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Introduced a few I/Os back, Fast Pair is Google’s attempt to make its own mark on the post-AirPod headphone landscape. Many of the features are similar to Apple’s offerings, but Google’s got a leg up in one key way: third-party hardware. Like Android, the company’s focused on bringing Fast Pair to as many manufacturers as possible.

That list now includes Libratone, Jaybird, JBL (four models), Cleer, LG (four models), Anker (one pair of headphones and speaker) and, of course, Google’s own Pixel Buds. This week, the company announced a number of key features coming to Fast Pair headphones.

New this time around is Find My Device functionality, aimed at helping owners locate missing headsets. The app will show the time and location they were last in use, and will send out a chime from buds that are still in Bluetooth range.

Also new is individual battery life for buds and case. Opening up the case near a paired handset will pop up that information. All of the above features will arrive on the 15 or so headphones that currently sport the feature.


TechCrunch

The UK’s next prime minister must prioritize a decision on whether or not to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to be a 5G supplier, a parliamentary committee has urged — warning that the country’s international relations are being “seriously damaged” by ongoing delay.

In a statement on 5G suppliers, the Intelligence and Security committee (ISC) writes that the government must take a decision “as a matter of urgency”.

Earlier this week another parliamentary committee, which focuses on science and technology, concluded there is no technical reason to exclude Huawei as a 5G supplier, despite security concerns attached to the company’s ties to the Chinese state, though it did recommend it be excluded from core 5G supply.

The delay in the UK settling on a 5G supplier policy can be linked not only to the complexities of trying to weight and balance security considers with geopolitical pressures but also ongoing turmoil in domestic politics, following the 2016 EU referendum Brexit vote — which continues to suck most of the political oxygen out of Westminster. (And will very soon have despatched two UK prime ministers in three years.)

Outgoing PM Theresa May, whose successor is due to be selected by a vote by Conservative Party members next week, appeared to be leaning towards giving Huawei an amber light earlier this year.

A leak to the press from a National Security Council meeting back in April suggested Huawei would be allowed to provide kit but only for non-core parts of 5G networks — raising questions about how core and non-core are delineated in the next-gen networks.

The leak led to the sacking by May of the then defense minister, Gavin Williamson, after an investigation into confidential information being passed to the media in which she said she had lost confidence in him.

The publication of a government Telecoms Supply Chain Review, whose terms of reference were published last fall, has also been delayed — leading to carriers to press the government for greater clarity last month.

But with May herself now on the way out, having agreed to step down as PM back in May, the decision on 5G supply is on hold.

It will be down to either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, the two remaining contenders to take over as PM, to choose whether or not to let the Chinese tech giant supply UK 5G networks.

Whichever of the men wins the vote they will arrive in the top job needing to give their full attention to finding a way out of the Brexit morass — with a mere three months til a October 31 Brexit extension deadline looming. So there’s a risk 5G may not seem as urgent an issue and a decision again be kicked back.

In its statement on 5G supply, the ISC backs the view expressed by the public-facing branch of the UK’s intelligence service that network security is not dependent on any one supplier being excluded from building it — writing that: “The National Cyber Security Centre… has been clear that the security of the UK’s telecommunications network is not about one company or one country: the ‘flag of origin’ for telecommunications equipment is not the critical element in determining cyber security.”

The committee argues that “some parts of the network will require greater protection” — writing that “critical functions cannot be put at risk” but also that there are “less sensitive functions where more risk can be carried”, albeit without specifying what those latter functions might be.

“It is this distinction — between the sensitivity of the functions — that must determine security, rather than where in the network those functions are located: notions of ‘core’ and ‘edge’ ate therefore misleading in this context,” it adds. “We should therefore be thinking of different levels of security, rather than a one size fits all approach, within a network that has been built to be resilient to attack, such that no single action could disable the system.”

The committee’s statement also backs the view that the best way to achieve network resilience is to support diversity in the supply chain — i.e. by supporting more competition.

But at the same time it emphasizes that the 5G supply decision “cannot be viewed solely through a technical lens — because it is not simply a decision about telecommunications equipment”.

“This is a geostrategic decision, the ramifications of which may be felt for decades to come,” it warns, raising concerns about the perceptions of UK intelligence sharing partners by emphasizing the need for those allies to trust the decisions the government makes.

It also couches a UK decision to give Huawei access a risk by suggesting it could be viewed externally as an endorsement of the company, thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit — without paying the full (and it asserts vitally) necessary attention to the security piece.

“The UK is a world leader in cyber security: therefore if we allow Huawei into our 5G network we must be careful that that is not seen as an endorsement for others to follow. Such a decision can only happen where the network itself will be constructed securely and with stringent regulation,” it writes.

The committee’s statement goes on to raise as a matter of concern the UK’s general reliance on China as a technology supplier.

“One of the lessons the UK Government must learn from the current debate over 5G is that with the technology sector now monopolised by such a few key players, we are over-reliant on Chinese technology — and we are not alone in this, this is a global issue. We need to consider how we can create greater diversity in the market. This will require us to take a long term view — but we need to start now,” it warns.

It ends by reiterating that the debate about 5G supply has been “unnecessarily protracted” — pressing the next UK prime minister to get on and take a decision “so that all concerned can move forward”.


TechCrunch

Adam Neumann, the co-founder and chief executive of the international real estate co-working startup, WeWork, has reportedly cashed out of more than $ 700 million from his company ahead of its initial public offering.

The size and timing of the payouts, made through a mix of stock sales and loans secured by his equity in the company, is unusual considering that founders typically wait until after a company holds its public offering to liquidate their holdings.

Despite the loans and sales of stock, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, Neumann remains the single largest shareholder in the company.

According to the Journal’s reporting, Neumann has already set up a family office to invest the proceeds and begun to hire financial professionals to run it.

He’s also made significant investments in real estate in New York and San Francisco, including four homes in the greater New York metropolitan area, and a $ 21 million 13,000 square-foot house in the Bay Area complete with a guitar shaped room (I guess a fiddle would be too on the nose). In all, Neumann reportedly spent $ 80 million on real estate.

Neumann has also invested in commercial real estate (the kind that WeWork leases to provide workspace with more flexible leases for companies and entrepreneurs), including properties in San Joes, Calif. and New York. Indeed four of Neumann’s properties are leased to WeWork — to the tune of several million dollars in rent. According to the Journal, Neumann will transfer those property holdings to a WeWork-controlled fund.

The WeWork chief executive has also invested in startups in recent years. He’s got an equity stake in seven companies including: Hometalk, Intercure, EquityBee, Selina, Tunity, Feature.fm, and Pins, according to CrunchBase.

The rewards that Neumann is reaping from the loans and stock sales are among the highest recorded by a private company executive. In recent years, Evan Spiegel sold $ 8 million in stock and borrowed $ 20 million from Snap before its 2017 public offering and Slack Technologies chief executive Stewart Butterfieldsold $ 3.2 million of stock before Slack’s public offering in June.

The only liquidation of stock and other payouts that have been disclosed which come close to Neumann’s payouts are the $ 300 million that GroupOn co-founder Eric Lefkofksy’s sold before his company’s IPO and the over $ 100 million that Mark Pincus took off the table ahead of Zynga’s offering.

WeWork declined to comment for this article.

 


TechCrunch

Online storytelling community Wattpad, also now a content feeder for streaming services and other media companies, is taking its two consumer-facing paid products global. Wattpad Premium, the ad-free subscription tier, first launched in 2017 and has only been available in a handful of countries to date. It’s now available to Wattpad’s 70 million-plus worldwide users, as of today. In addition, Wattpad’s Paid Stories, which offers exclusive, paywalled content to readers, is also now available to the global user base.

This product launched last November into beta testing, when it was then called Wattpad Next. It was initially available in the U.S. with plans for a global launch planned for this year.

Technically speaking, Wattpad quietly launched Paid Stories globally last week, but it has now completed its rollout to all users, the company says. The stories give readers another way to support their favorite writers as they can purchase the serialized content either when the story is finished, or as it’s still being written. This past month, readers spend more than 5.5 million minutes on Paid Stories, the company says.

Users purchase access to the stories using Wattpad’s virtual currency, Coins. These Coins are sold in packs that start at $ 0.99 for 9 Coins, and go as high as $ 7.99 for 230 Coins.

With the global expansion, the two products are also being better integrated.

Screen Shot 2019 07 18 at 10.31.39 AMNow, Wattpad Premium subscribers will receive discounted Coins to buy the Paid Stories. They also receive bonus Coins — up to 66% more free Coins, the company says — every time they buy a Coin package to unlock a Paid Story.

“Our vision at Wattpad is to entertain and connect the world through stories, creating the best platform and community on the planet for every type of reader and writer,” said Wattpad General Manager, Jeanne Lam. “Every innovation and initiative at Wattpad supports that vision while improving the experience for users. Wattpad Premium and Wattpad Paid Stories give users everywhere more control over their Wattpad experience and options to enjoy the platform in new ways — whether it’s uninterrupted, ad-free reading or the chance to support the writers who make those stories possible.”

The products do generate some revenue for the company — Wattpad is No. 11 Top Grossing app in the Books category on the App Store and No. 8 on Google Play. However, the company’s bigger business these days is its content deals. Wattpad earlier this year inked a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television, and has a development deal with Universal Cable Productions, among others. Internationally, it’s working with iflix, Bavaria Fiction, Huayi Brothers Korea, Penguin Random House India, Mediaset, NL Film, Mediacorp, and eOne.

Wattpad’s stories have been turned into feature films, as well as movies and TV shows for streaming services like Netflix (The Kissing Booth) and Hulu (Light as a Feather).

It now has its own print publishing arm, too, with Wattpad Books.

These broader efforts capitalize on Wattpad’s generally younger and devoted fanbase.

For example, one of the more popular Wattpad Books titles, The QB Bad Boy & Me by Tay Marley, was read more than 26.3 million times on Wattpad, and will become available in book form on August 20, 2019.


TechCrunch

Wavecell, a cloud-communications platform for companies in Southeast Asia, announced today that it has been acquired by 8×8 in a deal worth about $ 125 million. The acquisition will help San Jose, California-based 8×8 expand in Asia, where Wavecell already has offices in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Wavecell’s cloud API platform, which includes SMS, chat, video and voice messaging, is used by companies such as Paidy, Lalamove and Tokopedia. It has relationships with 192 network operators and partners like WhatsApp and claims its infrastructure is used to share more than two billion messages each year.

The terms of the deal includes $ 69 million in cash and about $ 56 million in 8×8 common shares. Founded in 2010, Wavecell’s investors included Qualgro VC, Wavemaker Partners and MDI Ventures.

In a prepared statement, 8×8 CEO Vik Verma said “8×8 is now the only cloud provider that owns the full, global-scale, cloud-native, technology stack offering voice, video, messaging, and contact center delivered both as pre-packaged applications and as enterprise-class APIs. We’re excited to welcome the Wavecell employees to the 8×8 family. We now have a significant market presence in Asia and expect to continue to expand in the region and globally in order to meet evolving customer requirements.”


TechCrunch

While AWS leads the cloud infrastructure market by wide margin, Microsoft isn’t doing too badly, ensconced firmly in second place, the only other company with double-digit share. Today, it announced a big deal with AT&T that encompasses both Azure cloud infrastructure services and Office 365.

A person with knowledge of the contract pegged the combined deal at a tidy $ 2 billion, a nice feather in Microsoft’s cloud cap. According to a Microsoft blog post announcing the deal, AT&T has a goal to move most of its non-networking workloads to the public cloud by 2024, and Microsoft just got itself a big slice of that pie, surely one that rivals AWS, Google and IBM (which closed the $ 34 billion Red Hat deal last week) would dearly have loved to get.

As you would expect, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke of the deal in lofty terms around transformation and innovation. “Together, we will apply the power of Azure and Microsoft 365 to transform the way AT&T’s workforce collaborates and to shape the future of media and communications for people everywhere,” he said in a statement in the blog post announcement.

To that end, they are looking to collaborate on emerging technologies like 5G and believe that by combining Azure with AT&T’s 5G network, the two companies can help customers create new kinds of applications and solutions. As an example cited in the blog post, they could see using the speed of the 5G network combined with Azure AI-powered live voice translation to help first responders communicate with someone who speaks a different language instantaneously.

It’s worth noting that while this deal to bring Office 365 to AT&T’s 250,000 employees is a nice win, that part of the deal falls on the under the SaaS umbrella, so it won’t help with Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure marketshare. Still, any way you slice it, this is a big deal.


TechCrunch

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink1

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $ 100 million of the $ 158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.


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