Aug
19
2020
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Just what would an enterprise company like Microsoft or Oracle do with TikTok?

By now you’ve probably heard that under pressure from the current administration, TikTok owner ByteDance is putting the viral video service up for sale, and surprisingly a couple of big name enterprise companies are interested. These organizations are better known for the kind of tech that would bore the average TikTok user to tears. Yet, stories have persisted that Microsoft and even Oracle are sniffing around the video social network.

As TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton pointed out last week, bankers involved in the sale have a lot of motivation to leak rumors to the press to drive up the price of TikTok. That means none of this might be true, yet the rumors aren’t going away. It begs the question: Why would a company like Oracle or Microsoft be interested in a property like TikTok?

For starters, Oracle is a lot more than the database company it was known for in the past. These days, it has its fingers in many, many pies, including marketing automation and cloud infrastructure services. In April, as the pandemic was just beginning to heat up, Zoom surprised just about everyone when it announced a partnership with Oracle’s cloud arm.

Oracle isn’t really even on the board when it comes to cloud infrastructure market share, where it is well behind rivals AWS, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and IBM, wallowing somewhere in single-digit market share. Oracle wants to be a bigger player.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully transitioned to the cloud as well as any company, but still remains far behind AWS in the cloud infrastructure market. It wants to close the gap with AWS, and owning TikTok could get it closer to that goal faster.

Simply put, says Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, if Oracle combined Zoom and TikTok, it could have itself a couple of nice anchor clients. Yes, like the proverbial mall trying to attract Target and Nordstrom, apparently Oracle wants to do the same with its cloud service, and if it has to buy the tenant, so be it.

“TikTok will add plenty of load to their infrastructure service. That’s what matters to them with viral loads preferred. If Microsoft gets TikTok it could boost their usage by between 2% and 5%, while for Oracle it could be as much 10%,” he said. He says the difference is that Oracle has a much smaller user base now, so it would relatively boost its usage all the more.

As Mueller points out, with the government helping push TikTok’s owner to make the sale, it’s a huge opportunity for a company like Oracle or Microsoft, and why the rumors have weight. “It’s very plausible from a cloud business perspective, and plausible from a business opportunity perspective created by the U.S. government,” he said.

While it could make sense to attract a large user base to your systems to drive up usage and market share in that way, Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says that just by having a large U.S. tech company buy the video app could make it less attractive to the very users Microsoft or Oracle is hoping to capture.

“An old-guard enterprise tech company buying Tiktok would likely lessen the appeal of current users. Younger people are already leaving Facebook because the old folks have taken it over,” Leary said. And that could mean young users, who are boosting the platform’s stats today, could jump ship to whatever is the next big social phenomenon.

It’s worth pointing out that just today, the president indicated support for Oracle, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The publication also reported that Oracle’s billionaire owner Larry Ellison is a big supporter of the president, having thrown him a fundraiser for his reelection bid at his house earlier this year. Oracle CEO Safra Catz also has ties to the administration, having served on the transition team in 2016.

It’s unclear whether these companies have a genuine interest, but the general feeling is someone is going to buy the service, and whoever does could get a big boost in users simply by using some percentage of their cash hordes to get there. By the way, another company with reported interest is Twitter. Certainly putting the two social platforms together could create a mega platform to compete more directly with Facebook.

You might see other big names trying to boost cloud infrastructure usage, like IBM or Google, enter the fray.  Perhaps even Amazon could make an offer to cement its lead, although if the deal has to go through the federal government, that makes it less likely, given the tense relationship between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the president that surfaced during the Pentagon JEDI cloud contract drama.

Apple has already indicated that in spite of having the largest cash on hand of any company, with over $193 billion, give or take, it apparently isn’t interested. Apple may not be, but somebody surely is, even some companies you couldn’t imagine owning a property like this.

Jul
09
2020
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WhatsApp Business, now with 50M MAUs, adds QR codes and catalog sharing

The global COVID-19 health pandemic has raised the stakes for businesses when it comes to using digital channels to connect with customers, and today WhatsApp unveiled its latest tools to help businesses use its platform to do just that.

The Facebook-owned messaging behemoth is expanding the reach and use of QR codes to let customers easily connect with businesses on the platform, providing them also with a series of stickers (pictured below) to kick off “we’re open for business” campaigns; and it’s made it possible for businesses to start sharing WhatsApp-based catalogs — dynamic lists of items that can in turn be ordered by users — as links outside of the WhatsApp platform itself.

The new launches come as WhatsApp’s business efforts pass some significant milestones.

WhatsApps’ profile as a formal platform for doing business is growing, albeit slowly. The WhatsApp Business app — used by merchants to interface with customers over WhatsApp and use the platform to market themselves — now has 50 million monthly active users, according to Facebook. Its two biggest markets for the service are India at over 15 million MAUs and Brazil at over 5 million MAUs, while catalogs specifically have had 40 million viewers.

On the other hand, WhatsApp has hit some stumbling blocks with features it’s tried to put into place to grow those numbers faster and boost usage among businesses.

Specifically, last month WhatsApp launched payments in Brazil, its first market, aimed not just at users sending each other money but merchants selling goods and services over the platform. But just nine days later, Brazilian regulators blocked the service over competition concerns, and it has yet to be restored pending further review. (India, which many had thought would be the first market for payments, is now part of a bigger global roadmap for rolling out payments.)

To put WhatsApp Business app’s usage numbers into some context, WhatsApp itself passed 2 billion users in February of this year. In that regard, hitting 50 million MAUs of the WhatsApp business app in the two years since it’s launched doesn’t sound like a whole lot (and in particular considering that it has competitors like Google offering payment services to merchants). Still, there has always been a lot of informal usage of the app, especially by smaller merchants, and that speaks to monetising potential if they can be lured into more of WhatsApps’ — and Facebook’s — products.

All the more reason that Facebook is expanding other features to make WhatsApp more useful for businesses, and especially smaller businesses — capitalising on a moment when many of them are turning to numerous digital channels (some for the first time ever) like social media, messaging services, websites and third-party delivery platforms to get their products and services out to the masses, in a period when visiting physical storefronts has been severely curtailed because of the health pandemic.

QR codes got a little boost last week from WhatsApp on the consumer side, with the company introducing a way for contacts to swap details for the first time by sharing codes rather than manually entering phone numbers — not unlike Snap Codes and shortcuts for adding contacts created on other social apps. That is now getting the business treatment.

Now, if you need to reach a business for customer support, to ask a question or order something, instead of manually entering a business phone number, you can scan a QR code from a receipt, a business display at the storefront, a product or even posted on the web, in order to connect with the company. Businesses that are using these can also set up welcome messages to start conversations once they’ve been added by a user. (They will have to use the WhatsApp Business app or the WhatsApp Business API to do this, of course.)

The catalog sharing feature, meanwhile, is an expansion on a feature that the company first launched in November 2019, which will now allow businesses to create and share links to their catalogs to post elsewhere. To be frank, the lack of ability to share catalogs at launch felt like a feature omission, considering that businesses often use multiple channels to market themselves, although it might have been an intentional move: there has long been questions about how tight links are between Facebook and WhatsApp, so slowly introducing features that share and cross-market from the start might be the preferred route for the company.

The idea now will be that those links can now be shared on Facebook, Instagram and other places.

Although all of these services, and WhatsApp Business, remain free to use, they continue to lay the groundwork for how Facebook might monetise the features in the future, not least through payments but also through stronger pushes to advertise on Facebook, now with more ways of linking a company’s WhatsApp profile to those ads.

May
12
2020
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LinkedIn adds polls and live video-based events in a focus on more virtual engagement

With a large part of the working world doing jobs from home when possible these days, the focus right now is on how best to recreate the atmosphere of an office virtually, and how to replicate online essential work that used to be done in person. Today, href=”http://linkedin.com” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>LinkedIn announced a couple of big new feature updates that point to how it’s trying to play a part in both of these: it’s launching a new Polls feature for users to canvas opinions and get feedback; and it’s launching a new “LinkedIn Virtual Events” tool that lets people create and broadcast video events via its platform.

Despite now being owned by Microsoft, interestingly it doesn’t seem that the Virtual Events service taps into Teams or Skype, Microsoft’s two other big video products that it has been pushing hard at a time when use of video streaming for work, education and play is going through the roof.

The polls feature — you can see an example of one in the picture below, or respond to that specific poll here — is a quick-fire and low-bar way of asking a question and encouraging engagement: LinkedIn says that a poll takes only about 30 seconds to put together, and responding doesn’t require thinking of something to write, but gives the respondent more of a ‘voice’ than he or she would get just by providing a “like” or other reaction.

But as with some of the other social features that LinkedIn has implemented over the years, its timing has not been quite right. With polls, you might say it’s been frustratingly late… or you might say it left the party too early.

The feature was first spotted by developer and app digger Jane Manchun Wong a couple of weeks ago, but it comes years after Twitter and Facebook have had polls in place on their platforms. I’d say it’s taken LinkedIn years to catch up, but actually it had polls in place years ago, yet chose to sunset the feature, back in 2014.

You could argue that LinkedIn miscalled the direction that social would go with engagement, or that it took too long to resuscitate the experience, or that the novelty of the concept that now worn off. Or you might say that LinkedIn has picked just the right time to bring it back, at a time when people are spending more time online than ever and are looking for more ways of varying the experience and interacting.

Those creating polls will be given the option in the menu of items when starting a new post. They can add four choices/options into the poll answers, and decide how long they would like for the poll to stay up, in a range of 24 hours to two weeks. You can also write an introduction post to accompany your poll with hashtags to come up in more searches.

Two important distinctions with LinkedIn Polls as you can see above are that you are polling a very specific audience of people in your professional circle, and those people can both respond to the poll but also include comments and reactions. Both of these set the feature as it works on LinkedIn apart from the others and should give it some… engagement.

The polls feature is getting rolled out (again) starting today.

The LinkedIn Virtual Events feature, meanwhile, falls into a similar placement as polls: it’s a way of getting people to engage more on LinkedIn, it taps into trends that are huge outside of the platform — in this case, videoconferencing — and it’s something that is coming surprisingly late to LinkedIn, given its existing product assets.

But is also potentially — potentially, because Live is still in an invite-only phase — going to prove very popular because it’s filling a very specific need.

LinkedIn Virtual Events is a merger of two products that LinkedIn launched last year, a live video broadcasting tool called LinkedIn Live, and its efforts to foster a sideline in offline, in person networking with LinkedIn Events. The idea here is that while physical events have been put on pause in the current climate — many cities have made group activities illegal in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — you can continue to use LinkedIn Events to plan them, but now carry them out over the Live platform. 

Given how huge the conferencing industry has become, I am guessing that we will be seeing a lot of attempts at recreating something of those events in a virtual, online context. LinkedIn’s take on the challenge — via Virtual Events — could therefore become a strong contender to host these.

When LinkedIn first launched Events I did ask the company whether it planned to expand them online using live, and indeed that did seem to be the plan. LinkedIn now says that it “accelerated” its product roadmap — unsurprising, given the current market — to merge the two products for targeted audiences.

That’s why we accelerated our product roadmap to bring you a tighter integration between LinkedIn Events and LinkedIn Live, turning these two products into a new virtual events solution that enables you to stay connected to your communities and meet your customers wherever they are. This new offering is designed to help you strengthen relationships with more targeted audiences.

This is not a simple integration, I should point out: LinkedIn is working with third-party broadcasting partners — the initial list includes Restream, Wirecast, Streamyard and Socialive — to raise the level of production quality, which will be essential especially if you are asking people to pay for events, and if you have any hope of replicating some of the networking other features that are cornerstones of conferencing and other in-person events.

It’s also building on what has been a successful product so far for LinkedIn: the company says that Live has 23X more comments per post and 6X more reactions per post than simple native video.

May
04
2020
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All product creators can learn something from Jackbox Games’ user experiences

During this period of shelter-in-place, people have had to seek out new forms of entertainment and social interaction. Many have turned to a niche party series made by a company best known for an irreverent trivia game in the ’90s called “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Since 2014, the annual release of the Jackbox Party Pack has delivered 4-5 casual party games that run on desktop, mobile and consoles that can be played in groups as small as two and as large as 10. In a clever twist, players use smartphones as controllers, which is perfect for typing in prompts, selecting options, making drawings, etc.

The games are tons of fun and perfect for playing with friends over video conference, and their popularity has skyrocketed, as indicated by Google Trends. I polled my own Twitter following and found that nearly half of folks had played in the last month, though a full third hadn’t heard of Jackbox at all.

How do these games work?

There are more than 20 unique games across Jackbox Party Packs 1-6, too many to explain — but here are three of the most popular:

  • Fibbage: A twist on the traditional trivia game, players are asked to invent an answer to a question of obscure knowledge (e.g. “a Swedish man who works as a dishwasher receives disability benefits due to his unusual addiction to ____.”) Then all the invented answers are mixed in with the truth and players must select the real answer while avoiding fakes. You earn points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players (the answer is “heavy metal”).

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.

Mar
24
2020
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Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.” For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive. Sherwani says the startup iis making due with “no funding, 100% bootstrapped, and I’d like to keep it that way” so he can control his destiny rather than being prodded for an exit by investors.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack .” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.

Mar
18
2020
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Around is the new floating head video chat multitasking app

You have to actually get work done, not just video call all day, but apps like Zoom want to take over your screen. Remote workers who need to stay in touch while staying productive are forced to juggle tabs. Meanwhile, call participants often look and sound far away, dwarfed by their background and drowned in noise.

Today, Around launches its new video chat software that crops participants down to just circles that float on your screen so you have space for other apps. Designed for laptops, Around uses auto-zoom and noise cancelling to keep your face and voice in focus. Instead of crowding around one computer or piling into a big-screen conference room, up to 15 people can call from their own laptop without echo — even from right next to each other.

“Traditional videoconferencing tries to maximize visual presence. But too much presence gets in the way of your work,” says Around CEO Dominik Zane. “People want to make eye contact. They want to connect. But they also want to get stuff done. Around treats video as the means to an end, not the end in itself.”

Around becomes available today by request in invite-only beta for Mac, windows, Linux, and web. It’s been in private beta since last summer, but now users can sign up here for early access to Around. The freemium model means anyone can slide the app into their stack without paying at first.

After two years in stealth, Around’s 12-person distributed team reveals that it’s raised $5.2 million in seed funding over multiple rounds from Floodgate, Initialized Capital, Credo Ventures, AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover, Crashlytics’ Jeff Seibert, and angel Tommy Leep. The plan is to invest in talent and infrastructure to keep video calls snappy.

Not Just A Picturephone

Around CEO Dominik Zane

Around was born out of frustration with remote work collaboration. Zane and fellow Around co-founder Pavel Serbajlo had built mobile marketing company M.dot that was acquired by GoDaddy by using a fully distributed team. But they discovered that Zoom was “built around decades-old assumptions of what a video call should be” says Zane. “A Zoom video call is basically a telephone connected to a video camera. In terms of design, it’s not much different from the original Picturephone demoed at the 1964 World’s Fair.”

So together, they started Around as a video chat app that slips into the background rather than dominating the foreground. “We stripped out every unnecessary pixel by building a real-time panning and zooming technology that automatically keeps callers’ faces–and only their faces–in view at all times” Zane explains. It’s basically Facebook Messenger’s old Chat Heads design, but for the desktop enterprise.

Calls start with a shared link or /Around Slack command. You’re never unexpectedly dumped into a call, so you can stay on task. Since participants are closely cropped to their faces and not blown up full screen, they don’t have to worry about cleaning their workspace or exactly how their hair looks. That reduces the divide between work-from-homers and those in the office.

As for technology, Around’s “EchoTerminator” uses ultrasonic audio to detect nearby laptops and synchronization to eliminate those strange feedback sounds. Around also employs artificial intelligence and the fast CPUs of modern laptops to suppress noise like sirens, dog barks, washing machines, or screaming children. A browser version means you don’t have to wait for people to download anything, and visual emotes like “Cool idea” pop up below people’s faces so they don’t have to interrupt the speaker.

Traditional video chat vs Around

“Around is what you get when you rethink video chat for a 21st-century audience, with 21st-century technology,” says Initialized co-founder and general partner Garry Tan. “Around has cracked an incredibly difficult problem, integrating video into the way people actually work today. It makes other video-call products feel clumsy by comparison.”

There’s one big thing missing from Around: mobile. Since it’s meant for multitasking, it’s desktop/laptop only. But that orthodoxy ignores the fact that a team member on the go might still want to chime in on chats, even with just audio. Mobile apps are on the roadmap, though, with plans to allow direct dial-in and live transitioning from laptop to mobile. The 15-participant limit also prevents Around from working for all-hands meetings.

Competing with video calling giant Zoom will be a serious challenge. Nearly a decade of perfecting its technology gives Zoom super low latency so people don’t talk over each other. Around will have to hope that its smaller windows let it keep delays down. There’s also other multitask video apps like Loom’s asynchronously-recorded video clips that prevent distraction.

With coronavirus putting a new emphasis on video technology for tons of companies, finding great engineers could be difficult. “Talent is scarce, and good video is hard tech. Video products are on the rise. Google and large companies snag all the talent, plus they have the ability and scale to train audio-video professionals at universities in northern Europe” Zane tells me. “Talent wars are the biggest risk and obstacle for all real-time video companies.”

But that rise also means there are tons of people fed up with having to stop work to video chat, kids and pets wandering into their calls, and constantly yelling at co-workers to “mute your damn mic!” If ever there was a perfect time to launch Around, it’s now.

“Eight years ago we were a team of locals and immigrants, traveling frequently, moving between locations and offices” Zane recalls. “We realized that this was the future of work and it’s going to be one of the most significant transformations of modern society over the next 30 years . . . We’re building the product we’ve wanted for ourselves.”

One of the best things about working remotely is you don’t have colleagues randomly bugging you about superfluous nonsense. But the heaviness of traditional video chat swings things too far in the other direction. You’re isolated unless you want to make a big deal out of scheduling a call. We need presence and connection, but also the space to remain in flow. We don’t want to be away or on top of each other. We want to be around.

Mar
18
2020
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Slack introduces simplified interface as usage moves deeper into companies

When Slack first launched in 2013, the product was quickly embraced by developers, and the early product reflected that. To get at advanced tools, you used a slash (/) command, but the company recognizes that as it moves deeper into the enterprise, it needed to simplify the interface.

Today, the company introduced a newly designed interface aimed at easing the user experience, making Slack more of an accessible enterprise communications hub.

Jaime DeLanghe, director of product management at Slack, says that the messaging application has become a central place for people to communicate about work, which has grown even more important as many of us have begun working from home as a result of COVID-19.

But DeLanghe says usage was up even before the recent work from home trend began taking off. “People are connected to Slack, on average, about nine hours a day and they’re using Slack actively for almost 90 minutes,” she told TechCrunch.

To that end, she says her team has been working hard to update the interface.

“From my team’s perspective, we want to make sure that the experience is as simple to understand and get on-boarded as possible,” she said. That also means surfacing more advanced tooling, which has been hidden behind those slash commands in previous versions of the tool.

She said that the company has been trying to address the needs of the changing audience over the years by adding many new features, but admits that has resulted in some interface clutter. Today’s redesign is meant to address that.

New Slack interface. Screenshot: Slack

Among the new features, besides the overall cleaner look, many people will welcome the new ability to nest channels to organize them better in the Channel sidebar. As your channels proliferate, it becomes harder to navigate them all. Starting today, users can organize their channels into logical groupings with labels.

New nested channel labels in Slack. Screenshot: Slack

DeLanghe is careful to point out that this channel organization is personal, and cannot be done at an administrative level. “The channels don’t actually live inside of another channel. You’re creating a label for them, so that you can organize them in the sidebar for just yourself, not for everybody,” she explained.

Other new features include an improved navigation bar at the top of the window, a centralized search and help tool also located at the top of the window and a universal compose button in the Sidebar.

All of these new features are designed to help make Slack more accessible to users, as more employees start using it across an organization.

Mar
06
2020
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What to consider when employees need to start working remotely

The COVID-19 crisis is touching all aspects of society, including how we work. In response, many companies are considering asking some percentage of their workforce to work remotely until the crisis abates.

If your organization doesn’t have a great deal of experience with remote work, there are a number of key things to think about as you set up a program. You are going to be under time constraints when it comes to enacting an action plan, so think about ways to leverage the tools, procedures and technologies you already have in place. You won’t have the luxury of conducting a six-month study.

We spoke to a few people who have been looking at the remote working space for more than a decade and asked about the issues companies should bear in mind when a large number of employees suddenly need to work from home.

The lay of the land

Alan Lepofsky, currently VP of Salesforce Quip, has studied the remote work market for more than a decade. He says there are three main pieces to building a remote working strategy. First, managers need to evaluate which tools they’ll be using to allow employees to continue collaborating when they aren’t together.

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