Apr
10
2019
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The right way to do AI in security

Artificial intelligence applied to information security can engender images of a benevolent Skynet, sagely analyzing more data than imaginable and making decisions at lightspeed, saving organizations from devastating attacks. In such a world, humans are barely needed to run security programs, their jobs largely automated out of existence, relegating them to a role as the button-pusher on particularly critical changes proposed by the otherwise omnipotent AI.

Such a vision is still in the realm of science fiction. AI in information security is more like an eager, callow puppy attempting to learn new tricks – minus the disappointment written on their faces when they consistently fail. No one’s job is in danger of being replaced by security AI; if anything, a larger staff is required to ensure security AI stays firmly leashed.

Arguably, AI’s highest use case currently is to add futuristic sheen to traditional security tools, rebranding timeworn approaches as trailblazing sorcery that will revolutionize enterprise cybersecurity as we know it. The current hype cycle for AI appears to be the roaring, ferocious crest at the end of a decade that began with bubbly excitement around the promise of “big data” in information security.

But what lies beneath the marketing gloss and quixotic lust for an AI revolution in security? How did AL ascend to supplant the lustrous zest around machine learning (“ML”) that dominated headlines in recent years? Where is there true potential to enrich information security strategy for the better – and where is it simply an entrancing distraction from more useful goals? And, naturally, how will attackers plot to circumvent security AI to continue their nefarious schemes?

How did AI grow out of this stony rubbish?

The year AI debuted as the “It Girl” in information security was 2017. The year prior, MIT completed their study showing “human-in-the-loop” AI out-performed AI and humans individually in attack detection. Likewise, DARPA conducted the Cyber Grand Challenge, a battle testing AI systems’ offensive and defensive capabilities. Until this point, security AI was imprisoned in the contrived halls of academia and government. Yet, the history of two vendors exhibits how enthusiasm surrounding security AI was driven more by growth marketing than user needs.

Apr
09
2019
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Slack integration with Office 365 one more step toward total enterprise integration

Slack’s goal of integrating enterprise tools in the chat interface has been a major differentiator from the giant companies it’s competing with like Microsoft and Facebook. Last year, it bought Astro, specifically with the goal of integrating enterprise productivity tools inside Slack, and today it announced new integrations with Microsoft OneDrive and Outlook.

Specifically, Slack is integrating calendar, files and calls and bringing in integrations with other services, including Box, Dropbox and Zoom.

Andy Pflaum, director of project management at Slack, came over in the Astro deal, and he says one of the primary goals of the acquisition was to help build connections like this to Microsoft and Google productivity tools.

“When we joined Slack, it was to build out the interoperability between Slack and Microsoft’s products, particularly Office and Office 365 products, and the comparable products from Google, G Suite. We focused on deep integration with mail and calendar in Slack, as well as bringing in files and calls in from Microsoft, Google and other leading providers like Zoom, Box and Dropbox,” Pflaum, who was co-founder and CEO at Astro, told TechCrunch.

For starters, the company is announcing deep integration with Outlook that enables users to get and respond to invitations in Slack. You can also join a meeting with a click directly from Slack, whether that’s Zoom, WebEx or Skype for Business. What’s more, when you’re in a meeting, your status will update automatically in Slack, saving users from manually doing this (or more likely forgetting and getting a flurry of Slack questions in the middle of a meeting).

Another integration lets you share emails directly into Slack. Instead of copying and pasting or forwarding the email to a large group, you can click a Slack button in the Outlook interface and share it as a direct message with a group or to your personal Slack channel.

File sharing is not being left behind here either, whether from Microsoft, Box or Dropbox; users will be able to share files inside of Slack easily. Finally, users will be able to view full Office document previews inside of Slack, another step in avoiding tasking switching to get work done.

Screenshot: Slack

Mike Gotta, an analyst at Gartner who has been following the collaboration space for many years, says the integration has done a good job of preserving the user experience, while allowing for a seamless connection between email, calendar and files. He says that this could give them an edge in the highly competitive collaboration market, and more importantly allow users to maintain context.

“The collaboration market is highly fragmented with many vendors adding ‘just a little’ collaboration to products designed for specific purposes. Buyers can find that this type of collaboration in context to the flow of work is more impactful than switching to a generalized tool that lacks situational awareness of the task at hand. Knowledge-based work often involves process and project-related applications, so the more we can handle transitions across tools, the more productive the user experience becomes. More importantly there’s less context fragmentation for the individual and team,” Gotta told TechCrunch.

These updates are about staying one step ahead of the competition, and being able to run Microsoft tools inside of Slack gives customers another reason to stick with (or to buy) Slack instead of Microsoft’s competing product, Teams.

All of this new functionality is designed to work in both mobile and desktop versions of the product and is available today.

Mar
18
2019
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Slack hands over control of encryption keys to regulated customers

Slack announced today that it is launching Enterprise Key Management (EKM) for Slack, a new tool that enables customers to control their encryption keys in the enterprise version of the communications app. The keys are managed in the AWS KMS key management tool.

Geoff Belknap, chief security officer (CSO) at Slack, says the new tool should appeal to customers in regulated industries who might need tighter control over security. “Markets like financial services, healthcare and government are typically underserved in terms of which collaboration tools they can use, so we wanted to design an experience that catered to their particular security needs,” Belknap told TechCrunch.

Slack currently encrypts data in transit and at rest, but the new tool augments this by giving customers greater control over the encryption keys that Slack uses to encrypt messages and files being shared inside the app.

He said that regulated industries in particular have been requesting the ability to control their own encryption keys, including the ability to revoke them if it was required for security reasons. “EKM is a key requirement for growing enterprise companies of all sizes, and was a requested feature from many of our Enterprise Grid customers. We wanted to give these customers full control over their encryption keys, and when or if they want to revoke them,” he said.

Screenshot: Slack

Belknap says this is especially important when customers involve people outside the organization, such as contractors, partners or vendors in Slack communications. “A big benefit of EKM is that in the event of a security threat or if you ever experience suspicious activity, your security team can cut off access to the content at any time if necessary,” Belknap explained.

In addition to controlling the encryption keys, customers can gain greater visibility into activity inside of Slack via the Audit Logs API. “Detailed activity logs tell customers exactly when and where their data is being accessed, so they can be alerted of risks and anomalies immediately,” he said. If a customer finds suspicious activity, it can cut off access.

EKM for Slack is generally available today for Enterprise Grid customers for an additional fee. Slack, which announced plans to go public last month, has raised more than $1 billion on a $7 billion valuation.

Feb
19
2019
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Slack off — send videos instead with $11M-funded Loom

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many emails can you replace with a video? As offices fragment into remote teams, work becomes more visual and social media makes us more comfortable on camera, it’s time for collaboration to go beyond text. That’s the idea behind Loom, a fast-rising startup that equips enterprises with instant video messaging tools. In a click, you can film yourself or narrate a screenshare to get an idea across in a more vivid, personal way. Instead of scheduling a video call, employees can asynchronously discuss projects or give “stand-up” updates without massive disruptions to their workflow.

In the 2.5 years since launch, Loom has signed up 1.1 million users from 18,000 companies. And that was just as a Chrome extension. Today Loom launches its PC and Mac apps that give it a dedicated presence in your digital work space. Whether you’re communicating across the room or across the globe, “Loom is the next best thing to being there,” co-founder Shahed Khan tells me.

Now Loom is ready to spin up bigger sales and product teams thanks to an $11 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins . The firm’s partner Ilya Fushman, formally Dropbox’s head of product and corporate development, will join Loom’s board. He’ll shepherd Loom through today’s launch of its $10 per month per user Pro version that offers HD recording, calls-to-action at the end of videos, clip editing, live annotation drawings and analytics to see who actually watched like they’re supposed to.

“We’re ditching the suits and ties and bringing our whole selves to work. We’re emailing and messaging like never before, but though we may be more connected, we’re further apart,” Khan tells me. “We want to make it very easy to bring the humanity back in.”

Loom co-founder Shahed Khan

But back in 2016, Loom was just trying to survive. Khan had worked at Upfront Ventures after a stint as a product designer at website builder Weebly. He and two close friends, Joe Thomas and Vinay Hiremath, started Opentest to let app makers get usability feedback from experts via video. But after six months and going through the NFX accelerator, they were running out of bootstrapped money. That’s when they realized it was the video messaging that could be a business as teams sought to keep in touch with members working from home or remotely.

Together they launched Loom in mid-2016, raising a pre-seed and seed round amounting to $4 million. Part of its secret sauce is that Loom immediately starts uploading bytes of your video while you’re still recording so it’s ready to send the moment you’re finished. That makes sharing your face, voice and screen feel as seamless as firing off a Slack message, but with more emotion and nuance.

“Sales teams use it to close more deals by sending personalized messages to leads. Marketing teams use Loom to walk through internal presentations and social posts. Product teams use Loom to capture bugs, stand ups, etc.,” Khan explains.

Loom has grown to a 16-person team that will expand thanks to the new $11 million Series A from Kleiner, Slack, Cue founder Daniel Gross and actor Jared Leto that brings it to $15 million in funding. They predict the new desktop apps that open Loom to a larger market will see it spread from team to team for both internal collaboration and external discussions from focus groups to customer service.

Loom will have to hope that after becoming popular at a company, managers will pay for the Pro version that shows exactly how long each viewer watched. That could clue them in that they need to be more concise, or that someone is cutting corners on training and cooperation. It’s also a great way to onboard new employees. “Just watch this collection of videos and let us know what you don’t understand.” At $10 per month though, the same cost as Google’s entire GSuite, Loom could be priced too high.

Next Loom will have to figure out a mobile strategy — something that’s surprisingly absent. Khan imagines users being able to record quick clips from their phones to relay updates from travel and client meetings. Loom also plans to build out voice transcription to add automatic subtitles to videos and even divide clips into thematic sections you can fast-forward between. Loom will have to stay ahead of competitors like Vidyard’s GoVideo and Wistia’s Soapbox that have cropped up since its launch. But Khan says Loom looms largest in the space thanks to customers at Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb, Red Bull and 1,100 employees at HubSpot.

“The overall space of collaboration tools is becoming deeper than just email + docs,” says Fushman, citing Slack, Zoom, Dropbox Paper, Coda, Notion, Intercom, Productboard and Figma. To get things done the fastest, businesses are cobbling together B2B software so they can skip building it in-house and focus on their own product.

No piece of enterprise software has to solve everything. But Loom is dependent on apps like Slack, Google Docs, Convo and Asana. Because it lacks a social or identity layer, you’ll need to send the links to your videos through another service. Loom should really build its own video messaging system into its desktop app. But at least Slack is an investor, and Khan says “they’re trying to be the hub of text-based communication,” and the soon-to-be-public unicorn tells him anything it does in video will focus on real-time interaction.

Still, the biggest threat to Loom is apathy. People already feel overwhelmed with Slack and email, and if recording videos comes off as more of a chore than an efficiency, workers will stick to text. And without the skimability of an email, you can imagine a big queue of videos piling up that staffers don’t want to watch. But Khan thinks the ubiquity of Instagram Stories is making it seem natural to jump on camera briefly. And the advantage is that you don’t need a bunch of time-wasting pleasantries to ensure no one misinterprets your message as sarcastic or pissed off.

Khan concludes, “We believe instantly sharable video can foster more authentic communication between people at work, and convey complex scenarios and ideas with empathy.”

Feb
13
2019
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Block Kit helps deliver more visually appealing content in Slack

Slack has become a critical communications tool for many organizations. One of the things that has driven its rapid success has been the ability to connect to external enterprise apps inside of Slack, giving employees what is essentially a centralized work hub. This ability has led to some unintended consequences around formatting issues, which Slack addressed today with two new tools, Block Kit and Block Kit Builder.

Block Kit lets developers present dense content in a much more visually appealing way, while Block Kit Builder is a prototyping tool for building more attractive apps inside Slack. The idea is to provide a way to deliver content inside of Slack without having to do workarounds to make the content look good.

Before and after applying Block Kit. Screen: Slack

Bear Douglas, who is Slack’s director of developer of relations, says developers have been quite creative up until now when it comes to formatting, but the company has been working to simplify it. Today’s announcement is the culmination of that work.

“Block Kit makes it easier for people to quickly design a customized app in Slack. We’ve launched a no-code builder that will let people design the messages that they show inside Slack,” she explained.

She said that while this tool is really designed for people with some programming or Slack admin-level knowledge, the ultimate goal is to make it easy enough for non-technical end users to build apps in Slack, something that is on the road map. What enhancing these tools does, however, is show people just what is possible inside of Slack.

“When people see Block Kit in action, it is illuminating about what can be done, and it helps them understand that it doesn’t just need to be your communications center or [something that pings you] when your website blows up. You can actually get work done inside of Slack,” she said.

One other advantage of using Block Kit is that apps will display messages consistently, whether you are using the web or mobile. Prior to having these tools, workarounds might have looked fine on the web, but the spacing might have been off on mobile or vice versa. Block Kit lets you design consistent interfaces across platforms.

Among the tools Slack is offering, none is actually earth-shattering, but in total they provide users with the ability to format their content in a way that makes sense using common design elements like image containers, dividers and sections. They are also offering buttons, drop-down menus and a calendar picker.

Both of these tools are available starting today in the Block Kit hub.

Feb
07
2019
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Someone could scoop up Slack before it IPOs

Earlier this week, Slack announced that it has filed the paperwork to go public at some point later this year. The big question is, will the company exit into the public markets as expected, or will one of the technology giants swoop in at the last minute with buckets of cash and take them off the market?

Slack, which raised more than $1 billion on an other-worldly $7 billion valuation, is an interesting property. It has managed to grow and be successful while competing with some of the world’s largest tech companies — Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, Google and Salesforce. Not coincidentally, these deep-pocketed companies could be the ones that come knock, knock, knocking at Slack’s door.

Slack has managed to hold its own against these giants by doing something in this space that hadn’t been done effectively before. It made it easy to plug in other services, effectively making Slack a work hub where you could spend your day because your work could get pushed to you there from other enterprise apps.

As I’ve discussed before, this centralized hub has been a dream of communications tools for most of the 21st century. It began with enterprise IM tools in the early 2000s, and progressed to Enterprise 2.0 tools in the 2007 time frame. That period culminated in 2012 when Microsoft bought Yammer for $1.2 billion, the only billion-dollar exit for that generation of tools.

I remember hearing complaints about Enterprise 2.0 tools. While they had utility, in many ways they were just one more thing employees had to check for information beyond email. The talk was these tools would replace email, but a decade later email’s still standing and that generation of tools has been absorbed.

In 2013, Slack came along, perhaps sensing that Enterprise 2.0 never really got mobile and the cloud, and it recreated the notion in a more modern guise. By taking all of that a step further and making the tool a kind of workplace hub, it has been tremendously successful, growing to 8 million daily users in roughly 4 years, around 3 million of which were the paying variety, at last count.

Slack’s growth numbers as of May 2018

All of this leads us back to the exit question. While the company has obviously filed for IPO paperwork, it might not be the way it ultimately exits. Just the other day CNBC’s Jay Yarrow posited this questions on Twitter:

Not sure where he pulled that number from, but if you figure 3x valuation, that could be the value for a company of this ilk. There would be symmetry in Microsoft buying Slack six years after it plucked Yammer off the market, and it would remove a major competitive piece from the board, while allowing Microsoft access to Slack’s growing customer base.

Nobody can see into the future, and maybe Slack does IPO and takes its turn as a public company, but it surely wouldn’t be a surprise if someone came along with an offer it couldn’t refuse, whatever that figure might be.

Feb
04
2019
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Workplace messaging platform Slack has confidentially filed to go public

Slack, the provider of workplace communication and collaboration tools, has submitted paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public later this year, the company announced on Monday.

This is its first concrete step toward becoming a publicly listed company, five years after it launched.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Slack has raised more than $1 billion in venture capital investment, including a $427 million funding round in August. The round valued the business at $7.1 billion, cementing its position as one of the most valuable privately held businesses in the U.S.

The company counted 10 million daily active users around the world and 85,000 paying users as of January 2019. According to data provided (via email) by SensorTower, Slack’s new users on mobile increased roughly 21 percent last quarter compared to Q4 2017, while total installs on mobile grew 24 million. The company recorded 8 million installs in 2018, up 21 percent year-over-year.

Slack’s investors include SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Dragoneer Investment Group, General Atlantic, T. Rowe Price Associates, Wellington Management, Baillie Gifford, Social Capital and IVP, as well as early investors Accel and Andreessen Horowitz.

Slack is one of several tech unicorns on deck to go public this year. Uber and Lyft have both similarly filed confidentially to go public in what are expected to be traditional initial public offerings. Slack, however, is expected to pursue a direct listing, following in Spotify’s footsteps. Instead of issuing new shares, Slack will sell directly to the market existing shares held by insiders, employees and investors, a move that will allow it to bypass a roadshow and some of Wall Street’s exorbitant IPO fees.

Aug
23
2018
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Mixmax launches IFTTT-like rules to help you manage your inbox

Mixmax, a service that aims to make email and other outbound communications more usable and effective, today announced the official launch of its new IFTTT-like rules for automating many of the most repetitive aspects of your daily email workflow.

On the one hand, this new feature is a bit like your standard email filter on steroids (and with connections to third-party tools like Slack, Salesforce, DocuSign, Greenhouse and Pipedrive). Thanks to this, you can now receive an SMS when a customer who spends more than $5,000 a month emails you, for example.

But rules also can be triggered by any of the third-party services the company currently supports. Maybe you want to send out a meeting reminder based on your calendar entries, for example. You can then set up a rule that always emails a reminder a day before the meeting, together with all the standard info you’d want to send in that email.

“One way we think about Mixmax is that we want to do for externally facing teams and people who talk a lot of customers what GitHub did for engineering and what Slack did for internal team communication,” Mixmax co-founder and CEO Olof Mathé told me. “That’s what we do for external communication.”

While the service started out as a basic Chrome extension for Gmail, it’s now a full-blown email automation system that offers everything from easy calendar sharing to tracking when recipients open an email and, now, building rules around that. Mathé likened it to an executive assistant, but he stressed that he doesn’t think Mixmax is taking anybody’s jobs away. “We’re not here to replace other people,” he said. “We amplify what you are able to do as an individual and give you superpowers so you can become your own personal chief of staff so you get more time.”

The new rules feature takes this to the next level and Mathé and his team plan to build this out more over time. He teased a new feature called “beast mode” that’s coming in the near future and that will see Mixmax propose actions you can take across different applications, for example.

Many of the new rules and connectors will be available to all paying users, though some features, like access to your Salesforce account, will only be available to those on higher-tier plans.

Aug
22
2018
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Slack must use cash hoard to find new ways to keep competition at bay

It was quite a week for Slack, wasn’t it? The enterprise communications platform confirmed this publication’s earlier report that it had scored another $427 million investment on an over-the-moon valuation of over $7 billion. Slack took a market that had once been in the doldrums and turned it into something significant by making itself more than a communications tool.

It changed the game by making itself a work hub. Through APIs and UI updates, it has made it simple for countless third parties (like Evernote) to integrate with Slack and provide the long-sought workplace hub for the enterprise. Instead of task switching, you can work mostly in one place and keep your focus on your work.

It’s quite a value proposition and it has enabled Slack to raise $1.2 billion (with a b) across 11 funding rounds, according to data on Crunchbase. They have grown to 8 million daily active users. They boast 70,000 teams paying to use it. Whatever they are doing, it’s working.

Competing with corporate behemoths

That said, Slack’s success has always been a bit surprising because it’s facing off against giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Cisco, Salesforce and many others, all gunning for this upstart’s market. In fact, Microsoft is giving Teams away for free to Office 365 customers. You could say it’s hard to compete with free, yet Slack continues to hold its own (and also offers a free version, for the record).

Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t require customers to use any particular toolset. Microsoft Teams is great for Microsoft users. Google Hangouts is great for G Suite users. You’re already signed in and it’s all included in the package, and there is a huge convenience factor there, but Slack works on anything and with anything and companies have shown there is great value in that.

The question is can Slack continue to play David to these corporate behemoths or will patience, bushels of cash on hand and a long view allow these traditional tech companies to eventually catch up and pass the plucky newbie. Nobody can see into the future, but obviously investors recognize it takes a lot of capital to keep up with what the competition is bringing to the table.

Expanding their reach

They also clearly have some confidence in the company’s ability to keep growing and keep the titans at bay or they wouldn’t have thrown all of that moolah at them. Up until now, they seem to have always found a way, but they need to step up if they are going to keep it going.

Alan Lepofsky, an analyst with Constellation Research, who keeps a careful eye on the enterprise collaboration market, says in a recent video commentary that it’s great they got all this money, but now that someone has shown them all of this dough, they have to prove they know what to do with it.

“For Slack to continue to be successful, they need to expand beyond what they are currently doing and really, truly redefine the way people communicate, collaborate, coordinate around their work. They need to branch out to project management, task management, content creation — all sorts of things more than just collaboration.”

What comes next?

Lepofsky says this could happen via a build or buy scenario, or even partnering, but they need to use their money strategically to differentiate the product from the hefty competition and stay ahead in this market.

The other elephant in the room is the idea that one of the competing mega corporations could make a run at them and try to acquire them. It would take a boat load of money to make that happen, but if someone had the cojones to do it, they would be getting the state of the art, the market share, the engineering, the whole package.

For now, that’s pure speculation. For now, Slack is sitting comfortably on a huge cash pile, and perhaps they should go shopping and expand their product set with their newly found wealth, as Lepofsky suggests. If they can do that, maybe they can keep the technology wolves from the door and make their way down the path to their seemingly inevitable IPO.

Aug
22
2018
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Evernote refines integrations with Slack and Salesforce

When you’re working in a key business tool like Slack or Salesforce, you don’t want to switch focus by opening up another application to pull additional information. Evernote Business has let you access Evernote content from these applications for some time, and today it announced some refinements to enhance those integrations.

The Slack integration had worked with the old slash commands to display Evernote content directly within Slack, but Slack has changed that to allow you to access applications like Evernote in a more visual way, says Erik Wrobel, chief product officer at Evernote.

“Earlier this year, Slack announced something called Slack Actions. It allows you to surface an application in a more visual way, so discoverability and ease of use is better to reduce friction,” he said.

Evernote embedded inside Slack. Screenshot: Evernote

Evernote has take advantage of this new capability in this release to get away from the command interface style that Slack had previously used and make it easier for their core knowledge workers to access Evernote content inside of Slack.

Users can take an Evernote note in Slack, which will then show up in Evernote automatically in a “Notes from Slack” folder. From there, users can edit the notes and move them to other folders (or tag them) to further organize them in any way they see fit. Similarly you can save a conversation you’re having in Slack to Evernote as a note and move it or edit from Evernote later on.

The Salesforce Connection

While Salesforce deals with structured systems of record, Evernote works with unstructured content and bringing the two together can be useful and powerful for users. Typically, a team member interacting with the customer on the phone or in the field, will take notes in Evernote, and they want to share that information with other members of the team in the Salesforce record, Wrobel explained.

The user who took the note can link one or more notes inside Salesforce, so they essentially become part of the customer record. The newer version improves the technical connections between the two cloud applications including the ability to “pin” a note to a record. What’s more, once a note is linked there is two-way sync, which means regardless of whether you change that note in Salesforce or Evernote, it will update in both places (because the integration is a live version of Evernote).

Evernote notes embedded in Salesforce record. Screenshot: Evernote

Evernote also surfaces related content automatically at the bottom of the customer record to help users find other Evernote subject matter connected to the record. While you can’t link a note to Salesforce directly from Evernote yet, that is a requested feature and Wrobel said they are working on it for a future release.

These updates are available today for Slack and Salesforce customers using Evernote Business.

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