Sep
08
2020
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The $10B JEDI contract is locked, loaded and still completely stuck

The other day I took a moment to count the number of stories we’ve done on TechCrunch on the DoD’s $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all, JEDI cloud contract. This marks the 30th time we’ve written about this deal over the last two years, and it comes after a busy week last week in JEDI cloud contract news.

That we’re still writing about this is fairly odd if you consider the winner was announced last October when the DoD chose Microsoft, but there is no end in sight to the on-going drama that is this procurement process.

Government contracts don’t typically catch our attention at TechCrunch, but this one felt different early on. There was the size and scope of the deal of course. There was the cute play on the “Star Wars” theme. There was Oracle acting like a batter complaining to the umpire before the first pitch was thrown. There was the fact that everyone thought Amazon would win until it didn’t.

There was a lot going on. In fact, there’s still a lot going on with this story.

Oracle doth protest too much

Let’s start with Oracle, which dispatched CEO Safra Catz to the White House in April 2018 even before the RFP had been written. She was setting the stage to complain that the deal was going to be set up to favor Amazon, something that Oracle alleged until the day Microsoft was picked the winner.

Catz had been on the Trump transition team and so had the ear of the president. While the president certainly interjected himself in this process, it’s not known how much influence that particular meeting might have had. Suffice to say that it was only the first volley in Oracle’s long war against the JEDI contract procurement process.

It would include official complaints with the Government Accountability Office and a federal lawsuit worth not coincidentally $10 billion. It would claim the contract favored Amazon. It would argue that the one-vendor approach wasn’t proper. It would suggest that because the DoD had some former Amazon employees helping write the RFP, that it somehow favored Amazon. The GAO and two court cases found otherwise, ruling against Oracle every single time.

It’s worth noting that the Court of Appeals ruling last week indicated that Oracle didn’t even meet some of the basic contractual requirements, all the while complaining about the process itself from the start.

Amazon continues to press protests

Nobody was more surprised that Amazon lost the deal than Amazon itself. It still believes to this day that it is technically superior to Microsoft and that it can offer the DoD the best approach. The DoD doesn’t agree. On Friday, it reaffirmed its choice of Microsoft. But that is not the end of this, not by a long shot.

Amazon has maintained since the decision was made last October that the decision-making process had been tainted by presidential interference in the process. They believe that because of the president’s personal dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, he inserted himself in the process to prevent Bezos’ company from winning that deal.

In January, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until this could all be sorted out. In February, a judge halted work on the project until Amazon’s complaints could be heard by the court. It is September and that order is still in place.

In a blog post on Friday, Amazon reiterated its case, which is based on presidential interference and what it believes is technical superiority. “In February, the Court of Federal Claims stopped performance on JEDI. The Court determined AWS’s protest had merit, and that Microsoft’s proposal likely failed to meet a key solicitation requirement and was likely deficient and ineligible for award. Our protest detailed how pervasive these errors were (impacting all six technical evaluation factors), and the Judge stopped the DoD from moving forward because the very first issue she reviewed demonstrated serious flaws,” Amazon wrote in the post.

Microsoft for the win?

Microsoft on the other hand went quietly about its business throughout this process. It announced Azure Stack, a kind of portable cloud that would work well as a field operations computer system. It beefed up its government security credentials.

Even though Microsoft didn’t agree with the one-vendor approach, indicating that the government would benefit more from the multivendor approach many of its customers were taking, it made clear if those were the rules, it was in it to win it — and win it did, much to the surprise of everyone, especially Amazon.

Yet here we are, almost a year later and in spite of the fact that the DoD found once again, after further review, that Microsoft is still the winner, the contract remains in limbo. Until that pending court case is resolved, we will continue to watch and wait and wonder if this will ever be truly over, and the JEDI cloud contract will actually be implemented.

Sep
04
2020
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DoD reaffirms Microsoft has won JEDI cloud contract, but Amazon legal complaints still pending

We have seen a lot of action this week as the DoD tries to finally determine the final winner of the $10 billion, decade-long DoD JEDI cloud contract. Today, the DoD released a statement that after reviewing the proposals from finalists Microsoft and Amazon again, it reiterated that Microsoft was the winner of the contract.

“The Department has completed its comprehensive re-evaluation of the JEDI Cloud proposals and determined that Microsoft’s proposal continues to represent the best value to the Government. The JEDI Cloud contract is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will make a full range of cloud computing services available to the DoD,” the DoD said in a statement.

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Court of Appeals decision denying Oracle’s argument that the procurement process was flawed and that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee helped write the requirements for the RFP.

While the DoD has determined that it believes that Microsoft should still get the contract, after selecting them last October, that doesn’t mean this is the end of the line for this long-running saga. In fact, a federal judge halted work on the project in February pending a hearing on an ongoing protest from Amazon, which believes it should have won based on merit, and the fact it believes the president interfered with the procurement process to prevent Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, from getting the lucrative contract.

The DoD confirmed that the project could not begin until the legal wrangling was settled. “While contract performance will not begin immediately due to the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court of Federal Claims on February 13, 2020, DoD is eager to begin delivering this capability to our men and women in uniform,” the DoD reported in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company was ready to get to work on the project as soon as it got the OK to proceed. “We appreciate that after careful review, the DoD confirmed that we offered the right technology and the best value. We’re ready to get to work and make sure that those who serve our country have access to this much needed technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Meanwhile, in a blog post published late this afternoon, Amazon made it clear that it was unhappy with today’s outcome and will continue to pursue legal remedy for what they believe to be presidential interference that has threatened the integrity of the procurement process. Here’s how they concluded the blog post:

We strongly disagree with the DoD’s flawed evaluation and believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. The question we continue to ask ourselves is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the Department of Defense to pursue his own personal and political ends? Throughout our protest, we’ve been clear that we won’t allow blatant political interference, or inferior technology, to become an acceptable standard. Although these are not easy decisions to make, and we do not take them lightly, we will not back down in the face of targeted political cronyism or illusory corrective actions, and we will continue pursuing a fair, objective, and impartial review.

While today’s statement from DoD appears to take us one step closer to the end of the road for this long-running drama, it won’t be over until the court rules on Amazon’s arguments. It’s clear from today’s blog post that Amazon has no intention of stepping down.

Note: We have  updated this story with content from an Amazon blog post responding to this news.

Sep
03
2020
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Oracle loses $10B JEDI cloud contract appeal yet again

Oracle was never fond of the JEDI cloud contract process, that massive $10 billion, decade-long Department of Defense cloud contract that went to a single vendor. It was forever arguing to anyone who would listen that that process was faulty and favored Amazon.

Yesterday it lost another round in court when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the database giant’s argument that the procurement process was flawed because it went to a single vendor. It also didn’t buy that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee was involved in writing the DoD’s request for proposal criteria.

On the latter point, the court wrote, “The court addressed the question whether the contracting officer had properly assessed the impact of the conflicts on the procurement and found that she had.”

Further, the court found that Oracle’s case didn’t have merit in some cases because it failed to meet certain basic contractual criteria. In other cases, it didn’t find that the DoD violated any specific procurement rules with this bidding process.

This represents the third time the company has tried to appeal the process in some way, four if you include direct executive intervention with the president. In fact, even before the RFP had been released in April 2018, CEO Safra Catz brought complaints to the president that the bid favored Amazon.

In November 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied Oracle’s protest that it favored Amazon or any of the other points in their complaint. The following month, the company filed a $10 billion lawsuit in federal court, which was denied last August. Yesterday’s ruling is on the appeal of that decision.

It’s worth noting that for all its complaints that the deal favored Amazon, Microsoft actually won the bid. Even with that determination, the deal remains tied up in litigation as Amazon has filed multiple complaints, alleging that the president interfered with the deal and that they should have won on merit.

As with all things related to this contract, the drama has never stopped.

Aug
25
2020
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Microsoft brings transcriptions to Word

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

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

Image Credits: Microsoft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Microsoft

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

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

 

Aug
24
2020
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Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: Are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: Some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.

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.

Aug
19
2020
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A pandemic and recession won’t stop Atlassian’s SaaS push

No company is completely insulated from the macroeconomic fallout of COVID-19, but we are seeing some companies fare better than others, especially those providing ways to collaborate online. Count Atlassian in that camp, as it provides a suite of tools focused on working smarter in a digital context.

At a time when many employees are working from home, Atlassian’s product approach sounds like a recipe for a smash hit. But in its latest earnings report, the company detailed slowing growth, not the acceleration we might expect. Looking ahead, it’s predicting more of the same — at least for the short term.

Part of the reason for that — beyond some small-business customers, hit by hard times, moving to its new free tier introduced last March — is the pain associated with moving customers off of older license revenue to more predictable subscription revenue. The company has shown that it is willing to sacrifice short-term growth to accelerate that transition.

We sat down with Atlassian CRO Cameron Deatsch to talk about some of the challenges his company is facing as it navigates through these crazy times. Deatsch pointed out that in spite of the turbulence, and the push to subscriptions, Atlassian is well-positioned with plenty of cash on hand and the ability to make strategic acquisitions when needed, while continuing to expand the recurring-revenue slice of its revenue pie.

The COVID-19 effect

Deatsch told us that Atlassian could not fully escape the pandemic’s impact on business, especially in April and May when many companies felt it. His company saw the biggest impact from smaller businesses, which cut back, moved to a free tier, or in some cases closed their doors. There was no getting away from the market chop that SMBs took during the early stages of COVID, and he said it had an impact on Atlassian’s new customer numbers.

Atlassian Q4FY2020 customer growth graph

Image Credits: Atlassian

Still, the company believes it will recover from the slow down in new customers, especially as it begins to convert a percentage of its new, free-tier users to paid users down the road. For this quarter it only translated into around 3000 new customers, but Deatsch didn’t seem concerned. “The customer numbers were off, but the overall financials were pretty strong coming out of [fiscal] Q4 if you looked at it. But also the number of people who are trying our products now because of the free tier is way up. We saw a step change when we launched free,” he said.

Aug
05
2020
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Microsoft launches Open Service Mesh

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new open-source service mesh based on the Envoy proxy. The Open Service Mesh is meant to be a reference implementation of the Service Mesh Interface (SMI) spec, a standard interface for service meshes on Kubernetes that has the backing of most of the players in this ecosystem.

The company plans to donate Open Service Mesh to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to ensure that it is community-led and has open governance.

“SMI is really resonating with folks and so we really thought that there was room in the ecosystem for a reference implementation of SMI where the mesh technology was first and foremost implementing those SMI APIs and making it the best possible SMI experience for customers,” Microsoft director of partner management for Azure Compute (and CNCF board member) Gabe Monroy told me.

Image Credits: Microsoft

He also added that, because SMI provides the lowest common denominator API design, Open Service Mesh gives users the ability to “bail out” to raw Envoy if they need some more advanced features. This “no cliffs” design, Monroy noted, is core to the philosophy behind Open Service Mesh.

As for its feature set, SMI handles all of the standard service mesh features you’d expect, including securing communications between services using mTLS, managing access control policies, service monitoring and more.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are plenty of other service mesh technologies in the market today, though. So why would Microsoft launch this?

“What our customers have been telling us is that solutions that are out there today, Istio being a good example, are extremely complex,” he said. “It’s not just me saying this. We see the data in the AKS support queue of customers who are trying to use this stuff — and they’re struggling right here. This is just hard technology to use, hard technology to build at scale. And so the solutions that were out there all had something that wasn’t quite right and we really felt like something lighter weight and something with more of an SMI focus was what was going to hit the sweet spot for the customers that are dabbling in this technology today.”

Monroy also noted that Open Service Mesh can sit alongside other solutions like Linkerd, for example.

A lot of pundits expected Google to also donate its Istio service mesh to the CNCF. That move didn’t materialize. “It’s funny. A lot of people are very focused on the governance aspect of this,” he said. “I think when people over-focus on that, you lose sight of how are customers doing with this technology. And the truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today. I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that’s really the reason why we’re not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment.”

Aug
05
2020
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Amazon inks cloud deal with Airtel in India

Amazon has found a new partner to expand the reach of its cloud services business — AWS — in India, the world’s second largest internet market.

On Wednesday, the e-commerce giant announced it has partnered with Bharti Airtel, the third-largest telecom operator in India with more than 300 million subscribers, to sell a wide-range of AWS offerings under Airtel Cloud brand to small, medium, and large-sized businesses in the country.

The deal could help AWS, which leads the cloud market in India, further expand its dominance in the country. The move follows a similar deal Reliance Jio — India’s largest telecom operator and which has raised more than $20 billion in recent months from Google, Facebook and a roster of other high-profile investors — struck with Microsoft last year to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

Airtel, which serves over 2,500 large enterprises and more than a million emerging businesses, itself signed a similar cloud deal with Google in January this year. That partnership is still in place, Airtel said.

“AWS brings over 175 services to the table. We pretty much support any workload on the cloud. We have the largest and the most vibrant community of customers,” said Puneet Chandok, President of AWS in India and South Asia, on a call with reporters Wednesday noon.

The two companies, which signed a similar agreement in 2015, will also collaborate on building new services and help existing customers migrate to Airtel Cloud, they said.

Today’s deal illustrates Airtel’s push to build businesses beyond its telecom venture, said Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO and Head of Cloud and Security Business at Airtel, on the call. Last month, Airtel partnered with Verizon — TechCrunch’s parent company — to sell BlueJeans video conferencing service to business customers in India.

Deals with carriers were very common a decade ago in India as tech giants rushed to amass users in the country. Replicating a similar strategy now illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments.

India has emerged as one of the emerging leading grounds for cloud services. The public cloud services market of the country is estimated to reach $7.1 billion by 2024, according to research firm IDC.

Jul
31
2020
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Even as cloud infrastructure growth slows, revenue rises over $30B for quarter

The cloud market is coming into its own during the pandemic as the novel coronavirus forced many companies to accelerate plans to move to the cloud, even while the market was beginning to mature on its own.

This week, the big three cloud infrastructure vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their earnings, and while the numbers showed that growth was beginning to slow down, revenue continued to increase at an impressive rate, surpassing $30 billion for a quarter for the first time, according to Synergy Research Group numbers.

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