Google Cloud joins the FinOps Foundation

Google Cloud today announced that it is joining the FinOps Foundation as a Premier Member.

The FinOps Foundation is a relatively new open-source foundation, hosted by the Linux Foundation, that launched last year. It aims to bring together companies in the ‘cloud financial management’ space to establish best practices and standards. As the term implies, ‘cloud financial management,’ is about the tools and practices that help businesses manage and budget their cloud spend. There’s a reason, after all, that there are a number of successful startups that do nothing else but help businesses optimize their cloud spend (and ideally lower it).

Maybe it’s no surprise that the FinOps Foundation was born out of Cloudability’s quarterly Customer Advisory Board meetings. Until now, CloudHealth by VMware was the Foundation’s only Premiere Member among its vendor members. Other members include Cloudability, Densify, Kubecost and SoftwareOne. With Google Cloud, the Foundation has now signed up its first major cloud provider.

“FinOps best practices are essential for companies to monitor, analyze, and optimize cloud spend across tens to hundreds of projects that are critical to their business success,” said Yanbing Li, Vice President of Engineering and Product at Google Cloud. “More visibility, efficiency, and tools will enable our customers to improve their cloud deployments and drive greater business value. We are excited to join FinOps Foundation, and together with like-minded organizations, we will shepherd behavioral change throughout the industry.”

Google Cloud has already committed to sending members to some of the Foundation’s various Special Interest Groups (SIGs) and Working Groups to “help drive open source standards for cloud financial management.”

“The practitioners in the FinOps Foundation greatly benefit when market leaders like Google Cloud invest resources and align their product offerings to FinOps principles and standards,” said J.R. Storment, Executive Director of the FinOps Foundation. “We are thrilled to see Google Cloud increase its commitment to the FinOps Foundation, joining VMware as the 2nd of 3 dedicated Premier Member Technical Advisory Council seats.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud hires Intel veteran to head its custom chip efforts

There has been a growing industry trend in recent years for large-scale companies to build their own chips. As part of that, Google announced today that it has hired long-time Intel executive Uri Frank as vice president to run its custom chip division.

“The future of cloud infrastructure is bright, and it’s changing fast. As we continue to work to meet computing demands from around the world, today we are thrilled to welcome Uri Frank as our VP of Engineering for server chip design,” Amin Vahdat, Google Fellow and VP of systems infrastructure wrote in a blog post announcing the hire.

With Frank, Google gets an experienced chip industry executive, who spent more than two decades at Intel rising from engineering roles to corporate vice president at the Design Engineering Group, his final role before leaving the company earlier this month.

Frank will lead the custom chip division in Israel as part of Google. As he said in his announcement on LinkedIn, this was a big step to join a company with a long history of building custom silicon.

“Google has designed and built some of the world’s largest and most efficient computing systems. For a long time, custom chips have been an important part of this strategy. I look forward to growing a team here in Israel while accelerating Google Cloud’s innovations in compute infrastructure,” Frank wrote.

Google’s history of building its own chips dates back to 2015 when it launched the first TensorFlow chips. It moved into video processing chips in 2018 and added OpenTitan , an open-source chip with a security angle in 2019.

Frank’s job will be to continue to build on this previous experience to work with customers and partners to build new custom chip architectures. The company wants to move away from buying motherboard components from different vendors to building its own “system on a chip” or SoC, which it says will be drastically more efficient.

“Instead of integrating components on a motherboard where they are separated by inches of wires, we are turning to “Systems on Chip” (SoC) designs where multiple functions sit on the same chip, or on multiple chips inside one package. In other words, the SoC is the new motherboard,” Vahdat wrote.

While Google was early to the “Build Your Own Chip” movement, we’ve seen other large scale companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft begin building their own custom chips in recent years to meet each company’s unique needs and give more precise control over the relationship between the hardware and software.

It will be Frank’s job to lead Google’s custom chip unit and help bring it to the next level.


By Ron Miller

Amazon will expand its Amazon Care on-demand healthcare offering U.S.-wide this summer

Amazon is apparently pleased with how its Amazon Care pilot in Seattle has gone, since it announced this morning that it will be expanding the offering across the U.S. this summer, and opening it up to companies of all sizes, in addition to its own employees. The Amazon Care model combines on-demand and in-person care, and is meant as a solution from the search giant to address shortfalls in current offering for employer-sponsored healthcare offerings.

In a blog post announcing the expansion, Amazon touted the speed of access to care made possible for its employees and their families via the remote, chat and video-based features of Amazon Care. These are facilitated via a dedicated Amazon Care app, which provides direct, live chats via a nurse or doctor. Issues that then require in-person care is then handled via a house call, so a medical professional is actually sent to your home to take care of things like administering blood tests or doing a chest exam, and prescriptions are delivered to your door as well.

The expansion is being handled differently across both in-person and remote variants of care; remote services will be available starting this summer to both Amazon’s own employees, as well as other companies who sign on as customers, starting this summer. The in-person side will be rolling out more slowly, starting with availability in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and “other cities in the coming months” according to the company.

As of today, Amazon Care is expanding in its home state of Washington to begin serving other companies. The idea is that others will sing on to make Amazon Care part of its overall benefits package for employees. Amazon is touting the speed advantages of testing services, including results delivery, for things including COVID-19 as a major strength of the service.

The Amazon Care model has a surprisingly Amazon twist, too – when using the in-person care option, the app will provide an updating ETA for when to expect your physician or medical technician, which is eerily similar to how its primary app treats package delivery.

While the Amazon Care pilot in Washington only launched a year-and-a-half ago, the company has had its collective mind set on upending the corporate healthcare industry for some time now. It announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan back at the very beginning of 2018 to form a joint venture specifically to address the gaps they saw in the private corporate healthcare provider market.

That deep pocketed all-star team ended up officially disbanding at the outset of this year, after having done a whole lot of not very much in the three years in between. One of the stated reasons that Amazon and its partners gave for unpartnering was that each had made a lot of progress on its own in addressing the problems it had faced anyway. While Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan’s work in that regard might be less obvious, Amazon was clearly referring to Amazon Care.

It’s not unusual for large tech companies with lots of cash on the balance sheet and a need to attract and retain top-flight talent to spin up their own healthcare benefits for their workforces. Apple and Google both have their own on-campus wellness centers staffed by medical professionals, for instance. But Amazon’s ambitious have clearly exceeded those of its peers, and it looks intent on making a business line out of the work it did to improve its own employee care services — a strategy that isn’t too dissimilar from what happened with AWS, by the way.


By Darrell Etherington

Extra Crunch roundup: 2 VC surveys, Tesla’s melt up, The Roblox Gambit, more

This has been quite a week.

Instead of walking backward through the last few days of chaos and uncertainty, here are three good things that happened:

  • Google employee Sara Robinson combined her interest in machine learning and baking to create AI-generated hybrid treats.
  • A breakthrough could make water desalination 30%-40% more effective.
  • Bianca Smith will become the first Black woman to coach a professional baseball team.

Despite many distractions in our first full week of the new year, we published a full slate of stories exploring different aspects of entrepreneurship, fundraising and investing.

We’ve already gotten feedback on this overview of subscription pricing models, and a look back at 2020 funding rounds and exits among Israel’s security startups was aimed at our new members who live and work there, along with international investors who are seeking new opportunities.

Plus, don’t miss our first investor surveys of 2021: one by Lucas Matney on social gaming, and another by Mike Butcher that gathered responses from Portugal-based investors on a wide variety of topics.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week. I hope we can all look forward to a nice, boring weekend with no breaking news alerts.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


The Roblox Gambit

In February 2020, gaming platform Roblox was valued at $4 billion, but after announcing a $520 million Series H this week, it’s now worth $29.5 billion.

“Sure, you could argue that Roblox enjoyed an epic 2020, thanks in part to COVID-19,” writes Alex Wilhelm this morning. “That helped its valuation. But there’s a lot of space between $4 billion and $29.5 billion.”

Alex suggests that Roblox’s decision to delay its IPO and raise an enormous Series H was a grandmaster move that could influence how other unicorns will take themselves to market. “A big thanks to the gaming company for running this experiment for us.”

I asked him what inspired the headline; like most good ideas, it came to him while he was trying to get to sleep.

“I think that I had “The Queen’s Gambit somewhere in my head, so that formed the root of a little joke with myself. Roblox is making a strategic wager on method of going public. So, ‘gambit’ seems to fit!”

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

girl playing games on desktop computer

Image Credits: Erik Von Weber (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For our first investor survey of the year, Lucas Matney interviewed eight VCs who invest in massively multiplayer online games to discuss 2021 trends and opportunities:

  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
  • Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Sakib Dadi, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Jacob Mullins, Shasta Ventures
  • Alice Lloyd George, Rogue
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX

Having moved far beyond shooters and sims, platforms like Twitch, Discord and Fortnite are “where culture is created,” said Daniel Li of Madrona.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Twitch to explain policy positions, major musicians regularly perform in-game concerts on Fortnite and in-game purchases generated tens of billions last year.

“Gaming is a unique combination of science and art, left and right brain,” said Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX. “It’s never just science (i.e., software and data), which is why many investors find it hard.”

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

Giant hand and magnet picking up office and workers

Image Credits: C.J. Burton (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Startups that lack insight into their sales funnel have high churn, low conversion rates and an inability to adapt or leverage changes in customer behavior.

If you’re hoping to convert and retain customers, “reinforcing your value proposition should play a big part in every level of your customer funnel,” says Joe Procopio, founder of Teaching Startup.

What is up with Tesla’s value?

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm followed up his regular Friday column with another story that tries to find a well-grounded rationale for Tesla’s sky-high valuation of approximately $822 billion.

Meanwhile, GM just unveiled a new logo and tagline.

As ever, I learned something new while editing: A “melt up” occurs when investors start clamoring for a particular company because of acute FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Delivering 500,000 cars in 2020 was “impressive,” says Alex, who also acknowledged the company’s ability to turn GAAP profits, but “pride cometh before the fall, as does a melt up, I think.”

Note: This story has Alex’s original headline, but I told him I would replace the featured image with a photo of someone who had very “richest man in the world” face.

How Segment redesigned its core systems to solve an existential scaling crisis

Abstract glowing grid and particles

Image Credits: piranka / Getty Images

On Tuesday, enterprise reporter Ron Miller covered a major engineering project at customer data platform Segment called “Centrifuge.”

“Its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost,” but as Ron reports, it was also meant to solve “an existential crisis for the young business,” which needed a more resilient platform.

Dear Sophie: Banging my head against the wall understanding the US immigration system

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

Now that the U.S. has a new president coming in whose policies are more welcoming to immigrants, I am considering coming to the U.S. to expand my company after COVID-19. However, I’m struggling with the morass of information online that has bits and pieces of visa types and processes.

Can you please share an overview of the U.S. immigration system and how it works so I can get the big picture and understand what I’m navigating?

— Resilient in Romania

The first “Dear Sophie” column of each month is available on TechCrunch without a paywall.

Revenue-based financing: The next step for private equity and early-stage investment

Shot of a group of people holding plants growing out of soil

Image Credits: Hiraman (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For founders who aren’t interested in angel investment or seeking validation from a VC, revenue-based investing is growing in popularity.

To gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. RBI landscape, we published an industry report on Wednesday that studied data from 134 companies, 57 funds and 32 investment firms before breaking out “specific verticals and business models … and the typical profile of companies that access this form of capital.”

Lisbon’s startup scene rises as Portugal gears up to be a European tech tiger

Man using laptop at 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal

Image Credits: Westend61 (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Mike Butcher continues his series of European investor surveys with his latest dispatch from Lisbon, where a nascent startup ecosystem may get a Brexit boost.

Here are the Portugal-based VCs he interviewed:

  • Cristina Fonseca, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Pedro Ribeiro Santos, partner, Armilar Venture Partners
  • Tocha, partner, Olisipo Way
  • Adão Oliveira, investment manager, Portugal Ventures
  • Alexandre Barbosa, partner, Faber
  • António Miguel, partner, Mustard Seed MAZE
  • Jaime Parodi Bardón, partner, impACT NOW Capital
  • Stephan Morais, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Gavin Goldblatt, managing partner, Portugal Gateway

How late-stage edtech companies are thinking about tutoring marketplaces

Life Rings flying out beneath storm clouds are a metaphor for rescue, help and aid.

Image Credits: John Lund (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

How do you scale online tutoring, particularly when demand exceeds the supply of human instructors?

This month, Chegg is replacing its seven-year-old marketplace that paired students with tutors with a live chatbot.

A spokesperson said the move will “dramatically differentiate our offerings from our competitors and better service students,” but Natasha Mascarenhas identified two challenges to edtech automation.

“A chatbot won’t work for a student with special needs or someone who needs to be handheld a bit more,” she says. “Second, speed tutoring can only work for a specific set of subjects.”

Decrypted: How bad was the US Capitol breach for cybersecurity?

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

While I watched insurrectionists invade and vandalize the U.S. Capitol on live TV, I noticed that staffers evacuated so quickly, some hadn’t had time to shut down their computers.

Looters even made off with a laptop from Senator Jeff Merkley’s office, but according to security reporter Zack Whittaker, the damages to infosec wasn’t as bad as it looked.

Even so, “the breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments, which will have to figure out what’s been stolen and what security risks could still pose a threat to the Capitol’s network.”

Extra Crunch’s top 10 stories of 2020

On New Year’s Eve, I made a list of the 10 “best” Extra Crunch stories from the previous 12 months.

My methodology was personal: From hundreds of posts, these were the 10 I found most useful, which is my key metric for business journalism.

Some readers are skeptical about paywalls, but without being boastful, Extra Crunch is a premium product, just like Netflix or Disney+. I know, we’re not as entertaining as a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II or a space western about a bounty hunter. But, speaking as someone who’s worked at several startups, Extra Crunch stories contain actionable information you can use to build a company and/or look smart in meetings — and that’s worth something.


By Walter Thompson

New Relic acquires Kubernetes observability platform Pixie Labs

Two months ago, Kubernetes observability platform Pixie Labs launched into general availability and announced a $9.15 million Series A funding round led by Benchmark, with participation from GV. Today, the company is announcing its acquisition by New Relic, the publicly traded monitoring and observability platform.

The Pixie Labs brand and product will remain in place and allow New Relic to extend its platform to the edge. From the outset, the Pixie Labs team designed the service to focus on providing observability for cloud-native workloads running on Kubernetes clusters. And while most similar tools focus on operators and IT teams, Pixie set out to build a tool that developers would want to use. Using eBPF, a relatively new way to extend the Linux kernel, the Pixie platform can collect data right at the source and without the need for an agent.

At the core of the Pixie developer experience are what the company calls “Pixie scripts.” These allow developers to write their debugging workflows, though the company also provides its own set of these and anybody in the community can contribute and share them as well. The idea here is to capture a lot of the informal knowledge around how to best debug a given service.

“We’re super excited to bring these companies together because we share a mission to make observability ubiquitous through simplicity,” Bill Staples, New Relic’s Chief Product Officer, told me. “[…] According to IDC, there are 28 million developers in the world. And yet only a fraction of them really practice observability today. We believe it should be easier for every developer to take a data-driven approach to building software and Kubernetes is really the heart of where developers are going to build software.”

It’s worth noting that New Relic already had a solution for monitoring Kubernetes clusters. Pixie, however, will allow it to go significantly deeper into this space. “Pixie goes much, much further in terms of offering on-the-edge, live debugging use cases, the ability to run those Pixie scripts. So it’s an extension on top of the cloud-based monitoring solution we offer today,” Staples said.

The plan is to build integrations into New Relic into Pixie’s platform and to integrate Pixie use cases with New Relic One as well.

Currently, about 300 teams use the Pixie platform. These range from small startups to large enterprises and as Staples and Asgar noted, there was already a substantial overlap between the two customer bases.

As for why he decided to sell, Pixie co-founder (and former Google AI CEO Zain Asgar told me that it was all about accelerating Pixie’s vision.

“We started Pixie to create this magical developer experience that really allows us to redefine how application developers monitor, secure and manage their applications,” Asgar said. “One of the cool things is when we actually met the team at New Relic and we got together with Bill and [New Relic founder and CEO] Lou [Cirne], we realized that there was almost a complete alignment around this vision […], and by joining forces with New Relic, we can actually accelerate this entire process.”

New Relic has recently done a lot of work on open-sourcing various parts of its platform, including its agents, data exporters and some of its tooling. Pixie, too, will now open-source its core tools. Open-sourcing the service was always on the company’s roadmap, but the acquisition now allows it to push this timeline forward.

“We’ll be taking Pixie and making it available to the community through open source, as well as continuing to build out the commercial enterprise-grade offering for it that extends the New Relic one platform,” Staples explained. Asgar added that it’ll take the company a little while to release the code, though.

“The same fundamental quality that got us so excited about Lew as an EIR in 2007, got us excited about Zain and Ishan in 2017 — absolutely brilliant engineers, who know how to build products developers love,” Bessemer Ventures General Partner Eric Vishria told me. “New Relic has always captured developer delight. For all its power, Kubernetes completely upends the monitoring paradigm we’ve lived with for decades.  Pixie brings the same — easy to use, quick time to value, no-nonsense approach to the Kubernetes world as New Relic brought to APM.  It is a match made in heaven.”


By Frederic Lardinois

With $29M in funding, Isovalent launches its cloud-native networking and security platform

Isovalent, a startup that aims to bring networking into the cloud-native era, today announced that it has raised a $29 million Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz and Google. In addition, the company today officially launched its Cilium platform (which was in stealth until now) to help enterprises connect, observe and secure their applications.

The open-source Cilium project is already seeing growing adoption, with Google choosing it for its new GKE dataplane, for example. Other users include Adobe, Capital One, Datadog and GitLab. Isovalent is following what is now the standard model for commercializing open-source projects by launching an enterprise version.

Image Credits: Cilium

The founding team of CEO Dan Wendlandt and CTO Thomas Graf has deep experience in working on the Linux kernel and building networking products. Graf spent 15 years working on the Linux kernel and created the Cilium open-source project, while Wendlandt worked on Open vSwitch at Nicira (and then VMware).

Image Credits: Isovalent

“We saw that first wave of network intelligence be moved into software, but I think we both shared the view that the first wave was about replicating the traditional network devices in software,” Wendlandt told me. “You had IPs, you still had ports, you created virtual routers, and this and that. We both had that shared vision that the next step was to go beyond what the hardware did in software — and now, in software, you can do so much more. Thomas, with his deep insight in the Linux kernel, really saw this eBPF technology as something that was just obviously going to be groundbreaking technology, in terms of where we could take Linux networking and security.”

As Graf told me, when Docker, Kubernetes and containers, in general, become popular, what he saw was that networking companies at first were simply trying to reapply what they had already done for virtualization. “Let’s just treat containers as many as miniature VMs. That was incredibly wrong,” he said. “So we looked around, and we saw eBPF and said: this is just out there and it is perfect, how can we shape it forward?”

And while Isovalent’s focus is on cloud-native networking, the added benefit of how it uses the eBPF Linux kernel technology is that it also gains deep insights into how data flows between services and hence allows it to add advanced security features as well.

As the team noted, though, users definitely don’t need to understand or program eBPF, which is essentially the next generation of Linux kernel modules, themselves.

Image Credits: Isovalent

“I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations and security think about their applications and data,” said Martin Casado, partner at Andreesen Horowitz (and the founder of Nicira). “Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF.  Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again.”

As more companies adopt Kubernetes, they are now reaching a stage where they have the basics down but are now facing the next set of problems that come with this transition. Those, almost by default, include figuring out how to isolate workloads and get visibility into their networks — all areas where Isovalent/Cilium can help.

The team tells me its focus, now that the product is out of stealth, is about building out its go-to-market efforts and, of course, continue to build out its platform.


By Frederic Lardinois

Cloud infrastructure revenue grows 33% this quarter to almost $33B

The cloud infrastructure market kept growing at a brisk pace last quarter, as the pandemic continued to push more companies to the cloud with offices shut down in much of the world. This week the big three — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their numbers and as expected the news was good with Synergy Research reporting revenue growth of 33% year over year, up to almost $33 billion for the quarter.

Still, John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy was a bit taken aback that the market continued to grow as much as it did. “While we were fully expecting continued strong growth in the market, the scale of the growth in Q3 was a little surprising,” he said in a statement.

He added, “Total revenues were up by $2.5 billion from the previous quarter causing the year-on-year growth rate to nudge upwards, which is unusual for such a large market. It is quite clear that COVID-19 has provided an added boost to a market that was already developing rapidly.”

Per usual Amazon led the way with $11.6 billion in revenue, up from $10.8 billion last quarter. That’s up 29% year over year. Amazon continues to exhibit slowing growth in the cloud market, but because of its market share lead of 33%, a rate that has held fairly steady for some time, the growth is less important than the eye-popping revenue it continues to generate, almost double its closest rival Microsoft .

Speaking of Microsoft, Azure revenue was up 48% year over year, also slowing some, but good enough for a strong second place with 18% market share. Using Synergy’s total quarterly number of $33 billion, Microsoft came in at $5.9 billion in revenue for the quarter, up from $5.2 billion last quarter.

Finally Google announced cloud revenue of $3.4 billion, but that number includes all of its cloud revenue including G Suite and other software. Synergy reported that this was good for 9% or $2.98 billion, up from $2.7 billion last quarter, good for third place.

Alibaba and IBM were tied for fourth with 5% or around $1.65 billion each.

It’s worth noting that Canalys had similar numbers to Synergy with growth of 33% to $36.5 billion. They had the same market order with slightly different numbers with Amazon at 32%, Microsoft at 19% and Google at 7% and Alibaba in 4th place at 6%.

Canalys sees continued growth ahead, especially as hybrid cloud begins to merge with newer technologies like 5G and edge computing. “All three [providers] are collaborating with mobile operators to deploy their cloud stacks at the edge in the operators’ data centers. These are part of holistic initiatives to profit from 5G services among business customers, as well as transform the mobile operators’ IT infrastructure,” Canalysis analyst Blake Murray said in a statement.

While the pure growth continues to move steadily downward over time, this is expected in a market that’s maturing like cloud infrastructure, but as companies continue to shift workloads more rapidly to the cloud during the pandemic, and find new use cases like 5G and edge computing, the market could continue to generate substantial revenue well into the future.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft now lets you bring your own data types to Excel

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft started adding the concept of ‘data types’ to Excel, that is, the ability to pull in geography and real-time stock data from the cloud, for example. Thanks to its partnership with Wolfram, Excel now features over 100 of these data types that can flow into a spreadsheet. But you won’t be limited to only these pre-built data types for long. Soon, Excel will also let you bring in your own data types.

That means you can have a ‘customer’ data type, for example, that can bring in rich customer data from a third-party service into Excel. The conduit fort his is either Power BI, which now allows Excel to pull in any data you previously published there, or Microsoft’s Power Query feature in Excel that lets you connect to a wide variety of data sources, including common databases like SQL Server, MySQL and PostreSQL, as well as third-party services like Teradata and Facebook.

“Up to this point, the Excel grid has been flat… it’s two dimensional,” Microsoft’ head of product for Excel, Brian Jones, writes in today’s announcement. “You can lay out numbers, text, and formulas across the flexible grid, and people have built amazing things with those capabilities. Not all data is flat though and forcing data into that 2D structure has its limits. With Data Types we’ve added a 3rd dimension to what you can build with Excel. Any cell can now contain a rich set of structured data… in just a single cell.”

The promise here is that this will make Excel more flexible and I’m sure a lot of enterprises will adapt these capabilities. These companies aren’t likely to move to Airtable or similar Excel-like tools anytime soon but have data analysis needs that are only increasing now that every company gathers more data than it knows what to do with. This is also a feature that none of Excel’s competitors currently offer, including Google Sheets.


By Frederic Lardinois

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.


By Ron Miller

Headroom, which uses AI to supercharge videoconferencing, raises $5M

Videoconferencing has become a cornerstone of how many of us work these days — so much so that one leading service, Zoom, has graduated into verb status because of how much it’s getting used.

But does that mean videoconferencing works as well as it should? Today, a new startup called Headroom is coming out of stealth, tapping into a battery of AI tools — computer vision, natural language processing and more — on the belief that the answer to that question is a clear — no bad WiFi interruption here — “no.”

Headroom not only hosts videoconferences, but then provides transcripts, summaries with highlights, gesture recognition, optimised video quality, and more, and today it’s announcing that it has raised a seed round of $5 million as it gears up to launch its freemium service into the world.

You can sign up to the waitlist to pilot it, and get other updates here.

The funding is coming from Anna Patterson of Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI venture fund); Evan Nisselson of LDV Capital (a specialist VC backing companies buidling visual technologies); Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, now of AME Cloud Ventures; Ash Patel of Morado Ventures; Anthony Goldbloom, the cofounder and CEO of Kaggle.com; and Serge Belongie, Cornell Tech associate dean and Professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning.

It’s an interesting group of backers, but that might be because the founders themselves have a pretty illustrious background with years of experience using some of the most cutting-edge visual technologies to build other consumer and enterprise services.

Julian Green — a British transplant — was most recently at Google, where he ran the company’s computer vision products, including the Cloud Vision API that was launched under his watch. He came to Google by way of its acquisition of his previous startup Jetpac, which used deep learning and other AI tools to analyze photos to make travel recommendations. In a previous life, he was one of the co-founders of Houzz, another kind of platform that hinges on visual interactivity.

Russian-born Andrew Rabinovich, meanwhile, spent the last five years at Magic Leap, where he was the head of AI, and before that, the director of deep learning and the head of engineering. Before that, he too was at Google, as a software engineer specializing in computer vision and machine learning.

You might think that leaving their jobs to build an improved videoconferencing service was an opportunistic move, given the huge surge of use that the medium has had this year. Green, however, tells me that they came up with the idea and started building it at the end of 2019, when the term “Covid-19” didn’t even exist.

“But it certainly has made this a more interesting area,” he quipped, adding that it did make raising money significantly easier, too. (The round closed in July, he said.)

Given that Magic Leap had long been in limbo — AR and VR have proven to be incredibly tough to build businesses around, especially in the short- to medium-term, even for a startup with hundreds of millions of dollars in VC backing — and could have probably used some more interesting ideas to pivot to; and that Google is Google, with everything tech having an endpoint in Mountain View, it’s also curious that the pair decided to strike out on their own to build Headroom rather than pitch building the tech at their respective previous employers.

Green said the reasons were two-fold. The first has to do with the efficiency of building something when you are small. “I enjoy moving at startup speed,” he said.

And the second has to do with the challenges of building things on legacy platforms versus fresh, from the ground up.

“Google can do anything it wants,” he replied when I asked why he didn’t think of bringing these ideas to the team working on Meet (or Hangouts if you’re a non-business user). “But to run real-time AI on video conferencing, you need to build for that from the start. We started with that assumption,” he said.

All the same, the reasons why Headroom are interesting are also likely going to be the ones that will pose big challenges for it. The new ubiquity (and our present lives working at home) might make us more open to using video calling, but for better or worse, we’re all also now pretty used to what we already use. And for many companies, they’ve now paid up as premium users to one service or another, so they may be reluctant to try out new and less-tested platforms.

But as we’ve seen in tech so many times, sometimes it pays to be a late mover, and the early movers are not always the winners.

The first iteration of Headroom will include features that will automatically take transcripts of the whole conversation, with the ability to use the video replay to edit the transcript if something has gone awry; offer a summary of the key points that are made during the call; and identify gestures to help shift the conversation.

And Green tells me that they are already also working on features that will be added into future iterations. When the videoconference uses supplementary presentation materials, those can also be processed by the engine for highlights and transcription too.

And another feature will optimize the pixels that you see for much better video quality, which should come in especially handy when you or the person/people you are talking to are on poor connections.

“You can understand where and what the pixels are in a video conference and send the right ones,” he explained. “Most of what you see of me and my background is not changing, so those don’t need to be sent all the time.”

All of this taps into some of the more interesting aspects of sophisticated computer vision and natural language algorithms. Creating a summary, for example, relies on technology that is able to suss out not just what you are saying, but what are the most important parts of what you or someone else is saying.

And if you’ve ever been on a videocall and found it hard to make it clear you’ve wanted to say something, without straight-out interrupting the speaker, you’ll understand why gestures might be very useful.

But they can also come in handy if a speaker wants to know if he or she is losing the attention of the audience: the same tech that Headroom is using to detect gestures for people keen to speak up can also be used to detect when they are getting bored or annoyed and pass that information on to the person doing the talking.

“It’s about helping with EQ,” he said, with what I’m sure was a little bit of his tongue in his cheek, but then again we were on a Google Meet, and I may have misread that.

And that brings us to why Headroom is tapping into an interesting opportunity. At their best, when they work, tools like these not only supercharge videoconferences, but they have the potential to solve some of the problems you may have come up against in face-to-face meetings, too. Building software that actually might be better than the “real thing” is one way of making sure that it can have staying power beyond the demands of our current circumstances (which hopefully won’t be permanent circumstances).


By Ingrid Lunden

Daily Crunch: G Suite becomes Google Workspace

Google rebrands G Suite, Apple announces its next event date and John McAfee is arrested. This is your Daily Crunch for October 6, 2020.

The big story: G Suite becomes Google Workspace

To a large extent, Google Workspace is just a rebranding of G Suite, complete with a new set of (less distinctive) logos for Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs and Meet. But the company is also launching a number of new features.

For one thing, Google is (as previously announced) integrating Meet, Chat and Rooms across applications, with Gmail as the service where they really come together. Other features coming soon are the ability to collaborate on documents in Chats and a “smart chip” with contact details and suggested actions that appear when you @mention someone in a document.

Pricing remains largely the same, although there’s now an $18 per user per month Business Plus plan with additional security features and compliance tools.

The tech giants

Apple will announce the next iPhone on October 13 — Apple just sent out invites for its upcoming hardware event, all but confirming the arrival of the next iPhone.

Facebook’s Portal adds support for Netflix, Zoom and other features — The company will also introduce easier ways to launch Netflix and other video streaming apps via one-touch buttons on its new remote.

Instagram’s 10th birthday release introduces a Stories Map, custom icons and more — There’s even a selection of custom app icons for those who have recently been inspired to redesign their home screen.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX awarded contract to help develop US missile-tracking satellite network — The contract covers creation and delivery of “space vehicles” (actual satellites) that will form a constellation offering global coverage of advance missile warning and tracking.

Salesforce Ventures launches $100M Impact Fund to invest in cloud startups with social mission — Focus areas include education and reskilling, climate action, diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as providing tech for nonprofits and foundations.

Ÿnsect, the makers of the world’s most expensive bug farm, raises another $224 million — The team hopes to provide insect protein for things like fish food and fertilizer.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Inside Root’s IPO filing — As insurtech booms, Root looks to take advantage of a warm market and enthusiastic investors.

To fill funding gaps, VCs boost efforts to find India’s standout early-stage startups — Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy says, “There’s an artificial skew toward unicorns.”

A quick peek into Opendoor’s financial results — Opendoor’s 2020 results are not stellar.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

John McAfee arrested after DOJ indicts crypto millionaire for tax evasion — The cybersecurity entrepreneur and crypto personality’s wild ride could be coming to an end after he was arrested in Spain and now faces extradition to the U.S.

Trump is already breaking platform rules again with false claim that COVID-19 is ‘far less lethal’ than the flu — Facebook took down Trump’s post, while Twitter hid it behind a warning.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.


By Anthony Ha

Microsoft challenges Twilio with the launch of Azure Communication Services

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Communication Services, a new set of features in its cloud that enable developers to add voice and video calling, chat and text messages to their apps, as well as old-school telephony.

The company describes the new set of services as the “first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider,” and that seems right, given that Google and AWS offer some of these features, including the AWS notification service, for example, but not as part of a cohesive communication service. Indeed, it seems Azure Communication Service is more of a competitor to the core features of Twilio or up-and-coming MessageBird.

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft has built up a lot of experience in this area, in large parts thanks to the success of its Teams service. Unsurprisingly, that’s something Microsoft is also playing up in its announcement.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure. Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support 5B+ meeting minutes daily,” writes Scott Van Vliet, corporate vice president for Intelligent Communication at the company.

Microsoft also stresses that it offers a set of additional smart services that developers can tap into to build out their communication services, including its translation tools, for example. The company also notes that its services are encrypted to meet HIPPA and GDPR standards.

Like similar services, developers access the various capabilities through a set of new APIs and SDKs.

As for the core services, the capabilities here are pretty much what you’d expect. There’s voice and video calling (and the ability to shift between them). There’s support for chat and, starting in October, users will also be able to send text messages. Microsoft says developers will be able to send these to users anywhere, with Microsoft positioning it as a global service.

Provisioning phone numbers, too, is part of the services and developers will be able to provision those for in-bound and out-bound calls, port existing numbers, request new ones and — most importantly for contact-center users — integrate them with existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks.

“Our goal is to meet businesses where they are and provide solutions to help them be resilient and move their business forward in today’s market,” writes Van Vliet. “We see rich communication experiences – enabled by voice, video, chat, and SMS – continuing to be an integral part in how businesses connect with their customers across devices and platforms.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a ‘personal productivity assistant’ as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android is coming to n Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise users. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, an integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now let you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.


By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud launches its Business Application Platform based on Apigee and AppSheet

Unlike some of its competitors, Google Cloud has recently started emphasizing how its large lineup of different services can be combined to solve common business problems. Instead of trying to sell individual services, Google is focusing on solutions and the latest effort here is what it calls its Business Application Platform, which combines the API management capabilities of Apigee with the no-code application development platform of AppSheet, which Google acquired earlier this year.

As part of this process, Google is also launching a number of new features for both services today. The company is launching the beta of a new API Gateway, built on top of the open-source Envoy project, for example. This is a fully-managed service that is meant o makes it easier for developers to secure and manage their API across Google’s cloud computing services and serverless offerings like Cloud Functions and Cloud Run. The new gateway, which has been in alpha for a while now, offers all the standard features you’d expect, including authentication, key validation and rate limiting.

As for its low-code service AppSheet, the Google Cloud team is now making it easier to bring in data from third-party applications thanks to the general availability to Apigee as a data source for the service. AppSheet already supported standard sources like MySQL, Salesforce and G Suite, but this new feature adds a lot of flexibility to the service.

With more data comes more complexity, so AppSheet is also launching new tools for automating processes inside the service today, thanks to the early access launch of AppSheet Automation. Like the rest of AppSheet, the promise here is that developers won’t have to write any code. Instead, AppSheet Automation provides a visual interface, that according to Google, “provides contextual suggestions based on natural language inputs.” 

“We are confident the new category of business application platforms will help empower both technical and line of business developers with the core ability to create and extend applications, build and automate workflows, and connect and modernize applications,” Google notes in today’s announcement. And indeed, this looks like a smart way to combine the no-code environment of AppSheet with the power of Apigee .


By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud lets businesses create their own text-to-speech voices

Google launched a few updates to its Contact Center AI product today, but the most interesting one is probably the beta of its new Custom Voice service, which will let brands create their own text-to-speech voices to best represent their own brands.

Maybe your company has a well-known spokesperson for example, but it would be pretty arduous to have them record every sentence in an automated response system or bring them back to the studio whenever you launch a new product or procedure. With Custom Voice, businesses can bring in their voice talent to the studio and have them record a script provided by Google. The company will then take those recordings and train its speech models based on them.

As of now, this seems to be a somewhat manual task on Google’s side. Training and evaluating the model will take “several weeks,” the company says and Google itself will conduct its own tests of the trained model before sending it back to the business that commissioned the model. After that, the business must follow Google’s own testing process to evaluate the results and sign off on it.

For now, these custom voices are still in beta and only American English is supported so far.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s review process is meant to ensure that the result is aligned with its internal AI Principles, which it released back in 2018.

Like with similar projects, I would expect that this lengthy process of creating custom voices for these contact center solutions will become mainstream quickly. While it will just be a gimmick for some brands (remember those custom voices for stand-alone GPS systems back in the day?), it will allow the more forward-thinking brands to distinguish their own contact center experiences from those of the competition. Nobody likes calling customer support, but a more thoughtful experience that doesn’t make you think you’re talking to a random phone tree may just help alleviate some of the stress at least.


By Frederic Lardinois