily roll back the changes it recently made to how its Chrome browser handles cookies in order to ensure that sites that perform essential services like banking, online grocery, government services and healthcare won’t become inaccessible to Chrome users during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The new SameSite rules, which the company started rolling out to a growing number of Chrome users in recent months, are meant to make it harder for sites to access cookies from third-party sites and hence track a user’s online activity. These new rules are also meant to prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.

Under Google’s new guidance, developers must explicitly allow their cookies to be read by third-party sites, otherwise, the browser will prevent these third-party sites from accessing them.

Because this is a pretty major change, Google gave developers quite a bit of time to adapt their applications to it. Still, not every site is ready yet, so the Chrome team decided to halt the gradual rollout and stop enforcing these new rules for the time being.

“While most of the web ecosystem was prepared for this change, we want to ensure stability for websites providing essential services including banking, online groceries, government services and healthcare that facilitate our daily life during this time,” writes Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh. “As we roll back enforcement, organizations, users and sites should see no disruption.”

A Google spokesperson also told us that the team saw some breakage in sites “that would not normally be considered essential, but with COVID-19 having become more important, we made this decision in an effort to ensure stability during this time.”

The company says it plans to resume its SameSite enforcement over the summer, though the exact timing isn’t yet clear.


Source: Tech Crunch

How Homage is tackling Southeast Asia’s growing eldercare need

The world’s population is aging, but the needs of elderly people are still being underserved. A United Nations report found that older people make up more than one-fifth of the population in 17 countries, and by 2100, a majority of the world’s population, or 61%, will be aged 60 and above.

One of the most urgent needs for families is caregiving, with demand outstripping the pool of qualified providers. This means many people in their thirties and forties are now part of the “sandwich generation,” juggling jobs and child care while looking after elderly relatives. This creates both an opportunity and challenge for tech startups and investors in almost every market around the world.

In Southeast Asia, Homage is addressing the issue with a platform that takes a curated approach to pairing caregivers and families, using a combination of in-person screening and its matching engine to make the process more efficient. Currently operating in Singapore and Malaysia, the startup announced earlier this year that it will use its Series B funding to expand into five new countries in the region.

Backed by investors, including HealthXCapital, Golden Gate Ventures and EV Ventures, Homage was co-founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Gillian Tee, who grew up in Singapore and was inspired by her family’s own experiences looking for caregivers. Tee says she wanted to build a platform that would make the process of matching caregivers and clients easier, and be scalable into different markets.

“It’s not the easiest space to be in, and I would say that you do need to want to be intentionally working in this space, rather than just falling into it. It goes hand in hand,” she told TechCrunch. “We found that there is a huge market opportunity, but why we’re doing it goes way beyond that.”

How Homage addresses the talent pool shortage


Source: Tech Crunch

GM and Honda are co-developing two new electric vehicles due to arrive in 2024

GM and Honda will jointly develop two new electric vehicles slated for 2024, the latest move by the two automakers to deepen their existing partnership.

Under the plan, the automakers will focus on their respective areas of expertise. Honda will design the exterior and interiors of the new electric vehicles; GM will contribute its new electric vehicle architecture and Ultium batteries. This new architecture, which GM unveiled last month to showcase its own EV plans, is capable of 19 different battery and drive-unit configurations. The architecture includes large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint venture between LG Chem and GM.

The vehicles, which will have a Honda nameplate, will incorporate GM’s OnStar safety and security services. GM’s hands-free advanced driver assistance technology, known as Super Cruise, will also be available in the new vehicles.

The vehicles will be produced at GM plants in North America. Sales are expected to begin in the 2024 model year in Honda’s U.S. and Canadian markets.

The aim is to pull the strengths of both companies to unlock economies of scale around electric vehicles, according to Rick Schostek, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., who added that the two companies are already in discussions about further extending the partnership.

The companies have a long history of working together, including sharing vehicles as far back as the late 1990s when Isuzu was part of GM. The bulk of the joint projects have centered on hydrogen fuel cell tech, batteries and more recently, autonomous vehicles.

GM and Honda formed a strategic alliance in July 2013 to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology, a partnership that has produced some 1,200 patents. The automakers formed a joint venture in 2017 called Fuel Cell System Manufacturing LLC to produce hydrogen fuel cell systems. FCSM is installing the production equipment for their first high-volume fuel cell manufacturing facility in Brownstown, Michigan with production expected to begin this year, according to GM.

The companies announced in 2018 an agreement for Honda to use battery cells and modules from GM in electric vehicles built for the North American market.

GM acquired Cruise in 2016; Honda later committed $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and its self-driving technology subsidiary Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle. Cruise Origin, an electric, self-driving and shared vehicle and the first product of that arrangement, was revealed January 21.


Source: Tech Crunch

Insight closes $9.5B fund to help support portfolio companies through the pandemic crunch

We’re now several weeks into what has become a very big dip for the global economy due to the coronavirus pandemic, but amidst that, we are seeing are some notable pockets of investment activity emerging that will help shape how the future startup landscape will look. Today, one of the biggest venture capital firms in the world announced the closing of a huge fund, money that it will use in large part to help its portfolio businesses weather the storm.

Insight, the firm that has backed the likes of Twitter and Shopify and invests across a range of consumer and enterprise startups (400 in all), today announced that it has closed a fund of $9.5 billion, money it will be using to support startups and “scale-ups” (larger and older startups that are still private) in the coming months. Investments will typically be between $10 million and $350 million, “although larger transactions are also possible,” the company said.

“First and foremost, we want to acknowledge the current climate and the hardships being felt across the globe,” said Jeff Horing, Insight Partners’ founder and MD, in a statement. “We are thankful and humbled by the support of our investors which enables us to continue to deliver world class resources during turbulent economic times. Fund XI gives us continued flexibility to provide the combination of capital and operating support that suits the different needs of every software company in a dynamic world.”

This fund, numbered XI, brought in a number of returning backers alongside new investors, and it is record-sized for the company. It also appears to have been oversubscribed, since back in November when it was launched the fund was estimated to be worth just over $7 billion. All the more impressive, too, is that it closed just this week, at a time when many startups are starting to feel the pinch of a business downturn, and are either laying off staff or freezing hiring to curtail costs, leading investors to get a little shaky.

Insight’s fund is a signal of two themes. One is that there are, even now, some silver linings, where particular business areas are seeing huge surges of activity (videoconferencing to connect all the people now sheltering in place at home; those helping keep food delivery operational; entertainment streaming companies; and those focusing on medical research or telehealth are just five categories seeing a positive impact; there are more). This fund will help Insight invest in these opportunities to help these businesses grow to meet the demand.

The second theme is a little less upbeat but still important, and that is the fact that there are a number of very promising ideas out there that have already been backed by VC money, which will not survive the current economic crunch without some support. VC money will likely be used in a very targeted way to help in those situations, alongside more fiscal belt-tightening and other funding means (for example, loans that the U.S. government will be issuing via the CARES act to help small businesses get through lean times brought by the coronavirus pandemic).

Indeed, a spokesperson said Insight will be “hyper-focused on supporting its portfolio companies” with ongoing and near-future funding.

We’ve reached out to see if we can get more detail on how new investments, versus reinvesting in existing portfolio companies, will figure in future funding, and we’re also asking if there are specific categories that are of particular interest at the moment. We’ll update this post as we learn more.

“Since our first investment 25 years ago, the global software ecosystem has matured even as it continues to innovate, spurring Insight’s own innovation in sourcing, and our data-driven partnership approach to working with ScaleUp companies as a minority or buyout investor,” said Managing Director Deven Parekh. “We are grateful that through economic cycles and unprecedented circumstances, Insight Partners remains a sought-after institutional platform for supporting next generation software companies.”

In a separate letter to investors, Horing and Parekh also noted the complicated climate of the moment — which includes not just the challenge of VCs raising funds right now amid a climate of LPs also feeling the crunch, but also the fact that not all startups will be able to rely on all their investors to support them through these challenging times. Tough decisions will need to be made at all levels.


Source: Tech Crunch

Sleep apnea retrofit designed by doctors and engineers could help address ventilator shortage

The FDA has been working to adapt its policies and restrictions to respond to the growing need for unconventional solutions like shortages of medical equipment needed for treating COVID-19 patients. A group of doctors, engineers and medical researchers from UC Berkeley, UCSF and working hospitals has devised a creative solution to the ventilator shortage they’re hoping will meet FDA standards for emergency use authorization (EUA), working with readily available hardware and a stockpile of medical breathing equipment that’s resting mostly unused under our noses.

The group, which includes pulmonary care physicians, medical and engineering professors, and many more, is calling themselves the COVID-19 Ventilator Rapid Response Team, and together they’ve figured out a way to modify existing CPAP machines typically used to treat sleep apnea to act as the kinds of ventilators needed for intubation to keep severe COVID-19 patients breathing in the ICU.

Sleep apnea machines are not designed for continuous use with patients who can’t breathe on their own — they basically just ensure that a patient’s airway doesn’t become blocked during sleep, which maintains oxygen levels, and prevents unwanted wake-ups and snoring. The group behind this new CPAP modification has adapted the hardware using a tube that can be used for intubation, led by Dr. Ajay Dharia, a critical care physician focused on pulmonary issues in the ICUs at three Bay Area hospitals, as well as an engineering graduate from UC Berkeley.

Already, the FDA has issued guidance stating that healthcare facilities and professionals should consider use of breathing devices not designed for use as ventilators in case of urgent need, so the Ventilator Rapid Response Team already has some leeway in its approach. It’s still seeking an emergency authorization from the agency, however, because it would like to work with suppliers and manufacturers at scale to start producing large quantifies of the modifications required.

It’s also enlisting the help of any individuals or organizations looking to donate CPAP or sleep apnea machines that aren’t currently in use to assist with the supply of the base hardware needed to make the modified ventilators. Anyone interested in that can check out their website for more info.


Source: Tech Crunch

Instacart to provide shoppers with face masks, hand sanitizers and thermometers

Instacart will start providing health and safety kits to its full-service shoppers. These kits will include a face mask, hand sanitizer and a thermometer, the company announced today.

The kits will be available for free to shoppers starting next week. Shoppers, according to Instacart, will be able to request a kit by registering with their Instacart shopper email address. In order to keep up with demand, Instacart will update its inventory daily. For in-store shoppers, Instacart will bring the face masks to shoppers at their respective retail locations.

“Our teams have been working around the clock over the last few weeks to proactively secure personal protective equipment like hand sanitizer and face masks, without taking away valuable resources from healthcare workers given inventory delays and global supply scarcity,” Instacart President Nilam Ganenthiran said in a statement. “We want to provide customers with an essential service they can rely on to get their groceries and household goods, while also offering safe and flexible earnings opportunities to Instacart personal shoppers. As COVID-19 evolves, today’s health and safety solutions will be tomorrow’s table stakes, and our teams are working quickly to introduce new services and features to ensure our shopper community is supported as this situation unfolds.”

This announcement comes amid worker strikes led by the folks over at Gig Workers Collective. Last Friday, a group of Instacart shoppers announced plans to strike and not return to work until the company meets its demands. Those demands were for Instacart to provide personal protective equipment at no cost to workers and hazard pay of $5 extra per order, change the default tip to 10%, extend the sick pay policy to those who have a doctor’s note for a pre-existing condition that may make them more susceptible to contracting the virus and extend the deadline to qualify for those benefits beyond April 8th.

Instacart has since extended that deadline and changed the default tip to a customer’s last tip, but shoppers say that’s not enough. In a Medium post, workers called Instacart’s response “insulting” and “a sick joke.

“It’s abhorrent that it took this long for them to act, but on the bright side, it shows that a strike will work to change their behavior,” the group wrote in a Medium post.

Instacart is not the only company stepping up its safety protocols. Earlier today, Amazon said it would start providing surgical masks for its warehouse workers and employees at Whole Foods.


Source: Tech Crunch

Activity-monitoring startup Zensors repurposes its tech to help coronavirus response

Computer vision techniques used for commercial purposes are turning out to be valuable tools for monitoring people’s behavior during the present pandemic. Zensors, a startup that uses machine learning to track things like restaurant occupancy, lines, and so on, is making its platform available for free to airports and other places desperate to take systematic measures against infection.

The company, founded two years ago but covered by TechCrunch in 2016, was among the early adopters of computer vision as a means to extract value from things like security camera feeds. It may seem obvious now that cameras covering a restaurant can and should count open tables and track that data over time, but a few years ago it wasn’t so easy to come up with or accomplish that.

Since then Zensors has built a suite of tools tailored to specific businesses and spaces, like airports, offices, and retail environments. They can count open and occupied seats, spot trash, estimate lines, and all that kind of thing. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of data that managers of these spaces are now very interested in watching closely given the present social distancing measures.

Zensors co-founder Anuraag Jain told Carnegie Mellon University — which the company was spun out of — that it had received a number of inquiries from the likes of airpots regarding applying the technology to public health considerations.

Software that counts how many people are in line can be easily adapted to, for example, estimate how close people are standing and send an alert if too many people are congregating or passing through a small space.

“Rather than profiting off them, we thought we would give our help for free,” said Jain. And so, for the next two months at least, Zensors is providing its platform for free to “selected entities who are on the forefront of responding to this crisis, including our airport clients.”

The system has already been augmented to answer COVID-19-specific questions like whether there are too many people in a given area, when a surface was last cleaned and whether cleaning should be expedited, and how many of a given group are wearing face masks.

Airports surely track some of this information already, but perhaps in a much less structured way. Using a system like this could be helpful for maintaining cleanliness and reducing risk, and no doubt Zensors hopes that having had a taste via what amounts to a free trial, some of these users will become paying clients. Interested parties should get in touch with Zensors via its usual contact page.


Source: Tech Crunch

Apple accidentally confirms the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags

Whoops! Apple inadvertently revealed the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags, in a support video uploaded to its YouTube account today. The video, “How to erase your iPhone,” offers a tutorial about resetting an iPhone to factory settings. Around the 1:43 mark, it instructs users to turn off “Find my iPhone” as part of the process. On the Settings page that then appears, another option for “Enable Offline Finding” is shown, and beneath that, the text references AirTags by name.

Specifically, it says: “Offline finding enables this device and AirTags to be found when not connected to Wi-Fi or cellular.”

The discovery was first spotted by the eagle-eyed blog Appleosophy.

Apple has since pulled down the video. (A copy of the video is embedded below.)

AirTags, essentially Apple’s Tile competitor, were already known to be in the works. Based on details and assets found in Apple’s iOS code, AirTags are believed to be small tracking tiles with Bluetooth connectivity that can be used to find lost items — just like Tile.

The difference is that Apple’s AirTags will benefit from deeper integration with iOS, including within its “Find My” app. There, the tags will show up in a new “Items” tab allowing you to keep track of items that tend to get lost or stolen — like your keys, wallet or even your bike.

According to reports from MacRumors, the tags will feature a removable CR2032 coin cell battery, also similar to Tile.

Apple’s intention to copy Tile’s concept has not gone unnoticed by Tile.

The company on Wednesday told a congressional panel that Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has “gotten worse, not better.”

During the hearing, Tile referenced Apple’s plans to integrate its own product into the “Find My” app. Tile and other Bluetooth trackers won’t be able to do the same. They also have to ask for background location access repeatedly, while Apple’s AirTags, presumably, will not. That gives Apple’s own product an advantage as it owns the platform.

Apple has been asked for comment.

Image credits: Apple, via YouTube; MacRumors 


Source: Tech Crunch

Google and USCF collaborate on machine learning tool to help prevent harmful prescription errors

Machine learning experts working at Google Health have published a new study in tandem with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)’s computational health sciences department that describes a machine learning model the researchers built that can anticipate normal physician drug prescribing patterns, using a patient’s electronic health records (EHR) as input. That’s useful because around 2 percent of patients who end up hospitalized are affected by preventable mistakes in medication prescriptions, some instances of which can even lead to death.

The researchers describe the system as working in a similar manner to automated, machine learning-based fraud detection tools that are commonly used by credit card companies to alert customers of possible fraudulent transactions: They essentially build a baseline of what’s normal consumer behavior based on past transactions, and then alert your bank’s fraud department or freeze access when they detect a behavior that is not in line with and individual’s baseline behavior.

Similarly, the model trained by Google and UCSF worked by identifying any prescriptions that “looked abnormal for the patient and their current situation.” That’s a much more challenging proposition in the case of prescription drugs, vs. consumer activity – because courses of medication, their interactions with one another, and the specific needs, sensitivities and conditions of any given patient all present an incredibly complex web to untangle.

To make it possible, the researchers used electronic health records from de-identified patient that include vital signs, lab results, prior medications and medical procedures, as well as diagnoses and changes over time. They paired this historical data with current state information, and came up with various models to attempt to output an accurate prediction of a course of prescription for a given patient.

Their best-performing model was accurate “three quarters of the time,” Google says, which means that it matched up with what a physician actually decided to prescribe in a large majority of cases. It was also even more accurate (93%) in terms of predicting at least one medication that would fall within a top ten list of a physician’s most likely medicine choices for a patient – even if its top choice didn’t match the doctor’s.

The researchers are quick to note that though the model thus far has been fairly accurate in predicting a normal course of prescription, that doesn’t mean it’s able to successfully detect deviations from that yet with any high degree of accuracy. Still, it’s a good first step upon which to build that kind of flagging system.


Source: Tech Crunch

Disney debuts its streaming service in India

Disney+ has arrived in the land of Bollywood. The company on Friday (local time) rolled out its eponymous streaming service in India through Hotstar, a popular on-demand video streamer it picked up as part of the Fox deal.

To court users in India, the largest open entertainment market in Asia, Disney is charging users 1,499 Indian rupees (about $20) for a year, the most affordable plan in any of the more than a dozen markets where Disney+ is currently available.

Subscribers of the revamped streaming service, now called Disney+ Hotstar, will get access to Disney Originals in English as well as several local languages, live sporting events and thousands of movies and shows, including some sourced from HBO, Showtime, ABC and Fox that maintain syndication partnerships with the Indian streaming service. It also maintains partnership with Hooq — at least for now.

Unlike Disney+’s offering in the U.S. and other markets, in India, the service does not support 4K and streams content at nearly a tenth of their bitrate.

Disney+ Hostar is also offering a cheaper yearly premium tier, priced at Rs 399 (about $5.3), that will offer subscribers access to movies, shows (but not those sourced from aforementioned U.S. networks and studios) and live sporting events; it won’t include Disney Originals.

Access to streaming of sporting events, especially of cricket matches, has helped five-year-old Hotstar become the most popular on-demand video streaming in India. During the cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, the service amassed more than 300 million monthly active users and more than 100 million daily active users.

It also holds the global record for most simultaneous views on a live stream, about 25 million — more than thrice its nearest competitor.

Prior to today’s launch, Hotstar offered its premium plans at 999 Indian rupees, and 365 Indian rupees. Existing subscribers won’t be affected by the price revision for the duration of their current subscription.

The service, run by Indian conglomerate Star India, offers access to about 80% of its catalog at no cost to users. The company monetizes these viewers through ads.

But in recent years, the company has begun to explore ways to turn its users into subscribers. Two years ago, Hotstar stopped offering cricket match streaming to non-paying users.

People familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Hotstar has about 1.5 million paying subscribers, lower than what most industry firms estimate. But that figure is still higher than most of its competitors.

And there are many.

India’s on-demand video market

Disney+ will compete with more than three dozen international and local players in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Times Internet’s MX Player (which has over 175 million monthly active users), Zee5, Apple TV+ and Alt Balaji, which has amassed over 27 million subscribers.

“The arrival of Disney+ in India is another case study in the globalization of entertainment in the digital era. For decades, the biggest companies in the world have expanded their reach into different markets. But it’s new, and actually quite profound, that everyone on earth receives the very same version of such a specific cultural product,” Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told TechCrunch.

As in some other markets, including the U.S., streaming services have inked deals with telecom networks, TV vendors, cable TV operators and satellite TV players to extend their reach in India.

Most of these streaming services monetize their viewers by selling ads, and those who do charge have kept their premium plans below $3.

Why that figure? That’s the number most industry executives think — by spending years in the Indian market — that people in the country are willing to pay for viewing content. The average of how much an individual pays for cable TV, for instance, in India is also about $3.

“I think everyone is still trying to sort out the right pricing. It’s true the average Indian consumer is used to far lower prices and can’t afford more. However, we need to focus on the consumers likely to buy this, who have the requisite broadband access and income, etc,” said Ball.

Commuters drive along a road past a billboard in Mumbai advertising the Amazon Prime Video online series “The Forgotten Army”. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP via Getty Images)

At stake is India’s booming on-demand video streaming market that, according to Boston Consulting Group, is estimated to grow to $5 billion from half a billion two years ago.

Hotstar’s hold on India could make it easier for Disney+, which has launched in more than a dozen markets and has amassed over 28 million subscribers.

As the country spends about two more weeks in lockdown that New Delhi ordered last month to curtail the spread of coronavirus, this could also compel many to give Disney+ a try.

On the flip side, if the lockdown is extended, the current season of IPL, which has been postponed until mid-April, might be further delayed or cancelled altogether. Either of those scenarios could hurt the reach of Hotstar, which sees a massive drop in its user base after the conclusion of each cricket tournament.

Disney initially planned to launch its streaming service in India on March 28, the day IPL was supposed to commence. But the company later postponed the launch by six days.

Industry executives told TechCrunch that if IPL is cancelled, it could severely hurt the financials of Hotstar, which clocks more than 50% of its revenue during the 50-odd days of the cricket season.

Some said Disney+’s premier catalog might not be relevant for most of Hotstar’s user base, who seem to care about this streaming service only during the cricket season or to catch up on Indian soap operas.

Hotstar has also received criticism for censoring more content on its platform than any other streaming service in India. Last month, Hotstar blocked from streaming on its platform an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that was critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. YouTube made that segment available without any edits.

John Oliver slammed Hotstar for censoring the episode and noted that the streaming service had additionally edited out parts from his older episodes where he made fun of Disney. In 2017, Hotstar also edited out a segment from Oliver’s show in which he mocked Samsung for the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco. Hotstar and Samsung had a commercial partnership.

Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment in 2017. Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the recent controversy.


Source: Tech Crunch