Apple, IBM add machine learning to partnership with Watson-Core ML coupling

Apple and IBM may seem like an odd couple, but the two companies have been working closely together for several years now. That has involved IBM sharing its enterprise expertise with Apple and Apple sharing its design sense with IBM. The companies have actually built hundreds of enterprise apps running on iOS devices. Today, they took that friendship a step further when they announced they were providing a way to combine IBM Watson machine learning with Apple Core ML to make the business apps running on Apple devices all the more intelligent.

The way it works is that a customer builds a machine learning model using Watson, taking advantage of data in an enterprise repository to train the model. For instance, a company may want to help field service techs point their iPhone camera at a machine and identify the make and model to order the correct parts. You could potentially train a model to recognize all the different machines using Watson’s image recognition capability.

The next step is to convert that model into Core ML and include it in your custom app. Apple introduced Core ML at the Worldwide Developers Conference last June as a way to make it easy for developers to move machine learning models from popular model building tools like TensorFlow, Caffe or IBM Watson to apps running on iOS devices.

After creating the model, you run it through the Core ML converter tools and insert it in your Apple app. The agreement with IBM makes it easier to do this using IBM Watson as the model building part of the equation. This allows the two partners to make the apps created under the partnership even smarter with machine learning.

“Apple developers need a way to quickly and easily build these apps and leverage the cloud where it’s delivered. [The partnership] lets developers take advantage of the Core ML integration,” Mahmoud Naghshineh, general manager for IBM Partnerships and Alliances explained.

To make it even easier, IBM also announced a cloud console to simplify the connection between the Watson model building process and inserting that model in the application running on the Apple device.

Over time, the app can share data back with Watson and improve the machine learning algorithm running on the edge device in a classic device-cloud partnership. “That’s the beauty of this combination. As you run the application, it’s real time and you don’t need to be connected to Watson, but as you classify different parts [on the device], that data gets collected and when you’re connected to Watson on a lower [bandwidth] interaction basis, you can feed it back to train your machine learning model and make it even better,” Naghshineh said.

The point of the partnership has always been to use data and analytics to build new business processes, by taking existing approaches and reengineering them for a touch screen.

“This adds a level of machine learning to that original goal moving it forward to take advantage of the latest tech. “We are taking this to the next level through machine learning. We are very much on that path and bringing improved accelerated capabilities and providing better insight to [give users] a much greater experience,” Naghshineh said.


Color rolls out a test to try to search for hereditary risk for heart conditions like arrhythmia

Color is looking to add a new test to its line of genetic testing, this time focusing on hereditary factors that may affect a person’s chance for being prone to cardiovascular complications like arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy.

Called the hereditary heart health test, Color’s new test looks to isolate the genes that can be partially responsible for heart-related conditions that may have a hereditary component. Color says the test analyzes 30 genes that contribute to the structure and rhythm of a healthy heart to determine if there may be any hereditary factors that could lead to heart complications down the line. VP of clinical operations Scott Topper acknowledged that hereditary factors certainly aren’t the only factors that might play into cardiovascular complications like arrhythmia, but there has been enough research to show that the potential hereditary genetic components that lead to those conditions is impactful enough to warrant building a test for those markers.

“Some of these conditions are relatively rare, and for most of them we expect the actual incidence to be about 1 in 200,” Topper said. “But what that means is, if we handle 1,000 people this week, we expect 5 of them to be affected by this. For those 5, the consequences of it going undetected, can be as extreme as sudden death. While though they’re rare, they incredibly impactful. It’s not a 100% predictive — For BRCA for example, we know that a woman who has a BRCA mutation has about an 80% chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetime and getting again and again. It’s not 100%, but it’s a profound enough likelihood that many people decide to take action.”

Color looks to target genes that the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics identified as high-impact and actionable. The end product is to see, if there is a mutation in one of those genes, there may be a possibility that the person is at higher risk for cardiovascular problems like cardiomyopathy or arrhythmia. There isn’t full penetrance — just like there isn’t in the BRCA test — so it’s more of a ‘heads up, go get it checked out just in case’ situation.

Color, previously Color Genomics, is one of a few well-funded genetic testing startups that aim to make it easier for consumers to get tested for potential complications down the line where they can take some preventative steps. In the case of this test, the goal is to flag any potential risk and then have them follow up with clinicians to determine if there are any lifestyle changes that need to happen. Consumers take a swab of saliva and send off the test — either for a few hundred bucks, or through a program that some employers are putting in place. Color raised $80 million in a financing round in August last year.

The latter part of that, employers getting into issuing these tests for their employees, is going to be increasingly important for Color. Catching diseases early helps reduce the overall cost to employers before more problems occur. While Color has largely focused on the cancer space with tests for detecting genes that are associated with higher risk of breast cancer, it started branching into tests for potential cardiovascular problems like Familial Hypercholesterolemia. That test, launched in August last year, costs $249 for a direct purchase for a consumer.

To be sure, the average customer is giving up their genetic data in order to get tested for these potential hereditary conditions, a password that you’ll (probably) never be able to change. As more and more of these tests become available, there’s a good chance it’ll attract a new segment of customers — those that are looking to head off complications based on what’s happened to family members, or even those who are just curious about whether or not they have risk. Topper said many at Color come from a tech-native background from companies like Google, Twitter, and Dropbox, and it’s something that’s perpetually top-of-mind. (Though, to be sure, it’s a very tall order.)

“We’ve put a good deal of effort on the back-end informatics side to make sure our systems are very developed and robust,” Topper said. “It’s not something that comes easy, I think a lot of health companies back into this and realize after the fact that there’s a substantial computer engineering aspect to being able to do this responsibly”

There is still a lot of activity in this space, including at the actual financing level. 23andMe, another genetic testing startup, raised $250 million in new financing last year. And as the research matures, it’s always possible that other companies may want to branch into a similar area — finding spots that might represent some risk for heart conditions. Topper said the company still expects to continue to look for examples where the condition affects a lot of people and that some portion is driven by genetics, and that a lot of players in the space is generally going to be a good thing simply because it will help further the progress on that front.

“We are living in good times for genetics, primarily because of a number of really important consensus-driven efforts around looking at the clinical validity and clinical utility of genetic information,” he said. “None of this happens in a silo. Being able to both move the field forward in terms of making information available and gleaning knowledge, as well as being a good citizen in a space that’s moving quickly, are both very important to us. I feel like there’s a cultural change in terms of where genetics fits into our society. As long as other companies are doing it responsibly, it’s also good.”


Bear Flag Robotics wants to sell an autonomous tractor for farms

Autonomous vehicles are increasingly becoming the shiny object in Silicon Valley. But the opportunity doesn’t just extend to cars driving around the streets of a major metropolitan area, and Igino Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan hope to take it somewhere a little less obvious: the middle of an orchard.

Cafiero and Donnellan are building an autonomously-driven tractor as part of a startup called Bear Flag Robotics. The pair argue that there’s increasingly a struggle to find enough labor to work on farms, and even then, the costs are continuing to rise over time — leading to a need to increase those efficiencies on the actual field in addition to a lot of new technology like satellite imagery and computer vision to analyze the health of plants. The first product for Bear Flag Robotics is a self-driving tractor, and the company is coming out of Y Combinator’s winter class this year.

“We got a tour of an orchard and just how pronounced the labor problem is,” Donnellan said. “They’re struggling to fill seats on tractors. We talked to other growers in California. We kept hearing the same thing over and over: labor is one of the most significant pain points. It’s really hard to find quality labor. The workforce is aging out. They’re leaving the country and going into other industries.”

There are certainly a lot of technical challenges that go into it, and not just pertaining from having the right computer vision products in place in order to create an autonomous tractor. For example, the tractors have to be able to operate without a GPS signal, Donnellan said, simply because operating a tractor in an orchard may mean driving around with a ton of canopy cover — which could block the signal. It might be a little simpler to just drive down a path in an orchard, but there’s still quite a lot to consider, she said.

“We have this platform that we’ve plugged a ton of sensors into it,” Cafiero said. “That includes cameras. When you look forward, once we’ve automated the driving part, the sky’s the limit in terms of utilizing some of this technology once it’s out there. When we’re out there we can use these cameras, and be able to make recommendations and spot treatment in the field.”

When it comes to testing, Cafiero and Donnellan just go out to an orchard over in Sunnyvale a few times a week to see what some of the challenges growers face.

While finding labor has been a challenge, Cafiero acknowledges that there are still questions around undocumented labor when it comes to labor on those farms. He said, in the end, Bear Flag Robotics’ aim is to augment the workforce by taking away some of the more mundane tasks required on the fields. Cafiero also said that there’s a lot of reverse immigration happening from the U.S., leading to more of a labor shortage.

“The work itself is really tough work,” Donnellan said. “You’re in the field all day long, sometimes in inclement conditions. One of the tasks we’re automating is spraying, fungicides, herbicides, and these people out there, they’re wearing hazmat suits. It’s not good for their health to be doing these tasks in general. When you’re presented in higher paying jobs in other fields, there’s less of a case to go into that job, and there’s demand in a lot of other industries like construction [and other industries] where it’s easier work and better pay.”

Selling the actual tractor can also be a challenge, simply because potential customers will be buying their equipment down the road at sellers they know. If something breaks down, they need someone to come over, in person, as soon as possible to fix it or risk losing yield. And the major equipment providers may too see the need to start working on autonomous tools. Cafiero’s hope is that the startup will be able to work with local sellers and get into those channels, and that’s the only logical place to start. There might be some aim to scale up over time, but the company hopes to just get started with local dealerships for now.


Talking Drupal #163 – Layout Builder First Impressions

In this episode we share our first impressions of Drupal 8.5 experimental module Layout Builder.


  • Experimental module

  • Lacking good documentation and examples to get you started

  • Installation

    • Requires Layout Discovery
  • All or nothing

  • Layout scope – Content type or Node

  • Observations and issues

  • Replacement of Panels?






Qualcomm’s former exec chair will exit after exploring an acquisition bid

There’s a new twist in the BroadQualm saga this afternoon as Qualcomm has said it won’t renominate Paul Jacobs, the former executive chairman of the company, after he notified the board that he decided to explore the possibility of making a proposal to acquire Qualcomm.

The last time we saw such a huge exploration to acquire a company was circa 2013, when Dell initiated a leveraged buyout to take the company private in a deal worth $24.4 billion. This would be of a dramatically larger scale, and there’s a report by the Financial Times that Jacobs approached Softbank as a potential partner in the buyout. Jacobs is the son of Irwin Jacobs, who founded Qualcomm, and rose to run the company as CEO from 2005 to 2014. Successfully completing a buyout of this scale would, as a result, end up keeping the company that his father founded in 1985 in the family.

“I am glad the board is willing to evaluate such a proposal, consistent with its fiduciary duties to shareholders,” Jacobs said in a statement. “It is unfortunate and disappointing they are attempting to remove me from the board at this time.”

All this comes following Broadcom’s decision to drop its plans to try to complete a hostile takeover of Qualcomm, which would consolidate two of the largest semiconductor companies in the world into a single unit. Qualcomm said the board of directors would instead consist of just 10 members.

“Following the withdrawal of Broadcom’s takeover proposal, Qualcomm is focused on executing its business plan and maximizing value for shareholders as an independent company,” the company said in a statement. “There can be no assurance that Dr. Jacobs can or will make a proposal, but, if he does, the Board will of course evaluate it consistent with its fiduciary duties to shareholders.”

Broadcom dropped its attempts after the Trump administration decided to block the deal altogether. The BroadQualm deal fell into purgatory following an investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, and then eventually led to the administration putting a stop to the deal — and potentially any of that scale — while Broadcom was still based in Singapore. Broadcom had intended to move to the United States, but the timing was such that Qualcomm would end up avoiding Broadcom’s attempts at a hostile takeover.

BroadQualm has been filled with a number of twists and turns, coming to a chaotic head this week with the end of the deal. Qualcomm removed Jacobs from his role as executive chairman and installed an independent director, and then delayed the shareholder meeting that would give Broadcom an opportunity to pick up the votes to take over control of part of Qualcomm’s board of directors. The administration then handed down its judgment, and Qualcomm pushed up its shareholder meeting as a result to ten days following the decision.

“There are real opportunities to accelerate Qualcomm’s innovation success and strengthen its position in the global marketplace,” Jacobs said in the statement. “These opportunities are challenging as a standalone public company, and there are clear merits to exploring a path to take the company private in order to maximize the company’s long-term performance, deliver superior value to all stockholders, and bolster a critical contributor to American technology.”

It’s not clear if Jacobs would be able to piece together the partnerships necessary to complete a buyout of this scale. But it’s easy to read between the lines of Qualcomm’s statement — which, as always, has to say it will fulfill its fiduciary duty to its shareholders. The former CEO and executive chairman has quietly been a curious figure to this whole process, and it looks like the BroadQualm saga is nowhere near done.


Enterprise subscription services provider Zuora has filed for an IPO

Zuora, which helps businesses handle subscription billing and forecasting, filed for an initial public offering this afternoon following on the heels of Dropbox’s filing earlier this month.

Zuora’s IPO may signal that Dropbox going public, and seeing a price range that while under its previous valuation seems relatively reasonable, may open the door for coming enterprise initial public offerings. Cloud security company Zscaler also made its debut earlier this week, with the stock doubling once it began trading on the Nasdaq. Zuora will list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker “ZUO.” Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo told The Information in October last year that it expected to go public this year.

Zuora’s numbers show some revenue growth, with its subscriptions services continue to grow. But its losses are a bit all over the place. While the costs for its subscription revenues is trending up, the costs for its professional services are also increasing dramatically, going from $6.2 million in Q4 2016 to $15.6 million in Q4 2017. The company had nearly $50 million in overall revenue in the fourth quarter last year, up from $30 million in Q4 2016.

But, as we can see, Zuora’s “professional services” revenue is an increasing share of the pie. In Q1 2016, professional services only amounted to 22% of Zuora’s revenue, and it’s up to 31% in the fourth quarter last year. It also accounts for a bigger share of Zuora’s costs of revenue, but it’s an area that it appears to be investing more.

Zuora’s core business revolves around helping companies with subscription businesses — like, say, Dropbox — better track their metrics like recurring revenue and retention rates. Zuora is riding a wave of enterprise companies finding traction within smaller teams as a free product and then graduating them into a subscription product as more and more people get on board. Eventually those companies hope to have a formal relationship with the company at a CIO level, and Zuora would hopefully grow up along with them.

Snap effectively opened the so-called “IPO window” in March last year, but both high-profile consumer IPOs — Blue Apron and Snap — have had significant issues since going public. While both consumer companies, it did spark a wave of enterprise IPOs looking to get out the door like Okta, Cardlytics, SailPoint and Aquantia. There have been other consumer IPOs like Stitch Fix, but for many firms, enterprise IPOs serve as the kinds of consistent returns with predictable revenue growth as they eventually march toward an IPO.

The filing says it will raise up to $100 million, but you can usually ignore that as it’s a placeholder. Zuora last raised $115 million in 2015, and was PitchBook data pegged the valuation at around $740 million, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Benchmark Capital and Shasta Ventures are two big investors in the company, with Benchmark still owning around 11.1% of the company and Shasta Ventures owning 6.5%. CEO Tien Tzuo owns 10.2% of the company.


Percona Server for MongoDB 3.2.19-3.10 Is Now Available

Percona Server for MongoDB 3.4

Percona Server for MongoDB 3.2Percona announces the release of Percona Server for MongoDB 3.2.19-3.10 on March 16, 2018. Download the latest version from the Percona web site or the Percona Software Repositories.

Percona Server for MongoDB is an enhanced, open source, and highly-scalable database that is a fully-compatible, drop-in replacement for MongoDB 3.2 Community Edition. It supports MongoDB 3.2 protocols and drivers.

Percona Server for MongoDB extends MongoDB Community Edition functionality by including the Percona Memory Engine and MongoRocks storage engine, as well as several enterprise-grade features. requires no changes to MongoDB applications or code.

This release is based on MongoDB 3.2.19 and includes the following additional change:

  • #PSMDB-191: Fixed a bug in MongoRocks engine initialization code which caused wrong initialization of _maxPrefix value. This could lead to reuse of dropped prefix and to accidental removal of data from the collection using reused prefix.

    In some specific conditions data records could disappear at arbitrary moment of time from the collections or indexes created after server restart.

    This could happen as the result of the following sequence of events:
    1. User deletes one or more indexes or collections. These should be the ones using maximum existing prefixes values.
    2. User shuts down the server before MongoRocks compaction thread executes compactions of deleted ranges.
    3. User restarts the server and creates new collections. Due to the bug those new collections and their indexes may get the same prefix values which were deleted and not yet compacted. User inserts some data into the new collections.
    4. After the server restart MongoRocks compaction thread continues executing compactions of the deleted ranges and this process may eventually delete data from the collections sharing prefixes with deleted ranges.

The Percona Server for MongoDB 3.2.19-3.10 release notes are available in the official documentation.


NexGenT wants to rethink bootcamps with programs for network engineering certifications

Developer bootcamps — several-month training programs that are designed to help people get up to speed with the technical skills they need to become a developer — exploded in popularity in the early part of the decade, but there’s been a bit of a shakedown on the space recently.

And that could be a product of a lot of things, but for Jacob Hess and Terry Kim, it’s just not enough time to become a fully-fledged developer. With training in the Air Force, where both had to work on these kinds of compressed programs for entry-level technicians, both decided to try their own approach. The end result is NexGenT, which is own kind of bootcamp — but it’s for getting a certificate in network management, and not a one-size-fits-all sticker as a developer. That approach, which includes a 16-week class, is considerably more reasonable and helps get people industry-ready with a skill that’s teachable in that compressed period of time, Hess says. The company is launching out of Y Combinator’s winter class this year.

“There are 500,000 open IT jobs, but when you look at that number, what’s more interesting is so many of them are IT operation roles, and the remaining is software development,” Hess said. “The bigger pie in IT is non-software programming jobs. Cyber security is also huge because of the automation and AI. We want to create the stepping stone. Network engineering becomes a foundation for a lot of these jobs, whether you want to be a cloud architect and work for Amazon, it all starts with understanding and building a foundation around networking.”

The end result is a 16-week program where a batch of applicants gets a review, and a percentage of them are accepted into a cohort of students. They go through an engineering module, which teaches them the basics and mechanics of network engineering and learn about the IT industry. Students can go faster if they want — it’s primarily online — and then start working on labs where they are building their own lab, either physical or virtual. The process culminates in a project where the students have to roll out an HQ facility in two branch offices from design to technically implementing it.

The next phase is about getting them certifications for various technologies, which help them basically show that they are ready to start entering the workforce. Think of it as something similar to having a Github account where prospective employers can review the work, except the process is a lot more formalized and you end up with something concrete on the resume. The final phase is around career coaching and helping them get a job, which can last up to 6 months. Throughout this process, students have access to a mentor and live coaching where students can ask whatever questions they wish.

So, the process is not so dissimilar from the notion of a developer bootcamp. But at the same time, there’s a small-ish graveyard of developer bootcamps and some with issues. Galvanize in August said it would lay off around 11% of its staff, while Dev Bootcamp and Iron Yard shut down altogether. The knock on these camps is it’s hard to get developers ready to start shipping code in such a small period of time — but Kim argues that getting them certified and ready to be a network engineer is definitely something that’s doable in around 16 weeks.

“It’s more realistic,” Kim said. “For coding bootcamps, you have to go by off the portfolios and check their Github, and they have to pass that technical interview. In our world of IT operations, it’s not about the bachelor’s degree, it’s about the person having the knowledge. But the industry certifications come from third parties, and when they come out of our program and have two or three certifications. It’s enough to get into that entry-level job.”

It remains to be seen if this kind of an approach is going to work. NexGenT charges a tuition — around $12,000, which with maximum discounts hits around $6,500. The company offers a 36-month payment plan as well that comes with an enrollment fee, which stretches out that very steep ticket price. In reality, these zero-to-60 programs are designed to be for-profit, though there are some different models that take in a percentage of salary among other approaches. With that in mind, though, there’s always an opportunity to build a strong pipeline with certain companies, and if they can identify high-performing students they can offer more of a proof point and potentially use that as an opportunity to offer some variation of scholarship.

While this is more of a bootcamp-ish style program, there are already some IT certification programs through tools like Coursera. Google, in one instance, is offering financial aid for a batch of those students, and companies with deep pockets might be able to build out these kinds of pipeline programs on their own. Hess and Kim hope to offer some kind of high-touch approach, instead of just a class on a platform of many, that will give them an edge to be a preferred option.


Small businesses love free stuff, so Gusto is giving them free HR Basics

Gusto, formerly ZenPayroll, is the rare startup unicorn that has stayed relatively mum on its product and growth — its last press release, for instance, was more than a year ago. The company’s core offering remains payroll for small businesses, and it has been working to expand its customer base across the nation, including having its CEO, Joshua Reeves, go on a tour of the country to visit SMBs in an RV.

Now the company is opening up a bit on its recent progress. Gusto has just hit 60,000 customers nationwide, or roughly 1% of all employers in the United States, according to the company.

The company is also working on new products. One challenge small businesses face is getting access to high-quality, yet affordable, software, particularly in HR. “Small businesses actually get that people are the core more than large companies,” Reeves explained to me. “In a 10-person company, you know everyone, your customers are your neighbors, but they never really had access to high-quality software.”

Gusto is hoping to fill that gap, announcing the beta launch of a new product it’s calling HR Basics. The product offers a suite of tools for small businesses to handle the quotidian tasks of HR, including managing vacation time, compiling employee directories and improving the onboarding of new hires. Most importantly, the product is free, and doesn’t require a credit card or a bank account to sign up.

Reeves believes that Gusto has two purposes: to offer “peace of mind” to small business owners around areas like compliance that can lead to negative enforcement actions, and to provide software that can help companies become “great places to work” that are more focused on community. Reeves is particularly passionate about the latter point. “Even the terminology ‘human capital management’ — humans are not capital, humans are not resources, they are people, thank you very much.”

One particular area of focus for HR Basics is around onboarding. Gusto is hoping it can move all HR paperwork online, so that everything required to officially onboard an employee can be done even before the employee walks into work the first day. With that out of the way, Gusto can then focus on helping companies create the right corporate culture. For instance, the product offers a “Welcome Wall” where other employees can write cheerful and encouraging notes for a new employee to make them feel like they belong at the company from day one.

The Welcome Wall is designed to encourage new employees joining a company

This new product is free for businesses, and Gusto obviously hopes that it creates a funnel of potential customers who will eventually sign up for its payroll service and full HR platform, which charge around $6-12 a month per employee based on the specific plan that a business chooses.

One interesting commitment Gusto is making according to Reeves is that an employee’s profile on the platform will be a lifetime account. If an employee moves from one company to the next and both use Gusto, all of the preferences and other data required to administer HR should work immediately.

That portability mattered less in a world where employees spent decades at a single company, but now that employees often switch employers as often as every year, the repeated savings of time in the transition can be quite significant. Longer term, Gusto sees that sort of portability as critical for facilitating the changing nature of work in the 21st century.

Gusto, which was founded in 2011, is now entering middle age, and the company has 530 employees across its San Francisco and Denver offices, according to Reeves.

Update: Added the number of customers Gusto currently has.


Google expands its Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands

Google today announced that it has expanded its recently launched Cloud Platform region in the Netherlands with an additional zone. The investment, which is worth a reported 500 million euros, expands the existing Netherlands region from two to three regions. With this, all four of the Central European Google Cloud Platform zones now feature three zones (which are akin to what AWS would call “availability zones”) that allow developers to build highly available services across multiple data centers.

Google typically aims to have a least three zones in every region, so today’s announcement to expand its region in the Dutch province of Groningen doesn’t come as a major surprise.

With this move, Google is also making Cloud SpannerCloud BigtableManaged Instance Groups, and Cloud SQL available in the region.

Over the course of the last two years, Google has worked hard to expand its global data center footprint. While it still can’t compete with the likes of AWS and Azure, which currently offers more regions than any of its competitors, the company now has enough of a presence to be competitive in most markets.

In the near future, Google also plans to open regions in Los Angeles, Finland, Osaka and Hong Kong. The major blank spots on its current map remain Africa, China (for rather obvious reasons) and Eastern Europe, including Russia.

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