Europe

Meet the first judges for The Europas Awards (27 June) and enter your startup now!

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, Europas, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Mobile, Social, Startups, TC, the europas | No Comments

I’m excited to announce that The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is really shaping up! The awards will be held on 27 June 2019, in London, U.K. on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun garden party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.

TechCrunch is once more the exclusive media sponsor of the awards and conference, alongside new “tech, culture & society” event creator The Pathfounder.

Here’s how to enter and be considered for the awards.

You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor that you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.

*** The deadline for nominations is 1 May 2019 ***

For the 2019 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. There are now 20 categories, including new additions to cover AgTech / FoodTech, SpaceTech, GovTech and Mobility Tech.

Attendees, nominees and winners will get discounts to TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin, later this year.

The Europas “Diversity Pass”

We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why, for the upcoming invitation-only “Pathfounder” event held on the afternoon before The Europas Awards, we’ve reserved a tranche of free tickets to ensure that we include more women and people of colour who are “pre-seed” or “seed-stage” tech startup founders. If you are a women founder or person of colour founder, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.

The Pathfounder event will feature premium content and invitees, designed be a “fast download” into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London.

The Europas Awards

The Europas Awards results are based on voting by expert judges and the industry itself.

But key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.

The complete list of categories is here:

  1. AgTech / FoodTech
  2. CleanTech
  3. Cyber
  4. EdTech
  5. FashTech
  6. FinTech
  7. Public, Civic and GovTech
  8. HealthTech
  9. MadTech (AdTech / MarTech)
  10. Mobility Tech
  11. PropTech
  12. RetailTech
  13. Saas/Enterprise or B2B
  14. SpaceTech
  15. Tech for Good
  16. Hottest Blockchain Project
  17. Hottest Blockchain Investor
  18. Hottest VC Fund
  19. Hottest Seed Fund
  20. Grand Prix

Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:
* 6 March 2019 – Submissions open
* 1 May 2019 – Submissions close
* 10 May 2019 – Public voting begins
* 18 June 2019 – Public voting ends
* 27 June 2019 – Awards Bash

Amazing networking

We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. Instead of a sit-down gala dinner, we’ve taken feedback for more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden lawn party, where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily, with free-flowing drinks and a wide-selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last approximately 75 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact dianne@thepathfounder.com

Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.

The Europas Awards have been going for the last 10 years, and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes, Tech.eu, The Memo, Smart Company, CNET, many others — and of course, TechCrunch.

• No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the speakers

• Key founders and investors attending

• Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters

Meet the first set of our 20 judges:


Brent Hoberman
Executive Chairman and Co-Founder
Founders Factory


Videesha Böckle
Founding Partner
signals Venture Capital


Bindi Karia
Innovation Expert + Advisor, Investor
Bindi Ventures


Christian Hernandez Gallardo
Co-Founder and Venture Partner at White Star Capital

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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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Movo grabs $22.5M to get more cities in LatAm scooting

Posted by | Argentina, brazil, Cabify, Chile, Colombia, e-mopeds, e-scooters, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, latin america, madrid, Mexico, micromobility, Mobile, Movo, Recent Funding, seaya ventures, spain, Startups, Transportation, uruguay | No Comments

Madrid-based micromobility startup Movo has closed a €20 million (~$22.5M) Series A funding round to accelerate international expansion.

The 2017-founded Spanish startup targets cities in its home market and in markets across LatAm, offering last-mile mobility via rentable electric scooters (e-mopeds and e-scooters) plotted on an app map. It’s a subsidiary of local ride-hailing firm Cabify, which provided the seed funding for the startup.

Movo’s Series A round is led by two new investors: Insurance firm Mutua Madrileña, doubtless spying strategic investment potential in helping diversify its business by growing the market for humans to scoot around cities on two wheels — and VC fund Seaya Ventures, an early investor in Cabify.

Both Mutua Madrileña and Seaya Ventures are now taking a seat on Movo’s board.

Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Javier Mira, general director of Mutua Madrileña, said: “The equity investment in Movo reflects Mutua Madrileña’s aspiration to respond to the new mobility needs that are emerging, and to the economic and social changes that are occurring and that are transforming our life habits.”

Movo currently operates in six cities across five countries — Spain, México, Colombia, Perú and Chile.

It first launched an e-moped service in Madrid a year ago, according to a spokeswoman, and has since expanded domestic operations to the southern Spanish coastal city of Malaga, as well as riding into Latin America.

The new funding is mostly pegged for further international expansion, with a plan to expand into new markets in LatAm, including Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Movo is targeting operating in a total of 10 countries by the end of 2019.

The Series A will also be used to grow its vehicle fleet in existing markets, it said.

“We are very excited to be able to offer a solution to the problems of mobility in cities, particularly for short distances in areas with high population density,” said CEO Pedro Rivas in a statement. “We are committed to working together with governments to complement mass public transport with these new micromobility alternatives, so that people can get around in a more sustainable and efficient way.”

Commenting on its investment in the Cabify subsidiary, Seaya Ventures’ Beatriz Gonzalez, founder and managing partner, said the fund is “committed to the evolution of mobility towards sustainable alternatives in the world’s major cities.”

“We want to be part of the transport revolution by promoting projects like Cabify and, of course, Movo,” she said in a statement, which seeks to paint micromobility as a solution for urban congestion and poor air quality. “We are motivated to continue to promote companies with which we share this sense of responsibility towards the development and improvement of people’s quality of life.”

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Roblox hits milestone of 90M monthly active users

Posted by | Europe, France, Gaming, Germany, online games, online safety, Roblox, United Kingdom, video games, video gaming | No Comments

Kids gaming platform Roblox, most recently valued at over $2.5 billion, has reached a new milestone of 90 million monthly active users, the company said on Sunday. That’s up from the 70 million monthly actives it claimed at its last funding round — a $150 million Series F announced last fall. The sizable increase in users is credited to Roblox’s international expansion efforts, and particularly its more recent support for the French and German languages.

The top 150 games that run on the Roblox platform are now available in both languages, along with community moderation, customer support and parental resources.

The gaming company also has been steadily growing as more kids join after hearing about it from friends or seeing its games played on YouTube, for example. Like Fortnite, it has become a place that kids go to “hang out” online even when not actively playing.

The games themselves are built by third-party creators, while Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games generate from the sale of virtual goods. In 2017, Roblox paid out $30 million to its creator community, and later said that number would more than double in 2018. It says that players and creators now spend more than a billion hours per month on its platform.

Roblox’s growth has not been without its challenges, however. Bad actors last year subverted the game’s protections to assault a child’s in-game avatar — a serious problem for a game aimed at kids, and a PR crisis, as well. But the company addressed the problem by quickly securing its platform to prevent future hacks of this kind, apologized to parents, banned the hackers and soon after launched a “digital civility initiative” as part of its broader push for online safety.

Months later, Roblox was still surging.

International expansion was part of the plan when Roblox chose to raise additional funding, despite already being cash-flow positive.

As CEO David Baszucki explained last fall, the idea was to create “a war chest, to have a buffer, to have the opportunity to do acquisitions,” and “to have a strong balance sheet as we grow internationally.”

The company soon made good on its to-do list, making its first acquisition in October 2018 when it picked up the app performance startup, PacketZoom. It also followed Minecraft’s footsteps into the education market, and has since been working to make its service available to a global base of users.

On that front, Roblox says Europe has played a key role, with millions of users and hundreds of thousands of game creators — like those behind the Roblox games “Ski Resort” (Germany), “Crash Course” (France) and “Heists 2 (U.K.).

In addition to French and German, Roblox is available in English, Portuguese and Spanish, and plans to support more languages in the coming months, it says.

But the company doesn’t want to face another incident or PR crisis as it moves into new countries.

On that front, Roblox is working with digital safety leaders in both France and Germany, as part of its Digital Civility Initiative. In France, it’s working with e-Enfance; and in Germany, it’s working with Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). Roblox also added USK’s managing director, Elisabeth Secker, to the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board.

“We are excited to welcome Roblox as a new member to the USK and I’m honored to join the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board,” said Elisabeth Secker, Managing Director of the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK), in a statement. “We are happy to support Roblox in their efforts to make their platform not only safe, but also to empower kids, teens, and parents with the skills they need to create positive online experiences.”

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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UK report blasts Huawei for network security incompetence

Posted by | 5g, 5G network security, Asia, China, Ciaran Martin, computer security, cyberattack, cybercrime, ernst & young, Europe, european union, huawei, Mobile, National Cyber Security Centre, national security, Security, telecommunications, UK government, United Kingdom | No Comments

The latest report by a UK oversight body set up to evaluation Chinese networking giant Huawei’s approach to security has dialled up pressure on the company, giving a damning assessment of what it describes as “serious and systematic defects” in its software engineering and cyber security competence.

Although the report falls short of calling for an outright ban on Huawei equipment in domestic networks — an option U.S. president Trump continues dangling across the pond.

The report, prepared for the National Security Advisor of the UK by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, also identifies new “significant technical issues” which it says lead to new risks for UK telecommunications networks using Huawei kit.

The HCSEC was set up by Huawei in 2010, under what the oversight board couches as “a set of arrangements with the UK government”, to provide information to state agencies on its products and strategies in order that security risks could be evaluated.

And last year, under pressure from UK security agencies concerned about technical deficiencies in its products, Huawei pledged to spend $2BN to try to address long-running concerns about its products in the country.

But the report throws doubt on its ability to address UK concerns — with the board writing that it has “not yet seen anything to give it confidence in Huawei’s capacity to successfully complete the elements of its transformation programme that it has proposed as a means of addressing these underlying defects”.

So it sounds like $2BN isn’t going to be nearly enough to fix Huawei’s security problem in just one European country.

The board also writes that it will require “sustained evidence” of better software engineering and cyber security “quality”, verified by HCSEC and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), if there’s to be any possibility of it reaching a different assessment of the company’s ability to reboot its security credentials.

While another damning assessment contained in the report is that Huawei has made “no material progress” on issues raised by last year’s report.

All the issues identified by the security evaluation process relate to “basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene”, which the board notes gives rise to vulnerabilities capable of being exploited by “a range of actors”.

It adds that the NCSC does not believe the defects found are a result of Chinese state interference.

This year’s report is the fifth the oversight board has produced since it was established in 2014, and it comes at a time of acute scrutiny for Huawei, as 5G network rollouts are ramping up globally — pushing governments to address head on suspicions attached to the Chinese giant and consider whether to trust it with critical next-gen infrastructure.

“The Oversight Board advises that it will be difficult to appropriately risk-manage future products in the context of UK deployments, until the underlying defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security processes are remediated,” the report warns in one of several key conclusions that make very uncomfortable reading for Huawei.

“Overall, the Oversight Board can only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term,” it adds in summary.

Reached for its response to the report, a Huawei UK spokesperson sent us a statement in which it describes the $2BN earmarked for security improvements related to UK products as an “initial budget”.

It writes:

The 2019 OB [oversight board] report details some concerns about Huawei’s software engineering capabilities. We understand these concerns and take them very seriously. The issues identified in the OB report provide vital input for the ongoing transformation of our software engineering capabilities. In November last year Huawei’s Board of Directors issued a resolution to carry out a companywide transformation programme aimed at enhancing our software engineering capabilities, with an initial budget of US$2BN.

A high-level plan for the programme has been developed and we will continue to work with UK operators and the NCSC during its implementation to meet the requirements created as cloud, digitization, and software-defined everything become more prevalent. To ensure the ongoing security of global telecom networks, the industry, regulators, and governments need to work together on higher common standards for cyber security assurance and evaluation.

Seeking to find something positive to salvage from the report’s savaging, Huawei suggests it demonstrates the continued effectiveness of the HCSEC as a structure to evaluate and mitigate security risk — flagging a description where the board writes that it’s “arguably the toughest and most rigorous in the world”, and which Huawei claims shows at least there hasn’t been any increase in vulnerability of UK networks since the last report.

Though the report does identify new issues that open up fresh problems — albeit the underlying issues were presumably there last year too, just laying undiscovered.

The board’s withering assessment certainly amps up the pressure on Huawei which has been aggressively battling U.S.-led suspicion of its kit — claiming in a telecoms conference speech last month that “the U.S. security accusation of our 5G has no evidence”, for instance.

At the same time it has been appealing for the industry to work together to come up with collective processes for evaluating the security and trustworthiness of network kit.

And earlier this month it opened another cyber security transparency center — this time at the heart of Europe in Brussels, where the company has been lobbying policymakers to help establish security standards to foster collective trust. Though there’s little doubt that’s a long game.

Meanwhile, critics of Huawei can now point to impatience rising in the U.K., despite comments by the head of the NCSC, Ciaran Martin, last month — who said then that security agencies believe the risk of using Huawei kit can be managed, suggesting the government won’t push for an outright ban.

The report does not literally overturn that view but it does blast out a very loud and alarming warning about the difficulty for UK operators to “appropriately” risk-manage what’s branded defective and vulnerable Huawei kit. Including flagging the risk of future products — which the board suggests will be increasingly complex to manage. All of which could well just push operators to seek alternatives.

On the mitigation front, the board writes that — “in extremis” — the NCSC could order Huawei to carry out specific fixes for equipment currently installed in the UK. Though it also warns that such a step would be difficult, and could for example require hardware replacement which may not mesh with operators “natural” asset management and upgrades cycles, emphasizing it does not offer a sustainable solution to the underlying technical issues.

“Given both the shortfalls in good software engineering and cyber security practice and the currently unknown trajectory of Huawei’s R&D processes through their announced transformation plan, it is highly likely that security risk management of products that are new to the UK or new major releases of software for products currently in the UK will be more difficult,” the board writes in a concluding section discussing the UK national security risk.

“On the basis of the work already carried out by HCSEC, the NCSC considers it highly likely that there would be new software engineering and cyber security issues in products HCSEC has not yet examined.”

It also describes the number and severity of vulnerabilities plus architectural and build issues discovered by a relatively small team in the HCSEC as “a particular concern”.

“If an attacker has knowledge of these vulnerabilities and sufficient access to exploit them, they may be able to affect the operation of the network, in some cases causing it to cease operating correctly,” it warns. “Other impacts could include being able to access user traffic or reconfiguration of the network elements.”

In another section on mitigating risks of using Huawei kit, the board notes that “architectural controls” in place in most UK operators can limit the ability of attackers to exploit any vulnerable network elements not explicitly exposed to the public Internet — adding that such controls, combined with good opsec generally, will “remain critically important in the coming years to manage the residual risks caused by the engineering defects identified”.

In other highlights from the report the board does have some positive things to say, writing that an NCSC technical review of its capabilities showed improvements in 2018, while another independent audit of HCSEC’s ability to operate independently of Huawei HQ once again found “no high or medium priority findings”.

“The audit report identified one low-rated finding, relating to delivery of information and equipment within agreed Service Level Agreements. Ernst & Young concluded that there were no major concerns and the Oversight Board is satisfied that HCSEC is operating in line with the 2010 arrangements between HMG and the company,” it further notes.

Last month the European Commissioner said it was preparing to step in to ensure a “common approach” across the European Union where 5G network security is concerned — warning of the risk of fragmentation across the single market. Though it has so far steered clear of any bans.

Earlier this week it issued a set of recommendations for Member States, combining legislative and policy measures to assess 5G network security risks and help strengthen preventive measures.

Among the operational measures it suggests Member States take is to complete a national risk assessment of 5G network infrastructures by the end of June 2019, and follow that by updating existing security requirements for network providers — including conditions for ensuring the security of public networks.

“These measures should include reinforced obligations on suppliers and operators to ensure the security of the networks,” it recommends. “The national risk assessments and measures should consider various risk factors, such as technical risks and risks linked to the behaviour of suppliers or operators, including those from third countries. National risk assessments will be a central element towards building a coordinated EU risk assessment.”  

At an EU level the Commission said Member States should share information on network security, saying this “coordinated work should support Member States’ actions at national level and provide guidance to the Commission for possible further steps at EU level” — leaving the door open for further action.

While the EU’s executive body has not pushed for a pan-EU ban on any 5G vendors it did restate Member States’ right to exclude companies from their markets for national security reasons if they fail to comply with their own standards and legal framework.

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Ahead of third antitrust ruling, Google announces fresh tweaks to Android in Europe

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apple, Apps, chrome os, competition commission, DuckDuckGo, Europe, european commission, european union, France, G Suite, Google, Image search, joaquin almunia, Jolla, Kent Walker, Margrethe Vestager, Mobile, operating systems, play store, Policy, Qwant, search app, search engine, search engines, smartphone, Spotify, travel search | No Comments

Google is widely expected to be handed a third antitrust fine in Europe this week, with reports suggesting the European Commission’s decision in its long-running investigation of AdSense could land later today.

Right on cue the search giant has PRed another Android product tweak — which it bills as “supporting choice and competition in Europe”.

In the coming months Google says it will start prompting users of existing and new Android devices in Europe to ask which browser and search apps they would like to use.

This follows licensing changes for Android in Europe which Google announced last fall, following the Commission’s $5BN antitrust fine for anti-competitive behavior related to how it operates the dominant smartphone OS.

tl;dr competition regulation can shift policy and product.

Albeit, the devil will be in the detail of Google’s self-imposed ‘remedy’ for Android browser and search apps.

Which means how exactly the user is prompted will be key — given tech giants are well-versed in the manipulative arts of dark pattern design, enabling them to create ‘consent’ flows that deliver their desired outcome.

A ‘choice’ designed in such a way — based on wording, button/text size and color, timing of prompt and so on — to promote Google’s preferred browser and search app choice by subtly encouraging Android users to stick with its default apps may not actually end up being much of a ‘choice’.

According to Reuters the prompt will surface to Android users via the Play Store. (Though the version of Google’s blog post we read did not include that detail.)

Using the Play Store for the prompt would require an Android device to have Google’s app store pre-loaded — and licensing tweaks made to the OS in Europe last year were supposedly intended to enable OEMs to choose to unbundle Google apps from Android forks. Ergo making only the Play Store the route for enabling choice would be rather contradictory. (As well as spotlighting Google’s continued grip on Android.)

Add to that Google has the advantage of massive brand dominance here, thanks to its kingpin position in search, browsers and smartphone platforms.

So again the consumer decision is weighted in its favor. Or, to put it another way: ‘This is Google; it can afford to offer a ‘choice’.’

In its blog post getting out ahead of the Commission’s looming AdSense ruling, Google’s SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, writes that the company has been “listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting” vis-a-vis competition.

Though the search giant is actually appealing both antitrust decisions. (The other being a $2.7BN fine it got slapped with two years ago for promoting its own shopping comparison service and demoting rivals’.)

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” Walker continues. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.”

Other opinions are available on those changes too.

Such as French pro-privacy Google search rival Qwant, which last year told us how those licensing changes still make it essentially impossible for smartphone makers to profit off of devices that don’t bake in Google apps by default. (More recently Qwant’s founder condensed the situation to “it’s a joke“.)

Qwant and another European startup Jolla, which leads development of an Android alternative smartphone platform called Sailfish — and is also a competition complainant against Google in Europe — want regulators to step in and do more.

The Commission has said it is closely monitoring changes made by Google to determine whether or not the company has complied with its orders to stop anti-competitive behavior.

So the jury is still out on whether any of its tweaks sum to compliance. (Google says so but that’s as you’d expect — and certainly doesn’t mean the Commission will agree.)

In its Android decision last summer the Commission judged that Google’s practices harmed competition and “further innovation” in the wider mobile space, i.e. beyond Internet search — because it prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with its pre-installed Chrome browser.

So browser choice is a key component here. And ‘effective competition’ is the bar Google’s homebrew ‘remedies’ will have to meet.

Still, the company will be hoping its latest Android tweaks steer off further Commission antitrust action. Or at least generate more fuzz and fuel for its long-game legal appeal.

Current EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has flagged for years that the division is also fielding complaints about other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Which suggests Google could face fresh antitrust investigations in future, even as the last of the first batch is about to wrap up.

The FT reports that Android users in the European economic area last week started seeing links to rival websites appearing above Google’s answer box for searches for products, jobs or businesses — with the rival links appearing above paid results links to Google’s own services.

The newspaper points out that tweak is similar to a change promoted by Google in 2013, when it was trying to resolve EU antitrust concerns under the prior commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

However rivals at the time complained the tweak was insufficient. The Commission subsequently agreed — and under Vestager’s tenure went on to hit Google with antitrust fines.

Walker doesn’t mention these any of additional antitrust complaints swirling around Google’s business in Europe, choosing to focus on highlighting changes it’s made in response to the two extant Commission antitrust rulings.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search. In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app,” he writes.

Nor does he make mention of a recent change Google quietly made to the lists of default search engine choices in its Chrome browser — which expanded the “choice” he claims the company offers by surfacing more rivals. (The biggest beneficiary of that tweak is privacy search rival DuckDuckGo, which suddenly got added to the Chrome search engine lists in around 60 markets. Qwant also got added as a default choice in France.)

Talking about Android specifically Walker instead takes a subtle indirect swipe at iOS maker Apple — which now finds itself the target of competition complaints in Europe, via music streaming rival Spotify, and is potentially facing a Commission probe of its own (albeit, iOS’ marketshare in Europe is tiny vs Android). So top deflecting Google.

“On Android phones, you’ve always been able to install any search engine or browser you want, irrespective of what came pre-installed on the phone when you bought it. In fact, a typical Android phone user will usually install around 50 additional apps on their phone,” Walker writes, drawing attention to the fact that Apple does not offer iOS users as much of a literal choice as Google does.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones,” he adds, saying: “This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

We’ve reached out to Commission for comment, and to Google with questions about the design of its incoming browser and search app prompts for Android users in Europe and will update this report with any response.

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The other smartphone business

Posted by | africa, antitrust, Asia, Bolivia, China, data protection, Europe, finland, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, geopolitics, google-android, india, Jalasoft, Jolla, Mobile, mobile linux, privacy, Rostelecom, russia, sailfish, Sami Pienimäki, Security, Startups, TC | No Comments

With the smartphone operating system market sewn up by Google’s Android platform, which has a close to 90% share globally, leaving Apple’s iOS a slender (but lucrative) premium top-slice, a little company called Jolla and its Linux-based Sailfish OS is a rare sight indeed: A self-styled ‘independent alternative’ that’s still somehow in business.

The Finnish startup’s b2b licensing sales pitch is intended to appeal to corporates and governments that want to be able to control their own destiny where device software is concerned.

And in a world increasingly riven with geopolitical tensions that pitch is starting to look rather prescient.

Political uncertainties around trade, high tech espionage risks and data privacy are translating into “opportunities” for the independent platform player — and helping to put wind in Jolla’s sails long after the plucky Sailfish team quit their day jobs for startup life.

Building an alternative to Google Android

Jolla was founded back in 2011 by a band of Nokia staffers who left the company determined to carry on development of mobile Linux as the European tech giant abandoned its own experiments in favor of pivoting to Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. (Fatally, as it would turn out.)

Nokia exited mobile entirely in 2013, selling the division to Microsoft. It only returned to the smartphone market in 2017, via a brand-licensing arrangement, offering made-in-China handsets running — you guessed it — Google’s Android OS.

If the lesson of the Jolla founders’ former employer is ‘resistance to Google is futile’ they weren’t about to swallow that. The Finns had other ideas.

Indeed, Jolla’s indie vision for Sailfish OS is to support a whole shoal of differently branded, regionally flavored and independently minded (non-Google-led) ecosystems all swimming around in parallel. Though getting there means not just surviving but thriving — and doing so in spite of the market being so thoroughly dominated by the U.S. tech giant.

TechCrunch spoke to Jolla ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress tradeshow where co-founder and CEO, Sami Pienimäki, was taking meetings on the sidelines. He told us his hope is for Jolla to have a partner booth of its own next year — touting, in truly modest Finnish fashion, an MWC calendar “maybe fuller than ever” with meetings with “all sorts of entities and governmental representatives”.

Jolla co-founder, Sami Pienimaki, showing off a Jolla-branded handset in May 2013, back when the company was trying to attack the consumer smartphone space. 
(Photo credit: KIMMO MANTYLA/AFP/Getty Images)

Even a modestly upbeat tone signals major progress here because an alternative smartphone platform licensing business is — to put it equally mildly — an incredibly difficult tech business furrow to plough.

Jolla almost died at the end of 2015 when the company hit a funding crisis. But the plucky Finns kept paddling, jettisoning their early pursuit of consumer hardware (Pienimäki describes attempting to openly compete with Google in the consumer smartphone space as essentially “suicidal” at this point) to narrow their focus to a b2b licensing play.

The early b2b salespitch targeted BRIC markets, with Jolla hitting the road to seek buy in for a platform it said could be moulded to corporate or government needs while still retaining the option of Android app compatibility.

Then in late 2016 signs of a breakthrough: Sailfish gained certification in Russia for government and corporate use.

Its licensing partner in the Russian market was soon touting the ability to go “absolutely Google-free!“.

Buy in from Russia

Since then the platform has gained the backing of Russian telco Rostelecom, which acquired Jolla’s local licensing customer last year (as well as becoming a strategic investor in Jolla itself in March 2018 — “to ensure there is a mutual interest to drive the global Sailfish OS agenda”, as Pienimäki puts it).

Rostelecom is using the brand name ‘Aurora OS‘ for Sailfish in the market which Pienimäki says is “exactly our strategy” — likening it to how Google’s Android has been skinned with different user experiences by major OEMs such as Samsung and Huawei.

“What we offer for our customers is a fully independent, regional licence and a tool chain so that they can develop exactly this kind of solution,” he tells TechCrunch. “We have come to a maturity point together with Rostelecom in the Russia market, and it was natural move plan together, that they will take a local identity and proudly carry forward the Sailfish OS ecosystem development in Russia under their local identity.”

“It’s fully compatible with Sailfish operating system, it’s based on Sailfish OS and it’s our joint interest, of course, to make it fly,” he adds. “So that as we, hopefully, are able to extend this and come out to public with other similar set-ups in different countries those of course — eventually, if they come to such a fruition and maturity — will then likely as well have their own identities but still remain compatible with the global Sailfish OS.”

Jolla says the Russian government plans to switch all circa 8M state officials to the platform by the end of 2021 — under a project expected to cost RUB 160.2 billion (~$2.4BN). (A cut of which will go to Jolla in licensing fees.)

It also says Sailfish-powered smartphones will be “recommended to municipal administrations of various levels,” with the Russian state planning to allocate a further RUB 71.3 billion (~$1.1BN) from the federal budget for that. So there’s scope for deepening the state’s Sailfish uptake.

Russian Post is one early customer for Jolla’s locally licensed Sailfish flavor. Having piloted devices last year, Pienimäki says it’s now moving to a full commercial deployment across the whole organization — which has around 300,000 employees (to give a sense of how many Sailfish powered devices could end up in the hands of state postal workers in Russia).

A rugged Sailfish-powered device piloted by Russian post

Jolla is not yet breaking out end users for Sailfish OS per market but Pienimäki says that overall the company is now “clearly above” 100k (and below 500k) devices globally.

That’s still of course a fantastically tiny number if you compare it to the consumer devices market — top ranked Android smartphone maker Samsung sold around 70M handsets in last year’s holiday quarter, for instance — but Jolla is in the b2b OS licensing business, not the handset making business. So it doesn’t need hundreds of millions of Sailfish devices to ship annually to turn a profit.

Scaling a royalty licensing business to hundreds of thousands of users is sums to “good business”, , says Pienimäki, describing Jolla’s business model for Sailfish as “practically a royalty per device”.

“The success we have had in the Russian market has populated us a lot of interesting new opening elsewhere around the world,” he continues. “This experience and all the technology we have built together with Open Mobile Platform [Jolla’s Sailfish licensing partner in Russia which was acquired by Rostelecom] to enable that case — that enables a number of other cases. The deployment plan that Rostelecom has for this is very big. And this is now really happening and we are happy about it.”

Jolla’s “Russia operation” is now beginning “a mass deployment phase”, he adds, predicting it will “quickly ramp up the volume to very sizeable”. So Sailfish is poised to scale.

Step 3… profit?

While Jolla is still yet to turn a full-year profit Pienimäki says several standalone months of 2018 were profitable, and he’s no longer worried whether the business is sustainable — asserting: “We don’t have any more financial obstacles or threats anymore.”

It’s quite the turnaround of fortunes, given Jolla’s near-death experience a few years ago when it almost ran out of money, after failing to close a $10.6M Series C round, and had to let go of half its staff.

It did manage to claw in a little funding at the end of 2015 to keep going, albeit as much leaner fish. But bagging Russia as an early adopter of its ‘independent’ mobile Linux ecosystem looks to have been the key tipping point for Jolla to be able to deliver on the hard-graft ecosystem-building work it’s been doing all along the way. And Pienimäki now expresses easy confidence that profitability will flow “fairly quickly” from here on in.

“It’s not an easy road. It takes time,” he says of the ecosystem-building company Jolla hard-pivoted to at its point of acute financial distress. “The development of this kind of business — it requires patience and negotiation times, and setting up the ecosystem and ecosystem partners. It really requires patience and takes a lot of time. And now we have come to this point where actually there starts to be an ecosystem which will then extend and start to carry its own identity as well.”

In further signs of Jolla’s growing confidence he says it hired more than ten people last year and moved to new and slightly more spacious offices — a reflection of the business expanding.

“It’s looking very good and nice for us,” Pienimäki continues. “Let’s say we are not taking too much pressure, with our investors and board, that what is the day that we are profitable. It’s not so important anymore… It’s clear that that is soon coming — that very day. But at the same time the most important is that the business case behind is proven and it is under aggressive deployment by our customers.”

The main focus for the moment is on supporting deployments to ramp up in Russia, he says, emphasizing: “That’s where we have to focus.” (Literally he says “not screwing up” — and with so much at stake you can see why nailing the Russia case is Jolla’s top priority.)

While the Russian state has been the entity most keen to embrace an alternative (non-U.S.-led) mobile OS — perhaps unsurprisingly — it’s not the only place in the world where Jolla has irons in the fire.

Another licensing partner, Bolivian IT services company Jalasoft, has co-developed a Sailfish-powered smartphone called Accione.

Jalasoft’s ‘liberty’-touting Accione Sailfish smartphone

It slates the handset on its website as being “designed for Latinos by Latinos”. “The digitalization of the economy is inevitable and, if we do not control the foundation of this digitalization, we have no future,” it adds.

Jalasoft founder and CEO Jorge Lopez says the company’s decision to invest effort in kicking the tyres of Jolla’s alternative mobile ecosystem is about gaining control — or seeking “technological libration” as the website blurb puts it.

“With Sailfish OS we have control of the implementation, while with Android it is the opposite,” Lopez tells TechCrunch. “We are working on developing smart buildings and we need a private OS that is not Android or iOS. This is mainly because our product will allow the end user to control the whole building and doing this with Android or iOS a hackable OS will bring concerns on security.”

Lopez says Jalasoft is using Accione as its development platform — “to gather customer feedback and to further develop our solution” — so the project clearly remains in an early phase, and he says that no more devices are likely to be announced this year.

But Jolla can point to more seeds being sewn with the potential, with work, determination and patience, to sprout into another sizeable crop of Sailfish-powered devices down the line.

Complexity in China

Even more ambitiously Jolla is also targeting China, where investment has been taken in to form a local consortium to develop a Chinese Sailfish ecosystem.

Although Pienimäki cautions there’s still much work to be done to bring Sailfish to market in China.

“We completed a major pilot with our licensing customer, Sailfish China Consortium, in 2017-18,” he says, giving an update on progress to date. “The public in market solution is not there yet. That is something that we are working together with the customer — hopefully we can see it later this year on the market. But these things take time. And let’s say that we’ve been somewhat surprised at how complex this kind of decision-making can be.”

“It wasn’t easy in Russia — it took three years of tight collaboration together with our Russian partners to find a way. But somehow it feels that it’s going to take even more in China. And I’m not necessarily talking about calendar time — but complexity,” he adds.

While there’s no guarantee of success for Jolla in China, the potential win is so big given the size of the market that even if they can only carve out a tiny slice, such as a business or corporate sector, it’s still worth going after. And he points to the existence of a couple of native mobile Linux operating systems he reckons could make “very lucrative partners”.

That said, the get-to-market challenge for Jolla in China is clearly distinctly different vs the rest of the world. This is because Android has developed into an independent (i.e. rather than Google-led) ecosystem in China as a result of state restrictions on the Internet and Internet companies. So the question is what could Sailfish offer that forked Android doesn’t already?

An Oppo Android powered smartphone on show at MWC 2017

Again, Jolla is taking the long view that ultimately there will be appetite — and perhaps also state-led push — for a technology platform bolster against political uncertainty in U.S.-China relations.

“What has happened now, in particular last year, is — because of the open trade war between the nations — many of the technology vendors, and also I would say the Chinese government, has started to gradually tighten their perspective on the fact that ‘hey simply it cannot be a long term strategy to just keep forking Android’. Because in the end of the day it’s somebody else’s asset. So this is something that truly creates us the opportunity,” he suggests.

“Openly competing with the fact that there are very successful Android forks in China, that’s going to be extremely difficult. But — let’s say — tapping into the fact that there are powers in that nation that wish that there would be something else than forking Android, combined with the fact that there is already something homegrown in China which is not forking Android — I think that’s the recipe that can be successful.”

Not all Jolla’s Sailfish bets have paid off, of course. An earlier foray by an Indian licensing partner into the consumer handset market petered out. Albeit, it does reinforce their decision to zero in on government and corporate licensing.

“We got excellent business connections,” says Pienimäki of India, suggesting also that it’s still a ‘watch this space’ for Jolla. The company has a “second move” in train in the market that he’s hopeful to be talking about publicly later this year.

It’s also pitching Sailfish in Africa. And in markets where target customers might not have their own extensive in-house IT capability to plug into Sailfish co-development work Pienimäki says it’s offering a full solution — “a ready made package”, together with partners, including device management, VPN, secure messaging and secure email — which he argues “can be still very lucrative business cases”.

Looking ahead and beyond mobile, Pienimäki suggests the automotive industry could be an interesting target for Sailfish in the future — though not literally plugging the platform into cars; but rather licensing its technologies where appropriate — arguing car makers are also keen to control the tech that’s going into their cars.

“They really want to make sure that they own the cockpit. It’s their property, it’s their brand and they want to own it — and for a reason,” he suggests, pointing to the clutch of major investments from car companies in startups and technologies in recent years.

“This is definitely an interesting area. We are not directly there ourself — and we are not capable to extend ourself there but we are discussing with partners who are in that very business whether they could utilize our technologies there. That would then be more or less like a technology licensing arrangement.”

A trust balancing model

While Jolla looks to be approaching a tipping point as a business, in terms of being able to profit off of licensing an alternative mobile platform, it remains a tiny and some might say inconsequential player on the global mobile stage.

Yet its focus on building and maintaining trusted management and technology architectures also looks timely — again, given how geopolitical spats are intervening to disrupt technology business as usual.

Chinese giant Huawei used an MWC keynote speech last month to reject U.S.-led allegations that its 5G networking technology could be repurposed as a spying tool by the Chinese state. And just this week it opened a cybersecurity transparency center in Brussels, to try to bolster trust in its kit and services — urging industry players to work together on agreeing standards and structures that everyone can trust.

In recent years U.S.-led suspicions attached to Russia have also caused major headaches for security veteran Kaspersky — leading the company to announce its own trust and transparency program and decentralize some of its infrastructure, including by spinning up servers in Europe last year.

Businesses finding ways to maintain and deepen the digital economy in spite of a little — or even a lot — of cross-border mistrust may well prove to be the biggest technology challenge of all moving forward.

Especially as next-gen 5G networks get rolled out — and their touted ‘intelligent connectivity’ reaches out to transform many more types of industries, bringing new risks and regulatory complexity.

The geopolitical problem linked to all this boils down to how to trust increasing complex technologies without any one entity being able to own and control all the pieces. And Jolla’s business looks interesting in light of that because it’s selling the promise of neutral independence to all its customers, wherever they hail from — be it Russia, LatAm, China, Africa or elsewhere — which makes its ability to secure customer trust not just important but vital to its success.

Indeed, you could argue its customers are likely to rank above average on the ‘paranoid’ scale, given their dedicated search for an alternative (non-U.S.-led) mobile OS in the first place.

“It’s one of the number one questions we get,” admits Pienimäki, discussing Jolla’s trust balancing act — aka how it manages and maintains confidence in Sailfish’s independence, even as it takes business backing and code contributions from a state like Russia.

“We tell about our reference case in Russia and people quickly ask ‘hey okay, how can I trust that there is no blackbox inside’,” he continues, adding: “This is exactly the core question and this is exactly the problem we have been able to build a solution for.”

Jolla’s solution sums to one line: “We create a transparent platform and on top of fully transparent platform you can create secure solutions,” as Pienimäki puts it.

“The way it goes is that Jolla with Sailfish OS is always offering the transparent Sailfish operating system core, on source code level, all the time live, available for all the customers. So all the customers constantly, in real-time, have access to our source code. Most of it’s in public open source, and the proprietary parts are also constantly available from our internal infrastructure. For all the customers, at the same time in real-time,” he says, fleshing out how it keeps customers on board with a continually co-developing software platform.

“The contributions we take from these customers are always on source code level only. We don’t take any binary blobs inside our software. We take only source code level contributions which we ourselves authorize, integrate and then we make available for all the customers at the very same moment. So that loopback in a way creates us the transparency.

“So if you want to be suspicion of the contributions of the other guys, so to say, you can always read it on the source code. It’s real-time. Always available for all the customers at the same time. That’s the model we have created.”

“It’s honestly quite a unique model,” he adds. “Nobody is really offering such a co-development model in the operating system business.

“Practically how Android works is that Google, who’s leading the Android development, makes the next release of Android software, then releases it under Android Open Source and then people start to backboard it — so that’s like ‘source, open’ in a way, not ‘open source’.”

Sailfish’s community of users also have real-time access to and visibility of all the contributions — which he dubs “real democracy”.

“People can actually follow it from the code-line all the time,” he argues. “This is really the core of our existence and how we can offer it to Russia and other countries without creating like suspicion elements each side. And that is very important.

“That is the only way we can continue and extend this regional licensing and we can offer it independently from Finland and from our own company.”

With global trade and technology both looking increasingly vulnerable to cross-border mistrust, Jolla’s approach to collaborative transparency may offer something of a model if other businesses and industries find they need to adapt themselves  in order for trade and innovation to keep moving forward in uncertain political times.

Antitrust and privacy uplift

Last but not least there’s regulatory intervention to consider.

A European Commission antitrust decision against Google’s Android platform last year caused headlines around the world when the company was slapped with a $5BN fine.

More importantly for Android rivals Google was also ordered to change its practices — leading to amended licensing terms for the platform in Europe last fall. And Pienimäki says Jolla was a “key contributor” to the Commission case against Android.

European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, on April 15, 2015 in Brussels, as the Commission said it would open an antitrust investigation into Google’s Android operating system. (Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The new Android licensing terms make it (at least theoretically) possible for new types of less-heavily-Google-flavored Android devices to be developed for Europe. Though there have been complaints the licensing tweaks don’t go far enough to reset Google’s competitive Android advantage.

Asked whether Jolla has seen any positive impacts on its business following the Commission’s antitrust decision, Pienimäki responds positively, recounting how — “one or two weeks after the ruling” — Jolla received an inbound enquiry from a company in France that had felt hamstrung by Google requiring its services to be bundled with Android but was now hoping “to realize a project in a special sector”.

The company, which he isn’t disclosing at this stage, is interested in “using Sailfish and then having selected Android applications running in Sailfish but no connection with the Google services”.

“We’ve been there for five years helping the European Union authorities [to build the case] and explain how difficult it is to create competitive solutions in the smartphone market in general,” he continues. “Be it consumer or be it anything else. That’s definitely important for us and I don’t see this at all limited to the consumer sector. The very same thing has been a problem for corporate clients, for companies who provide specialized mobile device solutions for different kind of corporations and even governments.”

While he couches the Android ruling as a “very important” moment for Jolla’s business last year, he also says he hopes the Commission will intervene further to level the smartphone playing field.

“What I’m after here, and what I would really love to see, is that within the European Union we utilize Linux-based, open platform solution which is made in Europe,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been pushing this [antitrust action]. This is part of that. But in bigger scheme this is very good.”

He is also very happy with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which came into force last May, plugging in a long overdue update to the bloc’s privacy rules with a much beefed up enforcement regime.

GDPR has been good for Jolla’s business, according to Pienimäki, who says interest is flowing its way from customers who now perceive a risk to using Android if customer data flows outside Europe and they cannot guarantee adequate privacy protections are in place.

“Already last spring… we have had plenty of different customer discussions with European companies who are really afraid that ‘hey I cannot offer this solution to my government or to my corporate customer in my country because I cannot guarantee if I use Android that this data doesn’t go outside the European Union’,” he says.

“You can’t indemnify in a way that. And that’s been really good for us as well.”

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UK military veteran launches crowd-funding for Pixie app to revive local stores

Posted by | Apps, crowdcube, Crowdfunding, Europe, funding, iZettle, mastercard, Mobile, payments, pixie, Startups, sumup, TC, Worldpay | No Comments

What if, instead of sitting on your phone on the sofa ordering stuff from Amazon, you could buy the same things locally from local stores that ultimately enliven and enrich your local neighborhood? What if by doing that, you wouldn’t be walking through deserted main streets, past boarded-up shops, dark alleys and graffiti? What if someone created a marketplace for independent businesses, local events and experiences that kept the money in the local economy rather than being siphoned off into global giants who don’t care about human-scale communities?

That’s the idea behind Pixie, a new take on the “shop-local app” startup model which, although it’s been tried before, has never quite managed to take off. Perhaps Pixie will have more luck?

Here’s how it works: The Pixie app connects people to independent businesses through a curated marketplace, incentivizing them to pay through the app and get rewarded for being loyal customers. Integrated into the app is Pixie Pay, a bespoke payment solution which keeps money in local hands.

The startup has a fascinating background. Whilst serving in the British Special Forces, Pixie’s founder Greg Barden understood that his mission was also to ‘win hearts and minds’ with the local population. Whether by buying bread from the local baker in a village in Afghanistan, or coffee from the market in Baghdad, he and his soldiers could tear down even the most hostile barriers.

He also realized that when more money stayed inside these the local economies rather than being sucked away by organized crime or large scale, globalized businesses, the local economy might flourish and the risk of the societies there becoming yet again destabilized could potentially diminish.

“Whether it was stalls in the bazaars of Baghdad or small boutiques on Bath high-street, I realized independent shop owners are linchpins in their community. They add variety to the mundane and nurture community spirit. Even local guardians need protecting sometimes, which is why we created Pixie.”

The threat to independent stores from globalization and digitization isn’t just happening in Afghanistan. Across the western world, ‘Main Street’ stores are closing at a prodigious rate. In the UK over 1,500 local stores closed in 2018. (And that was BEFORE Brexit…)

Pixie has stress-tested its idea in mid-sized town in the UK, including Bath, Frome and Sherbourne, completing transactions across 250 businesses, ranging from cafes to fashion boutiques, and spinning up 5,000 app users. It’s now going on the fund-raising trail, aiming to raise £500,000 in funding through its ‘Equity for Explorers’ campaign on Crowdcube a UK-based crowd-equity platform. The total addressable market for independent business in the UK is estimated to be £31.5bn in gross transactional value.

Barden — who last year spoke about his startup life at the launch of the military tech non-profit TechVets — says: “There might be thousands of independent businesses across the UK, but at the rate the high-street is disappearing they are severely under threat. Pixie isn’t here to turn people away from the bigger players on the high-street, but create opportunities for enriching discovery. Needless to say, in a world with increasing nationalism, Brexit, Trump and — dare I say it — Amazon, we feel Pixie has a huge part to play in countering the worst aspects of globalization.”

Pixie’s revenue comes from transaction fees taken when people use its ‘Pixie Pay’ payment mechanism. The payment system is designed to bypass Visa/Mastercard at the point of sale, whilst the loyalty scheme unites independent businesses under one umbrella, so the users can earn and spend their loyalty points (as money) across the entire Pixie community. If a store using Pixie is in Australia, a person from Bath could also use their points there. This keeps the money circulating inside local, independent stores, wherever they are on the planet.

Pixie distributes its own payment terminal that sits next to whatever the business has in place to take normal card payments (iZettle etc). The cards are contactless but don’t utilise visa MasterCard. It’s literally their own e-money system. Think PayPal where users can either add money to their balance by debit card or bank and/or link a debit card to Pixie if they don’t have a balance.

Obviously this also creates it an alternative to competitors like iZettle, Square, SumUp and WorldPay, but this time specifically aimed at local independent stores, not huge national and international chains.

The third element of Pixie is its discovery marketplace that gives its community of explorers (users) the ability to discover local businesses across the Pixie footprint of stores.

I’ve seen several startups try and tackle this problem, but it may well be that Pixie, under its charismatic leader, finally has a shot at cracking this idea around local markets.

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Huawei opens a cybersecurity transparency center in the heart of Europe

Posted by | 5g, Asia, Brussels, China, computer security, cybersecurity, EC, Europe, General Data Protection Regulation, huawei, Internet of Things, Mobile, Network Security, Security, telecommunications | No Comments

5G kit maker Huawei opened a Cyber Security Transparency center in Brussels yesterday as the Chinese tech giant continues to try to neutralize suspicion in Western markets that its networking gear could be used for espionage by the Chinese state.

Huawei announced its plan to open a European transparency center last year but giving a speech at an opening ceremony for the center yesterday the company’s rotating CEO, Ken Hu, said: “Looking at the events from the past few months, it’s clear that this facility is now more critical than ever.”

Huawei said the center, which will demonstrate the company’s security solutions in areas including 5G, IoT and cloud, aims to provide a platform to enhance communication and “joint innovation” with all stakeholders, as well as providing a “technical verification and evaluation platform for our
customers”.

“Huawei will work with industry partners to explore and promote the development of security standards and verification mechanisms, to facilitate technological innovation in cyber security across the industry,” it said in a press release.

“To build a trustworthy environment, we need to work together,” Hu also said in his speech. “Both trust and distrust should be based on facts, not feelings, not speculation, and not baseless rumour.

“We believe that facts must be verifiable, and verification must be based on standards. So, to start, we need to work together on unified standards. Based on a common set of standards, technical verification and legal verification can lay the foundation for building trust. This must be a collaborative effort, because no single vendor, government, or telco operator can do it alone.”

The company made a similar plea at Mobile World Congress last week when its rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used a keynote speech to claim its kit is secure and will never contain backdoors. He also pressed the telco industry to work together on creating standards and structures to enable trust.

“Government and the mobile operators should work together to agree what this assurance testing and certification rating for Europe will be,” he urged. “Let experts decide whether networks are safe or not.”

Also speaking at MWC last week the EC’s digital commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, suggested the executive is prepared to take steps to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the Single Market.

She told delegates at the flagship industry conference that Europe must have “a common approach to this challenge” and “we need to bring it on the table soon”.

Though she did not suggest exactly how the Commission might act.

A spokesman for the Commission confirmed that EC VP Andrus Ansip and Huawei’s Hu met in person yesterday to discuss issues around cybersecurity, 5G and the Digital Single Market — adding that the meeting was held at the request of Hu.

“The Vice-President emphasised that the EU is an open rules based market to all players who fulfil EU rules,” the spokesman told us. “Specific concerns by European citizens should be addressed. We have rules in place which address security issues. We have EU procurement rules in place, and we have the investment screening proposal to protect European interests.”

“The VP also mentioned the need for reciprocity in respective market openness,” he added, further noting: “The College of the European Commission will hold today an orientation debate on China where this issue will come back.”

In a tweet following the meeting Ansip also said: “Agreed that understanding local security concerns, being open and transparent, and cooperating with countries and regulators would be preconditions for increasing trust in the context of 5G security.”

Met with @Huawei rotating CEO Ken Hu to discuss #5G and #cybersecurity.

Agreed that understanding local security concerns, being open and transparent, and cooperating with countries and regulators would be preconditions for increasing trust in the context of 5G security. pic.twitter.com/ltATdnnzvL

— Andrus Ansip (@Ansip_EU) March 4, 2019

Reuters reports Hu saying the pair had discussed the possibility of setting up a cybersecurity standard along the lines of Europe’s updated privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Although the Commission did not respond when we asked it to confirm that discussion point.

GDPR was multiple years in the making and before European institutions had agreed on a final text that could come into force. So if the Commission is keen to act “soon” — per Gabriel’s comments on 5G security — to fashion supportive guardrails for next-gen network rollouts a full blown regulation seems an unlikely template.

More likely GDPR is being used by Huawei as a byword for creating consensus around rules that work across an ecosystem of many players by providing standards that different businesses can latch on in an effort to keep moving.

Hu referenced GDPR directly in his speech yesterday, lauding it as “a shining example” of Europe’s “strong experience in driving unified standards and regulation” — so the company is clearly well-versed in how to flatter hosts.

“It sets clear standards, defines responsibilities for all parties, and applies equally to all companies operating in Europe,” he went on. “As a result, GDPR has become the golden standard for privacy protection around the world. We believe that European regulators can also lead the way on similar mechanisms for cyber security.”

Hu ended his speech with a further industry-wide plea, saying: “We also commit to working more closely with all stakeholders in Europe to build a system of trust based on objective facts and verification. This is the cornerstone of a secure digital environment for all.”

Huawei’s appetite to do business in Europe is not in doubt, though.

The question is whether Europe’s telcos and governments can be convinced to swallow any doubts they might have about spying risks and commit to working with the Chinese kit giant as they roll out a new generation of critical infrastructure.

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