Mar
19
2019
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AI has become table stakes in sales, customer service and marketing software

Artificial intelligence and machine learning has become essential if you are selling sales, customer service and marketing software, especially in large enterprises. The biggest vendors from Adobe to Salesforce to Microsoft to Oracle are jockeying for position to bring automation and intelligence to these areas.

Just today, Oracle announced several new AI features in its sales tools suite and Salesforce did the same in its customer service cloud. Both companies are building on artificial intelligence underpinnings that have been in place for several years.

All of these companies want to help their customers achieve their business goals by using increasing levels of automation and intelligence. Paul Greenberg, managing principal at The 56 Group, who has written multiple books about the CRM industry, including CRM at the Speed of Light, says that while AI has been around for many years, it’s just now reaching a level of maturity to be of value for more businesses.

“The investments in the constant improvement of AI by companies like Oracle, Microsoft and Salesforce are substantial enough to both indicate that AI has become part of what they have to offer — not an optional [feature] — and that the demand is high for AI from companies that are large and complex to help them deal with varying needs at scale, as well as smaller companies who are using it to solve customer service issues or minimize service query responses with chatbots,” Greenberg explained.

This would suggest that injecting intelligence in applications can help even the playing field for companies of all sizes, allowing the smaller ones to behave like they were much larger, and for the larger ones to do more than they could before, all thanks to AI.

The machine learning side of the equation allows these algorithms to see patterns that would be hard for humans to pick out of the mountains of data being generated by companies of all sizes today. In fact, Greenberg says that AI has improved enough in recent years that it has gone from predictive to prescriptive, meaning it can suggest the prospect to call that is most likely to result in a sale, or the best combination of offers to construct a successful marketing campaign.

Brent Leary, principle at CRM Insights, says that AI, especially when voice is involved, can make software tools easier to use and increase engagement. “If sales professionals are able to use natural language to interact with CRM, as opposed to typing and clicking, that’s a huge barrier to adoption that begins to crumble. And making it easier and more efficient to use these apps should mean more data enters the system, which result in quicker, more relevant AI-driven insights,” he said.

All of this shows that AI has become an essential part of these software tools, which is why all of the major players in this space have built AI into their platforms. In an interview last year at the Adobe Summit, Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis had this to say about AI: “AI will be the single most transformational force in technology,” he told TechCrunch. He appears to be right. It has certainly been transformative in sales, customer service and marketing.

Mar
19
2019
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Teams, Microsoft’s Slack competitor, says it’s signed up over 500k organizations, adds whiteboard and live events support

Microsoft Teams, the collaboration platform that Microsoft built to complement its Office 365 suite of productivity apps for workers — which also ensures a way of keeping those workers staying within its own ecosystem — is hitting a milestone on its second birthday.

Today, the company announced that over 500,000 organizations are now using Teams. The company is not spelling out what that works out to in total users but notes that 150 of them have more than 10,000 users apiece, putting its total user numbers well over 1.5 million.

Alongside this, Microsoft also announced a number of new features that will be coming to Teams as it works on native integrations of more of Microsoft’s own tools to give Teams more functionality and more relevance for a wider range of use cases.

“The rigid hierarchy of the workplace has evolved, and environments are now about inclusivity and transparency,” said Lori Wright, General Manager of Workplace Collaboration at Microsoft, in an interview. “We see these trends playing out all over the world, and this is giving rise to new forms of technology.”

The new features indeed speak to that trend of inclusivity and making platforms more personalised to users. They include customized backgrounds; and support for cameras to capture content to bring in new ways of interacting in Teams beyond text — something that will be further explored with the eventual integration Microsoft Whiteboard, for people to create and ingest presentations that are hand-written into the system.

For those who are either hearing-impaired or cannot use or hear the audio, Microsoft’s adding live captions. And to speak to the purview of CSOs, it’s adding secure channels for private chats as well as “information barriers” that can be put in place for compliance purposes and to make sure that any potential conflicts of interest between channels are kept out; screening for data-loss prevention to prevent sensitive information from being shared.

Finally, it is adding live events support, which will let users create broadcasts on Teams for up to 10,000 people (who do not need to be registered Teams users to attend).

All in all, this is a significant list of product updates. The company kicked off its service as very much a Slack-style product for “knowledge workers” but has since emphasized a more inclusive approach, for all kinds of employees, from front line to back-office.

No updates today to the number of third-party applications that are being incorporated into Teams — an area where Slack has particularly excelled — but Microsoft is focused on making sure that as many users as it has already captured in Office 365, which today number 155 million — eventually also turn on to Teams. “We using as many as the Microsoft services as we can, tapping the Microsoft Graph to feed in services and structure information,” Wright said.

Microsoft is somewhat of a late comer to the collaboration space, coming in the wake of a number of other efforts, but these user figures put the company’s effort well within striking distance of notable, and large, competitors. Last month, Facebook noted that Workplace, its own Slack rival, had 2 million users, also with 150 organizations with more than 10,000 users each included in the number. Slack, meanwhile, in January said it had over 10 million daily active users with the number of organizations on the platform at 85,000.

(Notably, just yesterday Slack made a timely announcement in its bid to court more large enterprises: they will now give regulated customers access to their encrypted keys, an important component to win more business in those sectors.)

 

Mar
14
2019
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Microsoft open sources its data compression algorithm and hardware for the cloud

The amount of data that the big cloud computing providers now store is staggering, so it’s no surprise that most store all of this information as compressed data in some form or another — just like you used to zip your files back in the days of floppy disks, CD-ROMs and low-bandwidth connections. Typically, those systems are closely guarded secrets, but today, Microsoft open sourced the algorithm, hardware specification and Verilog source code for how it compresses data in its Azure cloud. The company is contributing all of this to the Open Compute Project (OCP).

Project Zipline, as Microsoft calls this project, can achieve 2x higher compression ratios compared to the standard Zlib-L4 64KB model. To do this, the algorithm — and its hardware implementation — were specifically tuned for the kind of large data sets Microsoft sees in its cloud. Because the system works at the systems level, there is virtually no overhead and Microsoft says that it is actually able to manage higher throughput rates and lower latency than other algorithms are currently able to achieve.

Microsoft stresses that it is also contributing the Verilog source code for register transfer language (RTL) — that is, the low-level code that makes this all work. “Contributing RTL at this level of detail as open source to OCP is industry leading,” Kushagra Vaid, the general manager for Azure hardware infrastructure, writes. “It sets a new precedent for driving frictionless collaboration in the OCP ecosystem for new technologies and opening the doors for hardware innovation at the silicon level.”

Microsoft is currently using this system in its own Azure cloud, but it is now also partnering with others in the Open Compute Project. Among these partners are Intel, AMD, Ampere, Arm, Marvell, SiFive, Broadcom, Fungible, Mellanox, NGD Systems, Pure Storage, Synopsys and Cadence.

“Over time, we anticipate Project Zipline compression technology will make its way into several market segments and usage models such as network data processing, smart SSDs, archival systems, cloud appliances, general purpose microprocessor, IoT, and edge devices,” writes Vaid.

Feb
24
2019
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Microsoft announces an Azure-powered Kinect camera for enterprise

Today’s Mobile World Congress kickoff event was all about the next Hololens, but Microsoft still had some surprises up its sleeve. One of the more interesting additions is the Azure Kinect, a new enterprise camera system that leverages the company’s perennially 3D imaging technology to create a 3D camera for enterprises.

The device is actually a kind of companion hardware piece for Hololens in the enterprise, giving business a way to capture depth sensing and leverage its Azure solutions to collect that data.

“Azure Kinect is an intelligent edge device that doesn’t just see and hear but understands the people, the environment, the objects and their actions,” Azure VP Julia White said at the kick off of today’s event. “The level of accuracy you can achieve is unprecedented.”

What started as a gesture-based gaming peripheral for the Xbox 360 has since grown to be an incredibly useful tool across a variety of different fields, so it tracks that the company would seek to develop a product for business. And unlike some of the more far off Hololens applications, the Azure Kinect is the sort of product that could be instantly useful, right off the the shelf.

A number of enterprise partners have already begun testing the technology, including Datamesh, Ocuvera and Ava, representing an interesting cross-section of companies. The system goes up for pre-order today, priced at $399. 

Feb
24
2019
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Say hello to Microsoft’s new $3,500 HoloLens with twice the field of view

Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its HoloLens ‘mixed reality’ headset at MWC Barcelona today. The new HoloLens 2 features a significantly larger field of view, higher resolution and a device that’s more comfortable to wear. Indeed, Microsoft says the device is three times as comfortable to wear (though it’s unclear how Microsoft measured this).

Later this year, HoloLens 2 will be available in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand for $3,500.

One of the knocks against the original HoloLens was its limited field of view. When whatever you wanted to look at was small and straight ahead of you, the effect was striking. But when you moved your head a little bit or looked at a larger object, it suddenly felt like you were looking through a stamp-sized screen. HoloLens 2 features a field of view that’s twice as large as the original.

“Kinect was the first intelligent device to enter our homes,” HoloLens chief Alex Kipman said in today’s keynote, looking back the the device’s history. “It drove us to create Microsoft HoloLens. […] Over the last few years, individual developers, large enterprises, brand new startup have been dreaming up beautiful things, helpful things.”

The HoloLens was always just as much about the software as the hardware, though. For HoloLens, Microsoft developed a special version of Windows, together with a new way of interacting with the AR objects through gestures like air tap and bloom. In this new version, the interaction is far more natural and lets you tap objects. The device also tracks your gaze more accurately to allow the software to adjust to where you are looking.

“HoloLens 2 adapts to you,” Kipman stressed. “HoloLens 2 evolves the interaction model by significantly advancing how people engage with holograms.”

In its demos, the company clearly emphasized how much faster and fluid the interaction with HoloLens applications becomes when you can use slides, for example, by simply grabbing the slider and moving it, or by tapping on a button with either a finger or two or with your full hand. Microsoft event built a virtual piano that you can play with ten fingers to show off how well the HoloLens can track movement. The company calls this ‘instinctual interaction.’

Microsoft first unveiled the HoloLens concept at a surprise event on its Redmond campus back in 2015. After a limited, invite-only release that started days after the end of MWC 2016, the device went on sale to everybody in August  2016. Four years is a long time between hardware releases, but the company clearly wanted to seed the market and give developer a chance to build the first set of HoloLens applications on a stable platform.

To support developers, Microsoft is also launching a number of Azure services for HoloLens today. These include spatial anchors and remote rendering to help developers stream high-polygon content to HoloLens.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft never positioned the device as consumer hardware. I may have shown off the occasional game, but its focus was always on business applications, with a bit of educational applications thrown in, too. That trend continued today. Microsoft showed off the ability to have multiple people collaborate around a single hologram, for example. That’s not new, of course, but goes to show how Microsoft is positioning this technology.

For these enterprises, Microsoft will also offer the ability to customize the device.

“When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, repeating a line from the company’s first HoloLens announcement four years ago. He noted that he believes that connecting the physical world with the virtual world will transform the way we will work.

Feb
21
2019
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Microsoft bringing Dynamics 365 mixed reality solutions to smartphones

Last year Microsoft introduced several mixed reality business solutions under the Dynamics 365 enterprise product umbrella. Today, the company announced it would be moving these to smartphones in the spring, starting with previews.

The company announced Remote Assist on HoloLens last year. This tool allows a technician working onsite to show a remote expert what they are seeing. The expert can then walk the less-experienced employee through the repair. This is great for those companies that have equipped their workforce with HoloLens for hands-free instruction, but not every company can afford the new equipment.

Starting in the spring, Microsoft is going to help with that by introducing Remote Assist for Android phones. Just about everyone has a phone with them, and those with Android devices will be able to take advantage of Remote Assist capabilities without investing in HoloLens. The company is also updating Remote Assist to include mobile annotations, group calling and deeper integration with Dynamics 365 for Field Service, along with improved accessibility features on the HoloLens app.

IPhone users shouldn’t feel left out though because the company announced a preview of Dynamics 365 Product Visualize for iPhone. This tool enables users to work with a customer to visualize what a customized product will look like as they work with them. Think about a furniture seller working with a customer in their homes to customize the color, fabrics and design in place in the room where they will place the furniture, or a car dealer offering different options such as color and wheel styles. Once a customer agrees to a configuration, the data gets saved to Dynamics 365 and shared in Microsoft Teams for greater collaboration across a group of employees working with a customer on a project.

Both of these features are part of the Dynamics 365 spring release and are going to be available in preview starting in April. They are part of a broader release that includes a variety of new artificial intelligence features such as customer service bots and a unified view of customer data across the Dynamics 365 family of products.

Feb
07
2019
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Someone could scoop up Slack before it IPOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slack’s growth numbers as of May 2018

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

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

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

Feb
07
2019
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Microsoft Azure sets its sights on more analytics workloads

Enterprises now amass huge amounts of data, both from their own tools and applications, as well as from the SaaS applications they use. For a long time, that data was basically exhaust. Maybe it was stored for a while to fulfill some legal requirements, but then it was discarded. Now, data is what drives machine learning models, and the more data you have, the better. It’s maybe no surprise, then, that the big cloud vendors started investing in data warehouses and lakes early on. But that’s just a first step. After that, you also need the analytics tools to make all of this data useful.

Today, it’s Microsoft turn to shine the spotlight on its data analytics services. The actual news here is pretty straightforward. Two of these are services that are moving into general availability: the second generation of Azure Data Lake Storage for big data analytics workloads and Azure Data Explorer, a managed service that makes easier ad-hoc analysis of massive data volumes. Microsoft is also previewing a new feature in Azure Data Factory, its graphical no-code service for building data transformation. Data Factory now features the ability to map data flows.

Those individual news pieces are interesting if you are a user or are considering Azure for your big data workloads, but what’s maybe more important here is that Microsoft is trying to offer a comprehensive set of tools for managing and storing this data — and then using it for building analytics and AI services.

(Photo credit:Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

“AI is a top priority for every company around the globe,” Julia White, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure, told me. “And as we are working with our customers on AI, it becomes clear that their analytics often aren’t good enough for building an AI platform.” These companies are generating plenty of data, which then has to be pulled into analytics systems. She stressed that she couldn’t remember a customer conversation in recent months that didn’t focus on AI. “There is urgency to get to the AI dream,” White said, but the growth and variety of data presents a major challenge for many enterprises. “They thought this was a technology that was separate from their core systems. Now it’s expected for both customer-facing and line-of-business applications.”

Data Lake Storage helps with managing this variety of data since it can handle both structured and unstructured data (and is optimized for the Spark and Hadoop analytics engines). The service can ingest any kind of data — yet Microsoft still promises that it will be very fast. “The world of analytics tended to be defined by having to decide upfront and then building rigid structures around it to get the performance you wanted,” explained White. Data Lake Storage, on the other hand, wants to offer the best of both worlds.

Likewise, White argued that while many enterprises used to keep these services on their on-premises servers, many of them are still appliance-based. But she believes the cloud has now reached the point where the price/performance calculations are in its favor. It took a while to get to this point, though, and to convince enterprises. White noted that for the longest time, enterprises that looked at their analytics projects thought $300 million projects took forever, tied up lots of people and were frankly a bit scary. “But also, what we had to offer in the cloud hasn’t been amazing until some of the recent work,” she said. “We’ve been on a journey — as well as the other cloud vendors — and the price performance is now compelling.” And it sure helps that if enterprises want to meet their AI goals, they’ll now have to tackle these workloads, too.

Feb
04
2019
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After 5 years, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has transformed more than the stock price

Five years ago today, Satya Nadella took over as CEO at Microsoft, and by most any measure has been wildly successful. It’s common to look at the stock price as the defining metric of Nadella’s tenure, but the stock price triumph has followed something more fundamental and harder to measure: how he changed the culture of the entire organization.

Nadella’s term at Microsoft has paralleled my own here at TechCrunch. I started in April of 2014, and in one of my first posts, I wrote about the difficulty of substantive change inside an organization the size of Microsoft. In those early moments of both our tenures, I recognized a subtle shift was taking place, one toward service, something Microsoft hadn’t been known for under his predecessors Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates.

Microsoft’s five-year stock price journey under Satya Nadella. Stock chart: Yahoo Finance

But Nadella’s inauguration came at a time when technology itself was shifting, moving from a monolithic model — where IT shopped mostly at one vendor, and they were a Microsoft shop or an Oracle shop or an IBM shop, buying a full stack of products — to one where they subscribe to cloud services and choose the best of breed.

This was also happening against the backdrop of the Consumerization of IT, where power was shifting from large administrative departments to users and teams. Nadella seemed to understand all of this.

The shift in strategy, as I wrote, probably began long before Nadella was handed the keys to the CEO office, but perhaps it took a different kind of leader, like Nadella, to turn the battleship that was Microsoft Corporation. Every company has its own politics and biases, and I’m sure Microsoft did as well, but Nadella seemed to manage those, reorganizing the company over time, and shifting priorities. It didn’t come without the pain of layoffs, including one in 2017 when thousands of people were let go. Long-time executives like COO Kevin Turner and head of Windows and devices, Terry Myerson, also left the company.

But Microsoft went from a company trying to compel customers to buy an all-Microsoft, all-the-time kind of approach to one that recognized it was important to work across platforms and to partner widely. To show how serious he was, a year after he started, Nadella set aside his differences with Marc Benioff and Salesforce, and appeared at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s massive customer conference. That was hugely symbolic, given the two companies had engaged in dueling lawsuits over the years, but this was a new day at Microsoft, and Nadella was out to prove it.

In a quote I’ve come back to a number of times over the years, Nadella laid out his new vision of cooperation. While he was going to compete fiercely, of course, he also was going to cooperate where it made sense, because customers demanded it — and under Nadella, it’s all about the customer.

“It is incumbent upon us, especially those of us who are platform vendors to partner broadly to solve real pain points our customers have,” Nadella said at the time. He wasn’t ceding markets, or failing to compete when it mattered, but he also recognized to make customers happy, he had to partner when it made sense.

Back in the days before Satya, partners and developers talked about a much more hostile environment, where it was difficult to get things done, to get the resources they needed, and the attitude was not one of cooperation, but almost hostility. That changed under Nadella, and he should get credit for that.

That all matters, of course, because in the age of the cloud, Nadella’s Dreamforce quote is spot on. Customers expect vendors to cooperate. They expect open APIs. They expect the platform to be friendly to developers — and under Nadella’s leadership, all of this has happened.

The company has also paid closer attention to issues like accessibility, with features such as real-time captions and the new Xbox adaptive controller. Microsoft has instituted programs under Nadella to use AI to improve accessibility, and he has also spoken frequently about responsible AI development.

Nadella has also led an aggressive acquisition strategy using his company’s cash to buy companies big and small. The splashiest acquisitions were LinkedIn for a whopping $26.2 billion in 2016 and GitHub for $7.5 billion last year, but there have been a host of much smaller purchases, most for much less than a billion dollars, that have filled in holes around security, developer productivity, gaming and a wide variety of cloud services.

It is exceedingly difficult to successfully navigate these kinds of broad cultural changes inside a large organization, and while it is probably still a work in progress, Nadella has been mostly effective to this point. The stock price has followed that broader change, but it is not the story here. The story is one of leadership and change management inside a large organization.

Jan
24
2019
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Apple finally brings Microsoft Office to the Mac App Store, and there is much rejoicing

That slow clap you hear spreading around the internet today could be due to the fact that Apple has finally added Microsoft Office to the Mac App Store. The package will include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote.

Shaan Pruden, senior director of worldwide developer relations at Apple, says that when the company overhauled the App Store last year, it added the ability to roll several apps into a subscription package with the idea of bringing Microsoft Office into the fold. That lack of bundling had been a stumbling block to an earlier partnership.

“One of the features that we brought specifically in working with Microsoft was the ability to subscribe to bundles, which is obviously something that they would need in order to bring Office 365 to the Mac App Store.”

That’s because Microsoft sells Office 365 subscriptions as a package of applications, and it didn’t want to alter the experience by forcing customers to download each one individually, Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 explained.

PowerPoint on the Mac. Photo: Apple

Spataro said that until now, customers could of course go directly to Microsoft or another retail outlet to subscribe to the same bundle, but what today’s announcement does is wrap the subscription process into an integrated Mac experience where installation and updates all happen in a way you expect with macOS.

“The apps themselves are updated through the App Store, and we’ve done a lot of great work between the two companies to make sure that the experience really feels good and feels like it’s fully integrated,” he said. That includes support for dark mode, photo continuity to easily insert photos into Office apps from Apple devices and app-specific toolbars for the Touch Bar.

A subscription will run you $69 for an individual or $99 for a household. The latter allows up to six household members to piggyback on the subscription, and each person gets one terabyte of storage, to boot. What’s more, you can access your subscription across all of your Apple, Android and Windows devices and your files, settings and preferences will follow wherever you go.

Businesses can order Microsoft Office bundles through the App Store and then distribute them using the Apple Business Manager, a tool Apple developed last year to help IT manage the application distribution process. Once installed, users have the same ability to access their subscriptions, complete with settings across devices.

Microsoft OneNote on the Mac. Photo: Apple

While Apple and Microsoft have always had a complicated relationship, the two companies have been working together in one capacity or another for nearly three decades now. Neither company was willing to discuss the timeline it took to get to this point, or the financial arrangements between the two companies, but in the standard split for subscriptions, the company gets 70 percent of the price the first year with Apple getting 30 percent for hosting fees. That changes to an 85/15 split in subsequent years.

Apple noted that worldwide availability could take up to 24 hours depending on your location, but you’ve waited this long, you can wait one more day, right?

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