Amazon Echo devices can now make Skype calls

Video chat was always one of Echo Show and Spot’s biggest selling points. But until now, the products have been tethered to Amazon’s own software. This week, however, the company took another big step in its ongoing relationship with Microsoft by adding Skype calling to mix.
Now just about every Echo device past and present is able to make calls using the popular platform. Your Echo/Plus/Dot, et al. will be able to do so via voice using a command like, “Alexa Skype Mom.” Echos with displays, meanwhile, will offer up the full video Skype experience. Users can also ask Alexa to dial a phone number via Skype.
It’s a solid partnership for the two companies. Amazon could use better chat support and Microsoft hasn’t made much headway with Cortana-enabled devices. This is also a bit of a blow for Facebook, whose Portal devices are built almost entirely around the idea of offering a standalone home product for video chat. That’s the best and practically only killer app on Facebook’s offering at present.
The feature can be set up through the Alexa mobile app.

Amazon Echo devices can now make Skype calls

One billion 3D views and counting

Alice Lloyd George
Contributor

Alice Lloyd George is an investor at RRE Ventures and the host of Flux, a series of podcast conversations with leaders in frontier technology.

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Last week Sketchfab, the 3D content hub, shared an exciting milestone — the company has just crossed 1 billion cumulative pageviews. Taken with the community’s growth — they just surpassed 2 million users, as well as the 200 million people that have experienced content via Sketchfab more broadly, this makes it one of the platforms with the largest reaches for interactive 3D content on the web.
With Google’s Poly turning one and Microsoft’s Remix 3D turning two, it’s an interesting moment to reflect where we are in the trajectory of the 3D web.
Alban Denoyel, the CEO of Sketchfab has watched the industry and community evolve in the six years since he founded the company. In an interview for Flu I sat with Alban and we got into the history of the business and how he’s built a team between Europe and the U.S., what the company has learned from Youtube and why they are pursuing a distributed content strategy. Alban also shared details on how power creators are using the platform to monetize content, the powerful role 3D plays in cultural heritage, and the importance of figuring out standards and formats in 3D. An excerpt of the conversation can be found below and the full transcript is on Medium.

AMLG: Our guest today is Alban Denoyel. He is the founder and CEO of Sketchfab a hub for 3D content on the internet. The company was founded in 2012 and is based between New York and Paris. I haven’t caught up with you for some time, it’s great to see you again. I believe you had a baby girl in the last few months?
AD: Three months ago.
AMLG: Congratulations. Maybe we can start with a bit your history, how you got into graphics, came over from France for Techstars and the origins of the company.
AD: Sure. We started the company back in 2012 in Paris. I actually had a business background so for the first two years of the company I was the only non-developer in the team. I do sculpture as a hobby and was commissioned to make a large piece. I was trying to figure out what was the most efficient way to make it. That’s how I heard about 3D printing. Back in 2011 in France it was very new. I found it fascinating and was telling everybody about it?—?“3D printing, that’s the future if you haven’t heard about it.”
AMLG: Clay sculptures?
AD: Initially wood sculpture, then for this piece it had to be clay because it was too big for wood and I had to do a mould. A lot of that would have been easier if I had known about 3D scanning and all that stuff. Then in 2012, I left my job because I wanted to start a company. I was trying to meet as many people as possible. I went to a party where I was preaching the 3D printing gospel again. Someone told me, hey you should go talk to this guy back there he’s a 3D guy. So I went to Cedric who is now my co-founder and CTO. He had never heard about 3D printing. But he told me, “I’ve been working on this prototype around 3D. If you are interested I’d be happy to talk more. Let’s have lunch.” So we agreed to have lunch the next day. Then he showed me what was essentially the first web-based 3D player to have ever been built. He had been a 3D programmer in the video game industry for 15 years and was hired by Mozilla to make the first demo of WebGL for the launch of Firefox 4 back in 2011. He built the first WebGL framework?—?so WebGL is now standard but wasn’t standard back then to display 3D graphics in the browser. He showed me the prototype which was really just an upload button, you uploaded a 3D file and got back a URL and saw the 3D file in your web page. No user interface, no nothing.
AMLG: So he had built the core idea already a bit, tinkered with it.
AD: Yeah. He kind of built it as a tool for himself. He was working with 3D artists in the gaming industry and they were sharing screenshots of their work, which sucked. He said hey maybe I can find something better. So he built it for himself and had told nobody about it.
AMLG: Did you convince him to leave his job?

Sketchfab co-founders Alban Denoyel, Cédric Pinson and Pierre-Antoine Passet
AD: He had already moved to full-time freelancing around WebGL. He was super happy as a freelancer, he had no intention to build a business. And I initially had no sense as to whether this would be a sustainable idea. So I just started helping out on the side. It immediately took off because we were the first platform to do that. Then our third co-founder Pierre-Antoine joined us a few months after. We quickly realized we’re the first mover in the space. And that if we wanted to reach our ambitions and find funding and get partnerships with the big tech guys we had to move to the U.S. fast. If you look at other media platforms?—?we had DailyMotion for video in France, we had Deezer for music. They both got doubled by U.S. companies because it was harder back then to move to the U.S. So very early on I started applying to the U.S. accelerators. We first got into Web Forward which was Mozilla’s accelerator, so we spent Q4 of 2012 in San Francisco and then back to Paris. We knew we had to go back to the U.S. as fast as possible and we applied and got into TechStars New York in spring 2013. So that’s how we came back.
AMLG: Ok. So to get into what is Sketchfab—it’s essentially a platform for creators to publish and users to consume 3D content. There’s an embeddable player that displays 3D content across the web. So much of the 3D landscape has changed in the six years since you started the company. What is the biggest difference now?
AD: There’s been shifts on the two sides of the platform, both creation and consumption. When we started there were only professional people creating 3D content. You needed advanced professional tools like 3ds Max or SolidWorks and AutoCAD. The crowd of people who could become Sketchfab users was limited to 20 million or so 3D professionals. Then on the consumption side, there was no VR or AR. 3D printing was very early and there were fewer ways to consume the content. Six years later?—?the iPhone 10 has a depth sensor, which means you can do 3D capture on the spot. That means that anyone with a smartphone will become a 3D creator moving our target user base from 20 million to 2 billion people. Then on the consumption side, 3D used to be meant only for background work, back office stuff like manufacturing. A lot of ads are done with 3D assets but the result is 2D and its the same for movies. Whereas today you can consume stuff that is made in 3D in a 3D form which is VR or AR. So the appetite for 3D content is exploding and there are more and more ways to use and leverage that content. So it’s become increasingly important to be able to share and find that content.

The evolution of capture
AMLG: When it comes to those two sides of the marketplace it feels like on the consumption side we’re at this turning point with VRAR, that we’re about to have all these different ways to consume. But the creation side still feels like a bottleneck. I mean I’m trying to learn Unity so maybe that’s my own personal struggle. But when we talk about how creation has evolved, we started with cave paintings and then went to regular paintings, then photography, then video, and now we’re going to 3D. We’re starting to learn how to capture in 3D.
You mentioned Intel RealSense. Obviously, there was a lot of excitement with Google Project Tango?—?RIP. I still have my Lenovo Phab. I was very excited to get it, it took such a long time to come. But I was hoping we’d see more uptick in capture and content growth from that. My understanding is that the Tango team rolled into AR Core anyway so that’s been a positive. That’s capture. There’s also Tiltbrush and other tools for creating. But overall, is there still a bottleneck?
AD: It’s definitely true that for the average person there aren’t a lot of seamless ways to create content. But the thing is you don’t need a crazy depth sensor to make 3D capture. Most of our 3D captures on Sketchfab are coming from photogrammetry. It’s an older technique stitching a ton of images together. The downside is that it’s much less seamless than depth sensors because you have to take a lot of pictures. But the upside is that the result looks nicer because the tech is more evolved. I would say about half of our uploads are coming from 3D capture. More and more is coming from drones. We see new use cases for 3D captures every day, we see new solutions coming to market every day. I guess for the outside world it may seem like a bottleneck. But for us, because we have become the go-to place to publish that content, we see a lot of volume.
AMLG: In various talks you’ve said that 3D is eating the world. I think that’s true it’s just, along what timeframe? Is it nibbling, is it taking a large chomp, where are we in that… What do you think will be different about 3D and where are we in format standardization?
AD: It’s important to make a differentiation between the formats and the platform to host it. There’s been a lot of technical discussions around which 3D format should be the holy grail of 3D formats. It’s an ecosystem that is much more fragmented than sound or video. But even if we do get to an agreement around the best 3D format you still need a platform to host it, publish it, share it, embed it, display it. That’s where we come in and where YouTube comes in for video. Today you can display a video on a web page without Youtube. It’s part of any normal html5 markup. We’re going to get to the same state for the 3D world.

ugh
AMLG: I remember the days of “please make sure you’ve downloaded Adobe Flash plugin”?—?like, what.
AD: Yeah so Youtube made it easy and then reached critical mass, and at that point there was no reason not to use Youtube because it made it easier. That’s what we want to do.
AMLG: And you’ve done that with the embedded API right? You have that built-in capability now, to view Sketchfab content across the web? Through your partnerships.
AD: Yes. We’ve spent a lot of energy on that. The main difference when it comes to consuming the format is it’s a very different medium. Even if now we’re able to support many volumetric movies which are closer to what a video is, a lot of the content is more like objects or scenes. And while a lot of it makes sense to be consumed as is, there are a number of assets that make more sense combined or reused in a different context. So maybe it’s just because the Web part of the ecosystem is too early to do this efficiently. But what we’ve come to realize is that while YouTube is fully optimized for content being consumed within the Youtube player, we’re just starting to see that there is more value in letting the content go, letting it leave the Sketchfab player to be reused in different contexts.
AMLG: So it’s distributed consumption rather than a destination.
AD: Exactly.

AMLG: Which is why it’s such a feat. I saw pinned to the top of your Twitter that “it took six years but I’m proud to say we’ve been able to partner with Google Apple Facebook Amazon and Microsoft.” Slow but steady. I can’t imagine what kind of work that took. I guess it comes back to what you were saying with WebGL. Curious to get into that?—?it’s really the first web standard that allows you to display 3D graphics in a browser without a plugin. Mozilla has been driving that and you have DNA from Mozilla in your team. What is it about Mozilla? I mean they’re a free open source browser, but why are they such a critical role in this ecosystem? They seem very forward thinking.
AD: They’ve always been pushing for content openness and distribution. A lot of previous formats were quickly grabbed by large tech companies and then locked into proprietary formats like Flash. So they felt this shouldn’t happen for the 3D world. What’s interesting is that they pioneered WebGL back in 2011 2012 and they did it again with WebVR WebAR webXR. They were actually the first browser?—?Firefox?—?to launch with built-in WebVR support out of the box a few months ago, ahead of Google and any other browser which is impressive.
AMLG: So how does this all relate to WebVR?
AD: Well VR is just another screen, another way to consume the content. We are the repository and then you can consume it on mobile on desktop in VR in AR. What I like about WebVR is that instead of having people needing to go to one of the VR destination sites like the Oculus store or the Steam platform?—?people don’t have the habit to do that. We’ve been betting heavily on the concept of embedding content anywhere on the Web. Our content is traveling across e-commerce websites, news sites and so on. Then you run into the Sketchfab player wherever you are?—?in your Facebook feed, in a tweet. You can consume it the way you want. If you have your VR headset plugged in you can just jump into it in VR without having to worry about anything else.
AMLG: So it’s hardware agnostic right? And the API works for this. That API essentially gives developers access to your 150,000 3D models?
AD: So WebVR lets you consume our entire library of 3 million plus assets straight from our player. Our player is VR enabled for the web. And then our download API is a pipeline to get the content outside of our player to be used natively inside any other?—?well it can then re-end into WebVR but in another platform —
AMLG: I may have to draw a diagram for listeners. But what you’re saying is you’ve made it really easy for people to access.
AD: Yeah to search?—?the concept is a search bar for the 3D world. Just like when you are in Photoshop or even Google Slides, if you want to get content, they have integrations with guys like Shutterstock or Getty or Fotolia . It’s just a library of 2D stuff. We want to do the same thing for the 3D world.

November 13th 2018 announcement
AMLG: To get into the numbers and give listeners a sense, as of July you have a community of over a million and a half users who’ve published close to 3 million 3D models, which I believe makes Sketchfab the largest library of 3D volumetric content online?
AD: We’re close to 2 million users now and we just passed 3 million assets.
AMLG: Can you get into uniques per month?—?you said a few months ago maybe five million. I’m guessing it’s somewhere near 10 million now?
AD: Yeah we’re in between that.
AMLG: OK. I want to get a bit more concrete around the types of content. Initially you were targeting 3D artists, animation, gaming studios?—?it seems like over time use cases and content types are much broader than you thought?
AD: We’ve had this kind of tension, in terms of market and even in terms of co-founders. I wanted to get traction and critical mass and volume and go for like Youtube model. My co-founders were more like, we need to serve the artists and make a solution for the best content, and having the best content will reflect positively on our platform. So do we go after less great content? We quickly became the market leader and so we decided we might as well go for every type of 3D content. So today we managed to grab the high end of the market. If you go to Sketchfab, the curated part is really high-end stuff that takes a month or six months to build. Then we have the long tail of things that are drawn by kids in Tiltbrush or 3D capture. Like I make portraits of my son, it’s not great content but it’s great content for me.

It seems like shoes come up a lot. I saw your Balenciaga partnership for their trainers, it’s high-quality stuff. You’re into shoes and have uploaded shoes. What is it with 3D shoes and e-commerce, and when is e-commerce 3D going to start penetrating for the average person?

Brands Sketchfab has worked with
AD: It always sounded crazy to me that when you buy your product you go to the product page and then you have 10 pictures of 10 angles of the product. We can do better than that. Then, of course, you think about AR and VR and the day that we will have Apple AR glasses on our head. Every brand will need a virtual version of their products. The good news is that most brands manufacture physical products, and they start with a 3D design because they need to manufacture it. So a lot of them already have 3D files of what they sell. But most of this content doesn’t look good and isn’t meant to be consumed that way.

Sketchfab collaboration with Balenciaga
We want to help 3D get into e-commerce and we’re starting with verticals where 3D is the most relevant and already present and accessible. Those categories are typically things like furniture. We work with brands like made.com. Shoes is an area where 3D is very present in innovation, just to design a shoe, and it’s also easy to 3D scan a shoe and has a great result. Often we combine both. I guess I also have a bias because I’m a shoe person —
AMLG: A sneakerhead.
AD: Yeah. I really want to get all the, well we actually already work with Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Crocs?—?I want to work with the shoe brands. It also seems like the type of product like you care more about seeing in 3D than a T-shirt. It’s more expensive. And then there are so many differences from one shoe to another. So many components and technical features.
AMLG: Do you think any businesses are proving out an ROI with 3D yet when it comes to e-commerce?
AD: Well we’ve started experimenting with free advertising, partnering with Google and programmatic networks to get our player to run 3D ads. We’ve seen a much better ROI than 2D ads. Like for a jewelry brand we did a case study. But to be honest, when I pitch an e-commerce brand I’m not pitching the ROI angle first. It’s a byproduct and I expect it to be ROI positive. But 10 years from now you will need to be ready for when virtual content is seamlessly shared with physical content. So what do you do today to be ready for that?
AMLG: Get ahead of the curve.
AD: Yes and today it starts with a web-based player of your products on an e-commerce site, and then tomorrow, I don’t know what the user interface is going to be for AR VR —
AMLG: Why am I not seeing more 3D on Amazon . Are they going to do it?
AD: That’s a long conversation but yes they’re working on it.
AMLG: I would think so. They’re usually ahead of these things. I guess to get more into a random question for you— if you could go back in history and 3D capture any human or any place, what would it be?
AD: Well my last grandmother just passed away. She is the only one I was able to capture in 3D four years ago because she came to visit me in New York. It sounds silly but I would love to have 3D portraits of all my grandparents. It’s as close to who they were and who they are.
AMLG: Yeah it’s powerful stuff.
AD: I take 3D portraits of my kids. It sounds silly —

8i’s “mom-and-baby” hologram
AMLG: No not at all. We have a company called 8i and one of the first things they did was capture a mother holding a baby. It’s been one of the most popular assets. She came back a year later and stepped into herself again to hold the baby. She couldn’t believe how much her child had grown, stepping back into her own hologram and holding the baby. It was an interesting moment. That’s what they’ve found in capturing these human moments. I’d be curious to hear what was the first thing you ever uploaded or sold on Sketchfab?
AD: The first asset I sold was a 3D capture of a chocolate croissant. It sold for $4.99. What’s interesting is that first, we had no idea if 3D captures would sell on our store because traditionally it’s an industry driven by high-end computer graphics and 3D captures are usually not optimized, the content doesn’t always look as good. So I was not expecting to sell it. Also, I had no idea who would have use of a virtual version of a croissant that costs more than the actual thing. Then I did a bit of research. It turns out it was an entrepreneur building an AR app to give nutritional advice on food. He’s doing machine learning on virtual versions of foods, so he is able to look at any actual food piece and say, hey —
AMLG: I think I’ve come across this guy. I remember someone doing this.
AD: There are probably several people doing that. But what’s interesting is, don’t assume that things won’t sell. Because you never know how they are going to be used. It was just a great surprise for me and for Sketchfab as a platform.

One billion 3D views and counting

Microsoft acquires FSLogix to enhance Office 365 virtual desktop experience

Back in September, Microsoft announced a virtual desktop solution that lets customers run Office 365 and Windows 10 in the cloud. They mentioned several partners in the announcement that were working on solutions with them. One of those was FSLogix, a Georgia virtual desktop startup. Today, Microsoft announced it has acquired FSLogix. It did not share the purchase price.
“FSLogix is a next-generation app-provisioning platform that reduces the resources, time and labor required to support virtualization,” Brad Anderson, corporate VP for Microsoft Office 365 and Julia White, corporate VP for Microsoft Azure, <a href=”https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2018/11/19/microsoft-acquires-fslogix-to-enhance-the-office-365-virtualization-experience/”>wrote in a joint blog post today.
When Microsoft made the virtual desktop announcement in September they named Citrix, CloudJumper, Lakeside Software, Liquidware, People Tech Group, ThinPrint and FSLogix as partners working on solutions. Apparently, the company decided it wanted to own one of those experiences and acquired FSLogix.
Microsoft believes by incorporating the FSLogix solution, it will provide a better virtual desktop experience for its customers by enabling better performance and faster load times, especially for Office 365 ProPlus customers.
Randy Cook, founder and CTO at FSLogix, said the acquisition made sense given how well the two companies have worked together over the years. “From the beginning, in working closely with several teams at Microsoft, we recognized that our missions were completely aligned. Both FSLogix and Microsoft are dedicated to providing the absolute best experience for companies choosing to deploy virtual desktops,” Cook wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.
Lots of companies have what are essentially dumb terminals running just the tools each employee needs, rather than a fully functioning standalone PC. Citrix has made a living offering these services. When employees come in to start the day, they sign in with their credentials and they get a virtual desktop with the tools they need to do their jobs. Microsoft’s version of this involves Office 365 and Windows 10 running on Azure.
FSLogix was founded in 2013 and has raised more than $10 million, according to data on Crunchbase. Today’s acquisition, which has already closed according to Microsoft, comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that the company was buying Xoxco, an Austin-based developer shop with experience building conversational bots.

Office 365, Azure users are locked out after a global multi-factor authentication outage

Microsoft acquires FSLogix to enhance Office 365 virtual desktop experience

Office 365, Azure users are locked out after a global multi-factor authentication outage

Good morning! Except if you’re a hosted Microsoft customer who’s locked out of your account right now.
Microsoft’s cloud-based multi-factor authentication services went down across the globe early Monday morning, preventing access to users who are required to sign in using a second layer of authentication to their account, such as a text message, a push notification on their phone, or a hardware key. You hit the password page, and then you’re stuck — no code, no notification, nothing.
“Affected users may be unable to sign in,” said a notice on Office 365’s service health page, confirming the outage.
More than half a day later, the service is still struggling.

Engineers are actively investigating an ongoing issue affecting Azure Active Directory, when Multi-Factor Authentication is required by policy. Please refer to https://t.co/Dw19fIoS5H for updates.
— Azure Support (@AzureSupport) November 19, 2018

Impacts O365 MFA too. I should point out, it is normally rock solid – I ponder how many orgs will globally turn it off due to this outage.
— Kevin Beaumont (@GossiTheDog) November 19, 2018

At the time of writing, Microsoft said it has deployed a hotfix to get the service up and running again, but will “continue to monitor any updates” for the next couple of hours. “We’ve received reports that users may no longer receive alerts, so we’re analyzing diagnostic logs to understand why,” the company added.
So far, there’s no clear reason for the outage, and the company is still investigating. A spokesperson for Microsoft said that while some users “are now authenticating successfully, we’re working to address the delay some customers continue to experience using multi-factor authentication in some regions.”
It’s not been a great week for Microsoft’s multi-factor authentication. On Friday, TechCrunch reported that Voxox, a SMS gateway provider used by Microsoft and other companies to deliver two-factor codes by text message, exposed millions of text messages, thanks to an exposed server. But sources familiar with Microsoft’s ongoing effort to remediate its multi-factor authentication outage said the two are not linked.
Multi-factor authentication adds a significantly greater layer of protection on an email account than just a password. But, as a crucial mechanism for users to log in, it’s also a single point of failure if the system breaks.
A system so secure that even its users can’t log in. Who knew?

A leaky database of SMS text messages exposed password resets and two-factor codes

Office 365, Azure users are locked out after a global multi-factor authentication outage

Microsoft to shut down HockeyApp

Microsoft announced plans to shut down HockeyApp and replace it with Visual Studio App Center. The company acquired the startup behind HockeyApp back in 2014. And if you’re still using HockeyApp, the service will officially shut down on November 16, 2019.
HockeyApp was a service that let you distribute beta versions of your app, get crash reports and analytics. There are other similar SDKs, such as Google’s Crashlytics, TestFairy, Appaloosa, DeployGate and native beta distribution channels (Apple’s TestFlight and Google Play Store’s beta feature).
Microsoft hasn’t really been hiding its plans to shut down the service. Last year, the company called App Center “the future of HockeyApp”. The company has also been cloning your HockeyApp projects into App Center for a while.
It doesn’t mean that you’ll find the same features in App Center just yet. The company has put up a page with a feature roadmap. Let’s hope that Microsoft has enough time to release everything before HockeyApp shuts down.

Microsoft to shut down HockeyApp

Microsoft could release a disc-less Xbox One

According to a new report from Thurott, Microsoft has been working on a new console in the Xbox One family. This cheaper model could play regular Xbox One games, but there would be no Blu-Ray drive.
This move would lower the price of the entry-level Xbox One. An Xbox One S officially starts at $299 but you can currently find it for around $250 on Amazon. The disc-less Xbox One could start at $199.
If you already have an Xbox One and physical games, you could imagine going to an official retailer to trade your discs for a digital download code. Let’s hope that this new Xbox comes with a big hard drive for those who have a slow internet connection.
Back when Microsoft first unveiled the Xbox One in 2013, the company wanted to make a big push toward digital games. The original plan was that you would associate your physical games with your Xbox account. After that, you could play the game even without inserting the disc. Microsoft also planned a way to lend a digital game to a friend for 30 days.
After some backlash, Microsoft gave up on this plan and switched back to a more traditional system. But it’s been five years, digital games are more popular than ever and internet connections are faster than ever.
Microsoft also thinks the future of games is based on subscriptions. With the Xbox Game Pass, you can access dozens of games for $10 per month. You can also subscribe to EA Access on the Xbox One. Eventually, you could imagine replacing the Xbox altogether with a subscription for a streaming service. But we’re not there yet.
According to Thurott, Microsoft is also working on an updated Xbox One S that could be a bit cheaper. This one would have a traditional disc drive.

Microsoft could release a disc-less Xbox One

Microsoft to acquire Xoxco as focus on AI and bot developers continues

Microsoft has been all in on AI this year, and in the build versus buy equation, the company has been leaning heavily toward buying. This morning, the company announced its intent to acquire Xoxco, an Austin-based software developer with a focus on bot design, making it the fourth AI-related company Microsoft has purchased this year.
“Today, we are announcing we have signed an agreement to acquire Xoxco, a software product design and development studio known for its conversational AI and bot development capabilities,” Lili Cheng, corporate VP for conversational AI at Microsoft wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.
Xoxco, which was founded in 2009 — long before most of us were thinking about conversational bots — has raised $1.5 million. It began working on bots in 2013, and is credited with developing the first bot for Slack to help schedule meetings. The companies did not reveal the price, but it fits nicely with Microsoft’s overall acquisition strategy this year, and an announcement today involving a new bot building tool to help companies build conversational bots more easily.
When you call into a call center these days, or even interact on chat, chances are your initial interaction is with a conversational bot, rather than a human. Microsoft is trying to make it easier for developers without AI experience to tap into Microsoft’s expertise on the Azure platform (or by downloading the bot framework from its newly acquired GitHub).
“With this acquisition, we are continuing to realize our approach of democratizing AI development, conversation and dialog, and integrating conversational experiences where people communicate,” Cheng wrote.
The new Virtual Assistant Accelerator solution announced today also aligns with the Xoxco purchase. Eric Boyd, corporate VP for AI at Microsoft, says the Virtual Assistant Accelerator pulls together some AI tools such as speech-to-text, natural language processing and an action engine into a single place to simplify bot creation.
“It’s a tool that makes it much easier for you to go and create a virtual assistant. It orchestrates a number of components that we offer, but we didn’t make them easy to use [together]. And so it’s really simplifying the creation of a virtual assistant,” he explained.
Today’s acquisition comes on the heels of a number of AI-related acquisitions. The company bought Semantic Machines in May to give users a more life-like conversation with bots. It snagged Bonsai in June to help simplify AI development. And it grabbed Lobe in September, another tool for making it easier for developers to incorporate AI in their applications.

Microsoft to acquire Xoxco as focus on AI and bot developers continues

Airbnb ends forced arbitration days after Google, Facebook did the same

The Google employee walkout on Nov. 1 is leaving a lasting impact on the tech industry.
In the immediate aftermath of the walkout, which saw thousands of Googlers across the globe protest the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment and misconduct claims, the search giant said it would put an end to its policy of forced arbitration for employees claiming workplace harassment. Facebook followed suit, announcing the next day that it would allow its employees to pursue claims of sexual harassment in court.
Today, Airbnb and eBay confirmed to TechCrunch they too would no longer require sexual harassment claims to be settled through private arbitration. Their announcements follow a BuzzFeed News article exploring which tech companies were updating their policies in light of the Google protest.
Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment & misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.
“We are a company who believes that in the 21st Century it is important to continually consider and reconsider the best ways to support our employees and strengthen our workplace,” a spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “From the beginning, we have sought to build a culture of integrity and respect, and today’s changes are just one more step to drive belonging and integrity in our workplace.”
Here’s what eBay had to say about its decision: “eBay takes great pride in fostering an inclusive culture that allows employees to feel comfortable and encouraged to report any workplace issues. We’ve adjusted our existing employee policy regarding sexual harassment claims to better reflect and encourage eBay’s values of being open, honest and direct.”
According to BuzzFeed, Pinterest, Oath, Twitter, Reddit and others have never required mandatory arbitration. Uber, Lyft and Microsoft each put an end to forced arbitration in the last year.
Arbitration is a private method of solving a dispute without a judge, jury or right to an appeal. Companies that require forced arbitration waive their employees’ rights to sue and to participate in a class-action lawsuit.

Google walkout organizers aren’t satisfied with CEO’s response

Throwing out its policy of forced arbitration was one of the five demands disgruntled employees had for Google. In a Medium post last week, the walkout organizers commended Google’s decision to end forced arbitration while emphasizing the company’s failure to address all of their demands.
…”The response ignored several of the core demands?—?like elevating the diversity officer and employee representation on the board?—?and troublingly erased those focused on racism, discrimination, and the structural inequity built into the modern day Jim Crow class system that separates ‘full time’ employees from contract workers. Contract workers make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.”
Google employees began crafting a plan for a company-wide walkout in late October, days after a bombshell New York Times investigation revealed Google had given Android co-creator Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package despite multiple relationships with other Google  staffers and accusations of sexual misconduct.
Rubin, for his part, has said that the NYT’s story contained “numerous inaccuracies.”

Google walkout organizer: ‘I hope I still have a career in Silicon Valley after this’

Airbnb ends forced arbitration days after Google, Facebook did the same

In venture capital, it’s still the age of the unicorn

Howie Xu
Contributor

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Howie Xu is the vice president of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Zscaler. He previously co-founded TrustPath and served as an entrepreneur in residence at Greylock.

This month marks the 5-year anniversary of Aileen Lee’s landmark article, “Welcome To The Unicorn Club”.
At the time, the piece defined a new breed of startup — the $1 billion privately held company. When Lee did her first count, there were 39 “unicorns”; an improbable, but not impossible number.. Today, the once-scarce unicorn has become a global herd with 376 companies on the roster and counting.

Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups

But the proliferation of unicorns begs raises certain questions. Is this new breed of unicorn artificially created? Could these magical companies see their valuations slip and fall out of the herd? Does this indicate an irrational exuberance where investors are engaging in wish fulfilment and creating magic where none actually existed?
List of “unicorn” companies worth more than $1 billion as of the third quarter of 2018
There’s a new “unicorn” born every four days
The first change has been to the geographic composition and private company requirement of the list. The original qualification for the unicorn study was “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” The unicorn definition has changed and here is the popular and wiki page definition we all use today: “A unicorn is a privately held startup company with a current valuation of US$1 billion or more.”
Beyond the expansion of the definition of terms to include a slew of companies from all over the globe, there’s been a concurrent expansion in the number of startup technology companies to achieve unicorn status. There is a tenfold increase in annual unicorn production.
Indeed, while the unicorn is still rare but not as rare as before. Five years ago, roughly ten unicorns were being created a year, but we are approaching one hundred new unicorns a year in 2018.
As of November 8, we have seen eighty one newly minted unicorns this year, which means we have one new unicorn every four days.
There are unicorn-sized rounds every day
These unicorns are also finding their horns thanks to the newly popularized phenomena of mega rounds which raise $100 million or more. These deals are ten times more common now, than they were only five years ago.   
Back in 2013, there were only about four mega rounds a month, but now there are forty mega rounds a month based on Crunchbase data. In fact, starting from 2015, public market IPO has for the first time no longer been the major funding source for unicorn size companies.

Unicorns have been raising money from both traditional venture capital but also more from the non-traditional venture capital such as SoftBank, sovereign wealth funds, private equity funds, and mutual funds.
Investors are chasing the value creation opportunity.   Most people probably did not realize that Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle all debuted on public markets for less than a $1 billion market cap (in fact only Microsoft topped $500 million), but today they together are worth more than $2 trillion dollars  
It means tremendous value was created after those companies came to the public market.  Today, investors are realizing the future giant’s value creation has been moved to the “pre-IPO” unicorn stage and investors don’t want to miss out.
To put things in perspective, investors globally deployed $13 billion in almost 20,000 seed & angel deals, and SoftBank was able to deploy the same $13 billion amount in just 2 deals (Uber and WeWork).  The SoftBank type of non-traditional venture world literally redefined “pre-IPO” and created a new category for venture capital investment.
Unicorns are staying private longer
That means the current herd of unicorns are choosing to stay private longer. Thanks to the expansion of shareholders private companies can rack up under the JOBS Act of 2012; the massive amount of funding available in the private market; and the desire of founders to work with investors who understand their reluctance to be beholden to public markets.
Elon Musk was thinking about taking Tesla private because he was concerned about optimizing for quarterly earning reports and having to deal with the overhead, distractions, and shorts in the public market.  Even though it did not happen in the end, it reflects the mentality of many entrepreneurs of the unicorn club. That said, most unicorn CEOs know the public market is still the destiny, as the pressure from investors to go IPO will kick in sooner or later, and investors expect more governance and financial transparency in the longer run.
Unicorns are breeding outside of the U.S. too
Finally, the current herd of unicorns now have a strong global presence, with Chinese companies leading the charge along with US unicorns. A recent Crunchbase graph indicated about 40% of unicorns are from China,, 40% from US, and the rest from other parts of the world.

Back in 2013, the “unicorn” is primarily a concept for US companies only, and there were only 3 unicorn size startups in China (Xiaomi, DJI, Vancl) anyways.  Another change in the unicorn landscape is that, China contributed predominantly consumer-oriented unicorns, while the US unicorns have always maintained a good balance between enterprise-oriented and consumer-oriented companies.  One of the stunning indications that China has thriving consumer-oriented unicorns is that China leads US in mobile payment volume by hundredfold.
The fundamentals of entrepreneurship remain the same
Despite the dramatic change of the capital market, a lot of the insights in Lee’s 5-year old blog are still very relevant to early stage entrepreneurs today.
For example, in her study, most unicorns had co-founders rather than a single founder, and many of the co-founders had a history of working together in the past.
This type of pattern continues to hold true for unicorns in the U.S. and in China. For instance, the co-founders of Meituan (a $50 billion market cap company on its IPO day in September 2018) went to school together and had co-founded a company before
There have been other changes. In the past three months alone, four new US enterprise-oriented unicorns have emerged by selling directly to developers instead of to the traditional IT or business buyers; three China enterprise-oriented SaaS companies were able to raise mega rounds.  These numbers were unheard of five years ago and show some interesting hints for entrepreneurs curious about how to breed their own unicorn.

The new normal is reshaping venture capital 
Once in a while, we see eye-catching headlines like “bubble is larger than it was in 2000.”   The reality is companies funded by venture capital increased by more than 100,000 in the past five years too. So the unicorn is still as rare as one in one thousand in the venture backed community.
What’s changing behind the increasing number of unicorns is the new normal for both investors and entrepreneurs. Mega rounds are the new normal; staying private longer is the new normal; and the global composition of the unicorn club is the new normal. 
Just look at the evidence in the venture industry itself. Sequoia Capital, the bellwether of venture capital, raised a whopping $8 billion global growth mega fund earlier this year under pressure from SoftBank and its $100 billion mega-fund. And Greylock Partners, known for its focus and success in leading early stage investment, recently led a unicorn round for the first time in its 53-year history.  
It’s proof that just as venture capitalists have created a new breed of startups, the new startups and their demands are reshaping venture capital to continue to support the the companies they’ve created.

In venture capital, it’s still the age of the unicorn