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The Los Angeles Fire Department wants more drones

20 October, by Jonathan Shieber[ —]

As it looks to modernize its operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department is turning to a number of new technologies including expanding its fleet of drones for a slew of new deployments.

One of the largest fire departments in the U.S. next to New York and Chicago, the LAFD has a budget of roughly $691 million, employs over 3,500, and responded to 492,717 calls in 2018.

The department already has a fleet of 11 drones to compliment its fleet of 258 fire engines, ambulances, and helicopters.

However, Battalion Chief Richard Fields,  the head of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program would like to see that number increase significantly.

Los Angeles has become an early leader in the use of drones for its firefighting applications thanks in part to an agreement with the Chinese company, DJI, which the department inked back in April.

At the time, the Chinese drone manufacturer and imaging technology developer announced an agreement to test and deploy DJI drones as an emergency response preparedness tool. The company called it one DJI’s largest partnerships with a fire-fighting agency in the U.S.

“We are excited to be strengthening our partnership with the LAFD, one of the nation’s preeminent public safety agencies, to help them take advantage of DJI’s drone technology that has been purpose-built for the public safety sector,” said Bill Chen, Enterprise Partnerships Manager at DJI, in a statement at the time. “Through our two-way collaboration, DJI will receive valuable insight into the complexities of deploying drones for emergency situations in one of the most complex urban environments in the nation.”

Now, roughly five months later, the program seems to have been successful enough that Battalion Chief Fields is looking to double the fleet.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” said Fields. Those are firefighters and support crews that deal with hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, marine environments and swift water rescues, Fields said.

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The LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ LAFD Mike Horst

The technology demands of the fire department extend beyond the drone itself, Fields said. “There are a lot of technologies that allows us to make the drone more versatile… the most valuable tool isn’t the drone; it’s the sensor.”

So far, the most useful application has been using infrared technologies to balance what’s visible and combine it with the heat signatures the sensors pick up.

Training to become a drone pilot for the LAFD is particularly intense, Fields says. The typical pilot will get up to eighty hours of training. “Our training is nation-leading.  There’s nothing out there in the commercial market that beats it,” according to Fields.

For now,  the entire LAFD fleet is composed of DJI drones, something which has given military and civilian officials pause in the past few years.

Concerns have been growing over the reliance on Chinese technology in core American infrastructure extending from networking technology companies like Huawei, to drone technology developers like DJI.

Back in 2018 the Department of Defense issued a ban on the acquisition and use of commercial drones, citing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The ban came a year after officials from the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress called out DJI specifically for its potential to be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.

However, the rule isn’t set in stone and many branches of the military continue to use DJI drones, according to a September Voice of America News report.

In Los Angeles, Fields says he takes those concerns seriously. The department has worked closely with regulators and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a strict policy around what gets done with the data that the LAFD collects.

“The way that we establish our program is that the drone provides us with our real-time situational awareness,” said Fields. “That  helps the incident commander get a visual perspective of the problem and he can make better decisions.”

The only data that is recorded and kept, says Fields, is data collected around brush fires so that the LAFD can do a damage assessment, which can later be turned into map layers to keep records of hotspots.

As for data that could be sent back to China, Fields says that any mapping of critical infrastructure is done without connecting to the internet. “It’s being collected on the drone and 90% of that information is how the drone is operating. There is some information of where the . drone is and how it is and the [latitude] and [longitude] of the drone itself… That’s the data that’s being collected,” Fields says. 

From Fields’ perspective, if the government is so concerned about the use of drones made by a foreign manufacturer, there’s an easy solution. Just regulate it.

“Let’s come up with a standard. If you use them in a federal airspace these are the check marks that you have to pass,” he says. “Saying that DJI drones are bad because they come from China [and] let’s throw them all out… that’s not an answer either.”


Max-Q: This week in space

20 October, by Darrell Etherington[ —]

Space is becoming a major area of startup and commercial investment, and so I’ve decided to start providing a weekly round-up of the biggest news in aerospace, space science and space-related technologies. Let me know if you appreciate this or have suggestions, and I’ll make sure it evolves as needed to be useful resource.

This week, there was an abundance of spacesuit news, and signs from multiple operators that there’s going to be an orbital traffic boom in the immediate future. Also, we’re heading into the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) this coming week, so expect a lot more news starting tomorrow.

1. NASA unveils its Artemis-generation spacesuits

NASA showed off a brand new generation of spacesuit, including the one that the first American woman and next American man to set foot on the Moon will don for that historic moment. The new Artemis suits are designed to scale from essentially the smallest to the largest possible adult human frame, which NASA touts as a way to make the astronaut program more accessible to a wider range of Americans. The agency should be going out of its way to fix that, because of what happened that led to item #2 this week.

For the first time, NASA is looking to outsource the full production of these Artemis-generation spacesuits (including the Orion survival suit, which was also revealed today and will be worn only during flight aboard the Orion capsule). To that end, it has put out a request for input from industry about their design and development ahead of setting up a proper RFP.

2. NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir complete historic first all-woman spacewalk

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NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir

As I alluded above, there was a very good reason that NASA really emphasized how inclusive its Artemis suit designs are: The agency had to cancel a first all-woman spacewalk earlier this year because it didn’t have the right amount of properly sized spacesuits on board the International Space Station. It sent one up in June, however, and that historic moment happened this past week, with Koch and Meir performing a roughly seven-hour spacewalk to repair a power controller.

3. SpaceX applies for permission to launch 30,000 more Starlink satellites

That’s on top of the 12,000 it’s already had cleared, which makes for a total potential constellation size of 42,000. That’s about 8x the number of satellites currently in orbit, across all orbital zones. It’s a move that is definitely raising the ire of both industry and space researchers, because it’ll make it a lot more complicated to ensure orbital spacecraft avoid collisions, and it could potentially obscure the view of the stars from Earth. SpaceX says it has taken steps to ensure it can avoid both problems, but not everyone is convinced.

4. Swarm gets the ‘OK’ for its 150-satellite constellation

Meanwhile, startup Swarm has been granted FCC approval to deploy its own, much-smaller constellation of 150 satellites. Swarm isn’t competing directly with SpaceX’s Starlink – it wants to provide low-bandwidth IoT connectivity. And while it isn’t looking to put up a huge volume of spacecraft, there was some concern that its toaster-sized satellites might be too small to track and present a risk that way.

5. Rocket Lab’s swap launch is a success

New Zealand-born and lately U.S.-headquartered Rocket Lab was successful in launching its fifth Electron rocket this year. The startup’s success was more a proof point for its business model than its technology, however, since the payload that flew aboard this mission was actually one that wasn’t slated to go up until much later in the queue. Rocket Lab’s original client for this one had to drop out due to unfortunate circumstances, and Rocket Lab was able to get client Astro Digital an earlier ride. This kind of late-stage payload swap has not typically been a strength of the established commercial space launch industry.

6. Under Armour built some fancy tracksuits for space

IMG 20191016 103752 1 1Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will begin ferrying wealthy paying tourists to the very edge of space next year, if all goes to plan, and now we know what they’ll be wearing when they do: Under Armour. The sportswear company and Branson’s space enterprise unveiled the new suits at a flashy special event featuring the first tourists who have reserved $250,000 tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s atmosphere-skimming spacecraft.

7. How Lockheed Martin’s Venture arm spends its $200 million in available funding

Lockheed Martin has been in the commercial space business since there has been a commercial space business to be in, and around a decade ago it established a corporate venture fund to make strategic bets on startups. I sat down with the fund’s GM and Executive Director J. Christopher Moran to talk about what the fund looks for in startups – and the industry giant is a lot more interested in early stage companies that you might have thought. Extra Crunch Subscription required.


Week in Review: The web’s free speech conundrum

20 October, by Lucas Matney[ —]

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inbox yet again.

Last week, I talked about the eternal dumbness of the smart home and how Google had a big chance to lay out their vision this past week. Guess what? They did not, instead we got a new more expensive Google Wifi that falls under the Nest brand as well as a Google Mini that can be wall-mounted…

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Zuckerberg had an interesting week, delivering a very rehearsed keynote that was neither in front of Congress or an audience of developers at F8. He spoke at Georgetown on the topic of free speech and Facebook’s brand of capitalism.

It was an odd speech, but it was an opportunity for him to speak at length about what he saw as Facebook’s mission in terms of free speech

“These two simple ideas — voice and inclusion — go hand in hand. We’ve seen this throughout history, even if it doesn’t feel that way today. More people being able to share their perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society. And our mutual commitment to each other — that we hold each others’ right to express our views and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want — is how we make progress together.

But this view is increasingly being challenged. Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together. More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice. I think that’s dangerous. Today I want to talk about why, and some important choices we face around free expression.

Throughout history, we’ve seen how being able to use your voice helps people come together. We’ve seen this in the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass once called free expression “the great moral renovator of society”. He said “slavery cannot tolerate free speech”. Civil rights leaders argued time and again that their protests were protected free expression, and one noted: “nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds”.

Facebook is in an interesting position here, where they’re tying a moral stance with an economic one. They seem to draw the line at paid ads and paid political speech whereas everything before it was so nuanced. I don’t like that very much.

Unrestricted speech on the internet has been an evolving topic. There’s the very real argument that giving people a megaphone to harass and bully minimizes other people’s ability to have unrestricted speech themselves. Facebook and most of the other major platforms have agreed with this and have put policies in place.

There’s also the situation where someone is threatening or discussing violence or hate speech. Again, Facebook goes further than the law requires and has this firmly in their policies.

If you look at the company’s existing policies that have been put in place over the past few years, you would find plenty of guidelines at odds with sections of Zuck’s speech and yet he seemed to be drawing a big red line here and now, with the only reason being the criticism of Facebook’s ad policy that allowed Donald Trump to pay for and target ads that were ostensibly untrue.

I wrote about the situation in full here and it rings true again after Zuckerberg’s speech. Timing is everything and it’s hard to take this moral stance seriously right now especially.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

(Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Sprint + T-Mobile = official best friends
    The FCC has reportedly decided to let another massive merger go through (after some decent concessions), allowing T-Mobile and Sprint to proceed in their massive telecom merger.
  • Switch sales surge
    Nintendo has already made a major splash with the Switch, but the traction it’s gaining in North America has already eclipsed its last-gen system’s worldwide unit sales. Check out their latest milestone.
  • Justice Dept takes down a massive child exploitation site
    The government infiltrated and clamped down on a massive child exploitation dark web site this week and my colleague Zack has the full rundown.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. $35B lawsuit against FB can move forward:
    [$35 billion face lawsuit against Facebook can proceed]
  2. AOC and Ted criticize Apple:
    [Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company]

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.


China Roundup: Tencent’s NBA test, TikTok parent deepens education push

20 October, by Rita Liao[ —]

Welcome to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of events that happened at major Chinese tech companies and what they mean to tech founders and executives around the world.

The talk about U.S.-China relationships over the past two weeks has centered heavily on the NBA controversy, which has put the interest of some of China’s largest tech firms at stake. Last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong protests in his since-deleted tweet, angering China’s NBA fans and prompting a raft of local tech companies to sever ties with the league. But some businesses seem to be back on track.

Tencent, which is famous for a slew of internet products, including WeChat and its Netflix-like video service, has been NBA’s exclusive streaming partner since 2009 and recently renewed the deal through the 2024-25 season. As many as 490 million fans in China watched NBA programming through Tencent in just one season this year, the pair claims.

The basketball games are clearly a driver of ad revenue and subscribers for Tencent amid fierce competition in China’s video streaming market, but following Morey’s statement, the company swiftly announced (in Chinese) it would suspend portions of its broadcast arrangements with the NBA. Popular smartphone brand Vivo and Starbucks’s local challenger Luckin also promised to pause collaboration with the NBA.

It was a tough call for businesses having to choose between economic interest and patriotism, and Tencent was tactful in its response, pledging only to “temporarily” halt the streaming of NBA “preseason games (China).” As public anger subsided over the week, Tencent resumed airing NBA preseason games on Monday. After all, the content partnership reportedly cost Tencent a heavy sum of $1.5 billion.

Entertainment giant turns to education

tiktok edutok

TikTok is probably the Chinese Internet service being most closely watched by the world at the moment. Its parent firm ByteDance, last reportedly valued at $75 billion, has ambitions beyond short videos.

This week, more details emerged on the upstart’s education endeavors through a WeChat post by Musical.ly founder Lulu Yang, whose short-video startup was acquired by ByteDance and subsequently merged with TikTok. Yang confirmed he was helping ByteDance to develop an education device in collaboration with phone maker Smartisan’s former hardware team, which ByteDance has absorbed. The product, which leverages ByteDance’s artificial intelligence capabilities, will be a “robotic learning companion” for K-12 students to use at home.

The news arrived in the same week that ByteDance’s flagship video app TikTok announced producing educational content for India, where it’s used by 200 million people every month. The move is designed to assuage local officials who have vehemently slammed TikTok for hosting illicit content, as my colleague Manish Singh pointed out.

Diving into education appears to be a sensible move for ByteDance to build relationships with local authorities, which can at times find its entertainment-focused content problematic. The multi-billion-dollar online education industry is also highly lucrative. ByteDance, with 1.5 billion daily users across TikTok, Douyin (TikTok for China), Toutiao news aggregator and other new media apps, is in a good position to monetize the enormous base by touting new services, whether they are educational content or mobile games.

Also worth your time

  • A total of 53 major video streaming services in China have introduced a “safe mode” for teenagers as of this week, state media reported (in Chinese). During the controls mode, underage users won’t be able to search for content, send real-time comments or private messages, upload or share videos, or reward live streaming hosts with virtual gifts. It’s part of China’s national effort to protect young people from consuming harmful digital content and internet addiction, which has also spawned age checks processes in Tencent games. 
  • Xiaohongshu, a fast-growing social commerce app in China, is back in Android app stores nearly three months after it was banned by the government for undisclosed reasons. Rumors had it that the service, which was reportedly valued at more than $2.5 billion last year, was used to spread pornography and fake reviews. It’s hardly the first tech company hit by media regulation, and it can probably learn a thing or two from ByteDance, which has aggressively ramped up its content moderation force following a sequence of crackdowns by the government.
  • Meituan will partner with 1,000 vocational schools in the country to train as many as 100 million workers from the service industry over the next ten years, the Hong Kong-listed company announced (in Chinese) this week. Food delivery makes up the bulk of the on-demand services giant’s business but its footprint spans a wide range. The classes it provides to prepare workers for a digital era will also touch upon skincare, hair styling, manicure, plastic surgery, hospitality and parenting, a program highlighting the extensive reach of technology into Chinese people’s every life.
  • Chinese workers turn out to be big advocates for the application of AI. According to a survey by Oracle and research firm Future Workplace, workers in India (60 percent) and China (56 percent) are the most excited about AI. Japan, where the labor force is shrinking, ranks surprisingly low (25 percent), and the U.S. has an equally mild reaction (22 percent) toward the technology.


Facebook isn’t free speech, it’s algorithmic amplification optimized for outrage

20 October, by Jon Evans[ —]

This week Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech in which he extolled “giving everyone a voice” and fighting “to uphold a wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.” That sounds great, of course! Freedom of expression is a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone, of liberal democracy. Who could be opposed to that?

The problem is that Facebook doesn’t offer free speech; it offers free amplification. No one would much care about anything you posted to Facebook, no matter how false or hateful, if people had to navigate to your particular page to read your rantings, as in the very early days of the site.

But what people actually read on Facebook is what’s in their News Feed … and its contents, in turn, are determined not by giving everyone an equal voice, and not by a strict chronological timeline. What you read on Facebook is determined entirely by Facebook’s algorithm, which elides much — censors much, if you wrongly think the News Feed is free speech — and amplifies little.

What is amplified? Two forms of content. For native content, the algorithm optimizes for engagement. This in turn means people spend more time on Facebook, and therefore more time in the company of that other form of content which is amplified: paid advertising.

Of course this isn’t absolute. As Zuckerberg notes in his speech, Facebook works to stop things like hoaxes and medical misinformation from going viral, even if they’re otherwise anointed by the algorithm. But he has specifically decided that Facebook will not attempt to stop paid political misinformation from going viral.

I personally disagree with this decision, but I think it’s something about which reasonable people can disagree. However I find it deeply disingenuous to claim that this is somehow about defending free speech. If someone were to try to place a blatantly false political ad on any platform or network, would anyone seriously consider a decision not to run that ad an attack on free speech? Of course not. And they shouldn’t take the converse argument seriously either.

The larger issue, though, is that Facebook seems to think that if an algorithm is content-agnostic, it is therefore fair. When Zuckerberg talks about giving people a voice, he really means giving those people selected by Facebook’s algorithm a voice. When he says “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate,” what he actually means is that Facebook’s algorithm is itself that Fifth Estate.

The belief is apparently that any human judgement based on content beyond the absolute minimum required by law and implied by the social contract — i.e. filtering out hate speech, abuses, or dangerous medical misinformation, all of which he stresses in his speech — is dangerous and wrong, and that this goes for both native content and paid advertising. According to this belief, Facebook’s algorithm, so long as it is content-agnostic, is definitionally fair.

And that belief is just flat-out wrong. As we’ve all seen, “optimizing for engagement” all too often means optimizing for outrage, for polarization, for disingenuous misinformation. True, it doesn’t mean favoring any side of any given issue; but it does mean favoring the extremes, the conspiracy theorists, the histrionic diatribes on all sides. It means fomenting mistrust, suspicion, and conflict everywhere. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all lived it.

Facebook’s decision to accept political ads regardless of content is essentially a logical extension of how their algorithm optimizes for engagement. It speaks to their belief that as long as they don’t pass judgement based on content, their ongoing, ceaseless editing of what people see and don’t see — and please call it censorship if you think this is any way about freedom of speech — is therefore fair and just. This belief was defensible ten or even five years ago. It is not defensible today.

But it is also not going to change. Facebook’s original sin is not political ads; it is optimizing for engagement so that their users see more ads of all kinds. That’s what needs to change for Facebook to become a positive force in the world … and it’s also what never will, because that engagement is the fundamental engine of their business model.


IPOs are the beginning, not the end

20 October, by Frederic Lardinois[ —]

Earlier this month at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, we sat down with Box’s Aaron Levie and PagerDuty’s Jennifer Tejada to discuss their respective companies’ paths to an IPO, the general IPO landscape and the pros and cons of going public. With a lot of recent IPOs faltering and increased pressure on startup valuations, now is as good a time as ever to think about the role IPOs play in a company’s lifespan.

“I think it’s really important to think of the IPOs, the beginning, not the end,” said Tejada. “We all live in Silicon Valley and that can be a little bit of an echo chamber and you talk about exits all the time. The IPO is an entrance, right? It is part of the beginning of a long journey for a durable company that you want to build a legacy around. And so, it is a moment — it’s the start of you really sharing a narrative backed by financial data to help people understand your current business, the potential for your business, the market that you’re in, etc. And I think we tend to talk about it like it’s the be-all end-all.”

That’s something Levie definitely agrees with. “I think we have too much of a fixation on the IPO moment versus just building durable business models and how do they end up translating into valuations. The valuation that you get at an IPO is due to variety factors.”

GettyImages 1178603646

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 02: (L-R) PagerDuty CEO & Chairperson Jennifer Tejada, Box Co-Founder/Chairman & CEO Aaron Levie, and TechCrunch Writer Frederic Lardinois speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 02, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

It’s no secret that Box and PagerDuty had very different experiences as they got ready to go public. Box announced its S-1 only a few days before a major market crash back in 2014. PagerDuty, on the other hand, went public earlier this year, with solid financials and very little drama.

Tejada, in many ways, attributed that to the work she and her team did to get the company ready for this moment. “I get asked a lot by CEOs that are thinking about getting ready to go public, ‘you know, what was your playbook? How do you do this?’ And I think instead of thinking about what’s the playbook, you need to be intellectually honest about what your business looks like,” she said. In her view, CEOs need to focus on the leading indicators for their business — the ones they want the market to understand. But she also noted that the market needs to understand a company’s potential in the long run.

“You want to make sure that the market understands where you think the business can go and gets excited about it, but that they don’t over-rotate in their expectations, because dealing with really high expectations creates a lot of downstream difficulty.”


MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

19 October, by Jonathan Shieber[ —]

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 


This Week in Apps: League of Legends goes mobile, Tim Cook talks to China and more

19 October, by Sarah Perez[ —]

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry in 2018 saw 194 billion downloads and more than $100 billion in purchases. Just in the past quarter, consumer spending exceeded $23 billion and installs topped 31 billion. It’s a fact: we spend more time on our phones than we do watching TV.

This week, Chinese censorship is still a big topic, and one which sees Apple CEO sitting down with Chinese regulators to discuss. China was also found to have forced a spy app on its people, according to a code review. Meanwhile, TikTok got cloned in Russia. It also decided to bring in corporate lawyers to help it to figure out how to moderate its content and be transparent.

We also take a look at headlines about Luna Display’s response to sherlocking, an Arcade developer’s localization efforts, and hear from a former App Store reviewer, among other things.

Let’s get to it.


HuffPost is reportedly on the auction block

19 October, by Jonathan Shieber[ —]

Late last night the Financial Times reported that HuffPost, arguably one of the crown jewels of Verizon Media Group’s remaining network of media properties (which includes TechCrunch), is up for sale.

Verizon has been shedding media properties in a retreat from the strategy that it had begun to execute with the acquisition of AOL for $4.4 billion back in 2015. Through the AOL deal, then-chief executive Tim Armstrong became the architect of the telecommunications company’s media and advertising strategy.

Armstrong’s vision was to roll up as much online real estate as he could while creating a high technology advertising architecture on the back-end that could better target consumers based on their media consumption (which the telecom company would also own).

The idea was to provide a broad-based competitor to the reach of ad platforms on Google and Facebook which were also targeting users based on their browsing history and interests. The benefit that Google and Facebook had was that they had a more holistic view of what consumers did online and they positioned themselves as a distribution channel between media companies and users — essentially redistributing their articles and videos and hoovering up the ad dollars that had previously gone to those media companies.

The multi-billion dollar land grab continued when Verizon paid $4.5 billion for Yahoo in 2017.

Now it appears that Verizon has a multi-billion dollar case of buyer’s remorse. Part of the billions that Verizon spent on Yahoo was for the early social network Tumblr, which Yahoo had acquired for $1.1 billion back in 2013.

Earlier this year Verizon unloaded Tumblr for the cost of a luxury Manhattan apartment. That $3 million sale was presaged by the significant fall from grace of other former high-flying media and tech properties.

Vice was once worth $5.7 billion at the height of the media investment bubble, but earlier this year Disney wrote down its stake in the company to virtually nothing.

At least Vice is emerging as a survivor. the company has rolled up Refinery29. Vox Media is also doing well in the new world of media. It bought Recode back in 2015 and recently acquired the publisher behind New York Magazine to expand its purview into paper publications and get its hands on the popular New York websites Intelligencer, The Cut, Vulture, and Grub Street.

Other publications like Hello Giggles, which was founded by the actress Zooey Deschanel, were sold to Time Magazine. High-fliers like Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Vice and Vox have all had to lay off staff in recent months.

It’s been a wild ride for HuffPost, which began in 2005 as a collection of celebrity bloggers brought together under the auspices of Arianna Huffington, from whom the site took its name.

AOL acquired The Huffington Post back in 2011 in a deal that was valued at $315 million less than a year after picking up TechCrunch for $25 million.

Verizon announced layoffs across its media properties at the beginning of the year. It cut roughly 7 percent of its staff — or around 800 jobs — including some at HuffPost.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Verizon said that it would not comment on rumors and speculation.

Neither Verizon Media nor HuffPost responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.


The new iPhone is ugly

19 October, by Devin Coldewey[ —]

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to phones. Everyone scoffs at my iPhone SE, but the truth is it’s the best phone Apple ever made — a beautiful, well designed object in just about every way. But damn is the iPhone 11 Pro ugly. And so are the newest phones from Samsung and Google, while we’re at it.

Let’s just get right to why the new iPhones are ugly, front and back. And sideways. We can start with the notch. Obviously it’s not new, but I thought maybe this would be some kind of generational anomaly that we’d all look back and laugh at in a year or two. Apparently it’s sticking around.

I know a lot of people have justified the notch to themselves in various ways — it technically means more raw screen space, it accommodates the carrier and battery icons, it’s necessary for unlocking the phone with your face.

Yeah, but it’s ugly.

If they removed the notch, literally no one would want the version with the notch, because it’s so plainly and universally undesirable. If Apple’s engineers could figure out a way to have no notch, they’d have done it by now, but they can’t and I bet they are extremely frustrated by that. They try to hide it with the special notch-camouflaging wallpaper whenever they can, which is as much as saying, “hey, we hate looking at it too.”

nonotch

You can forget for a few seconds. But in the back of your mind you know it’s there. Everyone knows.

It’s a prominent, ugly compromise (among several) necessitated by a feature no one asked for and people can’t seem to figure out if they even like or not. Notches are horrible and any time you see one, it means a designer cried themselves to sleep. To be fair that probably happens quite a bit. I grew up around designers and they can be pretty sensitive, like me.

I’m not a big fan of the rounded screen corners for a couple reasons, but I’ll let that go because I envision a future where it doesn’t matter. You remember how in Battlestar Galactica the corners were clipped off all the paper? We’re on our way.

Having the screen extend to the very edge of the device on the other hand isn’t exactly ugly, but it’s ugly in spirit. The whole front of the phone is an interface now, which would be fine if it could tell when you were gripping the screen for leverage and not to do something with it. As it is, every side and corner has some kind of dedicated gesture that you have to be wary of activating. It’s so bad people have literally invented a thing that sticks out from the back of your phone so you can hold it that way. Popsockets wouldn’t be necessary if you could safely hold your phone the way you’d hold any other object that shape.

 

iphone 11 pro

The back is ugly now, too. Man, is that camera bump bad. Bump is really the wrong word. It looks like the iPhone design team took a field trip to a maritime history museum, saw the deep sea diving helmets, and thought, Boom. That’s what we need. Portholes. To make our phone look like it could descend to 4,000 fathoms. Those helmets are actually really cool looking when they’re big and made of strong, weathered brass. Not on a thin, fragile piece of electronics. Here it’s just a huge, chunky combination of soft squares and weirdly arranged circles — five of them! — that completely take over the otherwise featureless rear side of the phone.

The back of the SE is designed to mirror the front, with a corresponding top and bottom “bezel.” In the best looking SE (mine) the black top bezel almost completely hides the existence of the camera (unfortunately there’s a visible flash unit); it makes the object more like an unbroken solid, its picture-taking abilities more magical. The camera is completely flush with the surface of the back, which is itself completely flush except for texture changes.

The back of the iPhone 11 Pro has a broad plain, upon which sits the slightly higher plateau of the camera assembly. Above that rise the three different little camera volcanoes, and above each of those the little calderas of the lenses. And below them the sunken well of the microphone. Five different height levels, producing a dozen different heights and edges! Admittedly the elevations aren’t so high, but still.

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If it was a dedicated camera or another device that by design needed and used peaks and valleys for grip or eyes-free navigation, that would be one thing. But the iPhone is meant to be smooth, beautiful, have a nice handfeel. With this topographic map of Hawaii on the back? Have fun cleaning out the grime from in between the volcanoes, then knocking the edge of the lens against a table as you slide the phone into your hand.

Plus it’s ugly.

The sides of the phones aren’t as bad as the front and back, but we’ve lost a lot since the days of the SE. The geometric simplicity of the + and – buttons, the hard chamfered edge that gave you a sure grip, the black belts that boldly divided the sides into two strips and two bows. And amazingly, due to being made of actual metal, the more drops an SE survives, the cooler it looks.

The sides of the new iPhones look like bumpers from cheap model cars. They look like elongated jelly beans, with smaller jelly beans stuck on that you’re supposed to touch. Gross.

That’s probably enough about Apple. They forgot about good design a long time ago, but the latest phones were too ugly not to call out.

Samsung has a lot of the same problems as Apple. Everyone has to have an “edge to edge” display now, and the Galaxy S10 is no exception. But it doesn’t really go to the edge, does it? There’s a little bezel on the top and bottom, but the bottom one is a little bigger. I suppose it reveals the depths of my neurosis to say so, but that would never stop bugging me if I had one. If it was a lot bigger, like HTC’s old “chins,” I’d take it as a deliberate design feature, but just a little bigger? That just means they couldn’t make one small enough.

sung 10

As for the display slipping over the edges, it’s cool looking in product photos, but I’ve never found it attractive in real life. What’s the point? And then from anywhere other than straight on, it makes it look more lopsided, or like you’re missing something on the far side.

Meanwhile it not only has bezels and sometime curves, but a hole punched out of the front. Oh my god!

Here’s the thing about a notch. When you realize as a phone designer that you’re going to have to take over a big piece of the front, you also look at what part of the screen it leaves untouched. In Apple’s case it’s the little horns on either side — great, you can at least put the status info there. There might have been a little bit left above the front camera and Face ID stuff, but what can you do with a handful of vertical pixels? Nothing. It’ll just be a distraction. Usually there was nothing interesting in the middle anyway. So you just cut it all out and go full notch.

Samsung on the other hand decided to put the camera in the top right, and keep a worthless little rind of screen all around it. What good is that part of the display now? It’s too small to show anything useful, yet the hole is too big to ignore while you’re watching full-screen content. If their aim was to make something smaller and yet even more disruptive than a notch, mission accomplished. It’s ugly on all the S10s, but the big wide notch-hole combo on the S10 5G 6.7″ phablet is the ugliest.

galaxy s10 camera

The decision to put all the rear cameras in a long window, like the press box at a hockey game, is a bold one. There’s really not much you can do to hide 3 giant lenses, a flash, and that other thing. Might as well put them front and center, set off with a black background and chrome rim straight out of 2009. Looks like something you’d get pointed at you at the airport. At least the scale matches the big wide “SAMSUNG” on the back. Bold — but ugly.

Google’s Pixel 4 isn’t as bad, but it’s got its share of ugly. I don’t need to spend too much time on it, though, because it’s a lot of the same, except in pumpkin orange for Halloween season. I like the color orange generally, but I’m not sure about this one. Looks like a seasonal special phone you pick up in a blister pack from the clearance shelf at Target, the week before Black Friday — two for $99, on some cut-rate MVNO. Maybe it’s better in person, but I’d be afraid some kid would take a bite out of my phone thinking it’s a creamsicle.

pixel 4

The lopsided bezels on the front are worse than the Samsung’s, but at least it looks deliberate. Like they wanted to imply their phone is smart so they gave it a really prominent forehead.

 

I will say that of the huge, ugly camera assemblies, the Pixel’s is the best. It’s more subtle, like being slapped in the face instead of kicked in the shins so hard you die. And the diamond pattern is more attractive for sure. Given the square (ish) base, I’m surprised someone on the team at Google had the rather unorthodox idea to rotate the cameras 45 degrees. Technically it produces more wasted space, but it looks better than four circles making a square inside a bigger, round square.

And it looks a hell of a lot better than three circles in a triangle, with two smaller circles just kind of hanging out there, inside a bigger, round square. That iPhone is ugly!


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