Dec
15
2020
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Twitter taps AWS for its latest foray into the public cloud

Twitter has a lot going on, and it’s not always easy to manage that kind of scale on your own. Today, Amazon announced that Twitter has signed a multi-year agreement with AWS to run its real-time timelines. It’s a major win for Amazon’s cloud arm.

While the companies have worked together in some capacity for over a decade, this marks the first time that Twitter is tapping AWS to help run its core timelines.

“This expansion onto AWS marks the first time that Twitter is leveraging the public cloud to scale their real-time service. Twitter will rely on the breadth and depth of AWS, including capabilities in compute, containers, storage and security, to reliably deliver the real-time service with the lowest latency, while continuing to develop and deploy new features to improve how people use Twitter,” the company explained in the announcement.

Parag Agrawal, chief technology officer at Twitter, sees this as a way to expand and improve the company’s real-time offerings by taking advantage of AWS’s network of data centers to deliver content closer to the user. “The collaboration with AWS will improve performance for people who use Twitter by enabling us to serve Tweets from data centers closer to our customers at the same time as we leverage the Arm-based architecture of AWS Graviton2 instances. In addition to helping us scale our infrastructure, this work with AWS enables us to ship features faster as we apply AWS’s diverse and growing portfolio of services,” Agrawal said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Twitter also has a relationship with Google Cloud. In 2018, it announced it was moving its Hadoop clusters to GCP.

This announcement could be considered a case of the rich getting richer as AWS is the leader in the cloud infrastructure market by far, with around 33% market share. Microsoft is in second with around 18% and Google is in third with 9%, according to Synergy Research. In its most recent earnings report, Amazon reported $11.6 billion in AWS revenue, putting it on a run rate of over $46 billion.

Dec
01
2020
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Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

Salesforce, the CRM powerhouse that recently surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, announced today it is wading deeper into enterprise social by acquiring Slack in a $27.7 billion megadeal. Rumors of a pending deal surfaced last week, causing Slack’s stock price to spike.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff didn’t mince words on his latest purchase. “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world,” Benioff said in a statement.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was no less effusive than his future boss. “As software plays a more and more critical role in the performance of every organization, we share a vision of reduced complexity, increased power and flexibility, and ultimately a greater degree of alignment and organizational agility. Personally, I believe this is the most strategic combination in the history of software, and I can’t wait to get going,” Butterfield said in a statement.

Every worker at every company needs to communicate, something that Slack can ably empower. What’s more, it also facilitates external communication with customers and partners, something that should be quite useful for a company like Salesforce and its family of offerings.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one. The only surprise here is the price.

Slack’s current valuation, according to both Yahoo and Google Finance, is just over $25 billion, which, given its very modest price change after-hours means that the market priced the company somewhat effectively. Slack is up around 48% from its valuation that preceded the deal becoming known.

The new deal also puts Salesforce more on par — and in competition — with its arch rival and sometime friend Microsoft, whose Teams product has been directly challenging Slack in the market. Microsoft, which passed on buying Slack in the past for a fraction of what Salesforce is paying today, has made Teams a key priority in recent quarters, loathe to cede any portion of the enterprise software market to another company.

What really has set Slack apart from the pack, at least initially, was its ability to integrate with other enterprise software. When you combined that with bots, those intelligent digital helpers, the company could potentially provide Salesforce customers with a central place to work without changing focus because everything they need to do can be done in Slack.

Today’s deal comes after Salesforce’s purchase of Quip in 2016 for $750 million. Quip brought to the SaaS giant a way of socially sharing documents, and when paired with the Slack acquisition gives Salesforce a much more robust social story to tell than its internal option Chatter, an early attempt at enterprise social that never really caught on.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce was interested in Twitter in 2016, the same year that Microsoft was reportedly interested in Slack, but eventually walked away from that deal when shareholders objected, not wanting to deal with the controversial side of the social platform.

Slack was founded in 2013, but its origins go back to an online multiplayer game company called Glitch that was founded in 2009. While the game was ultimately a failure, the startup developed an internal messaging system in the process of building that company that later evolved into Slack.

The company’s historic growth helped Slack raise more than $1 billion while private, earning an impressive $7 billion valuation before going public last year. But while the Glitch-to-unicorn story appears simple, Slack has always faced entrenched competition from the likes of not only Microsoft, but also Cisco, Facebook, Google and even Asana and Monday.com.

For Slack, the path to the public markets was fraught with hype and outsized expectation. The company was famous, or as famous as an enterprise software company can be. At the time it felt like its debut was the start of a long tenure as an indie company. Instead, that public life has been cut short by a huge check. Such is the dog-eat-dog world of tech.

Dec
01
2020
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Loop Team wants to give remote workers an in-office feel

As we’ve moved to work from home during the pandemic, it’s been challenging for remote workers to feel connected. Loop Team, a new entrant into the enterprise communications space, thinks the way we are communicating needs improvement. That’s why the startup is releasing Loop Team today, a tool that is trying to use software to reproduce the in-office experience.

Company founder and CEO Raj Singh says that he learned about the problems of feeling disconnected first-hand at a previous remote-first company, but in spite of his best attempts to use technology to produce that in-office feel, he said he continued to feel out of the loop (so to speak). That’s when he decided to build the solution he wanted.

“We’ve looked at a lot of the interactions that happen when you’re physically in an office — the visual communication, the background conversations, the hallway chatter, the serendipitous bumping, things like that. And we built an experience that effectively is a virtual office. And so it tries to represent the best parts of what a physical office experience might be like, but in a virtual form,” Singh explained to me.

While he created this company prior to COVID, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a tool like this. Before he created the software, he interviewed hundreds of people who worked from home to understand their issues working outside of the office and he heard a lot of common complaints.

“There was an office and they didn’t necessarily know what was going on. They didn’t know who was available. They didn’t know who was around. It was difficult to connect. Everything was scheduled through a calendar. They were missing some of that presence — and they were feeling lonely or out of touch or out of the loop,” he said.

His company’s solution tries to reproduce the office experience using AI, good old-fashioned presence awareness and other tech to let team members know what you’re doing and if you’re available to chat. So just as you would wander down the hall and see your colleague on the phone or deeply involved with work on the laptop, and know to leave them be, you could get that same feel with Loop.

Loop Team Highlights

Image Credits: Loop Team

It gives the current status of the person, and you can know from looking at the list of people on your team who’s available to talk and who’s busy. As you go into virtual discussions, the team can see who’s having meetings and individuals can pop in too, just as you might do in the office.

What’s more, you can set up rooms (like in Slack), but these are designed to give you a more personal connection using video and audio for actual discussion. You can work on projects via screen share and people who miss these meetings because of other obligations or time zone differences can always review what they missed.

While you can do all of these things in Slack and Zoom, or in some combination of similar tools, Loop’s layout and presentation is designed to help you see the conversations in a clear way and expose what you want to see, while hiding parts of the day that don’t interest you.

The product is available for free starting today, but Singh wants to introduce a pricing model sometime next year based on team size. He expects there will always be a freemium version for teams with fewer than 10 people.

The company was founded in 2018 and nurtured at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). It has raised $4.75 million so far. Today it starts on its journey as a startup with its first product, and it’s one that comes with good timing as more teams find themselves working remotely than ever before.

Oct
22
2020
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Facebook adds hosting, shopping features and pricing tiers to WhatsApp Business

Facebook has been making a big play to be a go-to partner for small and medium businesses that use the internet to interface with the wider world, and its messaging platform WhatsApp, with some 50 million businesses and 175 million people messaging them (and more than 2 billion users overall) has been a central part of that pitch.

Now, the company is making three big additions to WhatsApp to fill out that proposition.

It’s launching a way to shop for and pay for goods and services in WhatsApp chats; it’s going head to head with the hosting providers of the world with a new product called Facebook Hosting Services to host businesses’ online assets and activity; and — in line with its expanding product range — Facebook said it will finally start to charge companies using WhatsApp for Business.

Facebook announced the news in a short blog post light on details. We have reached out to the company for more information on pricing, availability of the services and whether Facebook will provide hosting itself or work with third parties, and we will update this post as we learn more.

Update: Facebook responded and we are putting the replies below, in-line where it makes sense.

Here is what we know for now:

In-chat Shopping: Companies are already using WhatsApp to present product information and initiate discussions for transactions. One of the more recent developments in that area was the addition of QR codes and the ability to share catalog links in chats, added in July. At the same time, Facebook has been expanding the ways that businesses can display what they are selling on Facebook and Instagram, most recently with the launch in August of Facebook Shop, following a similar product roll out on Instagram before that.

Today’s move sounds like a new way for businesses in turn to use WhatsApp both to link through to those Facebook-native catalogs, as well as other products, and then purchase items, while still staying in the chat.

At the same time, Facebook will be making it possible for merchants to add “buy” buttons in other places that will take shoppers to WhatsApp chats to complete the purchase. “We also want to make it easier for businesses to integrate these features into their existing commerce and customer solutions,” it notes. “This will help many small businesses who have been most impacted in this time.”

Although Facebook is not calling this WhatsApp Pay, it seems that this is the next step ahead for the company’s ambitions to bring payments into the chat flow of its messaging app. That has been a long and winding road for the company, which finally launched WhatsApp Payments, using Facebook Pay, in Brazil, in June of this year only to have it shut down by regulators for failing to meet their requirements. (The plan has been to expand it to India, Indonesia and Mexico next.)

Facebook Hosting Services: These will be available in the coming months, but no specific date to share right now. “We’re sharing our plans now while we work with our partners to make these services available,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

No! This is not about Facebook taking on AWS. Or… not yet at least? The idea here appears that it is specifically aimed at selling hosting services to the kind of SMBs who already use Facebook and WhatsApp messaging, who either already use hosting services for their online assets, whether that be their online stores or other things, or are finding themselves now needing to for the first time, now that business is all about being “online.”

“Today, all businesses using our API are using either an on-premise solution or leverage a solutions provider, both of which require costly servers to maintain,” Facebook said. “With this change, businesses will be able to choose to use Facebook’s own secure hosting infrastructure for free, which helps remove a costly item for every company that wants to use the WhatsApp Business API, including our business service providers, and will help them all save money.” It added that it will share more info about where data will be hosted closer to launch.

This is a very interesting move, since the SMB hosting market is pretty fragmented with a number of companies, including the likes of GoDaddy, Dream Host, HostGator, BlueHost and many others also offering these services. That fragmentation spells opportunity for a huge company like Facebook with a global profile, a burgeoning amount of connections through to other online services for these SMBs and a pretty extensive network of data centers around the world that it has built for itself and can now use to provide services to others — which is, indeed, a pretty strong parallel with how Amazon and AWS have done business.

Facebook already has an “app store” of sorts with partners it works with to provide marketing and related services to businesses using its platform. It looks like it plans to expand this, and will sell the hosting alongside all of that, with the kicker that hosting natively on Facebook will speed up how everything works.

“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium size businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive – wherever their employees are,” it notes.

Charging tiers: As you would expect, to encourage more adoption, Facebook has not been charging for WhatsApp Business up to now, but it has charged for some WhatsApp business messages — for example when businesses send a boarding pass or e-commerce receipt to a customer over Facebook’s rails. (These prices vary and a list of them is published here.) Now, with more services coming into the mix, and businesses tying their fates more strongly to how well they are performing on Facebook’s platforms, it’s no surprise to see Facebook converting that into a pay to play scenario.

“What we’ve heard over the past couple years is how the conversational nature of business messaging is really valuable to people. So in the future we may look at ways to update how we charge businesses that better reflect how it’s used,” the company told us. Important to note that this will relate to how businesses send messages. “As always, it’s free for people to send a business a message,” Facebook added.

Frustratingly, there seems so far to be no detail on which services will be charged, nor how much, nor when, so this is more of a warning than a new requirement.

“We will charge business customers for some of the services we offer, which will help WhatsApp continue building a business of our own while we provide and expand free end-to-end encrypted text, video and voice calling for more than two billion people,” it notes.

For those who might find that annoying, on the plus side, for those who are concerned about an ever-encroaching data monster, it will, at the least, help WhatsApp and Facebook continue to stick to its age-old commitment to stay away from advertising as a business model.

Doubling-down on SMBs

The new services come at a time when Facebook is doubling down on providing services for businesses, spurred in no small part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven physical retailers and others to close their actual doors, shifting their focus to using the internet and mobile services to connect with and sell to customers.

Citing that very trend, last month the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Facebook Business Suite, bringing together all of the tools it has been building for companies to better leverage Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp profiles both to advertise themselves as well as communicate with and sell to customers. And the fact that Sandberg was leading the announcement says something about how Facebook is prioritizing this: it’s striking while the iron is hot with companies using its platform, but it sees/hopes that business services can a key way to diversify its business model while also helping buffer it — since many businesses building Pages may also advertise.

Facebook has also been building more functionality across Facebook and Instagram specifically aimed at helping power users and businesses leverage the two in a more efficient way. Adding in more tools to WhatsApp is the natural progression of all of this.

To be sure, as we pointed out earlier this year, even while there is a lot of very informal use of WhatsApp by businesses all around the world, WhatsApp Business remains a fairly small product, most popular in India and Brazil. Facebook launching more tools for how to use it will potentially drive more business not just in those markets but help the company convert more businesses to using it in other places, too.

Smaller businesses have been on Facebook’s radar for a while now. Even before the pandemic hit, in many cases retailers or restaurants do not have websites of their own, opting for a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile as their URL and primary online interface with the world; and even when they do have standalone sites, they are more likely to update people and spread the word about what they are doing on social media than via their own URLs.

Facebook’s also made a video to help demonstrate how it sees these WhatsApp Business in action, which you can here:

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.

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