Last week, the media world was abuzz with the news that e-commerce giant Amazon was experimenting with a new program dubbed “Amazon Prime Air,” which would use small automated “drone” aircraft to make customer deliveries. But while Jeff Bezos’ primetime television announcement of Amazon’s drone ambitions certainly attracted a lot of attention, it’s important to note that he is not the first person to express interest in the drone delivery space.
A small Silicon Valley startup called Matternet has been developing drone delivery technology for several years now. The company’s co-founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos’ TED talk from this past summer about the potential to use small drones for delivery purposes has garnered more than 200,000 views since it was posted online last month — and perhaps helped to inspire Bezos himself, as Bezos used some of the same language used in Raptopoulos’ TED talk when unveiling the concept of Amazon Prime Air on 60 Minutes.
One very interesting thing about Matternet is that the company believes drone delivery technology should be first used in the developing world, to deliver food, medicine, and other necessities to areas that are less accessible by car or truck. Often, consumer technologies start by serving a higher end market and trickle down to attain widespread utility — think computers, cell phones, automobiles, and the like. Matternet says its approach is to introduce drone delivery technology to the “people who need it the most,” and build the network from there.
It was a pleasure to have Raptopoulos and his Matternet co-founder Paola Santana stop by TechCrunch’s San Francisco headquarters last week to talk more about how their technology is progressing, the unique technical and regulatory challenges that drones face, and their reaction to learning that Amazon is working in the space as well. Watch that in the video embedded above.
And in the video embedded below, you can see footage from one of Matternet’s drone delivery pilot programs in Haiti.Read More →
After enduring a round of layoffs last month, Rdio, the streaming music startup from Skype co-founder Janus Friis, has found a new chief executive officer, Anthony Bay. Bay, whose experience includes executive positions at Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, inherits the challenge of making Rdio profitable as it competes against market leaders like Spotify.
Margins in the streaming music business are extremely tight and Rdio, which lacks the the music industry connections Spotify has formed, may be struggling to get enough paying subscribers to stay afloat (the company has not disclosed the size of its current user base). Rdio did not say how many employees were fired last month, but we were told by one person that the layoffs affected 35 people, while another tip said that the number amounted to about one-fifth to one-third of Rdio’s workforce, with the biggest cuts in engineering.
A representative for the company told us that they layoffs were to “improve its cost structure and ensure a scalable business model for the long-term.” It’s unclear how Vdio, the startup’s video-streaming service, has been affected.
Another potentially worrying sign is that the startup has not released any user numbers in a while. In contrast, Deezer reported earlier in November that it had passed 5 million user mark, despite not entering the U.S. market. Spotify reported 6 million paying users in March 2013. Rdio did tell TechCrunch, however, that its tripled the number of new users since the end of 2012, and 90% of those subscribers are now on the Rdio Unlimited tier, which costs $9.99 per month.
Bay was formerly head of Amazon’s global video business, and also served as chairman at Loudeye, where he led its B2B digital media content division before it was sold to Nokia. At Microsoft, Bay was in charge of the company’s e-commerce technology platform, as well as developing Windows Media Technologies, including Windows Media Player. He also worked eight years at Apple, where he led Apple’s Online Services.
Bay follows Drew Lamer, who is now Rdio’s vice chairman and strategic advisor to itsboard of directors. Lamer announced earlier this year he planned to vacate the CEO post.
Friis said in a statement that Rdio now plans to focus on growing its paying user base globally and added that Bay will “play a critical role in unlocking the value of our global terrestrial radio partnerships.” Rdio announced a strategic partnership with Cumulus Media, which operates 525 radio stations in the U.S., in September. The deal gives Rdio access to Cumulus’ programming, as well as promotions on its stations. In return, Cumulus, which took an equity stake in Rdio’s parent company Pulser Media, now has an online platform.
To date, Rdio has raised $17.5 million from Atomico, Mangrove, Janus Friis and Skype.Read More →
Jeff Bezos shocked Middle America during a CBS “60 Minutes” segment with Charlie Rose: 30-minute Amazon deliveries by drones. Whether it’s a real product or genius PR stunt on the eve of the biggest online shopping day of the year, it doesn’t matter. The idea of a sky full of drones just hit the mainstream.
Amazon isn’t the first company to experiment delivery by drones. In fact, over the last year, several companies beat Amazon to the punch with very similar services testing carrying tacos, pizzas and packages by multi-rotor crafts.
Skycatch demonstrated its aptly-named Tacocopter at Disrupt SF 2013. It flew past attendees, delivering a warm taco feet from the panel of robotics experts.
But what about a pizza? A UK franchise of the U.S.-based Domino’s demonstrated over the summer a drone carrying two pizzas, forcing career pizza delivery men and women to question the longevity of their profession.
China-based SF Express started limited live trials of package deliveries earlier this year. And SF Express’ reveal wasn’t helped along with a prominent news agency like in Amazon’s case. Drones carrying packages were simply spotted in Dongguang, in southern China.
As reported by Quartz at the time, local companies are not bound by rigid government regulations and restrictions in China. Forget the black hole that is the FCC, apparently Chinese businesses that want to use drones must be granted approval from the local civil aviation authorities first. There’s a certain appeal to delivery drones in China. Heavily populated areas are fighting a losing battle against smog and traffic congestion. Drones could be part of the answer.
Amazon’s program would offer 30 minute deliveries of small items – that would cover 86% of Amazon’s orders, Bezos indicated during the 60 Minutes interview. In theory, this would completely eliminate the lack of instant gratification currently lacking from shopping online. In its place would be the fact that your order would be delivered by a drone. A drone! I would order a pack of pencils just to have them dropped on my front door by a robot. But this revolution will not happen anytime soon. At least not in the States.
Amazon Prime Air is unquestionably more marketing gimmick than service in the pipeline.
Bezos is a marketing genius. Amazon Prime Air is unquestionably more marketing gimmick than service in the pipeline. Even Bezos cautioned on 60 Minutes that drone deliveries are still years out. The air regulations are not in place, and the drone technology still needs to mature.
Amazon is currently under fire for working and hiring practices. They are fighting a losing battle against making customers pay taxes in certain states. The Guardian discovered the retail behemoth skirted paying the UK’s corporation tax despite £7 billion in local sales. And there’s always talk about Amazon’s lack of substantial revenues. But now the company has drones!
If any company in the U.S. could pull this off, it would be Amazon. The retailer has demonstrated its knack for modernization time and time again. Of course there is a list of potential issues including regulations, scaling, and people with Airsoft guns. Innovation will overcome obstacles. However, the slope here is rather slippery. If Amazon can do this, why can’t Walmart? Will this solution to decongest roads simply result in congestion 30 meters above the ground?
Library books on demand. Inter-industrial complex deliveries. Even the delivery of a drone by a drone. The sky is the limit (sorry) for drone deliveries.Read More →
Wibidata, a big data application provider, has a new platform for building real-time apps that shows the increasing accessibility of machine learning and how e-commerce companies can provide an experience similar to a giant like Amazon.com.
The new WibiEnterprise 3.0 platform allows a company to power a site with advanced analytics that fine-tunes itself, providing better recommendations and other features over time, including more relevant search results and personalized content.
The platform is designed for the customer who is beginning to use data science, said Omer Trajman, vice president of field operations at Wibidata. “They are not classically trained but they have an analytics background. They have been doing marketing analytics. The mechanics are similar, what has changed is the availability of data.”
WibiEnterprise 3.0 is built on an open source framework called Kiji, which provides a common platform for building applications that leverage large data sets.
At its core, Wibidata is offering a platform that takes into consideration the fact that companies often have just a few seconds to engage their customers. People use all sorts of personal devices and can turn to a competitor with just a few clicks. But with all this data, companies also have an opportunity to learn about their customers by analyzing their digital interactions. Doing that means building a storage system that provides a 360-degree view of the customer.
Like Google and Amazon, Wibidata’s Kijii framework uses a central storage system that allows a customer to collect user interactions across all of its applications, searches, purchases, likes, clicks and requests for product information. It’s what is called an “entity-centric storage system,” which essentially pools all the data so a company with sophisticated apps and services can do real-time queries and act on a customer’s recent information to deliver content personalization, relevant search results and recommendations.
Wibidata’s approach is in contrast to traditional data warehouse systems that manage data in a much different way. In the context of e-commerce, these older systems store transactional information such as likely purchases, or shopping cart manipulations in a central fact table. For a retail bank, this data might include credits and deductions from accounts. SKU information or geographic location data are stored in dimension tables to provide a detailed view of the transaction.
There are two problems with the approach, Wibidata argues. It can get expensive and it centers around the transaction instead of the user that is generating those transactions. Furthermore, it gets even more complex when using historical data, which has to get extracted from other systems, cleansed and then integrated with the current transaction data.
Companies using WibiEnterprise 3.0 include a top 10 retailer which has integrated it with its website to create relevant, contextual shopping recommendations during the online sales process. An international retail bank is also using WibiEnterprise 3.0 technology to combine multiple customer data sources and apply in-house debt models to better detect fraud and credit risks. Opower uses WibiEnterprise 3.0 to deliver personalized reports to utility provider customers explaining how to reduce energy usage and save money. And one of the largest SaaS providers uses WibiEnterprise 3.0 to help their customers identify prospective customers.
Wibidata is a powerful platform but it also reflects the complexity that comes with managing data across so many different devices. There is an infinite data supply but the technology needed to use it means a new way of organization that cuts across the way a company treats its own historical investments. There are the added cultural hurdles that come with a change in business approach that is more customer, than transaction-focused.
These sets of challenges also impact new startups like Wibidata, which are advocating disruptive approaches that put them in direct competition with companies like Oracle and established SaaS providers like Baynote.
There is no doubt that it is getting easier to have the same capabilities as a company like Amazon.com. But the challenges come with the will of the customer and the ability of a company like Wibidata to keep ahead of the competition.
(Feature image courtesy of Trevor on Flickr via a Creative Commons License)Read More →
Bitcoin burning a hole in your pocket? Probably. If so, a new site has popped up to help you spend your digital currency during this hectic holiday shopping week: “Bitcoin Black Friday.” Starting on Friday, November 29th, a growing number of online retailers will be offering special deals just for Bitcoin users.
Frankly, a good many of the offers are fairly gimmicky – you can use bitcoins to buy a bacon-flavored lollipop or a ticket to space on Virgin Atlantic, for example. That’s not really going to help you with your holiday shopping list, though. However, there are some decent choices on the site, too, but for obvious reasons, they tend to be a little more geeky in nature. Adafruit, for instance, is offering 10% off of everything in stock, including Raspberry Pi. Reddit is selling Reddit Gold. The Humble Bundle has deals up for grabs. There are also software, electronics, domain name and hosting deals, and so on.
Mobile gift card app Gyft is one of the better deals available, giving Bitcoin shoppers 4 percentage points back when you buy gift cards from its supported retailer partners, like Target, Gamestop, Gap, Zappos, Nike, Old Navy, and hundreds of others. If you were stocking up on gift cards anyway, that’s worth taking advantage of. (For what it’s worth, PayPal users will get 3% back, while credit card users get 2% back, the company says.)
Overall, though, the deal quality on “Bitcoin Black Friday” is a good indicator of where Bitcoin is in terms of mainstream adoption. That is, not so much. There really aren’t big-name retailers on board with the digital currency at this time. And for obvious reasons, big-name tech companies like Google, Amazon and eBay aren’t going to play along either, as they all have their own payment mechanisms to push (Google Wallet, PayPal and Amazon’s one-click checkout experience, respectively).
But the site has the backing of large number of Bitcoin supporters, including digital wallet Coinbase, which is waving all fees on Friday so Bitcoin users can buy, sell, send and receive bitcoins all day. The site lists logos of other Bitcoin backers who have either contributed funds or assisted significantly in outreach to the Bitcoin community, including SV Angel, Bitcoin Investment Trust, Ribbit Capital, Bitypay, Coinbase, Gyft, PrivateInternetAccess, BitGive, and BitDazzle.
Internet activists Fight for the Future are also involved trying to get the word out about the Bitcoin Black Friday efforts, somewhat radicalizing the event by pointing to Bitcoin’s potential to be disruptive to the status quo. “Bitcoin is an amazing new technology, but because it challenges established industries, it will face serious political opposition–especially in the U.S. where those industries are strongest,” the message reads on the project’s site. “Bitcoin will only be safe once millions of people rely on it every day.”
Of course, Bitcoin won’t reach those mainstream “millions” while speculators drive the price of the crytocurrency to crazy new heights. That doesn’t discount its long-term potential though as a money transfer platform, though. But as a payment mechanism for online shopping? While it’s great that there are over 441 retailers on board with Bitcoin Black Friday, it would be better if there were more deals mainstream users would actually want to buy. Instead of say, Bitcoin t-shirts, stickers, glasses, mining equipment….and, oh yeah, more Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin Black Friday movement is still growing, however. Earlier this week, it was touting that 250 retailers had signed up, and today there are nearly 200 more. Evan Greer of Fight the Future also tells us the site has seen over 30,000 unique visitors to date, almost half of which arrived yesterday. Meanwhile, over 4,000 people have signed up to get an email when the deals go live.Read More →
It’s been a long-time in coming, but eight-year-old education company, Chegg, debuted this morning on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “CHGG.” In the days prior, Chegg priced its initial public offering at $12.50/share, outpacing its expected range of $9.50 to $11.50, raising $187.5 million in total at a valuation of close to $1.1 billion.
Chegg is the first company to arrive on the public markets after Twitter’s noisy debut last week, in which the veteran microblogging service priced at $26/share and raised $1.8 billion at a lofty valuation of up to $18 billion. Twitter quickly saw the price of its stock vault to around $41/share, where it’s remained since.
Chegg, however, hasn’t fared quite so well. The company’s stock has slumped since its debut this morning and is currently down 15 percent to $10.56 as of writing. The education company sold 15 million shares in its IPO.
Founded in 2005 and operating under the Textbookflix.com domain, Chegg began as a company focused solely on textbook rental, becoming one of the first well-known companies to bring textbook rental online, and to a wide audience. However, with pressure from Apple, Amazon and a bevy of others moving into the textbook and book rental market – along with the market itself going digital – Chegg has undergone a re-positioning over the last few years, culminating with its IPO today.
Moving away from its sole focus on textbooks, the company has been looking to go after education technology’s “Holy Grail” – to become the “OS for students,” or in Chegg’s words, “an academic hub.” As we wrote earlier this year, this means that the company has added course reviews and planners, course search and tutoring, scholarship help and more. In turn, knowing that this means nothing without students having access to these services on mobile (and on more than one platform), Chegg has been looking to diversify its portfolio of mobile offerings.
Having already launched “Chegg Flashcards,” the company’s original, flagship app, which allowed students to rent and purchase digital textbooks, Chegg debuted a new iOS app earlier this year called Textbook Solutions, and partnered with Coursera help it distribute class materials for the popular MOOC provider. At the time, Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig highlighted the company’s evolving plans by saying that the company’s vision was to “become the leading connected learning platform,” which echoed what CTO Chuck Geiger had told us earlier this year:
Chegg’s demographics still skew more towards higher ed, but as the company has grown, it’s been seeing a larger portion of its user base made up of high school students. It still makes the majority of its revenue from students buying and renting textbooks, but, again, through its acquisitions of Zinch, 3D3R and CourseRank (to name a few), it’s been slowly diversifying.
As my colleague Alex Wilhelm wrote in August, thanks to these changes, the company has been able to stay afloat – and raise $187.5 ahead of its debut. This was based on revenue of $149 million in 2010, $172 million in 2011, $213 million in 2012 and $117 million in the first half of 2013. Compared to the $92 million in revenue it generated in the first half of 2012, Chegg has been on an upward swing, growing its top line at a “material, if not modest pace,” as Alex wrote at the time.
Historically, Chegg has spent its fair share of time “in the red,” and has struggled in its efforts to become profitable. However, after years of heading in the wrong direction, the company has been able to stem its losses over the last year, as losses from the first half of 2013 were pegged at $21 million, which compare favorable from its loss of $32 million in the first half of 2012.
Moreover, Chegg said it earned $22.7 million for the nine months ended September 30th, which is up nearly fourfold from last year, while the company losses narrowed 12 percent to $50 million over those 9 months.
Part of the reason for this about-face is that Chegg has been able to continue to grow revenue and keep expenses flat and – more than the fact that it has 180,000 textbooks in its catalog – the company says that it now reaches 30 percent of college students in the U.S. and 40 percent of college-bound high school seniors. That’s a valuable demographic for would-be advertisers.
So, while Chegg had lost $170 million as of August (which has since increased), it has been able to offset those losses by raising $195 million (and $55 million of debt) over its eight-year history from Kleiner Perkins, Insight Venture Partners and a host of other Silicon Valley investors. And in another positive note for the company, according to the New York Times, the majority of those investors are holding onto their shares as the company plans to dedicate the $187.5 million raised in the run up to its IPO towards “building the company.”
That being said, the NYT reports that Chegg co-founder Aayush Phumbra will be paring down his stake by about 23 precent (to two million shares), which comes on the heels of the news that another Chegg co-founder, Osman Rashid, had managed to sell his most recent company, Kno, for much less than the $75 million it had raised.Read More →
ValoBox has already gone some way to address the shortcomings of eBooks with its purely browser-based approach and an innovative ‘pay-as-you-go’ payment model that lets readers dip in and out of content and only pay for what they consume. Now the UK startup, in partnership with independent publisher Constable & Robinson, wants to make it easy to gift an eBook, something that’s been somewhat lost as we’ve moved from physical to digital.
In the world of dead-tree media, you simply purchase a book and give it away (apparently you can even read it first, too). But eBooks, often crippled by DRM or by being tied to a user account, make the process less than satisfactory. ValoBox wants to change that.
At its most technical, the company’s new Gift an eBook service is really just a buy one copy, get one copy free affair. But the sentiment is a throwback to the ease of which physical books, or at least the reading experience, can be shared. Users simply purchase an eBook from ValoBox/Constable & Robinson’s catalogue, which includes fiction and non-fiction titles such as “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, crime fiction from M.C. Beaton, and “What Fresh Lunacy is This? The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed” by Robert Sellers, and then designate an email address for the recipient of the eBook gift.
The recipient then receives a link to the eBook and are automatically set up with an account on ValoBox’s cloud-based eBook platform, from which they can begin reading and access their eBook at any time. ValoBox eBooks are browser-based with most modern desktop and mobile browsers supported. There’s an iPhone app, too, for quick access to your “Stash”, aka your cloud-based eBook library on ValoBox. The idea is that eBook reading becomes as simple as accessing the web, being entirely device agnostic – an approach that works quite nicely with the new Gift an eBook offering, especially for the casual eBook consumer.
To that end, Anna Lewis, co-founder of ValoBox, says rather aptly in a statement, “Digitisation has made books more accessible than ever, but some of the magic associated with gifting and sharing those reading experiences has been lost. You can hand someone a paper book without giving them instructions on how to open it, or worrying if they have the right reading device. This partnership with Constable & Robinson has given us the opportunity to address this and match both the thoughtful process of giving a physical book and the delight of receiving one.”
Noteworthy is that the new service was in part made possible after ValoBox won funding from IC tomorrow, the UK taxpayer-funded Technology Strategy Board programme designed to stimulate “innovation and economic growth in the digital sector by breaking down barriers and opening doors for a new generation of entrepreneurs”.
In an email to TechCrunch, Lewis explains how ValoBox’s Gift an eBook offering is being positioned against Amazon’s own Kindle eBook lending programme.
“Gift an eBook doesn’t have the restrictions of the Kindle lending programme. You are actually giving the other person another copy which they can keep and can read at the same time. There isn’t a 14 days restriction and you can continue to read it once you’ve given it to the other person.
“We’re trying to make the experience of giving or receiving a digital book much easier and more charming. The receiver will get a nicely designed email. They will be shown a personalised message and then within one click, they are reading the book, rather than having to sign-up, download files or sync across devices.”Read More →
A new mobile application called Impala is picking up where Everpix left off, in terms of automatically categorizing your photo collections using computer vision technology. Once installed, the app works its way through your entire photo library on your iPhone, sorting photos into various categories like “outdoor,” “architecture,” “food,” “party life,” “friends,” “sunsets,” and more. But there’s a key difference between what Impala does and how Everpix worked. Impala’s mobile app has no server-side component – that is, your photos aren’t stored in the cloud. The software that handles the photo classification runs entirely on your device instead.
Impala is not a polished and professional app like Everpix was, of course, and photo classification is its only trick, while Everpix did much more. But its classification capabilities aren’t terrible. In tests, it ran through thousands of my iPhone photos over the course of some 20 minutes or so, placing photos into various albums, some more accurate than others. For example, it did well as gathering all the “food” and “beach” photos, and could easily tell the difference between “men,” “women,” and “children,” but it classified some beach scenes as “mountains,” and photos of my dog under “cats.”
But that latter one is by design, laughs Harro Stokman, Impala’s creator and CEO at Euvision Technologies, which develops the software. “We don’t like dogs,” he says.
The app, in its present form, is not meant to be a standalone business at this time, but more of an example of the technological capabilities of the company’s software.
Euvision Technologies, Stokman explains, was spun out from the University of Amsterdam where he earned his PhD in computer vision. The technology that makes Impala possible has been in development for over 10 years, he tells us. Today, many of Euvision eight-person team also work at the university, which owns a 15% stake in the company.
Meanwhile, Euvision has the rights to commercialize the technology, but doesn’t have outside funding. Instead, it licenses its software, which until today was only available as a server technology used by nearly a dozen clients ranging from the Netherlands police department (for tracking down child abuse photos), to a large social media website, which uses the technology for photo moderation on its network.
By putting Impala out there on the App Store, the hope is now to introduce the technology to even more potential licensing customers.
Stokman notes that the mobile version is not as accurate as the company’s core product, though. But it’s still a technological feat in and of itself. “We don’t have venture capital, so we couldn’t afford paying for the bandwidth and for the compute power,” he explains as to why there’s no cloud component. “We were forced to think of something that could run on the mobile phone.”
That’s especially interesting in light of Everpix’s recent shut down of its photo storage and sharing platform this week. At the time, one of the reasons the company cited was the high cost involved with hosting user photos on Amazon Web Services. An unsustainable cost, as it turned out.
Impala ditches the idea of using the cloud, and instead worked to compress its software to be under 100 MB in size, down from the 600 MB it was when they first began working on the app. “The memory the software needs that stores the models that allow us to recognize babies from cars from friends and so on took the most work to compress down,” admits Stokman.
Like other image classification systems, Impala uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to “see” what’s in the photo. The system is trained using thousands of images from clients and elsewhere on the web, including both those that are like the category (e.g. “sunsets” or “indoor,” etc.) that are being taught, as well as those that are different.
To make the system run on mobile, the company had to create a stripped-down version of its classification engine. When it runs on a server, for comparison’s sake, it takes four times as much compute power. “The more compute power, the more memory, the better the results,” Stokman says.
In other words, the resulting albums in Impala may be hit or miss. And the app is fairly basic, too. After it runs through your photos, you can tap a button to save the images to your iPhone’s photo gallery. Each album also has a section where photos it wasn’t sure of are listed, but there’s not currently a way to manually approve or re-organize these items by moving them elsewhere.
As for the dogs that get listed as cats? It’s nothing personal, it’s just that the Impala engineers are more cat people. “We don’t like dogs, so we didn’t put the category in there,” jokes Stokman. “You can take pictures of dogs, and it won’t recognize them as dogs. It will be cats,” he says.
If the app takes off, that’s something that may change with future improvements. For now, the company is working on its next creation: a camera app that can instantly identify 1,000 objects – like sunglasses or keyboards, for example – as you shoot. They’ll be submitting it in a contest at an upcoming conference, and may consider integrating that technology into Impala at some later date.
Impala for iOS is a free download here.
Amsterdam-based Euvision Technologies, co-founded by Prof. Arnold Smeulders, Ph. D., M.Sc., is bootstrapped with investment from Stokman and Chief Commercial Officer, Jan Willem F. Klerkx, M.Sc.Read More →