Mar
04
2021
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Google speeds up its release cycle for Chrome

Google today announced that its Chrome browser is moving to a faster release cycle by shipping a new milestone every four weeks instead of the current six-week cycle (with a bi-weekly security patch). That’s one way to hasten the singularity, I guess, but it’s worth noting that Mozilla also moved to a four-week cycle for Firefox last year.

“As we have improved our testing and release processes for Chrome, and deployed bi-weekly security updates to improve our patch gap, it became clear that we could shorten our release cycle and deliver new features more quickly,” the Chrome team explains in today’s announcement.

Google, however, also acknowledges that not everybody wants to move this quickly — especially in the enterprise. For those users, Google is adding a new Extended Stable option with updates that come every eight weeks. This feature will be available to enterprise admins and Chromium embedders. They will still get security updates on a bi-weekly schedule, but Google notes that “those updates won’t contain new features or all security fixes that the 4 week option will receive.”

The new four-week cycle will start with Chrome 94 in Q3 2021, and at this faster rate, we’ll see Chrome 100 launch into the stable channel by March 29, 2022. I expect there will be cake.

Mar
02
2021
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Microsoft updates Teams with new presentation features

It’s (virtual) Microsoft Ignite this week, Microsoft’s annual IT-centric conference and its largest, with more than 26,000 people attending the last in-person event in 2019. Given its focus, it’s no surprise that Microsoft Teams is taking center stage in the announcements this year. Teams, after all, is now core to Microsoft’s productivity suite. Today’s announcements span the gamut from new meeting features to conference room hardware.

At the core of Teams — or its competitors like Slack for that matter — is the ability to collaborate across teams, but increasingly, that also includes collaboration with others outside of your organization. Today, Microsoft is announcing the preview Teams Connect to allow users to share channels with anyone, internal or external. These channels will appear alongside other teams and channel and allow for all of the standard Teams use cases. Admins will keep full control over these channels to ensure that external users only get access to the data they need, for example. This feature will roll out widely later this year.

What’s maybe more important to individual users, though, is that Teams will get a new PowerPoint Live feature that will allow presenters to present as usual — but with the added benefit of seeing all their notes, slides and meeting chats in a single view. And for those suffering through yet another PowerPoint presentation while trying to look engaged, PowerPoint Live lets them scroll through the presentation at will — or use a screen reader to make the content more accessible. This new feature is now available in Teams.

Also new on the presentation side is a set of presentation modes that use some visual wizardry to make presentations more engaging. ‘Standout mode’ shows the speakers video feed in front of the content, for example, while ‘Reporter mode; shows the content above the speaker’s shoulder, just like in your local news show. And side-by-side view — well, you can guess it. This feature will launch in March, but it will only feature the Standout mode first. Reporter mode and side-by-side will launch “soon.”

Another new view meant to visually spice up your meetings is the ‘Dynamic view.’ With this, Teams will try to arrange all of the elements of a meeting “for an optimal viewing experience,” personalized for each viewer. “As people join, turn on video, start to speak, or begin to present in a meeting, Teams automatically adjusts and personalizes your layout,” Microsoft says. What’s maybe more useful, though, is that Teams will put a gallery of participants at the top of the screen to help you maintain a natural eye gaze (without any AI trickery).

As for large-scale meetings, Teams users can now hold interactive webinars with up to 1,000 people inside and outside of their organization. And for all of those occasions where your CEO just has to give a presentation to everybody, Teams supports broadcast-only meetings with up to 20,000 viewers. That’ll go down to 10,000 attendees after June 30, 2021, based on the idea that the pandemic will be mostly over then and the heightened demand for visual events will subside around that time. Good luck to us all.

For that time when we’ll go back to an office, Microsoft is building intelligent speakers for conference rooms that are able to differentiate between the voices of up to 10 speakers to provide more accurate transcripts. It’s also teaming up with Dell and others to launch new conference room monitors and speaker bars.


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Feb
23
2021
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Kleeen raises $3.8M to make front-end design for business applications easy

Building a front-end for business applications is often a matter of reinventing the wheel, but because every business’ needs are slightly different, it’s also hard to automate. Kleeen is the latest startup to attempt this, with a focus on building the user interface and experience for today’s data-centric applications. The service, which was founded by a team that previously ran a UI/UX studio in the Bay Area, uses a wizard-like interface to build the routine elements of the app and frees a company’s designers and developers to focus on the more custom elements of an application.

The company today announced that it has raised a $3.8 million seed round led by First Ray Venture Partners. Leslie Ventures, Silicon Valley Data Capital, WestWave Capital, Neotribe Ventures, AI Fund and a group of angel investors also participated in the round. Neotribe also led Kleeen’s $1.6 million pre-seed round, bringing the company’s total funding to $5.3 million.

Image Credits: Kleeen

After the startup he worked at sold, Kleeen co-founder, CPO and President Joshua Hailpern told me, he started his own B2B design studio, which focused on front-end design and engineering.

“What we ended up seeing was the same pattern that would happen over and over again,” he said. “We would go into a client, and they would be like: ‘we have the greatest idea ever. We want to do this, this, this and this.’ And they would tell us all these really cool things and we were: ‘hey, we want to be part of that.’ But then what we would end up doing was not that. Because when building products — there’s the showcase of the product and there’s all these parts that support that product that are necessary but you’re not going to win a deal because someone loved that config screen.”

The idea behind Kleeen is that you can essentially tell the system what you are trying to do and what the users need to be able to accomplish — because at the end of the day, there are some variations in what companies need from these basic building blocks, but not a ton. Kleeen can then generate this user interface and workflow for you — and generate the sample data to make this mock-up come to life.

Once that work is done, likely after a few iterations, Kleeen can generate React code, which development teams can then take and work with directly.

Image Credits: Kleeen

As Kleeen co-founder and CEO Matt Fox noted, the platform explicitly doesn’t want to be everything to everybody.

“In the no-code space, to say that you can build any app probably means that you’re not building any app very well if you’re just going to cover every use case. If someone wants to build a Bumble-style phone app where they swipe right and swipe left and find their next mate, we’re not the application platform for you. We’re focused on really data-intensive workflows.” He noted that Kleeen is at its best when developers use it to build applications that help a company analyze and monitor information and, crucially, take action on that information within the app. It’s this last part that also clearly sets it apart from a standard business intelligence platform.

Nov
10
2020
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With $29M in funding, Isovalent launches its cloud-native networking and security platform

Isovalent, a startup that aims to bring networking into the cloud-native era, today announced that it has raised a $29 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Google. In addition, the company today officially launched its Cilium Enterprise platform (which was in stealth until now) to help enterprises connect, observe and secure their applications.

The open-source Cilium project is already seeing growing adoption, with Google choosing it for its new GKE dataplane, for example. Other users include Adobe, Capital One, Datadog and GitLab. Isovalent is following what is now the standard model for commercializing open-source projects by launching an enterprise version.

Image Credits: Cilium

The founding team of CEO Dan Wendlandt and CTO Thomas Graf has deep experience in working on the Linux kernel and building networking products. Graf spent 15 years working on the Linux kernel and created the Cilium open-source project, while Wendlandt worked on Open vSwitch at Nicira (and then VMware).

Image Credits: Isovalent

“We saw that first wave of network intelligence be moved into software, but I think we both shared the view that the first wave was about replicating the traditional network devices in software,” Wendlandt told me. “You had IPs, you still had ports, you created virtual routers, and this and that. We both had that shared vision that the next step was to go beyond what the hardware did in software — and now, in software, you can do so much more. Thomas, with his deep insight in the Linux kernel, really saw this eBPF technology as something that was just obviously going to be groundbreaking technology, in terms of where we could take Linux networking and security.”

As Graf told me, when Docker, Kubernetes and containers, in general, become popular, what he saw was that networking companies at first were simply trying to reapply what they had already done for virtualization. “Let’s just treat containers as many as miniature VMs. That was incredibly wrong,” he said. “So we looked around, and we saw eBPF and said: this is just out there and it is perfect, how can we shape it forward?”

And while Isovalent’s focus is on cloud-native networking, the added benefit of how it uses the eBPF Linux kernel technology is that it also gains deep insights into how data flows between services and hence allows it to add advanced security features as well.

As the team noted, though, users definitely don’t need to understand or program eBPF, which is essentially the next generation of Linux kernel modules, themselves.

Image Credits: Isovalent

“I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations and security think about their applications and data,” said Martin Casado, partner at Andreesen Horowitz (and the founder of Nicira). “Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF.  Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again.”

As more companies adopt Kubernetes, they are now reaching a stage where they have the basics down but are now facing the next set of problems that come with this transition. Those, almost by default, include figuring out how to isolate workloads and get visibility into their networks — all areas where Isovalent/Cilium can help.

The team tells me its focus, now that the product is out of stealth, is about building out its go-to-market efforts and, of course, continue to build out its platform.

Oct
29
2020
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Donut launches Watercooler, an easy way to socialize online with coworkers

If you miss hanging out with your coworkers but don’t want to spend a single second more on Zoom, the latest product from Donut might be the answer.

The startup is launching its new Watercooler product today while also announcing that it has raised $12 million in total funding, led by Accel and with participation from Bloomberg Beta, FirstMark, Slack Fund and various angel investors.

Co-founder and CEO Dan Manian told me that this is actually money that the startup raised before the pandemic, across multiple rounds. It just didn’t announce the fundraising until now.

The startup’s vision, Manian said, is “to create human connection between people at work.” Its first product, Intros, connects teammates who didn’t already know each via Slack, often with the goal of setting up quick coffee meetings (originally in-person and now virtual).

Donut says it has facilitated 4 million connections across 12,000 companies (including The New York Times, Toyota and InVision), with 1 million of those connections made since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, Manian said customers have been asking Donut to facilitate more frequent interactions, especially since most people aren’t going to have these coffee meetings every day. At the same time, people face are the duelling issues of isolation and Zoom fatigue, where “the antidote to one thing makes the other pain worse.” And he suggested that one of the hardest things to recreate while so many of us are working remotely are “all the little microinteractions that you have while you’re working.”

That’s where Watercooler comes in — as the name suggests, it’s designed to replicate the feeling of hanging out at the office watercooler, having brief, low-key conversations. Like Intros, it integrates with Slack, creating a new channel where Watercooler will post fun, conversation-starting questions like “‘What’s your favorite form of potato?” or “What’s one thing you’ve learned in your career that you wish you knew sooner?”

Talking about these topics shouldn’t take much time, but Manian argued that brief conversations are important: “Those things add up to friendship over time, they’re what actually transform you from coworker to friend.” And those friendships are important for employers too, because they help with team cohesion and retention.

I fully endorse the idea of a Slack watercooler — in fact, the TechCrunch editorial team has a very active “watercooler” channel and I’m always happy to waste time there. My big question was: Why do companies need to purchase a product for this?

Donut Watercooler

Donut Watercooler

Manian said that there were “a bunch of our early adopters” who had tried doing this manually, but it was always in the “past tense”: “It got too hard to come up with the questions, or it took real work coming up with them, whoever was doing it already had a it full time job.”

With Watercooler, on the other hand, the company can choose from pre-selected topics and questions, set the frequency with which those questions are posted and then everything happens automatically.

Manian also noted that different organizations will focus on different types of questions. There are no divisive political questions included, but while some teams will stick to easy questions about things like potatoes and breakfast foods, others will get into more substantive topics like the ways that people prefer to receive feedback.

And yes, Manian thinks companies will still need these tools after the pandemic is over.

“Work has fundamentally changed,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll put remote work back in the bottle. I think it’s here to stay.”

At the same time, he described the past few months as “training wheels” for a hybrid model, where some team members go back to the office while others continue working remotely. In his view, teams will face an even bigger challenge then: To keep their remote members feeling like they’re connected and in-the-loop.

 

Oct
29
2020
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Microsoft now lets you bring your own data types to Excel

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft started adding the concept of “data types” to Excel; that is, the ability to pull in geography and real-time stock data from the cloud, for example. Thanks to its partnership with Wolfram, Excel now features more than 100 of these data types that can flow into a spreadsheet. But you won’t be limited to only these pre-built data types for long. Soon, Excel will also let you bring in your own data types.

That means you can have a “customer” data type, for example, that can bring in rich customer data from a third-party service into Excel. The conduit for this is either Power BI, which now allows Excel to pull in any data you previously published there, or Microsoft’s Power Query feature in Excel that lets you connect to a wide variety of data sources, including common databases like SQL Server, MySQL and PostreSQL, as well as third-party services like Teradata and Facebook.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Up to this point, the Excel grid has been flat… it’s two dimensional,” Microsoft’s head of product for Excel, Brian Jones, writes in today’s announcement. “You can lay out numbers, text, and formulas across the flexible grid, and people have built amazing things with those capabilities. Not all data is flat though and forcing data into that 2D structure has its limits. With Data Types we’ve added a 3rd dimension to what you can build with Excel. Any cell can now contain a rich set of structured data… in just a single cell.”

The promise here is that this will make Excel more flexible, and I’m sure a lot of enterprises will adapt these capabilities. These companies aren’t likely to move to Airtable or similar Excel-like tools anytime soon, but have data analysis needs that are only increasing now that every company gathers more data than it knows what to do with. This is also a feature that none of Excel’s competitors currently offer, including Google Sheets.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Oct
20
2020
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Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.

Sep
22
2020
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Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a “personal productivity assistant” as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the U.K. and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android, is coming to Australia, Canada, the U.K. and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise user. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now lets you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.

Aug
25
2020
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Microsoft brings transcriptions to Word

Microsoft today launched Transcribe in Word, its new transcription service for Microsoft 365 subscribers, into general availability. It’s now available in the online version of Word, with other platforms launching later. In addition, Word is also getting new dictation features, which now allow you to use your voice to format and edit your text, for example.

As the name implies, this new feature lets you transcribe conversations, both live and pre-recorded, and then edit those transcripts right inside of Word. With this, the company goes head-to-head with startups like Otter and Google’s Recorder app, though they all have their own pros and cons.

Image Credits: Microsoft

To get started with Transcribe in Word, you simply head for the Dictate button in the menu bar and click on “Transcribe.” From there, you can record a conversation as it happens — by recording it directly through a speakerphone and your laptop’s microphone, for example — or by recording it in some other way and then uploading that file. The service accepts .mp3, .wav, .m4a and .mp4 files.

As Dan Parish, Microsoft principal group PM manager for Natural User Interface & Incubation, noted in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement, when you record a call live, the transcription actually runs in the background while you conduct your interview, for example. The team purposely decided not to show you the live transcript, though, because its user research showed that it was distracting. I admit that I like to see the live transcript in Otter and Recorder, but maybe I’m alone in that.

Like with other services, Transcribe in Word lets you click on individual paragraphs in the transcript and then listen to that at a variety of speeds. Because the automated transcript will inevitably have errors in it, that’s a must-have feature. Sadly, though, Transcribe doesn’t let you click on individual words.

One major limitation of the service right now is that if you like to record offline and then upload your files, you’ll be limited to 300 minutes, without the ability to extend this for an extra fee, for example. I know I often transcribe far more than five hours of interviews in any given month, so that limit seems low, especially given that Otter provides me with 6,000 minutes on its cheapest paid plan. The max length for a transcript on Otter is four hours while Microsoft’s only limit for is a 200MB file upload limit, with no limits on live recordings.

Another issue I noticed here is that if you mistakenly exit the tab with Word in it, the transcription process will stop and there doesn’t seem to be a way to restart it.

It also takes quite a while for the uploaded files to be transcribed. It takes roughly as long as the conversations I’ve tried to transcribe, but the results are very good — and often better than those of competing services. Transcribe for Word also does a nice job separating out the different speakers in a conversation. For privacy reasons, you must assign your own names to those — even when you regularly record the same people.

It’d be nice to get the same feature in something like OneNote, for example, and my guess is Microsoft may expand this to its note-taking app over time. To me, that’s the more natural place for it.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The new dictation features in Word now let you give commands like “bold the last sentence,” for example, and say “percentage sign” or “ampersand” if you need to add those symbols to a text (or “smiley face,” if those are the kinds of texts you write in Word).

Even if you don’t often need to transcribe text, this new feature shows how Microsoft is now using its subscription service to launch new premium features to convert free users to paying ones. I’d be surprised if tools like the Microsoft Editor (which offers more features for paying users), this transcription service, as well as some of the new AI features in the likes of Excel and PowerPoint, didn’t help to convert some users into paying ones, especially now that the company has combined into a single bundle Office 365 and Microsoft 365 for consumers. After all, just a subscription to something like Grammarly and Otter would be significantly more expensive than a Microsoft 365 subscription.

 

Aug
13
2020
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Slack and Atlassian strengthen their partnership with deeper integrations

A lot of “partnerships” between tech companies don’t get very far beyond a press release and maybe some half-hearted co-selling attempts. When Atlassian sold its chat services to Slack in 2018, the two companies said they would form a new partnership and with Atlassian leaving the chat space, a lot of people were skeptical about what that would really mean.

Since then, things got pretty quiet around the collaboration between the two companies, but today the companies announced some of the deep integration work they’ve done, especially within Slack .

Image Credits: Atlassian

Over the course of the last two years, Slack and Atlassian shipped 11 product integrations, which now see about a million active users every month, with Jira being the most often used integration, followed by Halp, which Atlassian acquired earlier this year.

Every month, Atlassian currently sends 42 million Jira notifications to Slack — and that number continues to grow.

At the core of these integrations is the ability to get rich unfurls of deep links to Atlassian products in Slack, no matter whether that’s in DMs, public or private channels. Coming soon, those unfurls will become a default feature within Slack, even if the user who is seeing the link isn’t an Atlassian user yet.

“Today, if you do drop a Jira link in your channel and you’re not a user — or even if you are and you’re not authed in — you just see a link,” Brad Armstrong said.

“You don’t get the benefit of the unfurl. And so one of the things we’re doing is making that unfurl available to everybody, regardless of whether you are logged in and regardless of whether you’re even an Atlassian customer.”

Image Credits: Atlassian

The two companies also worked closely together on making moving between the products easier. If you are a Jira user, for example, you’ll soon be able to click on a link in Slack and if you’re not currently logged into your Atlassian account, you’ll be automatically logged in. The two companies are taking this even further by automatically creating Jira accounts for users when they come from Slack.

“Even if you’re not a user, when you click on the link, we will then map you from Slack and create a Jira user for you that provisions you and auths you in so you’re immediately becoming a Jira user by virtue of wanting to collaborate on that piece of content in Slack,” Armstrong explained.

That, the two companies argue, turns Slack into something akin to a passport that gives you access to the Atlassian product suite — and that should also make onboarding a lot easier for new users.

Image Credits: Atlassian

“As you could probably imagine, as you know, onboarding is a pain, it’s hard because you have different roles, different size teams, so on and so forth,” said Bryant Lee, Atlassian’s head of product partnerships. “And that’s where you see some of the authentication stuff, the unfurling discovery piece really being an understanding of what those practices are. But the way that we look at it is not just about the product but people, products and practices. So it’s really about understanding who it is that we’re trying to optimize for.”

In addition to these new integrations that are launching soon, the two companies are also expanding their co-marketing efforts, starting with a new 50%-off offer for Atlassian users who want to also use Slack.

“We’re building on the strong foundation of our partnership’s success from the past two years, which has yielded tremendous shared customer momentum and impactful product integrations,” said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield . “Thanks to our strategic alliance, Slack and Atlassian have become the technology stack of choice for developer teams.”

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