Cloud

OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, Apps, bain capital ventures, Banking, Barclays, bloomberg terminal, Cloud, Developer, Enterprise, Finance, financial services, funding, Fundings & Exits, J.P. Morgan, nyca partners, OpenFin, operating systems, Private Equity, Recent Funding, Startups, truphone, Uber, Wells Fargo | No Comments

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by | Apps, Asia, China, Cloud, Developer, Facebook, Finance, Flipkart, food, Foodpanda, Gaana, Gaming, grab, haptik, hike, india, MakeMyTrip, Media, Microsoft, microsoft garage, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, mx player, payments, Paytm, paytm mall, reliance jio, saavn, SnapDeal, Social, Startups, Tapzo, Tencent, Times Internet, Transportation, Truecaller, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, WeChat | No Comments

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own “app store” that hosts mini apps. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the moat. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

It remains unclear how users are responding to the new features on their favorite apps. Some signs suggest, however, that at least some users are embracing the additional features. Truecaller said it is seeing tens of thousands of users try the payment feature for the first time each day. It’s also being used to send 3 billion texts a month.

And Reliance Jio, of course

Regardless, the race is still on, and there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

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What to expect from Google I/O 2019

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, Chrome, Cloud, events, Google, Google I/O 2019, hardware, home | No Comments

Developer season has begun! Next week, Google will be putting on a big party at the pointy outdoor amphitheater in Mountain View. It’s shaping up to be a biggie, too, if this week’s Google earnings call was any indication. Sundar Pichai teased out a number of upcoming offerings from the company that we can expect to see on full display at the show.

From the looks of it, there’s going to be a LOT of news coming hot and heavy out of the South Bay, from new Android and Assistant features, to some rare hardware debuts. Here’s a quick rundown of what we’re expecting from the big show.

More Q

Quiche? Quindim? I had to look up the latter — it’s a “popular Brazilian baked dessert, made chiefly from sugar, egg yolks, and ground coconut” according to Wikipedia. Basically Brazilian custard.

We’re probably not getting a name either way at the event, of course. We will, however, get our best look yet and Pie’s successor. As ever, the latest version of Android will take center stage at I/O. With an expected arrival date of this summer, we’ve already seen some key pieces of Android 10 courtesy of a couple of betas.

So far, the keys are improvements to privacy/permissions and multi-tasking through Bubbles. Expect a lot more here. Rumors include pressure-sensitive touch features and across the board dark mode.

Unfolding foldables

It’s admittedly been a tough couple of weeks for the ascendant form factor, thanks almost exclusively to malfunctioning Galaxy Fold units. On this week’s call, however, the company reiterated that it’s still bullish on the tech. And it kind of has to be. Google’s devoted a lot of mindshare to making Android more foldable friendly, in hopes of jumpstarting a stagnant smartphone industry.

And while the Fold has been put on hiatus, we do expect a release date soon, along with Huawei’s Mate X and upcoming models from Motorola, Xiaomi, TCL and more. Expect to see the form factor positioned as the future of Android interaction.

The budget Pixel

Like other developer-focused shows, I/O isn’t really much of a consumer hardware event. That’s likely to change this year, however. In an earnings call this week, Sundar Pichai all but confirmed the long-rumored arrival of the Pixel 3a. Initially floated as the Pixel Lite, the budget take on the company’s flagship is designed to curb stagnate smartphone sales by offering some flagship features at a lower price point.

Rumors so far have the product somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 and include, among other things, the return of the headphone jack — an acknowledgment that Bluetooth headphones are still cost prohibitive. Equally interesting, this would make a push to roughly a six-month release cycle for Pixel products, assuming the 4 arrives around an October time frame.

Google’s made it clear that the Pixel line is about more than just showing off the latest version of Android, and a massive investment in HTC’s hardware team that includes a new Taipei campus certainly demonstrates that it’s not screwing around here.

Gaming

Stadia had its moment at GDC back in March. The company is harnessing its live-streaming technology to finally help gamers realize the promise of going hardware agnostic. Stadia was far and away the buzziest announcement out of the gaming show, but Google held back a lot of details, only to have Apple reveal its own gaming strategy a couple of weeks later.

Pichai talked up the service during Alphabet’s earnings call, seemingly priming the pump for some stage time at I/O next week.

Smart Home

Google Hardware Event 2018

Growing its smartphone business has been a struggle, but Google’s been firing on all cylinders on the home front. Assistant is a stronger offering than Alexa, and hardware like the Home Mini and Hub have been selling briskly. We’ll undoubtedly see a lot more tricks out of Assistant this time around, including a bit of focus on AI and Machine Learning smarts.

In addition to a new Pixel, we may also be getting a smart home piece of hardware from Google in the form of the Nest Hub Max. As the name implies, the device is a bigger take on the smart screen — 10 inches, according to rumors — with a focus on serving as a centralized smart home panel. The device will no doubt be primed to work well with other Google Home and Nest offerings, at a higher price point than Hub.

Etc.

Expect more on the ARCore front at the show. The oft-neglected Wear OS, which just got a nice update this week, could get some love as well. Ditto for Android Automotive. ChromeOS will be getting some face time, as well, though I’d be surprised to see much in the way of hardware from any of the above.

Whatever comes, we’ll be on-site at Mountain View next week, bringing it to you live.

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Dropbox challenger pCloud just became profitable

Posted by | Apps, Cloud, cloud storage, Europe, Mobile, pCloud, Startups | No Comments

Between Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and iCloud Drive, consumer cloud storage is a crowded space. And yet, a small company called pCloud has managed to attract more than 9 million users over the past five years. The company recently reached profitability with a team of 32 people.

If you’re familiar with Dropbox, pCloud won’t surprise you. The service lets you back up and sync files across your devices. You get 10GB for free and you can pay for more storage and features.

Unlike Dropbox or OneDrive, pCloud acts more like an external hard drive. When you install the app on your computer, everything stays in the cloud by default. On macOS, the company uses Fuse to create a new virtual hard drive in the Finder.

If you right-click on a folder, you can choose to download it on your computer for offline access. It creates a new folder on your local hard drive that remains in sync with your pCloud account. Similarly, you can add existing folders to pCloud from the settings panel. These folders will remain permanently in sync as long as you keep the app running on your computer.

In addition, pCloud supports LAN syncing, which means that if you have multiple devices on the same Wi-Fi network, they’ll transfer files using your local network instead of the internet. Dropbox also has this feature.

On mobile, you can access your files using the mobile app. Like many competitors, pCloud also lets you automatically back up your camera roll to your pCloud account.

Now let’s talk about security. Just like other cloud storage services, pCloud doesn’t encrypt your files by default — pCloud uses encryption on files while they’re in transit though. When you sync a file using pCloud, the company can theoretically retrieve that file. If you’re serious about privacy, you shouldn’t use cloud storage services at all.

But pCloud also offers an optional add-on called pCloud Crypto. This feature lets you create a secret folder that you can unlock with a password. When you add a file to this folder, it is encrypted on your device and then sent to pCloud’s server. If you don’t have that password, you can’t unlock the file. It means that pCloud and authorities can’t retrieve those files without you.

When it comes to pricing, pCloud costs $3.99 per month for 500GB of storage and $7.99 per month for 2TB of storage; pCloud Crypto costs an additional $4.99 per month. You also can buy lifetime subscriptions for $175 for 500GB, $350 for 2TB and $125 for Crypto. This is expensive, but it could convince some users who are not into subscriptions.

Even though it seems incredibly complicated to compete with Microsoft, Google, Apple and Dropbox, I’m glad to see that it’s still possible to build an alternative product with some differentiating features. Although pCloud will probably never be as big as Dropbox, it is an interesting company to follow.

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The definitive Niantic reading guide

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Book Review, Cloud, Collaborative Consumption, Developer, EC-1, funding, Gaming, Google, google cloud, harry potter, ingress, john hanke, mobile gaming, niantic, Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go, reading guide, Social, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

In just a few years, Niantic has evolved from internal side project into an independent industry trailblazer. Having reached tremendous scale in such a short period of time, Niantic acts as a poignant crash course for founders and company builders. As our EC-1 deep-dive into the company shows, lessons from the team’s experience building the Niantic’s product offering remain just as fresh as painful flashbacks to the problems encountered along the way.

As we did for our Patreon EC-1, we’ve poured through every analysis we could find on Niantic and have compiled a supplemental list of resources and readings that are particularly useful for getting up to speed on the company.

Reading time for this article is about 9.5 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Niantic. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

I. Background: The Story of Niantic

Google-Incubated Niantic, Maker of Ingress, Stepping Out on Its Own | August 2015 | In August of 2015, Niantic announced that it would spin out from Google and become an independent company. As discussed in WSJ’s coverage of the news, Niantic looked at the spin out as a way to accelerate growth and collaborate with the broader entertainment ecosystem.

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Cloudflare’s Warp is a VPN that might actually make your mobile connection better

Posted by | Battlefield, Cloud, cloudflare, Developer, Mobile, privacy, Security, TC, vpn, vpns | No Comments

Since its launch on our stage way back in 2010, Cloudflare has focused on making the internet faster and more modern — but the mobile internet has until recently been beyond its reach. Today the company introduced a new service called Warp described as “the VPN for people who don’t know what VPN stands for.”

In case you’re one of those people, and there’s no shame in it, a VPN is a virtual private network: something that acts as an intermediary between you and the wider internet, allowing you to customize how you connect in many helpful ways, such as changing your apparent location or avoiding IP-based tracking.

The trouble with these services is that many of them just aren’t very good. Trusting a company you’ve never heard of with all your internet traffic just isn’t generally a good idea, and even the biggest and most proven VPN providers are far from household names. What’s more, they can introduce latency and performance issues, which on the mobile web are already trouble enough. In the best case they may take configuration and tweaking that casual users aren’t up to.

Warp, according to a blog post by CEO Matthew Prince, will provide many of the benefits of a VPN with none of the drawbacks, speeding up your connection while adding privacy and security.

“We’ve been tinkering with this idea for three or four years,” Prince told me. Originally there was the idea of making a browser, “but that’s insane,” he said; Apple and Google would crush it. Besides, everything is going app-based and mobile — the real opportunity, they perceived, lay in the layer between those things and the broader internet: “So, a VPN, and it made all the sense in the world for us.”

But they didn’t want to simply compete with a bunch of small providers appealing to a variety of niche power users.

“To be honest, for the vast majority of existing VPN users, this is probably not the right solution for them,” admitted Prince. “If you want to change your country to access Netflix while you’re traveling, there are lots of people that offer that service, but that’s not the market we’re getting into. We wanted something with mass appeal instead of trying to cannibalize what’s out there.”

In order to become a drawback-free default for millions of users, Cloudflare didn’t so much build something from the ground up as adapt nascent work by developers on the cutting edge of networking. It rewrote the already efficient open-source VPN layer created by Wireguard to be even more so, and added a UDP-based protocol created by Neumob, a company it bought in late 2017. Add to this the large network of Cloudflare servers all around the world and it’s a recipe for a quick, secure service that could very well be both better and faster than your existing connection.

You may remember that at this time last year, Cloudflare debuted its DNS service, 1.1.1.1, both for desktops and mobile (via the 1.1.1.1 app). It’s leveraging this presence to offer Warp as an optional and free upgrade.

So what is it? When your mobile wants to make a connection for a Google search or to get an update for an app or whatever, there’s a whole process of reaching out on the internet, finding the right IP to talk to, establishing a secure connection and so on. Cloudflare’s Warp VPN (like other VPNs) takes over this process, encrypting where it otherwise might not be, but also accelerating it by passing the requests over its own network using that Neumob protocol.

The technical aspects will no doubt be exposed and inspected in time, but Cloudflare claims that using Warp should improve your connection and make it more secure, while preventing your DNS lookup data (which says exactly which sites you request to connect to) from being collected and sold. Prince said his post lacked direct comparisons to existing VPNs because they don’t think those are relevant for the millions of non-VPN-using people they’re targeting with Warp.

“Will people do comparisons? Yes. Will I retweet those when they make us look good? Yes,” Prince said. “But we don’t expect to take a lot of users from them. We want the market to expand — we want to be the biggest VPN in the world without taking a single user from any other provider.”

Part of that is the lack of some of existing VPNs’ most attractive features, such as blocking ads at the IP level. Prince said he and the others at the company were uncomfortable with the idea of picking and choosing content, not least because many of their customers are ad-supported sites. “There’s just something creepy about when the internet’s underlying pipes start making editorial decisions,” Prince said. “When we start messing with the contents of a page, even if people want us to, it sets a dangerous precedent.”

Warp can be offered for free because the company is planning a more high-end service that it’ll sell for a monthly fee. Later, an enterprise version could be sold to replace the clunky ones currently out there (which many of our readers likely have already had the pleasure of using). Prince says he envisions a day when a kid can walk into the living room at home and say, “Mom, the internet is being slow, can I use your corporate VPN?” Unlikely, but even CEOs of major infrastructure companies have dreams. Be kind.

Until then, like the rest of Cloudflare’s connectivity suite, Warp will be free and come with few if any caveats.

Well, except one — it’s not available yet. They wanted to make the announcement on April 1 because it’s exactly a year since they announced 1.1.1.1 (get it? 4/1?), but they missed the date. (“I wanted to just turn this on for everyone, but our tech operations team was like, ‘No. You’re not allowed to do that. The network would fall over.’ “) So what you can do now is get the 1.1.1.1 app and request a spot in line. Since they just announced it, the wait probably won’t be that long… oh.

Okay.

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Game streaming’s multi-industry melee is about to begin

Posted by | Cloud, Gadgets, Gaming, Media, TC | No Comments

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I was at GDC participating in a demo of a service I didn’t think could exist: OnLive. The company had promised high-definition, low-latency streaming of games at a time when real broadband was uncommon, mobile gaming was still defined by Bejeweled (though Angry Birds was about to change that), and Netflix was still mainly in the DVD-shipping business.

Although the demo went well, the failure of OnLive and its immediate successors to gain any kind of traction or launch beyond a few select markets indicated that while it may be in the future of gaming, streaming wasn’t in its present.

Well, now it’s the future. Bandwidth is plentiful, speeds are rising, games are shifting from things you buy to services you subscribe to, and millions prefer to pay a flat fee per month rather than worry about buying individual movies, shows, tracks, or even cheeses.

Consequently, as of this week — specifically as of Google’s announcement of Stadia on Tuesday — we see practically every major tech and gaming company attempting to do the same thing. Like the beginning of a chess game, the board is set or nearly so, and each company brings a different set of competencies and potential moves to the approaching fight. Each faces different challenges as well, though they share a few as a set.

Google and Amazon bring cloud-native infrastructure and familiarity online, but is that enough to compete with the gaming know-how of Microsoft, with its own cloud clout, or Sony, which made strategic streaming acquisitions and has a service up and running already? What of the third parties like Nvidia and Valve, publishers and storefronts that may leverage consumer trust and existing games libraries to jump start a rival? It’s a wide-open field, all right.

Before we examine them, however, it is perhaps worthwhile to entertain a brief introduction to the gaming space as it stands today and the trends that have brought it to this point.

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Microsoft launches Game Stack, brings Xbox Live to Android and iOS

Posted by | Azure, Cloud, Developer, Gaming, Microsoft, mixer, Simplygon, xbox, xbox live | No Comments

Microsoft today announced a new initiative that combines under a single umbrella all of the company’s gaming-related products for developers like Xbox Live, Azure PlayFab, Direct X, Mixer, Virtual Studio, Simplygon and Azure. That umbrella, Microsoft Game Stack, is meant to give game developers, no matter whether they are at a AAA studio or working solo, all the tools they need to develop and then operate their games across devices and platforms.

“Game Stack brings together our game development platforms, tools and services like Direct X and Visual Studio, Azure and Playfab into a robust ecosystem that any game developer can use,” said Kareem Choudhry, the corporate vice president for the Microsoft Gaming Cloud. “We view this as a journey that we are just beginning.”

It’s worth noting that developers can pick and choose which of the services they want to use. While Azure is part of Game Stack, for example, the overall stack is cloud and device agnostic. Undoubtedly, though, Microsoft hopes that developers will adopt Azure as their preferred cloud. These days, after all, most games feature some online component, even if they aren’t multiplayer games, and developers need a place to store player credentials, telemetry data and other info.

One of the core components of Game Stack is PlayFab, a backend service for building cloud-connected games, which now falls under the Azure family. Microsoft acquired the service early last year and it’s worth noting that it supports all major gaming platforms, ranging from the Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch to iOS, Android, PC and web.

With today’s announcement, Microsoft is launching a number of new PlayFab services, too. These include PlayFab Matchmaking, a matchmaking service the company adapted from Xbox Live matchmaking, but that’s now available to all developers and on all devices. This service is now in public preview. In private preview are PlayFab Party, a voice and chat service (also modeled after Xbox Party Chat), PlayFab Game insights for real-time game telemetry, PlayFab Pub Sub for pushing content updates, notifications and more to the game client, and PlayFab User Generated Content for allowing players to safely share content with each other.

So while Game Stack may feel more like a branding exercise, it’s clear that PlayFab is where Microsoft is really putting its money as it’s competing with Amazon and Google, both of which have recently put a lot of emphasis on game developers, too.

In addition to these announcements, Microsoft also today said that it is bringing an SDK for Xbox Live to iOS and Android devices so developers can integrate that service’s identity and community services into their games on those platforms, too.

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Microsoft bringing Dynamics 365 mixed reality solutions to smartphones

Posted by | Android, augmented reality, Cloud, Enterprise, HoloLens, iOS, Microsoft, mixed reality, Mobile | No Comments

Last year Microsoft introduced several mixed reality business solutions under the Dynamics 365 enterprise product umbrella. Today, the company announced it would be moving these to smartphones in the spring, starting with previews.

The company announced Remote Assist on HoloLens last year. This tool allows a technician working onsite to show a remote expert what they are seeing. The expert can then walk the less-experienced employee through the repair. This is great for those companies that have equipped their workforce with HoloLens for hands-free instruction, but not every company can afford the new equipment.

Starting in the spring, Microsoft is going to help with that by introducing Remote Assist for Android phones. Just about everyone has a phone with them, and those with Android devices will be able to take advantage of Remote Assist capabilities without investing in HoloLens. The company is also updating Remote Assist to include mobile annotations, group calling and deeper integration with Dynamics 365 for Field Service, along with improved accessibility features on the HoloLens app.

IPhone users shouldn’t feel left out though because the company announced a preview of Dynamics 365 Product Visualize for iPhone. This tool enables users to work with a customer to visualize what a customized product will look like as they work with them. Think about a furniture seller working with a customer in their homes to customize the color, fabrics and design in place in the room where they will place the furniture, or a car dealer offering different options such as color and wheel styles. Once a customer agrees to a configuration, the data gets saved to Dynamics 365 and shared in Microsoft Teams for greater collaboration across a group of employees working with a customer on a project.

Both of these features are part of the Dynamics 365 spring release and are going to be available in preview starting in April. They are part of a broader release that includes a variety of new artificial intelligence features such as customer service bots and a unified view of customer data across the Dynamics 365 family of products.

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Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision

Posted by | Cloud, Enterprise, Government, Microsoft, Mobile, Outlook, Pentagon JEDI contract, Security, TC | No Comments

While the DoD is in the process of reviewing the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract RFPs (assuming the work continues during the government shutdown), Microsoft continues to build up its federal government security bona fides, regardless.

Today the company announced it has achieved the highest level of federal government clearance for the Outlook mobile app, allowing U.S. Government Community Cloud (GCC) High and Department of Defense employees to use the mobile app. This is on top of FedRamp compliance the company achieved last year.

“To meet the high level of government security and compliance requirements, we updated the Outlook mobile architecture so that it establishes a direct connection between the Outlook mobile app and the compliant Exchange Online backend services using a native Microsoft sync technology and removes middle tier services,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update.

The update will allow these highly security-conscious employees to access some of the more recent updates to Outlook Mobile, such as the ability to add a comment when canceling an event.

This is in line with government security updates the company made last year. While none of these changes are specifically designed to help win the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they certainly help make a case for Microsoft from a technology standpoint.

As Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure Julia White stated in a blog post last year, which we covered, “Moving forward, we are simplifying our approach to regulatory compliance for federal agencies, so that our government customers can gain access to innovation more rapidly.” The Outlook Mobile release is clearly in line with that.

Today’s announcement comes after the Pentagon announced just last week that it has awarded Microsoft a separate large contract for $1.7 billion. This involves providing Microsoft Enterprise Services for the Department of Defense (DoD), Coast Guard and the intelligence community, according to a statement from DoD.

All of this comes ahead of a decision on the massive $10 billion, winner-take-all cloud contract. Final RFPs were submitted in October and the DoD is expected to make a decision in April. The process has not been without controversy, with Oracle and IBM submitting formal protests even before the RFP deadline — and more recently, Oracle filing a lawsuit alleging the contract terms violate federal procurement laws. Oracle has been particularly concerned that the contract was designed to favor Amazon, a point the DoD has repeatedly denied.

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