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Playbuzz, a startup that helps publishers to add things like polls and galleries to their articles, has rebranded itself as Ex.co.

Co-founder and CEO Tom Pachys told me the name stands for “the experience company,” and he said it reflects the company’s broader content marketing ambitions. Ex.co will continue working with news publishers, but Pachys said there’s a bigger market for what the company has built.

“We’re seeing businesses wanting to become publishers in a way, to interact with their users in a way that’s very similar to what a publisher does,” Pachys said.

Playbuzz/Ex.co is hardly the first publishing startup realize that there may be more money in content marketing, but Pachys argued that this isn’t just a sudden pivot. After all, the company is already working with clients like Visa, Red Bull and Netflix (as well as our corporate siblings at The Huffington Post).

“The previous name does not reflect the values that we stand for today — not even future values,” he said.

Tom Pachys

Tom Pachys

Pachys also suggested that existing content marketing tools are largely focused on operations and workflow — things like hiring the right freelancer — while Ex.co aims at making it easier to actually create the content.

“We’re the ones innovate within the core — not around it, but the core itself,” he said. “And rather than trying to call them competition, we want to integrate with as much players in the ecosystem as possible.”

In addition to announcing the rebrand, Ex.co is also relaunching its platform as a broader content marketing tool, with new features like content templates, real-time analytics and lead generation.

Pachys, by the way, is new to the CEO role, having served as COO until recently, while previous Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert has become the company’s president. Pachys said the move wasn’t “directly correlated” with the other changes, and instead allows the two of them to focus on their strengths — Pachys oversees day-to-day operations, while Olmert focuses on investor relations and strategic deals.

“I co-founded the company with Shaul, who’s a very good friend of mine, we’ve known each other 20 years,” Pachys said. “Shaul is very much involved in the company.”


TechCrunch

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $ 2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.


TechCrunch

E-commerce continues to gain momentum — a trend we’ll see played out in the next two months of holiday shopping — and with that comes more consolidation. Today, Elavon, the payments company that is a subsidiary of US Bancorp, announced that it will acquire Sage Pay, one of the bigger payment processors in the UK and Ireland serving small and medium businesses.

Sage Pay’s owner Sage Group said the deal is being done for £232 million in cash (or $ 300 million at today’s currency rates).

Elavon is active in 10 countries and says it’s the fourth-largest merchant acquirer in Europe, competing against the likes of  Global Payments, Vantiv, FIS, Ingenico, Verifone, Stripe, Chase, MasterCard and Visa. The deal is still subject to regulatory approval (both by the Federal Reserve in the US and the Central Bank of Ireland), and if all proceeds, the deal is expected to close in Q2 of 2020.

The acquisition points to a bigger trend underway in e-commerce. The market is very fragmented, not just in terms of the companies who sell goods online but also (and perhaps especially) in terms of the companies that manage the complexities at the back end.

In keeping with that, Sage Pay has a lot of competitors in its specific area of taking and managing the payments process for online retailers and others taking transactions online or via mobile apps. They include some of the same competitors as Elavon’s: newer entrants like Stripe, Adyen, and PayPal (all of which have extensive businesses covering many countries and are each larger than Sage, valued in the billions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars), but also smaller operations like GoCardless as well as more established companies like WorldPay.

This deal is a mark of the consolidation that’s been taking place to gain better economies of scale in a market where individual transactions generally generate incremental revenues.

Sage Pay, in that context, was a relatively small player. It 2018 revenues were £41 million, but it is profitable, with an operating profit of £15 million, and Sage said it expects “to report a statutory profit on disposal of approximately £180 million on completion.”

The deal comes on the heels of Sage Group — which is publicly traded — confirming reports in September that it was looking for strategic alternatives for the payments business. Sage Group for the last couple of years has been divesting payments and banking assets to focus more on accounting, people and payroll software, which it sells through an SaaS model.

“Our vision of becoming a great SaaS company for customers and colleagues alike means we will continue to focus on serving small and medium sized customers with subscription software solutions for Accounting & Financials and People & Payroll,” said Steve Hare, Sage’s CEO, in a statement. “Payments and banking services remain an integral part of Sage’s value proposition and we will deliver them through our growing network of partnerships, including Elavon.”

Elavon, as the consolidator here, was itself acquired by US Bancorp way back in 2001 for $ 2.1 billion. Currently it is active in 10 countries, but in that same vein of consolidation to improve economies of scale on the technical side, and to aggregate more incremental transactions on the financial side, Elavon’s main objective is to increase its overall share of the e-commerce market in Europe. specifically by expanding with Sage Pay further into the UK and Ireland.

“We are a customer-focused company that is helping businesses succeed in a global marketplace that is changing rapidly,” said Hannah Fitzsimons, president and general manager of Elavon Merchant Services, Europe. “This acquisition brings tremendous talent and leading technology to Elavon, which can be leveraged across the European market.”


TechCrunch

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $ 250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)


TechCrunch

Iran, one of the countries most strongly identified with the rise cyber terrorism and malicious hacking, appears now to be using an iron fist to turn on its own. The country has reportedly shut down nearly all internet access in the country in retaliation to escalating protests that were originally ignited by a rise in fuel prices, according to readings taken by NetBlocks, an NGO that monitors cybersecurity and internet governance around the world.

The last reports of outages came from yesterday (Saturday) evening, so we have contacted NetBlocks to get a more updated picture.

So far, the picture looks pretty bleak. Babak Taghvaee, a defense analyst and historian who is not based in Iran who has been posting some videos of the protest skirmishes, confirms to me that his own internet communication lines with contacts have also been broken, with phones still working, albeit with monitoring from the State.

Internet is completely shut-down and I can’t communicate [with] anyone,” he said. “People just can call abroad (just certain countries) using telephone which is being monitored.”

Currently, using Twitter as one marker, it seems that there are at least some people sending out media and messages from the country, specifically related to the protests, although without specific “messaging” against the government attached to them. This one comes from Tehran, above one of the country’s main highways, showing how traffic has backed up due to streets getting closed down:

And here is another with video from the ground, showing people and police swarming.

And of course the government is still Tweeting, too:

The protests arose in response to a decision by the state to raise the price of gas in the country by 50%.

As this AP article points out, Iran has some of the cheapest gas in the world — in part because it has one of the world’s biggest crude oil reserves — and so residents in the country see cheap gas as a “birthright.”

Many use their cars not just to get around themselves but to provide informal taxi services to others, so — regardless your opinion on whether using fossil fuels is something to be defended or not — hiking up the prices cuts right to ordinary people’s daily lives, and has served as the spark for protest in the country over bigger frustrations with the government and economy, as Iran continues to struggle under the weight of US sanctions.

Clamping down on internet access as a way of trying to contain not just protesters’ communication with each other, but also the outside world, is not an unprecedented move; it is part and parcel of how un-democratic regimes control their people and situations. Alarmingly, its use seems to be growing.

Pakistan in September cut off internet access in specific regions response to protests over conflicts with India. And Russia — which has now approved a bill to be able to shut down internet access should it decide to — is now going to start running a series of drills to ensure its blocks work when they are being used in live responses.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.


TechCrunch

Aerial imagery is a common asset in military matters, but 3D maps can be difficult to collect on short notice without specialized equipment. This new photogrammetry technique from the Army Corps of Engineers, however, can make accurate 3D maps from ordinary aerial footage in just minutes.

Photogrammetry is the process of comparing multiple photos of the same location or item to produce a 3D map of it. It’s a well-known method but in some cases is still reliable on human intelligence to determine, for instance, which frames of a video should be used to produce the best results.

Ricky Massaro from the Army’s Geospatial Research Laboratory in Virginia has mitigated that problem and produced a highly efficient photogrammetric method that can turn aerial imagery into accurate 3D surface maps in near real-time without any human oversight.

This image shows the depth map as color – red being higher. It was created from combining multiple 2D images.

The system was tested by the 101st Airborne, which flew a drone over Fort Campbell in Kentucky and mapped a mock city used for training exercises. It was also deployed in Iraq for non-combat purposes. So this isn’t stuck in a lab somewhere — it’s been put to work, and is now being publicized because the patent filing is in and the Army is now negotiating to commercialize the system.

“Whether it’s for soldiers or farmers, this tech delivers usable terrain and intelligence products fast,” said Quinton King, a manager at TechLink, the Defense Department’s commercial tech transfer organization. “And I’m happy to help companies learn how they can leverage Dr. Massaro’s work for their own products or applications.”

The real-time photogrammetry wouldn’t replace lidar or ground-based mapping systems, but act in concert with them. Being able to produce accurate depth from ordinary aerial imagery, and without having to send tons of data to a central location or involve human experts, makes it adaptable to a variety of situations. If you’re curious about the specifics, you can check out the patent application here.


TechCrunch

If you’ve ever bought an Android phone, there’s a good chance you booted it up to find it pre-loaded with junk you definitely didn’t ask for.

These pre-installed apps can be clunky, annoying to remove, rarely updated… and, it turns out, full of security holes.

Security firm Kryptowire built a tool to automatically scan a large number of Android devices for signs of security shortcomings and, in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ran it on phones from 29 different vendors. Now, the majority of these vendors are ones most people have never heard of — but a few big names like Asus, Samsung and Sony make appearances.

Kryptowire says they found vulnerabilities of all different varieties, from apps that can be forced to install other apps, to tools that can be tricked into recording audio, to those that can silently mess with your system settings. Some of the vulnerabilities can only be triggered by other apps that come pre-installed (thus limiting the attack vector to those along the supply chain); others, meanwhile, can seemingly be triggered by any app the user might install down the road.

Kryptowire has a full list of observed vulnerabilities here, broken down by type and manufacturer. The firm says it found 146 vulnerabilities in all.

As Wired points out, Google is well aware of this potential attack route. In 2018 it launched a program called the Build Test Suite (or BTS) that all partner OEMs must pass. BTS scans a device’s firmware for any known security issues hiding amongst its pre-installed apps, flagging these bad apps as Potentially Harmful Applications (or PHAs). As Google puts it in its 2018 Android security report:

OEMs submit their new or updated build images to BTS. BTS then runs a series of tests that look for security issues on the system image. One of these security tests scans for pre-installed PHAs included in the system image. If we find a PHA on the build, we work with the OEM partner to remediate and remove the PHA from the build before it can be offered to users.

During its first calendar year, BTS prevented 242 builds with PHAs from entering the ecosystem.

Anytime BTS detects an issue we work with our OEM partners to remediate and understand how the application was included in the build. This teamwork has allowed us to identify and mitigate systemic threats to the ecosystem.

Alas, one automated system can’t catch everything — and when an issue does sneak by, there’s no certainty that a patch or fix will ever arrive (especially on lower-end devices, where long-term support tends to be limited).

We reached out to Google for comment on the report, but have yet to hear back.

Update — Google’s response:

We appreciate the work of the research community who collaborate with us to responsibly fix and disclose issues such as these.


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