Jun
25
2020
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Salesforce announces a new mobile collaboration tool for sales called Anywhere

Even before the pandemic pushed most employees to work from home, sales people often worked outside of the office. Salesforce introduced a new tool today at the Trailheadx Conference called Salesforce Anywhere that’s designed to let teams collaborate and share data wherever they happen to be.

Salesforce VP of product, Michael Machado says that the company began thinking about the themes of working from anywhere pre-COVID. “We were really thinking across the board what a mobile experience would be for the end users that’s extremely opinionated, really focuses on the jobs to be done and is optimized for what workers need and how that user experience can be transformed,” Machado explained.

As the pandemic took hold and the company saw how important collaboration was becoming in a digital context, the idea of an app like this took on a new sense of urgency. “When COVID happened, it really added fuel to the fire as we looked around the market and saw that this is a huge need with our customers going through a major transformation, and we wanted to be there to support them in Salesforce with kind of a native experience,” he said.

The idea is to move beyond the database and help surface the information that matters most to individual sales people based on their pipelines. “So we’re going to provide real time alerts so users are able to subscribe to their own alerts that they want to be notified about, whether it’s based on a list they use or a report that they work off of [in Salesforce], but also at the granularity of a single field in Salesforce,” he said.

Employees can then share information across a team, and have chats related to that information. While there are other chat tools out there, Machado says that this tool is focused on sharing Salesforce data, rather than being general purpose like Slack or any other business chat tool.

Image Credit: Salesforce

 

Salesforce sees this as another way to remove the complexity of working in CRM. It’s not a secret that sales people don’t love entering customer information into CRM tools, so the company is attempting to leverage that information to make it worth their while. If the tool isn’t creating a layer of work just for record keeping’s sake, but actually taking advantage of that information to give the sales person key information about their pipeline when it matters most, that makes the record keeping piece more attractive. Being able to share and communicate around that information is another advantage.

This also creates a new collaboration layer that is increasingly essential with workers spread out and working from home. Even when we return to some semblance of normal, sales people on the road can use Anywhere to collaborate, communicate and stay on top of their tasks.

The new tool will be available in beta in July. The company expects to make it generally available some time in the fourth quarter this year.

Jun
17
2020
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Cloudtenna raises $2.5M, launches mobile search app to find content across cloud services

Finding somewhere in a Slack conversation, or stored in Box, Dropbox, Google Docs or Office 365, that one document you want to attach to an email is a huge challenge as we find ourselves spreading our content across a variety of cloud services. It’s one challenge that Cloudtenna has been trying to solve, and today the company announced a $2.5 million funding round along with the release of a new mobile search tool.

The funding comes from a variety of unnamed investors, along with Blazar Ventures, and brings the total raised to $6.5 million, according to the company.

Cloudtenna co-founder Aaron Ganek says that by using AI and document metadata, his company can find content wherever it lives. “What we’re really focused on is helping companies bring order to file chaos. Files are scattered everywhere across the cloud, and we have developed AI-powered applications that help users find files, no matter where they’re stored,” he said.

The company introduced a desktop search application in 2018 and today it’s announcing a mobile search tool called Workspace to go with it. Ganek says they built this app from the ground up to take advantage of the mobile context.

“Today, we’re bringing the search technology to smartphones and tablets. And just to be clear, this is not just a mobile version of our desktop product, but a complete case study in how people collaborate on the go,” he said.

Image Credit: Cloudtenna

The AI component helps find files wherever they are based on your user history, who you tend to collaborate with and so forth. That helps the tool find the files that are most relevant to you, regardless of where they happen to be stored.

He says that raising money during a pandemic was certainly interesting, but the company has seen an uptick in usage due to the general increase in SaaS usage during this time, and investors saw that too, he said.

The company launched in 2016 and currently has nine employees, but Ganek said there aren’t any plans to expand on that number at this time, or at least any number he was ready to discuss.

Jun
03
2020
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Watchful is a mobile product intelligence startup that surfaces unreleased features

Meet Watchful, a Tel Aviv-based startup coming out of stealth that wants to help you learn more about what your competitors are doing when it comes to mobile app development. The company tries to identify features that are being tested before getting rolled out to everyone, giving you an advantage if you’re competing with those apps.

Mobile app development has become a complex task, especially for the biggest consumer apps, from social to e-commerce. Usually, mobile development teams work on a new feature and try it out on a small subset of users. That process is called A/B testing as you separate your customers in two buckets — bucket A or bucket B.

For instance, Twitter is trying out its own version of Stories called Fleets. The company first rolled it out in Brazil to track the reaction and get some data from its user base. If you live anywhere else in the world, you’re not going to see that feature.

There are other ways to select a group of users to try out a new feature — you could even take part in a test because you’ve been randomly picked.

“When you open the app, you’ll probably see a different version from the app I see. You’re in a different region, you have a different device,” co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana told me. He previously founded popular to-do app Any.do.

For product designers, it has become a nightmare as you can’t simply open an app and look at what your competitors are doing. At any point in time, there are as many different versions of the same app as there are multiple A/B tests going on at the same time.

Watchful lets you learn from the competition by analyzing all those different versions and annotating changes in user flows, flagging unreleased features and uncovering design changes.

It is different from other mobile intelligence startups, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower. Those services mostly let you track downloads and rankings on the App Store and Play store to uncover products that are doing well.

“We’re focused on everything that is open and visible to the users,” Kahana said.

Like other intelligence startups, Watchful needs data. App Annie acquired a VPN app called Distimo and a data usage monitoring app called Mobidia. When you activate those apps, App Annie captures data about your phone usage, such as the number of times you open an app and how much time you spend in those apps.

According to a BuzzFeed News report, Sensor Tower has operated at least 20 apps on iOS and Android to capture data, such as Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus. Some of those apps have been removed from the stores following BuzzFeed’s story.

I asked a lot of questions about Watchful’s source of data. “It’s all real users that give us access to this information. It’s all running on real devices, real users. We extract videos and screenshots from them,” Kahana said.

“It’s more like a panel of users that we have access to their devices. It’s not an SDK that is hidden in some app and collects information and do shady stuff,” he added.

You’ll have to trust him as the company didn’t want to elaborate further. Kahana also said that data is anonymized in order to remove all user information.

Images are then analyzed by a computer vision algorithm focused on differential analysis. The startup has a team in the Philippines that goes through all that data and annotates it. It is then sent to human analysts so that they can track apps and write reports.

Watchful shared one of those reports with TechCrunch earlier this year. Thanks to this process, the startup discovered that TikTok parent company ByteDance has been working on a deepfake maker. The feature was spotted in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin.

But Watchful’s customers aren’t news organizations. The company sells access to its service to big companies working in the mobile space. Kahana didn’t want to name them, but it said it is already working with “the biggest social network players and the biggest e-commerce players, mainly in the U.S.”

The startup sells annual contracts based on the number of apps that you want to track. It has raised a $3 million seed round led by Vertex Ventures .

Jun
01
2020
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Is Zoom the next Android, or the next BlackBerry?

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.

Jun
01
2020
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India’s richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

The major deals for Reliance Jio Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the “worst time” as new checks become elusive.

Elsewhere in India, the world’s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said last week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

It’s a long story.

Run up to the launch of Jio

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

“Reliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,” said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.

May
13
2020
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SirionLabs raises $44M to scale its contract management software

SirionLabs, a startup that provides contract management software to enterprises, has raised $44 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand and handle surge in demand from clients.

Tiger Global and Avatar Growth Capital led the Seattle-headquartered startup’s Series C round. The eight-year-old startup, which was founded in India, has raised $66 million to date. The new round values the startup at about $250 million. Indian VC fund Avatar has long invested in SaaS startups in India, an area that Tiger Global has also made serious bets on in recent quarters.

Enterprises broadly handle two kinds of contracts, one when they are buying things from a supplier for which they use a procurement contract, and the other when they are selling things to customers, when a sales contract comes into play.

A significant number of companies today handle these contracts manually with different teams within an organization often dealing with the same entity, which leads to discrepancies in their promises. Teams work in silos and often don’t know the terms others in the organization have already agreed upon.

That’s where SirionLabs comes into the picture. “We use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to connect the dots between contracts and what happens after the contract has been signed,” explained Ajay Agrawal, cofounder, chairman and chief executive of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For us, it’s not just creating a contract, but also realizing the promises that have been made in those contracts,” he said. SirionLabs also audits the invoice of suppliers, which has enabled its customers to save a significant amount of money.

SirionLabs today hosts contracts in over 40 languages for more than 200 of the world’s largest companies including Credit Suisse, Vodafone, EY, Unilever, Abbvie, BP, and Fujitsu.

Agrawal said the startup has seen a 4X growth in the number of customers it has signed up in the last 18 months. Part of the new capital would go into handling their demand. He said the coronavirus crises has resulted in many companies becoming more cautious about what they promise in their contracts.

The startup, which just opened a technology center in Seattle, also plans to open an AI laboratory in the Washington state to fuel technology innovation and grow sales.

It has also hired several industry veterans including the appointment of Amol Joshi as chief revenue officer, Anu Engineer as chief technology officer, Mahesh Unnikrishnan as chief product officer, and Vijay Khera, who will serve as chief customer officer.

Vishal Bakshi, founder and managing partner at Avatar Growth Capital, said he expects SirionLabs, which competes with Apttus and Icertis among other firms, to “capture massive network effects as the platform continues to scale.”

May
07
2020
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Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems

Apr
20
2020
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Leverice is a team messenger app that’s taking aim at information overload

Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose. 

Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.

It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.

The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.

“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.

“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.

“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”

Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.

So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?

“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.

“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”

“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”

To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.

“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”

Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.

There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)

“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.

“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.

Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.

At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.

“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”

Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.

The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.

“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”

The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.

Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.

On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.

Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.

“We don’t process customer or message data for commercial purposes, only for internal analytics and features to improve the product for users,” he adds when asked about any additional uses made of customer data. (Leverice’s Privacy Policy can be found here.)

With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.

“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.

Apr
14
2020
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Replace non-stop Zoom with remote office avatars app Pragli

Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.

Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual water coooler or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real-word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.

“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing,” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.

The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:

  1. Communication friction
  2. Loneliness
  3. Lack of boundaries

You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli water cooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And because you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.

“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you a strong sense if they’re online or offline,” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”

Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno

Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.

They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks,” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”

The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1.

Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1. Then it plans to become freemium, with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.

To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft or GitHub. Users then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting and decide whether people can ask to interrupt you or that you’re totally unavailable.

From there, you can by audio, video or text communicate with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some down time, you can hang out in the water cooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual “away” message.

Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.

“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli,” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”

With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world toward remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies de-emphasize office space and hire more abroad.

The biggest challenge will be making comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors. How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?,” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.

“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented,” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit, because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”

Apr
03
2020
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Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.

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