Apr
03
2020
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Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

Mar
31
2020
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Microsoft launches Edge Zones for Azure

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Edge Zones, which will allow Azure users to bring their applications to the company’s edge locations. The focus here is on enabling real-time low-latency 5G applications. The company is also launching a version of Edge Zones with carriers (starting with AT&T) in preview, which connects these zones directly to 5G networks in the carrier’s data center. And to round it all out, Azure is also getting Private Edge Zones for those who are deploying private 5G/LTE networks in combination with Azure Stack Edge.

In addition to partnering with carriers like AT&T, as well as Rogers, SK Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone, Microsoft is also launching new standalone Azure Edge Zones in more than 10 cities over the next year, starting with LA, Miami and New York later this summer.

“For the last few decades, carriers and operators have pioneered how we connect with each other, laying the foundation for telephony and cellular,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “With cloud and 5G, there are new possibilities by combining cloud services, like compute and AI with high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. Microsoft is partnering with them bring 5G to life in immersive applications built by organization and developers.”

This may all sound a bit familiar, and that’s because only a few weeks ago, Google launched Anthos for Telecom and its Global Mobile Edge Cloud, which at first glance offers a similar promise of bringing applications close to that cloud’s edge locations for 5G and telco usage. Microsoft argues that its offering is more comprehensive in terms of its partner ecosystem and geographic availability. But it’s clear that 5G is a trend all of the large cloud providers are trying to tap into. Microsoft’s own acquisition of 5G cloud specialist Affirmed Networks is yet another example of how it is looking to position itself in this market.

As far as the details of the various Edge Zone versions go, the focus of Edge Zones is mostly on IoT and AI workloads, while Microsoft notes that Edge Zones with Carriers is more about low-latency online gaming, remote meetings and events, as well as smart infrastructure. Private Edge Zones, which combine private carrier networks with Azure Stack Edge, is something only a small number of large enterprise companies would likely to look into, given the cost and complexity of rolling out a system like this.

 

Mar
26
2020
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Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant and startups and small-to-medium sized businesses are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expense besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SaaS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dot-com crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, investors can get less cautious and customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest, if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors also could offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation started. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal.

Mar
26
2020
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Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition, and the company’s more than 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G, with its promise of new and expanded markets, makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and president, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post if we hear more. Update: an Affirmed spokesperson told us that this was “part of a succession plan that had been determined previously.  So it was not related [to] any specific event.”

Mar
13
2020
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Pentagon asks court for time to reconsider JEDI award to Microsoft

The JEDI contract award process might never be done. Following legal challenges from Amazon after the Pentagon’s massive, $10 billion cloud contract was awarded to Microsoft in October, the Pentagon indicated in court documents last night that it wishes to reconsider the award.

It’s just the latest plot twist in an epic government procurement saga.

Here’s what we know. The Pentagon filing is based on Amazon’s complaints about the technical part of the deal only. Amazon has said that it believes political interference influenced the awarding of the contract. However, the cloud computing giant also believes it beat Microsoft on the technical merits in a majority of instances required in the request for proposals issued by the Pentagon.

In fact, sources told TechCrunch, “AWS’s protest identified evaluation errors, clear deficiencies and unmistakable bias in six of the eight evaluation factors.”

Obviously Amazon was happy to hear this news. “We are pleased that the DoD has acknowledged ‘substantial and legitimate’ issues that affected the JEDI award decision, and that corrective action is necessary,” a spokesperson stated.

“We look forward to complete, fair, and effective corrective action that fully insulates the re-evaluation from political influence and corrects the many issues affecting the initial flawed award.”

As would expect, Microsoft thinks that the DoD made the correct choice, and believes the review will bear that out. “Over two years, the DoD reviewed dozens of factors and sub factors and found Microsoft equal or superior to AWS on every factor. We remain confident that Microsoft’s proposal was technologically superior, continues to offer the best value, and is the right choice for the DoD,” Microsoft VP of communications Frank Shaw said.

The court granted the Pentagon 120 days to review the results again, but indicated it could take longer. In the meantime, the project is at a standstill.

On Friday, the court issued a ruling that Amazon was likely to succeed on its complaint on merit, and that could have been the impetus of this latest action by the Pentagon.

While the political influence piece might not be overtly part of this filing, it does lurk in the background. The president has made it clear that he doesn’t like Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. As we wrote last year:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

As we previously reported, AWS CEO Andy Jassy stated at a press event at AWS re:Invent in December that the company believed there was political bias at play in the decision-making process.

“What I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”

The story has been updated with a comment from Microsoft. We have requested comment from DoD and will update the story should they respond.

Mar
09
2020
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Box is now letting all staff work from home to reduce coronavirus risk

Box has joined a number of tech companies supporting employees to work remotely from home in response  the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

It’s applying the policy to all staff, regardless of location.

Late yesterday Box co-founder Aaron Levie tweeted a statement detailing the cloud computing company’s response to COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus — to, as he put it, “ensure the availability of our service and safety of our employees”.

In recent days Twitter has similarly encouraged all staff members to work from home. While companies including Amazon, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft have also advised some staff to work remotely to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

In its response statement Box writes that it’s enacted its business continuity plans “to ensure core business functions and technology are operational in the event of any potential disruption”.

“We have long recognized the potential risks associated with service interruptions due to adverse events, such as an earthquake, power outage or a public health crisis like COVID-19, affecting our strategic, operational, stakeholder and customer obligations. This is why we have had a Business Continuity program in place to provide the policies and plans necessary for protecting Box’s operations and critical business functions,” the company writes.

In a section on “workforce resilience and business continuity” it notes that work from home practices are a normal part of its business operations but says it’s now extending the option to all its staff, regardless of the office or location they normally work out of — saying it’s doing so “out of an abundance of caution during COVID-19”.

Other measures the company says it’s taken to further reduce risk include suspending all international travel and limiting non-essential domestic travel; reducing large customer events and gatherings; and emphasizing health and hygiene across all office locations — “by maintaining sanitation supplies and encouraging an ‘if you are sick, stay home’ mindset”.

It also says it’s conducting all new hire orientation and candidate interviews virtually.

Box names a number of tools it says it routinely uses to support mobility and remote working, including its own service for secure content collaboration; Zoom’s video communication tool; the Slack messaging app; Okta for secure ID; plus additional unnamed “critical cloud tools” for ensuring “uninterrupted remote work for all employees”.

Clearly spying the opportunity to onboard new users, as more companies switch on remote working as a result of COVID-19 concerns, Box’s post also links to free training resources for its own cloud computing tools.

This report was updated with a correction to clarify that COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; rather than another name for the virus

Mar
03
2020
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Stack Overflow expands its Teams service with new integrations

Most developers think of Stack Overflow as a question and answer site for their programming questions. But over the last few years, the company has also built a successful business in its Stack Overflow for Teams product, which essentially offers companies a private version of its Q&A product. Indeed, the Teams product now brings in a significant amount of revenue for the company and the new executive team at Stack Overflow is betting that it can help the company grow rapidly in the years to come.

To make Teams even more attractive to businesses, the company today launched a number of new integrations with Jira (Enterprise and Business), GitHub (Enterprise and Business) and Microsoft Teams (Enterprise). These join existing integrations with Slack, Okta and the Business tier of Microsoft Teams.

“I think the integrations that we have been building are reflective of that developer workflow and all of the number of tools that someone who is building and leveraging technology has to interact with,” Stack Overflow Chief Product Officer Teresa Dietrich told me. “When we think about integrations, we think about the vertical right, and I think that ‘developer workflow’ is one of those industry verticals that we’re thinking about. ChatOps is obviously another one, as you can see from our Slack and Teams integration. And the JIRA and GitHub [integrations] that we’re building are really at the core of a developer workflow.”

Current Stack Overflow for Teams customers include the likes of Microsoft, Expensify and Wix. As the company noted, 65 percent of its existing Teams customers use GitHub, so it’s no surprise that it is building out this integration.

Mar
03
2020
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Honeywell says it will soon launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer

“The best-kept secret in quantum computing.” That’s what Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) CEO Ilyas Khan called Honeywell‘s efforts in building the world’s most powerful quantum computer. In a race where most of the major players are vying for attention, Honeywell has quietly worked on its efforts for the last few years (and under strict NDA’s, it seems). But today, the company announced a major breakthrough that it claims will allow it to launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer within the next three months.

In addition, Honeywell also today announced that it has made strategic investments in CQC and Zapata Computing, both of which focus on the software side of quantum computing. The company has also partnered with JPMorgan Chase to develop quantum algorithms using Honeywell’s quantum computer. The company also recently announced a partnership with Microsoft.

Honeywell has long built the kind of complex control systems that power many of the world’s largest industrial sites. It’s that kind of experience that has now allowed it to build an advanced ion trap that is at the core of its efforts.

This ion trap, the company claims in a paper that accompanies today’s announcement, has allowed the team to achieve decoherence times that are significantly longer than those of its competitors.

“It starts really with the heritage that Honeywell had to work from,” Tony Uttley, the president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, told me. “And we, because of our businesses within aerospace and defense and our business in oil and gas — with solutions that have to do with the integration of complex control systems because of our chemicals and materials businesses — we had all of the underlying pieces for quantum computing, which are just fabulously different from classical computing. You need to have ultra-high vacuum system capabilities. You need to have cryogenic capabilities. You need to have precision control. You need to have lasers and photonic capabilities. You have to have magnetic and vibrational stability capabilities. And for us, we had our own foundry and so we are able to literally design our architecture from the trap up.”

The result of this is a quantum computer that promises to achieve a quantum Volume of 64. Quantum Volume (QV), it’s worth mentioning, is a metric that takes into account both the number of qubits in a system as well as decoherence times. IBM and others have championed this metric as a way to, at least for now, compare the power of various quantum computers.

So far, IBM’s own machines have achieved QV 32, which would make Honeywell’s machine significantly more powerful.

Khan, whose company provides software tools for quantum computing and was one of the first to work with Honeywell on this project, also noted that the focus on the ion trap is giving Honeywell a bit of an advantage. “I think that the choice of the ion trap approach by Honeywell is a reflection of a very deliberate focus on the quality of qubit rather than the number of qubits, which I think is fairly sophisticated,” he said. “Until recently, the headline was always growth, the number of qubits running.”

The Honeywell team noted that many of its current customers are also likely users of its quantum solutions. These customers, after all, are working on exactly the kind of problems in chemistry or material science that quantum computing, at least in its earliest forms, is uniquely suited for.

Currently, Honeywell has about 100 scientists, engineers and developers dedicated to its quantum project.

Mar
02
2020
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Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus, goes online-only

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from April 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they get canceled, too.

Feb
28
2020
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Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

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