Google acquires cloud migration platform Alooma

Google today announced its intention to acquire Alooma, a company that allows enterprises to combine all of their data sources into services like Google’s BigQuery, Amazon’s Redshift, Snowflake and Azure. The promise of Alooma is that handles the data pipelines and manages for its users. In addition to this data integration service, though, Alooma also helps with migrating to the cloud, cleaning up this data and then using it for AI and machine learning use cases.

“Here at Google Cloud, we’re committed to helping enterprise customers easily and securely migrate their data to our platform,” Google VP of engineering Amit Ganesh and Google Cloud Platform director of product management Dominic Preuss write today. “The addition of Alooma, subject to closing conditions, is a natural fit that allows us to offer customers a streamlined, automated migration experience to Google Cloud, and give them access to our full range of database services, from managed open source database offerings to solutions like Cloud Spanner and Cloud Bigtable.”

Before the acquisition, Alooma had raised about $15 million, including an $11.2 million Series A round ed by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Sequoia Capital in early 2016. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but chances are we are talking about a modest price given how much Alooma had previously raised.

Neither Google now Alooma said much about what will happen to the existing products and customers — and whether it will continue to support migrations to Google’s competitors. We’ve reached out to Google and will update this post once we hear more.

Update. Here is Google statement about the future of the platform:

For now, it’s business as usual for Alooma and Google Cloud as we await regulatory approvals and complete the deal. After close, the team will be joining us in our Tel Aviv and Sunnyvale offices, and we will be leveraging the Alooma technology and team to provide our Google Cloud customers with a great data migration service in the future. 

 

Regarding supporting competitors, yes, the existing Alooma product will continue to support other cloud providers. We will only be accepting new customers that are migrating data to Google Cloud Platform, but existing customers will continue to have access to other cloud providers.   
So going forward, Alooma will not accept any new customers who want to migrate data to any competitors. That’s not necessarily unsurprising and it’s good to see that Google will continue to support Alooma’s existing users. Those users who use Alooma in combination with AWS, Azure and other non-Google services will likely start looking for other solutions soon, though, as this also means that Google isn’t likely to develop the service for them beyond its current state.

Alooma’s co-founder do stress, though, that “the journey is not over.” “Alooma has always aimed to provide the simplest and most efficient path toward standardizing enterprise data from every source and transforming it into actionable intelligence,” they write. “Joining Google Cloud will bring us one step closer to delivering a full self-service database migration experience bolstered by the power of their cloud technology, including analytics, security, AI, and machine learning.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Slack off. Send videos instead with $11M-funded Loom

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many emails can you replace with a video? As offices fragment into remote teams, work becomes more visual, and social media makes us more comfortable on camera, it’s time for collaboration to go beyond text. That’s the idea behind Loom, a fast-rising startup that equips enterprises with instant video messaging tools. In a click, you can film yourself or narrate a screenshare to get an idea across in a more vivid, personal way. Instead of scheduling a video call, employees can asynchronously discuss projects or give ‘stand-up’ updates without massive disruptions to their workflow.

In the 2.5 years since launch, Loom has signed up 1.1 million users from 18,000 companies. And that was just as a Chrome extension. Today Loom launches its PC and Mac apps that give it a dedicated presence in your digital workspace. Whether you’re communicating across the room or across the globe, “Loom is the next best thing to being there” co-founder Shahed Khan tells me.

Now Loom is ready to spin up bigger sales and product teams thanks to an $11 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins . The firm’s partner Ilya Fushman, formally Dropbox’s head of business and corporate development, will join Loom’s board. He’ll shepherd through today’s launch of its $10 per month per user Pro version that offers HD recording, calls-to-action at the end of videos, clip editing, live annotation drawings, and analytics to see who actually watched like they’re supposed to.

“We’re ditching the suits and ties and bringing our whole selves to work. We’re emailing and messaging like never before. but though we may be more connected, we’re further apart” Khan tells me. “We want to make it very easy to bring the humanity back in.”

Loom co-founder Shahed Khan

Back in 2016, Loom was just trying to survive. Khan had worked at Upfront Ventures after a stint as a product designer at website builder Weebly. Him and two close friends, Joe Thomas and Vinay Hiremath, started Opentest to let app makers get usabilty feedback from experts via video. But after six months and going through the NFX accelerator, they were running out of bootstrapped money. That’s when they realized it was the video messaging that could be a business as teams sought to keep in touch with members working from home or remotely.

Together they launched Loom in mid-2016, raising a pre-seed and seed round amounting to $4 million. Part of its secret sauce is that Loom immediately starts uploading bytes of your video while you’re still recording so it’s ready to send the moment you’re finished. That makes sharing your face, voice and screen feel as seamless as firing off a Slack message, but with more emotion and nuance.

“Sales teams use it to close more deals by sending personalized messages to leads. Marketing teams use Loom to walk through internal presentations and social posts. Product teams use Loom to capture bugs, stand ups, etc” Khan explains.

Loom has grown to a 16-person team that will expand thanks to the new $11 million Series A from Kleiner, Slack, Cue founder Daniel Gross, and actor Jared Leto that brings it to $15 million in funding. They predict the new desktop apps that open Loom to a larger market will see it spread from team to team for both internal collaboration and external discussions from focus groups to customer service.

Loom will have to hope that after becoming popular at a company, managers will pay for the Pro version that shows exactly how long each viewer watched for. That could clue them in that they need to be more concise, or that someone is cutting corners on training and cooperation. It’s also a great way to onboard new employees. “Just watch this collection of videos and let us know what you don’t understand.”

Next Loom will have to figure out a mobile strategy — something it surprisingly lacks. Khan imagines users being able to record quick clips from their phone to relay updates from travel and client meetings. It also plans to build out voice transcription to add automatic subtitles to videos and even divide videos into thematic sections you can fast-forward between. Loom will have to stay ahead of competitors like Vidyard’s GoVideo and Wistia’s Soapbox that have cropped up since its launch. But Khan says Loom looms largest in the space thanks to customers at Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb, Red Bull, and 1100 employees at Hubspot.

“The overall space of collaboration tools is becoming deeper than just email + docs” says Fushman, citing Slack, Zoom, Dropbox Paper, Coda, Notion, Intercom, Productboard, and Figma. To get things done the fastest, businesses are cobbling together B2B software so they can skip building it in-house and focus on their own product.

No piece of enterprise software has to solve everything. But Loom is dependent on apps like Slack, Google Docs, Convo, and Asana. Since it lacks a social or identity layer, you’ll need to send the links to your videos through another service. Loom should really build its own video messaging system into its desktop app. But at least Slack is an investor, and Khan says “they’re trying to be the hub of text-based in communication” and the soon-to-be-public unicorn tells him anything it does in video will focus on real-time interaction.

Still the biggest threat to Loom is apathy. People already feel overwhelmed with Slack and email, and if recording videos comes off as more of a chore than an efficiency, workers will stick to text. But Khan thinks the ubiquity of Instagram Stories is making it seem natural to jump on camera briefly. And the advantage is that you don’t need a bunch of time-wasting pleasantries to ensure no one misinterprets your message as sarcastic or pissed off.

Khan concludes “We believe instantly sharable video can foster more authentic communication between people at work, and convey complex scenarios and ideas with empathy.”


By Josh Constine

Redis Labs raises a $60M Series E round

Redis Labs, a startup that offers commercial services around the Redis in-memory data store (and which counts Redis creator and lead developer Salvatore Sanfilippo among its employees), today announced that it has raised a $60 million Series E funding round led by private equity firm Francisco Partners.

The firm didn’t participate in any of Redis Labs’ previous rounds, but existing investors Goldman Sachs Private Capital Investing, Bain Capital Ventures, Viola Ventures and Dell Technologies Capital all participated in this round.

In total, Redis Labs has now raised $146 million and the company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its go-to-market strategy and continue to invest in the Redis community and product development.

Current Redis Labs users include the likes of American Express, Staples, Microsoft, Mastercard and Atlassian . In total, the company now has over 8,500 customers. Because it’s pretty flexible, these customers use the service as a database, cache and message broker, depending on their needs. The company’s flagship product is Redis Enterprise, which extends the open-source Redis platform with additional tools and services for enterprises. The company offers managed cloud services, which give businesses the choice between hosting on public clouds like AWS, GCP and Azure, as well as their private clouds, in addition to traditional software downloads and licenses for self-managed installs.

Redis Labs CEO Ofer Bengal told me that the company’s isn’t cash positive yet. He also noted that the company didn’t need to raise this round but that he decided to do so in order to accelerate growth. “In this competitive environment, you have to spend a lot and push hard on product development,” he said.

It’s worth noting that he stressed that Francisco Partners has a reputation for taking companies forward and the logical next step for Redis Labs would be an IPO. “We think that we have a very unique opportunity to build a very large company that deserves an IPO,” he said.

Part of this new competitive environment also involves competitors that use other company’s open source projects to build their own products without contributing back. Redis Labs was one of the first of a number of open source companies that decided to offer its newest releases under a new license that still allows developers to modify the code but that forces competitors that want to essentially resell it to buy a commercial license. Ofer specifically notes AWS in this context. It’s worth noting that this isn’t about the Redis database itself but about the additional modules that Redis Labs built. Redis Enterprise itself is closed-source.

“When we came out with this new license, there were many different views,” he acknowledged. “Some people condemned that. But after the initial noise calmed down — and especially after some other companies came out with a similar concept — the community now understands that the original concept of open source has to be fixed because it isn’t suitable anymore to the modern era where cloud companies use their monopoly power to adopt any successful open source project without contributing anything to it.”


By Frederic Lardinois

GN acquires Altia Systems for $125M to add video to its advanced audio solutions

Some interesting M&A is afoot in the world of hardware and software that’s aiming to improve the quality of audio and video communications over digital networks.

GN Group — the Danish company that broke new ground in mobile when it inked deals first with Apple and then Google to stream audio from their phones directly to smart, connected hearing aids — is expanding from audio to video, and from Europe to Silicon Valley.

Today, the company announced that it would acquire Altia Systems, a startup out of Cupertino that makes a “surround” videoconferencing device and software called the PanaCast (we reviewed it oncedesigned to replicate the panoramic, immersive experience of vision that we have as humans

GN is paying $125 million for the startup. For some context, this price represents a decent return: according to PitchBook, Altia was last valued at around $78 million with investors including Intel Capital and others.

Intel’s investment was one of several strategic partnerships that Altia had inked over the years. (Another was with Zoom to provide a new video solution for Uber.)

The Intel partnership, for one, will continue post-acquisition. “Intel invested in Altia Systems to bring an industry leading immersive, Panoramic-4K camera experience to business video collaboration,” said Dave Flanagan, Vice President of Intel Corporation and Senior Managing Director of Intel Capital, in a statement. “Over the past few years, Altia Systems has collaborated with Intel to use AI and to deliver more intelligent conference rooms and business meetings. This helps customers make better decisions, automate workflows and improve business efficiency. We are excited to work with GN to further scale this technology on a global basis.”

We have seen a lot of applications of AI in just about every area of technology, but one of the less talked about, but very interesting, areas has been in how it’s being used to enhance audio in digital network. Pindrop, as one example, is creating and tracking “audio fingerprints” for security applications, specifically fraud prevention (to authenticate users and to help weed out imposters based not just on the actual voice but on all the other aural cues we may not pick up as humans but can help build a picture of a caller’s location and so on).

GN, meanwhile, has been building AI-based algorithms to help those who cannot hear as well, or who simply needs to hear better, be able to listen to calls on digital networks and make out what’s being said. This not only requires technology to optimise the audio quality, but also algorithms that can help tailor that quality to the specific person’s own unique hearing needs.

One of the more obvious applications of services like these are for those who are hard of hearing and use hearing aids (which can be awful or impossible to use with mobile phones), another is in call centers, and this appears to be the area where GN is hoping to address with the Altia acquisition.

GN already offers two products for call centre workers, Jabra and BlueParrot — headsets and speakerphones with their own proprietary software that it claims makes workers more efficient and productive just by making it easier to understand what callers are saying.

Altia will be integrated into that solution to expand it to include videoconferencing around unified communications solutions, creating more natural experiences for those who are not actually in physical rooms together.

“Combining GN Audio’s sound expertise, partner eco-system and global channel access with the video technology from Altia Systems, we will take the experience of conference calls to a completely new level,” said René Svendsen-Tune, President and CEO of GN Audio, in a statement.

What’s notable is that GN is a vertically-integrated company, building not just hardware but software to run on it. The AI engine underpinning some of its software development will be getting a vast new trove of data fed into it now by way of the PanaCast solution: not jut in terms of video, but the large amount of audio that will naturally come along with it.

“Combining PanaCast’s immersive, intelligent video with GN Audio’s intelligent audio solutions will enable us to deliver a whole new class of collaboration products for our customers,” said Aurangzeb Khan, President and CEO of Altia Systems, in a statement. “PanaCast’s solutions enable companies to improve meeting participants’ experience, automate workflows, and enhance business efficiency and real estate utilization with data lakes of valid information.”

Given GN’s work with Android and iOS devices, it will be interesting to see how and if these video solutions make their way to those platforms as well, either by way of solutions that work on their phones or perhaps more native integrations down the line.

Regardless of how that develops, what’s clear is that there remains a market not just for basic tools to get work done, but technology to improve the quality of those tools, and that’s where GN hopes it will resonate with this deal.


By Ingrid Lunden

Senseon raises $6.4M to tackle cybersecurity threats with an AI ‘triangulation’ approach

Darktrace helped pave the way for using artificial intelligence to combat malicious hacking and enterprise security breaches. Now a new UK startup founded by an ex-Darktrace executive has raised some funding to take the use of AI in cybersecurity to the next level.

Senseon, which has pioneered a new model that it calls “AI triangulation” — simultaneously applying artificial intelligence algorithms to oversee, monitor and defend an organization’s network appliances, endpoints, and ‘investigator bots’ covering multiple microservices — has raised $6.4 million in seed funding.

David Atkinson — the startup’s CEO and founder who had previously been the commercial director for Darktrace and before that helped pioneer new cybersecurity techniques as an operative at the UK’s Ministry of Defense — said that Senseon will use the funding to continue to expand its business both in Europe and the US. 

The deal was co-led by MMC Ventures and Mark Weatherford, who is chief cyber security strategist at vArmour (which itself raised money in recent weeks) and previously Deputy Under Secretary for Cybersecurity, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Others in the round included Amadeus Capital Partners, Crane Venture Partners and CyLon, a security startup incubator in London.

As Atkinson describes it, triangulation was an analytics concept first introduced by the CIA in the US, a method of bringing together multiple vectors of information to unearth inconsistencies in a data set (you can read more on triangulation in this CIA publication). He saw an opportunity to build a platform that took the same kind of approach to enterprise security.

There are a number of companies that are using AI-based techniques to help defend against breaches — in addition to Darktrace, there is Hexadite, a remediation specialist acquired by Microsoft, Amazon’s working in the field, and many others. In fact I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any IT security company today that doesn’t claim to or actually use AI in its approach.

Atkinson claims, however, that many AI-based solutions — and many other IT security products — take siloed, single-point approaches to defending a network. That is to say, you have network appliance security products, endpoint security, perhaps security for individual microservices so on.

But while many of these work well, you don’t always get those different services speaking to each other. And that doesn’t reflect the shape that the most sophisticated security breaches are taking today:

As cybersecurity breaches  and identified vulnerabilities continue to grow in frequency and scope — with hundreds of millions of individuals’ and organizations’ data potentially exposed in the process, systems disabled, and more — we’re seeing an increasing amount of sophistication on the part of the attackers.

Yes, those malicious actors employ artificial intelligence. But — as described in this 2019 paper on the state of cybersecurity from Symantec — they are also taking advantage of bigger “surface areas” with growing networks of connected objects all up for grabs; and they are tackling new frontiers like infiltrating data in transport and cloud-based systems. (In terms of examples of new frontiers, mobile networks, biometric data, gaming networks, public clouds, and new card skimming techniques are some of the specific areas that Experian calls out.)

Senseon’s antidote has been to build a new platform that “emulates how analysts think,” said Atkinson. Looking at an enterprise’s network appliance, an endpoint, and microservices in the cloud, the Senseon platform “has an autonomous conversation” using the source data, before it presents a conclusion, threat, warning or even breach alert to the organization’s security team.

“We have an ability to take observations and compare that to hypothetical scenarios. When we tell you something, it has a rich context,” he said. Single-point alternatives essentially can create “blind spots that hackers and manoeuvre around. Relying on single-source intelligence is like tying one hand behind your back.”

After Senseon compiles its data, it sends out alerts to security teams in a remediation service. Interestingly, while the platform’s aim is to identify malicious activity in a network, another consequence of what it’s doing is to help organizations identify “false positives” that are not actually threats, to cut down on time and money that get wasted on investigating those.

“Organisations of all sizes need to get better at keeping pace with emerging threats, but more importantly, identifying the attacks that require intervention,” said Mina Samaan of MMC Ventures in a statement. “Senseon’s technology directly addresses this challenge by using reinforcement learning AI techniques to help over-burdened security teams better understand anomalous behaviour through a single holistic platform.”

Although Senseon is only announcing seed funding today, the company has actually been around since 2017 and already has customers, primarily in the finance and legal industries (it would only give out one customer reference, the law firm of Harbottle & Lewis).


By Ingrid Lunden

As GE and Amazon move on, Google expands presence in Boston and NYC

NYC and Boston were handed huge setbacks this week when Amazon and GE decided to bail on their commitments to build headquarters in the respective cities on the same day. But it’s worth pointing out that while these large tech organizations were pulling out, Google was expanding in both locations.

Yesterday upon hearing about Amazon’s decision to scrap its HQ2 plans in Long Island City, New York City Mayor De Blasio had this to say: “Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity. We have the best talent in the world and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone. If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.” One of them already has. Google had already announced a billion dollar expansion in Hudson Square at the end of last year.

In fact, the company is pouring billions into NYC real estate with plans to double its 7000 person workforce over the next 10 years. As TechCrunch’s Jon Russell reported, “Our investment in New York is a huge part of our commitment to grow and invest in U.S. facilities, offices and jobs. In fact, we’re growing faster outside the Bay Area than within it, and this year opened new offices and data centers in locations like Detroit, Boulder, Los Angeles, Tennessee and Alabama,” wrote Google CFO Ruth Porat.”

Just this week, as GE was making its announcement, Google was announcing a major expansion in Cambridge, the city across the river from Boston that is home to Harvard and MIT. Kendall Square is also is home to offices from Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Akamai, Digital Ocean and a plethora of startups.

Google will be moving into a brand new building that currently is home to the MIT Coop bookstore. It plans to grab 365,000 square feet of the new building when it’s completed, and as in NYC will be adding hundreds of new jobs to the 1500 already in place. Brian Cusack, Google Cambridge Site lead points out the company began operations in Cambridge back in 2003 and has been working on Search, Android, Cloud, YouTube, Google Play, Research, Ads and more.

“This new space will provide room for future growth and further cements our commitment to the Cambridge community. We’re proud to call this city home and will continue to support its vibrant nonprofit and growing business community,” he said in a statement.

As we learned this week, big company commitments can vanish just as quickly as they are announced, but for now at least, it appears that Google is serious about its commitment to New York and Boston and will be expanding office space and employment to the tune of thousands of jobs over the next decade.


By Ron Miller

Zendesk just hired three former Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe execs

Today, Zendesk announced it had hired three new executives — Elisabeth Zornes, former general manager of global support for Microsoft Office, as Zendesk’s first chief customer officer; former Adobe executive Colleen Berube as chief information officer and former Salesforce executive Shawna Wolverton as senior vice president, product.

The company emphasized that the hirings were about expanding the executive suite and bringing in top people to help the company grow and move into larger enterprise organizations.

From left to right: Shawna Wolverton, Colleen Berube and Elizabeth Zornes

Zornes comes to Zendesk with 20 years of experience at Microsoft working in a variety of roles around Microsoft Office. She says that what attracted her to Zendesk was its focus on the customer.

“When I look at businesses today, no matter what size, what type or what geography, they can agree on one thing: customer experience is the rocket fuel to drive success. Zendesk has positioned itself as a technology company that empowers companies of all kinds to drive a new level of success by focusing on their customer experience, and helping them to be at the forefront of that was a very intriguing opportunity for me,” Zornes told TechCrunch.

New CIO Berube, who comes with two decades of experience, also sees her new job as a chance to have an impact on customer experience and help companies who are trying to transform into digital organizations. “Customer experience is the linchpin for all organizations to succeed in the digital age. My background is broad, having shepherded many different types of companies through digital transformations, and developing and running modern IT organizations,” she said.

Her boss, CEO and co-founder Mikkel Svane sees someone who can help continue to grow the company and develop the product. “We looked specifically for a CIO with a modern mindset who understands the challenges of large organizations trying to keep up with customer expectations today,” Svane told TechCrunch

As for senior VP of product Wolverton, she comes with 15 years of experience including a stint as head of product at Salesforce. She said that coming to Zendesk was about having an impact on a modern SaaS product. “The opportunity to build a modern, public, cloud-native CRM platform with Sunshine was a large part of my decision to join,” she said.

The three leaders have already joined the organization.


By Ron Miller

Peltarion raises $20M for its AI platform

Peltarion, a Swedish startup founded by former execs from companies like Spotify, Skype, King, TrueCaller and Google, today announced that it has raised a $20 million Series A funding round led by Euclidean Capital, the family office for hedge fund billionaire James Simons. Previous investors FAM and EQT Ventures also participated, and this round brings the company’s total funding to $35 million.

There is obviously no dearth of AI platforms these days. Peltarion focus on what it calls “operational AI.” The service offers an end-to-end platform that lets you do everything from pre-processing your data to building models and putting them into production. All of this runs in the cloud and developers get access to a graphical user interface for building and testing their models. All of this, the company stresses, ensures that Peltarion’s users don’t have to deal with any of the low-level hardware or software and can instead focus on building their models.

“The speed at which AI systems can be built and deployed on the operational platform is orders of magnitude faster compared to the industry standard tools such as TensorFlow and require far fewer people and decreases the level of technical expertise needed,” Luka Crnkovic-Friis, of Peltarion’s CEO and co-founder, tells me. “All this results in more organizations being able to operationalize AI and focusing on solving problems and creating change.”

In a world where businesses have a plethora of choices, though, why use Peltarion over more established players? “Almost all of our clients are worried about lock-in to any single cloud provider,” Crnkovic-Friis said. “They tend to be fine using storage and compute as they are relatively similar across all the providers and moving to another cloud provider is possible. Equally, they are very wary of the higher-level services that AWS, GCP, Azure, and others provide as it means a complete lock-in.”

Peltarion, of course, argues that its platform doesn’t lock in its users and that other platforms take far more AI expertise to produce commercially viable AI services. The company rightly notes that, outside of the tech giants, most companies still struggle with how to use AI at scale. “They are stuck on the starting blocks, held back by two primary barriers to progress: immature patchwork technology and skills shortage,” said Crnkovic-Friis.

The company will use the new funding to expand its development team and its teams working with its community and partners. It’ll also use the new funding for growth initiatives in the U.S. and other markets.


By Frederic Lardinois

AWS announces new bare metal instances for companies who want more cloud control

When you think about Infrastructure as a Service, you typically pay for a virtual machine that resides in a multi-tenant environment. That means, it’s using a set of shared resources. For many companies that approach is fine, but when a customer wants more control, they may prefer a single tenant system where they control the entire set of hardware resources. This approach is also known as “bare metal” in the industry, and today AWS announced five new bare metal instances.

You end up paying more for this kind of service because you are getting more control over the processor, storage and other resources on your own dedicated underlying server. This is part of the range of products that all cloud vendors offer. You can have a vanilla virtual machine, with very little control over the hardware, or you can go with bare metal and get much finer grain control over the underlying hardware, something that companies require if they are going to move certain workloads to the cloud.

As AWS describes it in the blog post announcing these new instances, these are for highly specific use cases. “Bare metal instances allow EC2 customers to run applications that benefit from deep performance analysis tools, specialized workloads that require direct access to bare metal infrastructure, legacy workloads not supported in virtual environments, and licensing-restricted Tier 1 business critical applications,” the company explained.

The five new products, called m5.metal, m5d.metal, r5.metal, r5d.metal, and z1d.metal (catchy names there, Amazon) offer a variety of resources:

Chart courtesy of Amazon

These new offerings are available starting today as on-demand, reserved or spot instances, depending on your requirements.


By Ron Miller

Zoho’s office suite gets smarter

As far as big tech companies go, Zoho is a bit different. Not only has it never taken any venture funding, it also offers more than 40 products that range from its online office suite to CRM and HR tools, email, workflow automation services, video conferencing, a bug tracker and everything in-between. You don’t often hear about it, but the company has more than 45 million users worldwide and offices in the U.S., Netherlands, Singapore, Dubai, Yokohama and Beijing — and it owns its data centers, too.

Today, Zoho is launching a major update to its core office suite products: Zoho Writer, Sheet, Show and Notebooks. These tools are getting an infusion of AI — under Zoho’s “Zia” brand — as well as new AppleTV and Android integrations and more. All of the tools are getting some kind of AI-based feature or another, but they are also getting support for Zia Voice, Zoho’s conversational AI assistant.

With this, you can now ask questions about data in your spreadsheets, for example, and Zia will create charts and even pivot tables for you. Similarly, Zoho is using Zia in its document editor and presentation tools to provide better grammar and spellchecking tools (and it’ll now offer a readability score and tips for improving your text). In Zoho Notebook, the note-taking application that is also the company’s newest app, Zia can help users create different formats for their note cards based on the content (text, photo, audio, checklist, sketch, etc.).

“We want to make AI helpful in a very contextual manner for a specific application,” Raju Vegesna, Zoho’s chief evangelist, told me. “Because we do AI across the board, we learned a lot and were are able to apply learnings on one technology and one piece of context and apply that to another.” Zoho first brought Zia to its business intelligence app, for example, and now it’s essentially bringing the same capabilities to its spreadsheet app, too.

It’s worth noting that Google and Microsoft are doing similar things with their productivity apps, too, of course. Zoho, however, argues that it offers a far wider range of applications — and its stated mission is that you should be able to run your entire business on its platform. And the plan is to bring some form of AI to all of them. “Fast-forward a few months and [our AI grammar and spellchecker] is applied to the business application context — maybe a support agent responding to a customer ticket can use this technology to make sure there are no typos in those responses,” Vegesna said.

There are plenty of other updates in this release, too. Zoho Show now works with AppleTV-enabled devices for example, and Android users can now use their phones as a smart remote for Show. Zoho Sheet now lets you build custom functions and scripts and Zoho Writer’s web, mobile and iPad versions can now work completely offline.

The broader context here, though, is that Zoho, with its ridiculously broad product portfolio, is playing a long game. The company has no interest in going public. But it also knows that it’s going up against companies like Google and Microsoft. “Vertical integration is not something that you see in our industry,” said Vegesna. “Companies are in that quick mode of getting traction, sell or go public. We are looking at it in the 10 to 20-year time frame. To really win that game, you need to make these serious investments in the market. The improvements you are seeing here are at the surface level. But we don’t see ourselves as a software company. We see ourselves as a technology company.” And to build up these capabilities, Vegesna said, Zoho has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its own data centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, for example.


By Frederic Lardinois

Google says it’ll invest $13B in U.S. data centers and offices this year

Google today announced that it will invest $13 billion in data centers and offices across the U.S. in 2019. That’s up from $9 billion in investments last year. Many of these investments will go to states like Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia, where Google plans new or expanded data centers. Though like most years, it’ll also continue to expand many of its existing offices in Seattle, Chicago and New York, as well as in its home state of California.

Given Google’s push for more cloud customers, it’s also interesting to see that the company continues to expand its data center presence across the country. Google will soon open its first data centers in Nevada, Nebraska, Ohio and Texas, for example, and it will expand its Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia data centers. Google clearly isn’t slowing down in its race to compete with AWS and Azure.

“These new investments will give us the capacity to hire tens of thousands of employees, and enable the creation of more than 10,000 new construction jobs in Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai writes today. “With this new investment, Google will now have a home in 24 total states, including data centers in 13 communities. 2019 marks the second year in a row we’ll be growing faster outside of the Bay Area than in it.”

Given the current backlash against many tech companies and automation in general, it’s probably no surprise that Google wants to emphasize the number of jobs it is creating (and especially jobs in Middle America). The construction jobs are obviously temporary, though, and data centers don’t need a lot of employees to run once they are up and running. Still, Google promises that this will give it the “capacity to hire tens of thousands of employees.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Block Kit helps deliver more visually appealing content in Slack

Slack has become a critical communications tool for many organizations. One of the things that has driven its rapid success has been the ability to connect to external enterprise apps inside of Slack, giving employees what is essentially a centralized workhub. This ability has led to some unintended consequences around formatting issues, which Slack addressed today with two new tools, Block Kit and Block Kit Builder.

Block Kit lets developers present dense content in a much more visually appealing way, while Block Kit Builder is a prototyping tool for building more attractive apps inside Slack. The idea is to provide a way to deliver content inside of Slack without having to do work-arounds to make the content look good.

Before and after applying Block Kit. Screen: Slack

Bear Douglas, who is Slack’s director of developer of relations, says developers have been quite creative up until now when it comes to formatting, but the company has been working to simplify it. Today’s announcement is the culmination of that work.

“Block Kit makes it easier for people to quickly design a customized app in Slack. We’ve launched a no-code builder that will let people design the messages that they show inside Slack,” she explained.

She said, that while this tool is really designed for people with some programming or Slack admin-level knowledge, the ultimate goal is to make it easy enough for non-technical end users to build apps in Slack, something that is on the road map. What enhancing these tools does, however, is show people just what is possible inside of Slack.

“When people see Block Kit in action, it is illuminating about what can be done, and it helps them understand that it doesn’t just need to be your communications center or [something that pings you] when your website blows up. You can actually get work done inside of Slack,” she said.

One other advantage of using Block Kit is that apps will display messages consistently, whether you are using the web or mobile. Prior to having these tools, work-arounds might have looked fine on the web, but the spacing might have been off on mobile or vice versa. Block Kit lets you design consistent interfaces across platforms.

Among the tools Slack is offering, none is actually earth shattering, but in total they provide users with the ability to format their content in a way that makes sense using common design elements like image containers, dividers and sections. They are also offering buttons, drop-down menus and a calendar picker.

Both of these tools are available starting today in the Block Kit hub.


By Ron Miller

Fiverr acquires ClearVoice to double down on content marketing

Fiverr is acquiring ClearVoice, a company that helps customers like Intuit and Carfax find professionals to write promotional content.

The two companies seem like a natural fit, since they both operate marketplaces for freelancers. Fiverr covers a much broader swath of freelance work, but CEO Micha Kaufman (pictured above) said the marketplace’s professional writing category grew 220 percent between the fourth quarters of 2017 and 2018, and he predicted that the need for content marketing will only increase.

“The types of channels that brands and companies need to be involved in and engaging in conversation with their audience are just growing,” Kaufman said. “I think any brand today that wants to be relevant needs to create a lot of engaging, interesting, creative content in their space, and I think that that creates a high demand for good content writers.”

Kaufman also noted that this is Fiverr’s third acquisition in two years, and he said he’s a “big believer … in the consolidation of vertical businesses into horizontal businesses such as ours — the fact that we cover over 200 categories gives us a tremendous amount of power to serve customers across many different types of needs.”

So what does the acquisition bring to the table that Fiverr wasn’t offering already? Kaufman said the ClearVoice team has “a lot of know how, both in technology side and the actual content side,” which will allow Fiverr to “cater to customers of all sizes and all needs.”

ClearVoice editorial calendar

ClearVoice editorial calendar

More specifically, he said most of Fiverr’s content marketing customers are small businesses, while ClearVoice is able to work with large enterprises, especially with its collaboration and workflow tools that allow those enterprises to create content at “high velocity.”

Founded in 2014 by Jay Swansson and Joe Griffin (who still serve as co-CEOs), ClearVoice has raised a total of $3.1 million in funding from investors including PC Ventures, Desert Angels, Peak Ventures and Service Provider Capital, according to Crunchbase.

Fiverr is not disclosing the financial terms of the acquisition. The company says ClearVoice will continue to operate as an independent subsidiary.

“We are thrilled to be joining a company that is changing how people and companies work together in the modern era,” Swansson said in a statement. “This new chapter is a chance for us to use Fiverr’s depth and knowledge to globally scale our business and advance our mission of creating a platform that allows for worldwide creative collaboration.”


By Anthony Ha

Donde Search picks up $6 million to help fashion retailers with visual search

Donde Search has just closed a $6 million Series A investment led by Matrix Partners, with participation from previous investors such as senior leaders from AliExpress, Google and Waze.

Donde first launched in 2014 as a consumer-facing app that helped users search and discover apparel items based on visual characteristics rather than text-based searches. In early 2018, the company pivoted to the enterprise space, helping retailers power suggestions and related items on their websites.

Here’s how it works:

Retailers partnered with Donde hand over their product catalog and run it through the Donde algorithm, which identifies all the visual features associated with each product. Retailers can then add a widget to their site to let users search based on those features (like sleeve length or type, color or material).

As users interact with the products, the website adapts to that behavior to offer personalized product recommendations and related items.

Moreover, Donde offers an analytics dashboard that not only provides insights on the customer’s own website, but a look into trends being featured on competing e-commerce websites to understand the industry in general.

Donde was founded by Liat Zakay, who previously served as a software engineer and R&D team manager in the Israeli intelligence unit 8200. Using her technical expertise, she built Donde to solve her own problem of not having the time or energy to go through the tedious process of online shopping.

Zakay told TechCrunch that Donde is focused on apparel for now, but that the technology can be applied to almost any vertical.

“One of the interesting pieces about Donde is that it’s language agnostic,” said Zakay. “You don’t need to know what it’s called and it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you can still find what you want based on visual features. Which makes us extremely relevant to global retailers.”

The new funding, which will be used to expand the product and the team, came shortly after the announcement of Donde’s partnership with Forever 21. The fast-fashion retailer tested out the Donde platform on its mobile app and, after a month, saw a 20 percent increase in average purchase value and higher conversions. Forever 21 has now expanded the program, putting Donde on the web, as well.

Donde said it is working on pilot programs with several other retailers across the U.S. and Europe.

Fast fashion, in particular, represents a big opportunity for Donde. Because product turnover is so fast, retailers rarely have reliable data around a certain SKU, with the website being run on outdated data from last “season.”

This latest round brings Donde’s total funding to $9.5 million, with backing from UpWest, Afterdox and Golden Seeds.


By Jordan Crook

Google and IBM still trying desperately to move cloud market share needle

When it comes to the cloud market, there are few known knows. For instance, we know that AWS is the market leader with around 32 percent of market share. We know Microsoft is far back in second place with around 14 percent, the only other company in double digits. We also know that IBM and Google are wallowing in third or fourth place, depending on whose numbers you look at, stuck in single digits. The market keeps expanding, but these two major companies never seem to get a much bigger piece of the pie.

Neither company is satisfied with that of course. Google so much so that it moved on from Diane Greene at the end of last year, bringing in Oracle veteran Thomas Kurian to lead the division out of the doldrums. Meanwhile, IBM made an even bigger splash, plucking Red Hat from the market for $34 billion in October.

This week, the two companies made some more noise, letting the cloud market know that they are not ceding the market to anyone. For IBM, which is holding its big IBM Think conference this week in Las Vegas, it involved opening up Watson to competitor clouds. For a company like IBM, this was a huge move, akin to when Microsoft started building apps for iOS. It was an acknowledgement that working across platforms matters, and that if you want to gain market share, you had better start thinking outside the box.

While becoming cross-platform compatible isn’t exactly a radical notion in general, it most certainly is for a company like IBM, which if it had its druthers and a bit more market share, would probably have been content to maintain the status quo. But if the majority of your customers are pursuing a multi-cloud strategy, it might be a good idea for you to jump on the bandwagon and that’s precisely what IBM has done by opening up access to Watson across clouds in this fashion.

Clearly buying Red Hat was about a hybrid cloud play, and if IBM is serious about that approach, and for $34 billion, it had better be, it would have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. As IBM Watson CTO and chief architect Ruchir Puri told my colleague Frederic Lardinois about the move, “It’s in these hybrid environments, they’ve got multiple cloud implementations, they have data in their private cloud as well. They have been struggling because the providers of AI have been trying to lock them into a particular implementation that is not suitable to this hybrid cloud environment.” This plays right into the Red Hat strategy and I’m betting you’ll see more of this approach in other parts of the product line from IBM this year. (Google als acknowledged this when it announced a hybrid strategy of its own last year.)

Meanwhile Thomas Kurian had his coming out party at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco earlier today. Bloomberg reports that he announced a plan to increase the number of salespeople and train them to understand specific verticals, ripping a page straight from the playbook of his former employer, Oracle.

He suggested that his company would be more aggressive in pursuing traditional enterprise customers, although I’m sure his predecessor, Diane Greene, wasn’t exactly sitting around counting on inbound marketing interest to grow sales. In fact, rumor had it that she wanted to pursue government contracts much more aggressively than the company was willing to do. Now it’s up to Kurian to grow sales. Of course, given that Google doesn’t report cloud revenue it’s hard to know what growth would look like, but perhaps if it has more success it will be more forthcoming.

As Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide tweeted today, it’s one thing to turn to the tried and true enterprise playbook, but that doesn’t mean that executing on that approach is going to be simple, or that Google will be successful in the end.

These two companies obviously desperately want to alter their cloud fortunes, which have been fairly dismal to this point. The moves announced today are clearly part of a broader strategy to move the market share needle, but whether they can or the market positions have long ago hardened remains to be seen.


By Ron Miller