Twitter and Zoom’s algorithmic bias issues

Both Zoom and Twitter found themselves under fire this weekend for their respective issues with algorithmic bias. On Zoom, it’s an issue with the video conferencing service’s virtual backgrounds and on Twitter, it’s an issue with the site’s photo cropping tool.

It started when Ph.D. student Colin Madland tweeted about a Black faculty member’s issues with Zoom. According to Madland, whenever said faculty member would use a virtual background, Zoom would remove his head.

“We have reached out directly to the user to investigate this issue,” a Zoom spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re committed to providing a platform that is inclusive for all.”

 

When discussing that issue on Twitter, however, the problems with algorithmic bias compounded when Twitter’s mobile app defaulted to only showing the image of Madland, the white guy, in preview.

“Our team did test for bias before shipping the model and did not find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “But it’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, and will open source our analysis so others can review and replicate.”

Twitter pointed to a tweet from its chief design officer, Dantley Davis, who ran some of his own experiments. Davis posited Madland’s facial hair affected the result, so he removed his facial hair and the Black faculty member appeared in the cropped preview. In a later tweet, Davis said he’s “as irritated about this as everyone else. However, I’m in a position to fix it and I will.”

Twitter also pointed to an independent analysis from Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at Carnegie Mellon. In his experiment, he sought to see if “the cropping bias is real.”

In response to the experiment, Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal said addressing the question of whether cropping bias is real is “a very important question.” In short, sometimes Twitter does crop out Black people and sometimes it doesn’t. But the fact that Twitter does it at all, even once, is enough for it to be problematic.

It also speaks to the bigger issue of the prevalence of bad algorithms. These same types of algorithms are what leads to biased arrests and imprisonment of Black people. They’re also the same kind of algorithms that Google used to label photos of Black people as gorillas and that Microsoft’s Tay bot used to become a white supremacist.

 


Source: Tech Crunch

Hailing a self-driving taxi when blind. Learn how Waymo answers that challenge at Sight Tech Global

Imagine yourself unable to see well enough to drive, and how that would change your life. I witness that scenario every day at home with my wife, who is legally blind, and a very busy person. She reveres Uber and Lyft because they provided her with the still remarkable option to get up and go whenever she wants, wherever she wants.  So imagine her excitement a year ago when she was treated to a brief ride in a self-driving Waymo taxi. The safety driver asked my wife to buckle up and hit the “start” button. Yes, exactly! Where is that start button?

We all had a chuckle because the point of the excursion was to talk about Waymo’s commitment to accessibility in the development of self-driving taxis, which are already in service in Phoenix. Waymo is working closely with the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) in Phoenix to get feedback on the experience, and also consulting with The Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. We are delighted to announce that Waymo’s work on accessibility will be featured at Sight Tech Global, which is a virtual event (December 2-3) focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and registration is open.

Joining the Waymo accessibility session are three key figures helping to guide Waymo’s work. Clement Wright is the Waymo product manager responsible for Waymo’s user experience and accessibility efforts. His focus is on ensuring all Waymo riders, including those with disabilities, can enjoy safe, comfortable and convenient rides in Waymo’s fully driverless service. Marc Ashton is CEO, Foundation for Blind Children, which is a Phoenix-based and nationally recognized leader in the education of blind children. Ashton’s son is blind, which led to his interest in the field and in 2007 to the role of CEO. Bryan Bashin is the CEO of Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, which offers education, training, advocacy and community for blind individuals in California and around the world. Blind since college, Bashin has dedicated much of his career to advocating for equality, access, training and mentorship for individuals who are blind or low vision. 

Waymo’s quest for a highly accessible, self-driving ride is no easy challenge. “Today, ride-hailing and taxi drivers fulfill certain duties outside of strictly driving the car,” says Wright. “They may roll down the window at pickup to speak to a rider and help them find the car. One of our largest challenges as we work to build the Waymo Driver is ensuring that we understand all of the rider’s additional needs without a human driver in the car.”

The Waymo team has worked with adult members of the FBC to get feedback on the mobile app used to summon a Waymo taxi, for example, by using the way-finding mechanism of honking the taxi’s horn through the app. Time and again,” says Wright, “we’ve seen that a feature built to help a specific group of people, the visually impaired for example, is actually very helpful for the rest of our rider base as well. This has led us to a broader focus on inclusive design — looking at specific rider’s needs to understand key challenges, and then building solutions that help everyone.” 

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to help people with disabilities, including the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind, get where they need to go safely and efficiently.  We will dive into how Waymo accounts for accessibility throughout its product development cycle and explore the critical role that feedback, from both blind and low-vision users, as well as partner organizations who represent those groups, plays in that process. Join us at Sight Tech Global on December 2-3 to join the session.  Get your free pass now.

Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo. The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.

 


Source: Tech Crunch

How to make the most of iOS 14 widgets and iPhone home screen customization

You’ve probably seen the screenshots going around that show iOS home screens that differ considerably from the stock options that Apple provides. Yes, if you’re an Android user you’re probably laughing at iPhone owners for finally (nearly) catching up to the customization features they’ve had for years, but if you’re an iOS fan, you probably just want to know how to join in. It’s actually relatively easy – provided you’ve got some time to spare, and you don’t mind a few slightly hacky workaround (don’t worry, no jailbreaking required).

Widgets

The big new addition that’s prompting all the shared screens across social media are home screen widgets, which are supported under iOS 14 for the first time. These can be either first- or third-party, and are included with apps you download from the App Store. There are a number of developers who pushed to ensure they were ready at or near the launch of iOS, and Sarah has created a growing list of some of the best for you to check out if you’re not sure where to start.

One of my personal favorite widget apps is Widgetsmith, an app that, as its name suggest, was created pretty much entirely for the purpose of making them. It allows you a range of customization options, has a number of handy, useful functions including calendar, weather and clock, and comes with different font choices to best suit your style. I’ve always aimed to create a clean, single tone look with iOS as much as possible, and Widgetsmith is the best I’ve found so far for creating homescreen displays that look like they’re borderless (provided your iOS wallpaper is a solid color that matches one of those the app supports).

Widgets are great at providing at-a-glance information that you don’t typically want to dive into an app to retrieve, right on your homescreen where you need them. Some can shortcut to useful features, like the search widget built into Google’s iOS app, but most are made primarily to reduce the amount of time you spend actually inside the apps themselves.

Custom app icons

While Widgets are new, another big component of this customization push is not – that’s the ability to create custom homescreen icons for iOS apps. That’s been around ever since Apple introduced its Shortcuts app on iOS a couple of years ago, but many people are discovering the feature for the first time as a result of the increased attention around homescreen customization with the introduction of Widgets in iOS 14.

Creating custom icons on iOS isn’t actually doing that, strictly speaking – what you’re in fact doing is creating new Shortcuts that trigger the launch of an app, and using a custom image for that bookmark that then lives on your homescreen instead. This is not an ideal solution, because it means that A) you won’t have any notification badges on your ‘apps,’ and B) the system first directs you to Apple’s Shortcuts app, which opens for a split-second before bumping you into the actual app you selected for the shortcut.

Apple clearly didn’t design this Shortcuts feature for this use (opening a target app is meant to be the start of a string of automated actions), but Apple also hasn’t really ever seemed interested in letting users choose their own custom icons, so it’s the best we can do for now. Luckily, the process is relatively simple. Unluckily, there are a lot of steps involved, so it’s pretty time-consuming to customize your entire homescreen.

Here’s a video of how to do this as simply as possible:

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

There are some fantastic examples out there of what creative individuals have been able to do with this, given a little time and some elbow grease. With more widget options coming online all the time, we’ve probably only begun to see the limits of testing the boundaries of what’s possible under Apple’s rules, too.


Source: Tech Crunch

Launcher brings its powerful widget-making app to iOS 14

Launcher is bringing its customizable widgets to iOS 14 with new functionality, including the ability to rotate a widget’s icons by date, time or even location. It also supports customizable widget backgrounds, icons of different sizes or those with no labels for a cleaner look.

The app, which first debuted in 2014, had been well-known for being one of the few to push the envelope when it came to the functionality offered by Apple’s classic Today View widgets. In the years since, the app served as the launchpad for common tasks — like messaging a favorite contact, calling home, getting directions, playing your favorite music and much more right from the Today View.

Now you can do the same from your home screen, but with a more customizable experience that matches your current iOS 14 theme.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Apple wasn’t quite sure what to think of Launcher back in 2014.

The app had once been banned from the App Store for several months because its sole reason for existence was to be a Today View widget provider, without offering other functionality beyond widget configuration. Apple eventually decided that Launcher had value, despite this limitation, and allowed it back in.

What’s more, Apple later realized there was a market for workflow automation and eventually acquired a Launcher competitor of sorts, Workflow, which was turned into Apple’s Shortcuts app and expanded to include additional functionality — like Siri integration, for instance.

Now, with the release of iOS 14, Apple has fully embraced the idea of customizable widgets for the home screen. Meanwhile, users are leveraging Shortcuts to create custom icons, then building creative home screen themes using a custom combination of widgets, icons and wallpapers.

Launcher, however, offers a simpler alternative for those who don’t want to spend hours creating a customized experience.

Instead, you can create a widget with favorite apps and tasks, change the widget’s background color and adjust the icons’ size in one go.

For example, you can now create Launcher widgets that let you tap an icon to immediately call, message, FaceTime or email a favorite contact; get directions to a location; start playing an artist, album or playlist in Apple Music; access a favorite website; launch actions within apps (like Compose Tweet or Run Shortcut); turn common phone settings on or off (like WiFi, Bluetooth, Low Power Mode, DND, Airplane mode, etc.); or launch any other app on your device.

 

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Launcher aims to tap into the growing iOS 14 home screen customization trend as its app lets you customize the icons and widget background, even allowing for tiny icons within the widget or removing icon labels. (See above). The widget’s background can be styled to match the existing wallpaper or can be configured using images.

Widgets can also be stacked for better space utilization and the icons they contain can change based on the day of the week, time of day or your location. That way, you could have a widget that shows up only when you hit the gym, for example, or one that appears when you’re in the office. Your home screen widget could also be different during the work week than on the weekend.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Many of the app’s features were previously offered in the classic Today View widgets, but the home screen widgets work differently. Where before, you were limited to a fixed number of widgets that could be shown or hidden based on time or location, the new widgets support different icon sets that appear at different times. However, you can’t configure a home screen widget to automatically disappear as that would cause the home screen itself to rearrange.

Launcher’s creator, Greg Gardner, says he’s seen a surge of interest in his app due to the iOS 14 release, even before its update, out today, which delivers the iOS 14 widget support.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

“People on iOS 14 seem to be pretty excited about home screen widgets, so they are searching the App Store for widgets and are finding my app. Unfortunately some of them have been disappointed that the app didn’t have home screen widgets,” he says. “I hope that now that it has home screen widgets the downloads will continue to increase and the new users won’t be disappointed any longer,” Gardner adds.

The surprise release of iOS 14 probably didn’t help things on this front. Apple gave its developers less than 24 hours notice of iOS 14’s arrival this year, even making its announcement before the necessary developer tools (e.g., Xcode) were available for download. That means some developers’ iOS 14-compatible apps weren’t ready and available on the iOS launch day, as in years past.

In addition to the expanded functionality, there’s another reason to appreciate Launcher’s new app: Its business model.

The app doesn’t monetize by way of subscriptions but instead only charges its users a one-time fee for an expanded feature set. While the earlier version of the app had offered two different pricing tiers, Launcher 5 has simplified pricing to just the one.

Its new “Premium” in-app purchase will unlock all the new home screen widgets and customization options. However, existing users only have to pay $2.99 for the upgrade while new users will pay the full price of $7.99.

“The amount of work required to implement the new widgets was enough that I thought it justified a new in-app purchase,” says Gardner. Plus, he notes, the App Store also doesn’t offer any official means of charging upgrade pricing for scenarios like this.

Launcher 5 is rolling out now on the App Store. (If you don’t see the app with an updated date of Sept. 21, 2020, just try again later as the update may not have reached your region yet.)


Source: Tech Crunch

How FaZe Clan is continuing to lead the esports world

The esports world is evolving quickly and so are the professional organizations that drive it. FaZe Clan is among the world’s most popular. At TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 we talked to FaZe Clan CEO Lee Trink, investor Troy Carter, and Nick Kolcheff, better known as NICKMERCS, about the shifting industry landscape.

Carter first explained the motivation behind his interest in investing in FaZe Clan. “My diligence in this process was different from the diligence that I usually do in companies because I went and asked my son, who was 14 at the time, what do you think about me investing in FaZe, and he lit up. He lit up,” Carter told moderator and TechCrunch Managing Editor Jordan Crook.

As a veteran streamer, Kolcheff also shed some light on his work ethic and how he keeps producing. “I’ve been a streamer for 10 years now, so it’s it’s getting to the point now where it’s like… I’ll go to bed some days after a long stream Kolcheff said. “So it’s just my mind is so wired, I’m so in it 24/7 that I think that it just becomes your routine and your life and that’s what it is for me.”

Kolcheff touched on the responsibilities of streamers to act responsibly and the challenges that can emerge for younger streamers to deal with seeing their influence expand so rapidly. “A lot of these kids blow up fast on the internet and go from having like four or five viewers to hundreds or thousands and then they have to be more careful — like you can’t say all these crazy things.”

NICKMERCS boasts a substantial following across the platform with 4.3 million Twitch followers and more than 2.8 million YouTube subscribers. He talked about how he balances maintaining his following while also competing professionally.

“I think one of the best things about being on FaZe for me is that I’m already so busy on a day to day with everything I’ve got going on with the stream and YouTube and all of that stuff,” Kolcheff told TechCrunch. “You know, a lot of other orgs have been out there always trying to draw you away from some of those things and put a lot more on your plate, and that’s okay, but like for me, I already have enough on my plate as is. So I need people who are going to support the things that I’m doing.”

Trink addressed the recent settlement with eSports Turner “Tfue” Tenny after a 15-month legal dispute over his contract and sponsorship deals and discussed how the group was hoping to keep its athletes happy with their contracts.

“We’re continuing to reexamine contracts as we go because this industry is moving at such a pace that it requires that so we do an audit on on what what our contracts have in them and what are the rights, what are the obligations, and we do that review a couple of times a year and have the opportunity as contracts are expiring, we’re doing new ones and there’s another opportunity to say do we have it right?” Trink said.

Trink says the industry is progressing so quickly and that it isn’t always easy to “get things perfect.”

“My philosophy around FaZe Clan and the industry is different than it was a year ago, it’s different than it was even six months ago,” Trink says. “You know, we’re really living in like dog years here. I’ve been CEO for just about two years, it feels like a decade to me.”

Watch the interview in full below:


Source: Tech Crunch

Original Content podcast: ‘Wireless’ shows off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology

“Wireless” is probably the best showcase so far for Quibi’s Turnstyle technology.

That’s the technology that allows the streaming video app to switch seamlessly between landscape and portrait mode depending on the orientation of your phone. With other Quibi shows, you’re essentially getting two views of the same footage — but with “Wireless” (which is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh), you’re switching between traditional cinematic footage (in landscape) and a view of the protagonist’s phone (in portrait).

In this bonus episode of the Original Content podcast, director Zach Wechter told me that he and his co-writer Jack Seidman wrote the initial script — about a college student played by Tye Sheridan who gets trapped in the snow after a car crash, with only his iPhone to save him — before they decided on the phone-centric format. But when they heard about Turnstyle, “It just felt like a match made in heaven that would allow us to facilitate this idea.”

I wondered whether that required going back and adding a bunch of phone interactions to the story, but said Wechter said, “It was quite the opposite. One thing we found in testing was when the phone plot moved really fast, it would be hard, because there are these two perspectives happening at once.”

So that actually meant “reducing some fo the intriacy of the plot happening on the phone” to ensure that viewers didn’t get lost.

And if you’re wondering which mode to focus on as you watch, Wechter has some simple advice: “Go with your gut.” He said he had a “roadmap” for when he was hoping to nudge viewers to turn their phones — like when there’s a notification sound or Sheridan focuses on his phone — “but I think the most important part of the experience is that we’re not indicating when our viewers turn, that it becomes this sort of passive-but-active viewing experience.”

Wechter described making the show — essentially a feature length film divided into episodes of 10 minutes or less — as shooting “two films that had to dance together” in just 19 days. And he made things even more challenging by insisting that all the phone/FaceTime calls and even the text messages be filmed live, rather than just recording both ends separately.

“When I think about directing and my job, really the most fundamental part of it to me is making the actorss comfortable, and I think that having a scene partner is paramount,” he said. “It was a long conversation about why we couldn’t just have them act off of a recording and shoot it separately — because it took a lot of logistical effort and resources to do it — but it really makes the scenes feel very alive and realistic.”

You can listen to the full interview in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)


Source: Tech Crunch

Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by U.S. district court

A few days ago, the U.S. Commerce Department published a series of rules that aimed to block the downloading of TikTok and WeChat by American users, following an executive order signed by President Trump back in August. TikTok got a last minute reprieve yesterday following its signing of an investment and cloud services deal with Oracle and Walmart, which delayed the implementation of its download ban at least for a week. However, WeChat was effectively going to be shut down today, with a ban on downloads and a ban on any services that powered the service.

Now, there is a new wrinkle in the battle over the future of the social app, which is widely used in Chinese-speaking communities and is owned by China-based Tencent. A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban, following a lawsuit of WeChat users arguing that the ban undermined the free speech rights of American citizens. That court case, U.S. WeChat Users Alliance v. Trump, will be allowed to proceed.

In her short opinion published yesterday, United States magistrate judge Laurel Beeler, argued that the government’s case showed weaknesses on First Amendment grounds, its authority to act within existing legislation to allow the government to control industry, and its overall vagueness compared to the damage a ban would likely have on the Chinese-speaking community in the United States.

From her opinion:

Certainly the government’s overarching national-security interest is significant. But on this record — while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national- security concerns — it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns. And, as the plaintiffs point out, there are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.

Given the likelihood of a lawsuit proceeding and the immediate damage a ban would have if implemented, the judge initiated a nationwide injunction against implementation of the Commerce Department’s order to ban the app.

Commerce will have a chance to respond to this development, and whether it chooses to edit its order, pursue other avenues through the courts, or just rescind the order entirely, we will see in the coming days.


Source: Tech Crunch

Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation

It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

The comparison was always facile yes, but it was easy and at least directionally accurate if failing on the specifics.

Now though, the country that exported exploding batteries is pioneering quantum computing, while the country that pioneered the internet now builds planes that fall out of the sky (and good news, we’ve identified even more planes that might fall out of the sky at an airport near you!)

TikTok’s success is many things, but it is quite frankly just an embarrassment for the United States. There are thousands of entrepreneurs and hundreds of venture capitalists swarming Silicon Valley and the other American innovation hubs looking for the next great social app or building it themselves. But the power law of user growth and investor returns happens to reside in Haidian, Beijing. ByteDance through its local apps in China and overseas apps like TikTok is the consumer investor return of the past decade (there’s a reason why all the IPOs this seasons are enterprise SaaS).

It’s a win that you can’t chalk up just to industrial policy. Unlike in semiconductors or other capital-intensive industries where Beijing can offer billions in incentives to spur development, ByteDance builds apps. It distributes them on app stores across the world. It has exactly the same tools available to it that every entrepreneur with an Apple Developer account has access to. There is no Made in China 2025 plan to build and popularize a consumer app like TikTok (you literally can’t plan for consumer success like that). Instead, it’s a well-executed product that’s addictive to hundreds of millions of people.

So much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5 billion tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.

Development economists like to talk about “catch-up” strategies, tactics that countries can take to avoid the middle income trap and cut the gap between the West and the rest. But what we need now are developed economists to explain America’s “fall behind” strategy. Because we are falling behind, in pretty much everything.

As the TikTok process and the earlier Huawei imbroglio show, America is no longer on the leading edge of technology in many key strategic markets. Mainland Chinese companies are globally winning in areas as diverse as 5G and social networks, and without direct government intervention to kill that innovation, American and European tech purveyors would have lost those markets entirely (and even with those interventions, they may still lose them). In Taiwan, TSMC has come from behind Intel to take a year or two lead in the fabrication of the most advanced semiconductors.

I mean, we can’t even pilfer Chinese history and mythology and turn it into a decent god damn film these days.

And the fall-behind strategy continues. Immigration restrictions from an administration hell-bent on destroying the single greatest source of American innovation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have fused into the largest single drop in international student migration in American history.

Why does that matter? In the U.S. according to relatively recent data, 81% of electrical engineering grad students are international, 79% in computer science are, and in most engineering and technical fields, the number hovers above a majority.

It’s great to believe the fantasy that if only these international grad students would stay home, then “real” Americans would somehow take these slots. But what’s true of the strawberry pickers and food service workers is also true for EE grad students: proverbial “Americans” don’t want these jobs. They are hard jobs, thankless jobs, and require a ridiculous tenacity that American workers and students by and large don’t have. These industries have huge contingents of foreign workers precisely because no one domestic wants to take these roles.

So goes the talent, so goes the innovation. Without this wellspring of brainpower lodging itself in America’s top innovation hubs, where exactly do we think it will go? That former aspiring Stanford or MIT computer scientist with ideas in his or her brain isn’t just going to sit by the window gazing at the horizon waiting for the moment when they can enter the gilded halls of the U.S. of A. It’s the internet era, and they are just going to get started on their dreams wherever they are, using whatever tools and resources they have available to them.

All you have to do is look at the recent YC batches and realize that the future cohorts of great startups are going to increasingly come from outside the continental 48. Dozens of smart, brilliant entrepreneurs aren’t even trying to migrate, instead rightfully seeing their home markets as more open to innovation and technological progress than the vaunted superpower. The frontier is closed here, and it has moved elsewhere.

So what are we left with here in the U.S. and increasingly Europe? A narrow-minded policy of blocking external tech innovation to ensure that our sclerotic and entrenched incumbents don’t have to compete with the best in the world. If that isn’t a recipe for economic disaster, I don’t know what is.

But hey: at least the youth will be patriotic.


Source: Tech Crunch

The TikTok deal solves quite literally nothing

Well… that was pointless.

After debasing the idea of free commerce in the U.S in the name of a misplaced security concern, stringing along several multi-billion dollar companies that embarrassed themselves in the interest of naked greed, and demanding that the U.S. government get a cut of the profits, the TikTok saga we’ve been watching the past few weeks finally appears to be over.

A flurry of announcement late Saturday night indicate that the TikTok deal was actually a politically-oriented shakedown to boost the cloud infrastructure business of key supporters of the President of the United States.

Oracle, whose cloud infrastructure services run a laughable fourth to AWS, Alphabet*, and Microsoft, will be taking a 20 percent stake in TikTok alongside partner Walmart in what will be an investment round before TikTok Global (as the new entity will be called) goes public on an American stock exchange.

According to a statement from TikTok, Oracle will become TikTok’s “trusted technology partner” and will be responsible for hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied. “We are currently working with Walmart on a commercial partnership as well,” according to the statement from TikTok.

Meanwhile, Oracle indicated that all the concerns from the White House, U.S. Treasury, and Congress over TikTok had nothing to do with the service’s selection of Oracle as its cloud provider. In its statement, Oracle said that “This technical decision by TikTok was heavily influenced by Zoom’s recent success in moving a large portion of its video conferencing capacity to the Oracle Public Cloud.”

Here’s how CNBC reporter Alex Sherman has the ownership structure breaking down, per “a person familiar with the matter”. Oracle gets 12.5%, Walmart gets 7.5% and ByteDance gets the remaining 80%. The Trump administration is claiming that US investors will own 53% of TikTok because ByteDance (TikTok’s parent) is backed by venture capital investors that hold a 40% stake in the parent company.

 

The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance gets to maintain ownership of the U.S. entity, Oracle gets a huge new cloud customer to boost its ailing business, Walmart gets access to teens to sell stuff, and U.S. customer data is no safer (it’s just now in the hands of U.S. predators instead of foreign ones).

To be clear, data privacy and security is a major concern, but it’s not one that’s a concern when it comes to TikTok necessarily (and besides, the Chinese government has likely already acquired whatever data they want to on U.S. customers).

For many observers, the real concern with TikTok was that the company’s Chinese owners may be pressured by Beijing to manipulate its algorithm to promote or suppress content. Companies in China — including its internet giants — are required to follow the country’s intelligence and cloud security law mandating complete adherence with all government orders for data.

The Commerce Department in its statement said that “In light of recent positive developments, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, at the direction of President Trump, will delay the prohibition of identified transactions pursuant to Executive Order 13942, related to the TikTok mobile application that would have been effective on Sunday, September 20, 2020, until September 27, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.” So that’s a week reprieve.

So all this sound and fury … for what? The best investment return in all of these shenanigans is almost certainly Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz’ investment into Trump, who in addition to being a heavy donor to the Trump administration, also joined the presidential transition committee back in 2016. Thank god the U.S. saved TikTok from the crony capitalism of China. Let’s just hope they enjoy the crony capitalism of Washington DC.

*An earlier version of this article referred to AWS, Amazon and Microsoft. AWS and Amazon are the same company. I was typing fast. I’ve corrected the error.


Source: Tech Crunch

From Unity to Disrupt, tech has an especially optimistic week

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7 a.m. PT). Subscribe here.

While TechCrunch was busy producing our first-ever online Disrupt this week, the IPO market got even more exciting than expected — so here’s a quick look. Snowflake, Jfrog, Sumo Logic and Unity each raised price ranges days before IPO, to meet what had seemed like growing enthusiasm from public markets. Yet each still opened higher than its offering price, with cloud data-warehousing company Snowflake’s value doubling to make it the largest software IPO in history and Unity up 30%.

Despite the pandemic and various major turmoils around the world, the promise of these companies is helping to maintain optimism from retail investors to people thinking about founding a company.

Here’s a quick look at our coverage of the main companies in the IPO process this week, in chronological order:

Snowflake and JFrog raise IPO ranges as tech markets stay hot (EC)

As it heads for IPO, Palantir hires a chief accountant and gets approval from NYSE to trade

What’s ahead in IPO land for JFrog, Snowflake, Sumo Logic and Unity (EC)

JFrog and Snowflake’s aggressive IPO pricing point to strong demand for cloud shares (EC)

Unity raises IPO price range after JFrog, Snowflake target steep debut valuations

Go public now while software valuations make no sense, Part II

In its 4th revision to the SEC, Palantir tries to explain what the hell is going on

It’s game on as Unity begins trading

Unity Software has strong opening, gaining 31% after pricing above its raised range

And don’t miss Alex Wilhelm’s additional notes coming later today over on The Exchange weekend newsletter.

Image Credits: Canix

Disrupt 2020

Our tenth annual startup conference was remote-first this year, but it managed to capture the same sort of vibe in my humble opinion.

First, a cannabis SaaS company took home the grand prize at the Startup Battlefield competition… we are truly living in the cloud these days. Here’s more, from Matt Burns:

Growing cannabis on an industrial scale involves managing margins while continually adhering to compliance laws. For many growers, large and small, this consists of constant data entry from seed to sale. Canix’s solution employs a robust enterprise resource planning platform with a steep tilt toward reducing the time it takes to input data. This platform integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software and Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform, through the use of RFID scanners and Bluetooth-enabled scales. Canix launched in June 2019, and in a little over a year (and during a pandemic), acquired over 300 customers spanning more than 1,000 growing facilities and tracking the movement of 2.5 million plants.

Next, here’s an especially pithy take on the future of startups, from senior Benchmark partner Peter Fenton.

I think this opportunity to build the tools for a world that’s ‘post place’ has just opened up and is as exciting as anything I’ve seen in my venture career. You walk around right now and you see these ghosts towns, with gyms, classes you might take [and so forth] and now maybe you go online and do Peloton, or that class you maybe do online. So I think a whole field of opportunities will move into this post-place delivery mechanism that are really exciting. [It] could be 10 to 20 years of innovation that just got pulled forward into today.

The truth is that I have not had time to watch all of the talks — I was busy with the Extra Crunch stage and other stuff, and that’s not even counting other programming we had going on. So check out the quick selection of picks below. To catch up more, you can browse the full agenda and watch the videos here.

We’ll also be offering coverage of the EC stage plus analysis from our conversations in the coming weeks, for subscribers (which includes anyone who bought a ticket and redeemed it for an annual subscription).

Quantum startup CEO suggests we are only five years away from a quantum desktop computer

Daphne Koller: ‘Digital biology is an incredible place to be right now’

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston says the pandemic forced the company to reevaluate what work means

Airtable’s Howie Liu has no interest in exiting, even as the company’s valuation soars

Indian decacorn Byju’s CEO talks about future acquisitions, coronavirus and international expansion

Fabletics’ Adam Goldenberg and Kevin Hart on what’s next for the activewear empire

Southeast Asia’s East Ventures on female VCs, foreign investment, consolidation

Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19 — Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted

In this photo illustration a TikTok logo is seen displayed on a smartphone with a ByteDance logo on the background. (Photo Illustration by Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Photo Illustration by Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tik Tok and geopolitics

Over in the real world, Tik Tok is still on track for a full shut-down despite the frantic dealmaking efforts by innumerable parties. At one point this week, it looked like Oracle and various business interests had a plan to keep Tik Tok alive as an independent company that would IPO (with some sort of national security oversight), and maybe that will still come about? I doubt Trump and his advisers will go along with that plan, given the national security problem of leaving algorithms controlled from China, and the long-term trade problem of US consumer tech being banned there too.

Meanwhile, the Bytedance-owned company also just announced 100 million users in Europe. Apparently it was a press push to counter the bad news, but as Ingrid Lunden notes, it’s hard to know what this user base means without the US. To which I’d add, European regulators are already busy going after foreign tech companies. I can’t imagine that they’ll leave an app this popular alone.

It’s another reminder that the next era will not offer startups the same possibilities for global success.

Communication between two people.

How to hire your first engineer (if you’re a nontechnical founder)

Lucas Matney talked with technical leaders and startup founders to figure out a key problem that many readers of this newsletter have had before (including me). How to get someone who can make your company a tech company? Here’s the intro, with the full thing on Extra Crunch:

Their advice spanned how to handle technical interviews, sourcing technical talent, how to decide whether your first engineering hire should become CTO  — and how to best kick the can down the road if you’re not ready to start worrying about bringing on an engineer quite yet. Everyone I spoke to was quick to caution that their tips weren’t one-size-fits-all and that overcoming limited knowledge often comes down to tapping the right people to help you out and lend a greater understanding of your options.

I’ve broken down these tips into a digestible guide that’s focused on four areas:

  • Sourcing technical candidates.
  • How to conduct interviews.
  • Making an offer.
  • Taking a nontraditional route.

Across the week

TechCrunch

Calling VCs in Zurich & Geneva: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

Opendoor to go public by way of Chamath Palihapitiya SPAC

Black Tech Pipeline proves the ‘pipeline problem’ isn’t real

Gaming companies are reportedly the next targets in the US government’s potentially broader Tencent purge

Equity Monday: The TikTok mess, two funding rounds and Nvidia will buy ARM

Extra Crunch

3 VCs discuss the state of SaaS investing in 2020

The stages of traditional fundraising

Making sense of 3 edtech extension rounds

Facebook investor Jim Breyer picks Austin as Breyer Capital’s second home

Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers?

#EquityPod: Schools are closing their doors, but Opendoor isn’t

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha MascarenhasDanny Crichton and myself hosted a live taping at Disrupt for a digital reception. It was good fun, though of course we’re looking forward to bringing the live show back to the conference next year, vaccine allowing.

Thankfully we had Chris Gates behind the scenes tweaking the dials, Alexandra Ames fitting us into the program and some folks to watch live.

What did we talk about? All of this (and some very, very bad jokes):

And then we tried to play a game that may or may not make it into the final cut. Either way, it was great to have Equity back at Disrupt. More to come. Hugs from us!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.


Source: Tech Crunch