Microsoft is calling an audible on smart speakers

The Harman Kardon Invoke was fine. But let’s be real — the first Cortana smart speaker was dead on arrival. Microsoft’s smart assistant has its strong suits, but thus far statement of purpose hasn’t been among them. CEO Satya Nadella appears to have acknowledged as much this week during a media event at the company’s Redmond campus.
“Defeat” might be a strong word at this stage, but the executive is publicly acknowledging that the company needs to go back to the drawing board. In its current configuration, the best Microsoft can seemingly hope for with Cortana is a slow ramp up after a greatly delayed start. For all of the company’s recent successes, the gulf between its offering and Alexa, Assistant and (to a lesser degree) Siri must seem utterly insurmountable.
The new vision for Cortana is an AI offering that works in tandem with products that have previously been considered its chief competitors. That’s in line with recent moves. Over the summer, Microsoft and Amazon unveiled integration between the two assistants. Nadella used this week’s event to both reaffirm plans to work with Alexa and Google Assistant and note that past categories probably don’t make sense, going forward.
“We are very mindful of the categories we enter where we can do something unique,” he told the crowd. “A good one is speakers. To me the challenge is, exactly what would we be able to do in that category that is going to be unique?”
It’s a fair question. And the answer, thus far, is nothing. Like Samsung’s Bixby offerings, the primary distinguisher has been the devices on which it has chosen to roll out — appliances for Bixby and PCs for Microsoft. And while moves by Apple, Amazon and Google have all been acknowledgements that desktops and laptops may play an important role in the growth of smart assistants moving forward, they were hardly a major driver early on.
I suspect this will also mean the company will invest less in pushing Cortana as a consumer-facing product for the time being, instead focusing on the ways it can help other more popular assistants play nicely with the Microsoft ecosystem.

Microsoft is calling an audible on smart speakers

Pro.com raises $33M for its home improvement platform

Pro.com is basically a general contractor for the age of Uber and Prime Now. While the company started out as a marketplace for hiring home improvement professionals, it has now morphed into a general contractor and serves Denver, Phoenix San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle. Today, Pro.com announced that it has raised a $33 million Series B round led by WestRiver Group, Goldman Sach and Redfin. Previous investors DFJ, Madrona Venture Group, Maveron and Two Sigma Ventures also participated.
WestRiver founder Erik Anderson, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman and former Microsoft exec Charlotte Guyman are joining the Pro.com board.
“Many of Redfin’s customers struggle to get professional renovation services, so we know firsthand that Pro.com’s market opportunity is massive,” writes Redfin’s Kelman. “Pro.com and Redfin share a commitment to combining technology and local, direct services to best take care of customers.”

The company tells me that the round caps off a successful 2018, where Pro.com saw its job bookings grow by 275 percent over 2017, a number that was also driven by its expansion beyond the Seattle market (as well as the good economic climate that surely helped in driving homeowners to tackle more home improvement projects). The company now has 125 employees.
With this funding round, Pro.com has now raised a total of $60 million. It’ll use the funding to enter more markets, with Portland, Oregon being next on the list, and expand its team as it goes along.
It’s no secret that the home improvement market could use a bit of a jolt. The market is extremely local and fragmented — and finding the right contractor for any major project is a long and difficult process, where the outcome is never quite guaranteed. The process has enough vagueries that many people never get around to actually commissioning their projects. Pro.com wants to change that with a focus on transparency and technology. That’s a startup that’s harder to scale than the marketplace the company started out with, but it also gives the company a chance to establish itself as one of the few well-known brands in this space.

Pro.com raises $33M for its home improvement platform

Hany Farid and Peter Barrett will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

We’re very excited to announce our first guests for this year’s TC Sessions: Robotics. TechCrunch is returning to the U.C. Berkeley campus again this April for another full-day session delving into all aspects of robotics. As we mark our third year, we’ve decided to add programming devoted to artificial intelligence, because you can’t really do robotics without AI.
We’ve got a ton of speakers, panels and demos to announce in the coming months, but we’re excited to start with a pair who encompass two distinct parts of the industry.

Hany Farid is Dartmouth’s Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of Computer Science, with a focus on human perception, image analysis and digital forensics. A recipient of the National Academy of Inventors, Alfred P. Sloan and John Simon Guggenheim fellowships, Farid is set to join the U.C. Berkeley faculty in July of this year.

Peter Barrett is the CTO of Playground Global, an investment firm that has backed a number of robotics startups, including Agility, Canvas, Common Sense, Skydio and Righthand Robotics. Prior to co-founding Playground, Barrett founded Rocket Science Games and served as the CTO of CloudCar and Microsoft TV.
TC Sessions: Robotics + AI is being held April 18 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
Early Bird tickets are on sale now for $249 and students get a big discount with tickets running at just $45.

( function() {
var func = function() {
var iframe = document.getElementById(‘wpcom-iframe-942894630f53ee5f370bcd95fa54eaf9’)
if ( iframe ) {
iframe.onload = function() {
iframe.contentWindow.postMessage( {
‘msg_type’: ‘poll_size’,
‘frame_id’: ‘wpcom-iframe-942894630f53ee5f370bcd95fa54eaf9’
}, “https://tcprotectedembed.com” );
}
}

// Autosize iframe
var funcSizeResponse = function( e ) {

var origin = document.createElement( ‘a’ );
origin.href = e.origin;

// Verify message origin
if ( ‘tcprotectedembed.com’ !== origin.host )
return;

// Verify message is in a format we expect
if ( ‘object’ !== typeof e.data || undefined === e.data.msg_type )
return;

switch ( e.data.msg_type ) {
case ‘poll_size:response’:
var iframe = document.getElementById( e.data._request.frame_id );

if ( iframe && ” === iframe.width )
iframe.width = ‘100%’;
if ( iframe && ” === iframe.height )
iframe.height = parseInt( e.data.height );

return;
default:
return;
}
}

if ( ‘function’ === typeof window.addEventListener ) {
window.addEventListener( ‘message’, funcSizeResponse, false );
} else if ( ‘function’ === typeof window.attachEvent ) {
window.attachEvent( ‘onmessage’, funcSizeResponse );
}
}
if (document.readyState === ‘complete’) { func.apply(); /* compat for infinite scroll */ }
else if ( document.addEventListener ) { document.addEventListener( ‘DOMContentLoaded’, func, false ); }
else if ( document.attachEvent ) { document.attachEvent( ‘onreadystatechange’, func ); }
} )();

Hany Farid and Peter Barrett will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

Microsoft pledges $500M to create affordable housing around Seattle

At a time when tech companies are being blamed for creating housing shortages in cities across the country, Microsoft told the Seattle Times it will make a $500 million pledge, its largest ever, to create affordable housing around Seattle. The company is currently in the middle of a multi-billion dollar expansion of its Redmond, Washington campus.
Microsoft’s pledge comes half a year after Seattle City Council failed to pass a “head tax” that would have required companies making more than $200 million a year to pay $275 per employee in taxes. The money would have been used to address housing issues and homelessness, but council members blamed the repeal of the new tax ordinance on Amazon, which said it would stop construction on a new building if it passed. Amazon is based in Seattle, but also planning new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and Long Island City, New York.
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said the housing pledge grew out of conversations the company began having with Challenge Seattle, an alliance formed by 18 businesses to address civic issues in the area, last summer. Most of the funds will be used to increase housing for low- to middle-income workers across the Puget Sound region.
“At some level we as a region are going to need to either say there are certain areas where we’re comfortable having more people live, or we just want to permanently force the people who are going to teach our kids in schools, and put out the fires in our houses, and keep us alive in the hospital, to spend four hours every day getting to and from work,” Smith told the newspaper. “That is not, in our view, the best outcome for the community.”
Smith added that he hopes the pledge will help create “tens of thousands of units.” In addition to being the largest pledge ever made by Microsoft, which holds $135 billion in cash reserves and short-term investments, the company says it is one of the largest housing contributions ever by a private corporation.
The money will be used in three ways: $225 million will be loaned at below-market interest rates to developers building units for households making between $62,000 to $124,000 a year; $250 million will be used for market-rate loans to support the construction of affordable housing for people making up to 60 percent of the local median income, or about $48,150 for a two-person household; and the rest of the money, $25 million, will be donated to services for low-income and homeless people. Loans will be made over a period of three years and any profit will be put back in the fund.
Microsoft’s affordable housing initiative is partially modeled after Housing Trust Silicon Valley, which provides loans for affordable housing and services for the homeless in the Bay Area.

Microsoft pledges $500M to create affordable housing around Seattle

Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision

While the DoD is in the process of reviewing the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract RFPs (assuming the work continues during the government shutdown), Microsoft continues to build up its federal government security bona fides, regardless.
Today the company announced it has achieved the highest level of federal government clearance for the Outlook mobile app, allowing U.S. Government Community Cloud (GCC) High and Department of Defense employees to use the mobile app. This is on top of FedRamp compliance the company achieved last year.
“To meet the high level of government security and compliance requirements, we updated the Outlook mobile architecture so that it establishes a direct connection between the Outlook mobile app and the compliant Exchange Online backend services using a native Microsoft sync technology and removes middle tier services,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update.
The update will allow these highly security-conscious employees to access some of the more recent updates to Outlook Mobile, such as the ability to add a comment when canceling an event.
This is in line with government security updates the company made last year. While none of these changes are specifically designed to help win the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they certainly help make a case for Microsoft from a technology standpoint.
As Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure Julia White stated in a blog post last year, which we covered, “Moving forward, we are simplifying our approach to regulatory compliance for federal agencies, so that our government customers can gain access to innovation more rapidly.” The Outlook Mobile release is clearly in line with that.

Microsoft shows off government cloud services with JEDI due date imminent

Today’s announcement comes after the Pentagon announced just last week that it has awarded Microsoft a separate large contract for $1.7 billion. This involves providing Microsoft Enterprise Services for the Department of Defense (DoD), Coast Guard and the intelligence community, according to a statement from DoD.
All of this comes ahead of a decision on the massive $10 billion, winner-take-all cloud contract. Final RFPs were submitted in October and the DoD is expected to make a decision in April. The process has not been without controversy, with Oracle and IBM submitting formal protests even before the RFP deadline — and more recently, Oracle filing a lawsuit alleging the contract terms violate federal procurement laws. Oracle has been particularly concerned that the contract was designed to favor Amazon, a point the DoD has repeatedly denied.

Oracle is suing the US government over $10B Pentagon JEDI cloud contract process

Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision

How open source software took over the world

Mike Volpi
Contributor

Share on Twitter

Mike Volpi is a general partner at Index Ventures. Before co-founding the firm’s San Francisco office with Danny Rimer, Volpi served as the chief strategy officer at Cisco Systems.

It was just 5 years ago that there was an ample dose of skepticism from investors about the viability of open source as a business model. The common thesis was that Redhat was a snowflake and that no other open source company would be significant in the software universe.
Fast forward to today and we’ve witnessed the growing excitement in the space: Redhat is being acquired by IBM for $32 billion (3x times its market cap from 2014); Mulesoft was acquired after going public for $6.5 billion; MongoDB is now worth north of $4 billion; Elastic’s IPO now values the company at $6 billion; and, through the merger of Cloudera and Hortonworks, a new company with a market cap north of $4 billion will emerge. In addition, there’s a growing cohort of impressive OSS companies working their way through the growth stages of their evolution: Confluent, HashiCorp, DataBricks, Kong, Cockroach Labs and many others. Given the relative multiples that Wall Street and private investors are assigning to these open source companies, it seems pretty clear that something special is happening.
So, why did this movement that once represented the bleeding edge of software become the hot place to be? There are a number of fundamental changes that have advanced open source businesses and their prospects in the market.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
From Open Source to Open Core to SaaS
The original open source projects were not really businesses, they were revolutions against the unfair profits that closed-source software companies were reaping. Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others were extracting monopoly-like “rents” for software, which the top developers of the time didn’t believe was world class. So, beginning with the most broadly used components of software – operating systems and databases – progressive developers collaborated, often asynchronously, to author great pieces of software. Everyone could not only see the software in the open, but through a loosely-knit governance model, they added, improved and enhanced it.
The software was originally created by and for developers, which meant that at first it wasn’t the most user-friendly. But it was performant, robust and flexible. These merits gradually percolated across the software world and, over a decade, Linux became the second most popular OS for servers (next to Windows); MySQL mirrored that feat by eating away at Oracle’s dominance.
The first entrepreneurial ventures attempted to capitalize on this adoption by offering “enterprise-grade” support subscriptions for these software distributions. Redhat emerged the winner in the Linux race and MySQL (thecompany) for databases. These businesses had some obvious limitations – it was harder to monetize software with just support services, but the market size for OS’s and databases was so large that, in spite of more challenged business models, sizeable companies could be built.
The successful adoption of Linux and MySQL laid the foundation for the second generation of Open Source companies – the poster children of this generation were Cloudera and Hortonworks. These open source projects and businesses were fundamentally different from the first generation on two dimensions. First, the software was principally developed within an existing company and not by a broad, unaffiliated community (in the case of Hadoop, the software took shape within Yahoo!) . Second, these businesses were based on the model that only parts of software in the project were licensed for free, so they could charge customers for use of some of the software under a commercial license. The commercial aspects were specifically built for enterprise production use and thus easier to monetize. These companies, therefore, had the ability to capture more revenue even if the market for their product didn’t have quite as much appeal as operating systems and databases.
However, there were downsides to this second generation model of open source business. The first was that no company singularly held ‘moral authority’ over the software – and therefore the contenders competed for profits by offering increasing parts of their software for free. Second, these companies often balkanized the evolution of the software in an attempt to differentiate themselves. To make matters more difficult, these businesses were not built with a cloud service in mind. Therefore, cloud providers were able to use the open source software to create SaaS businesses of the same software base. Amazon’s EMR is a great example of this.
The latest evolution came when entrepreneurial developers grasped the business model challenges existent in the first two generations – Gen 1 and Gen 2 – of open source companies, and evolved the projects with two important elements. The first is that the open source software is now developed largely within the confines of businesses. Often, more than 90% of the lines of code in these projects are written by the employees of the company that commercialized the software. Second, these businesses offer their own software as a cloud service from very early on. In a sense, these are Open Core / Cloud service hybrid businesses with multiple pathways to monetize their product. By offering the products as SaaS, these businesses can interweave open source software with commercial software so customers no longer have to worry about which license they should be taking. Companies like Elastic, Mongo, and Confluent with services like Elastic Cloud, Confluent Cloud, and MongoDB Atlas are examples of this Gen 3.  The implications of this evolution are that open source software companies now have the opportunity to become the dominant business model for software infrastructure.

The Role of the Community
While the products of these Gen 3 companies are definitely more tightly controlled by the host companies, the open source community still plays a pivotal role in the creation and development of the open source projects. For one, the community still discovers the most innovative and relevant projects. They star the projects on Github, download the software in order to try it, and evangelize what they perceive to be the better project so that others can benefit from great software. Much like how a good blog post or a tweet spreads virally, great open source software leverages network effects. It is the community that is the source of promotion for that virality.
The community also ends up effectively being the “product manager” for these projects. It asks for enhancements and improvements; it points out the shortcomings of the software. The feature requests are not in a product requirements document, but on Github, comments threads and Hacker News. And, if an open source project diligently responds to the community, it will shape itself to the features and capabilities that developers want.
The community also acts as the QA department for open source software. It will identify bugs and shortcomings in the software; test 0.x versions diligently; and give the companies feedback on what is working or what is not.  The community will also reward great software with positive feedback, which will encourage broader use.
What has changed though, is that the community is not as involved as it used to be in the actual coding of the software projects. While that is a drawback relative to Gen 1 and Gen 2 companies, it is also one of the inevitable realities of the evolving business model.
Linus Torvalds was the designer of the open-source operating system Linux.
Rise of the Developer
It is also important to realize the increasing importance of the developer for these open source projects. The traditional go-to-market model of closed source software targeted IT as the purchasing center of software. While IT still plays a role, the real customers of open source are the developers who often discover the software, and then download and integrate it into the prototype versions of the projects that they are working on. Once “infected”by open source software, these projects work their way through the development cycles of organizations from design, to prototyping, to development, to integration and testing, to staging, and finally to production. By the time the open source software gets to production it is rarely, if ever, displaced. Fundamentally, the software is never “sold”; it is adopted by the developers who appreciate the software more because they can see it and use it themselves rather than being subject to it based on executive decisions.
In other words, open source software permeates itself through the true experts, and makes the selection process much more grassroots than it has ever been historically. The developers basically vote with their feet. This is in stark contrast to how software has traditionally been sold.

Virtues of the Open Source Business Model
The resulting business model of an open source company looks quite different than a traditional software business. First of all, the revenue line is different. Side-by-side, a closed source software company will generally be able to charge more per unit than an open source company. Even today, customers do have some level of resistance to paying a high price per unit for software that is theoretically “free.” But, even though open source software is lower cost per unit, it makes up the total market size by leveraging the elasticity in the market. When something is cheaper, more people buy it. That’s why open source companies have such massive and rapid adoption when they achieve product-market fit.
Another great advantage of open source companies is their far more efficient and viral go-to-market motion. The first and most obvious benefit is that a user is already a “customer” before she even pays for it. Because so much of the initial adoption of open source software comes from developers organically downloading and using the software, the companies themselves can often bypass both the marketing pitch and the proof-of-concept stage of the sales cycle. The sales pitch is more along the lines of, “you already use 500 instances of our software in your environment, wouldn’t you like to upgrade to the enterprise edition and get these additional features?”  This translates to much shorter sales cycles, the need for far fewer sales engineers per account executive, and much quicker payback periods of the cost of selling. In fact, in an ideal situation, open source companies can operate with favorable Account Executives to Systems Engineer ratios and can go from sales qualified lead (SQL) to closed sales within one quarter.
This virality allows for open source software businesses to be far more efficient than traditional software businesses from a cash consumption basis. Some of the best open source companies have been able to grow their business at triple-digit growth rates well into their life while  maintaining moderate of burn rates of cash. This is hard to imagine in a traditional software company. Needless to say, less cash consumption equals less dilution for the founders.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Open Source to Freemium
One last aspect of the changing open source business that is worth elaborating on is the gradual movement from true open source to community-assisted freemium. As mentioned above, the early open source projects leveraged the community as key contributors to the software base. In addition, even for slight elements of commercially-licensed software, there was significant pushback from the community. These days the community and the customer base are much more knowledgeable about the open source business model, and there is an appreciation for the fact that open source companies deserve to have a “paywall” so that they can continue to build and innovate.
In fact, from a customer perspective the two value propositions of open source software are that you a) read the code; b) treat it as freemium. The notion of freemium is that you can basically use it for free until it’s deployed in production or in some degree of scale. Companies like Elastic and Cockroach Labs have gone as far as actually open sourcing all their software but applying a commercial license to parts of the software base. The rationale being that real enterprise customers would pay whether the software is open or closed, and they are more incentivized to use commercial software if they can actually read the code. Indeed, there is a risk that someone could read the code, modify it slightly, and fork the distribution. But in developed economies – where much of the rents exist anyway, it’s unlikely that enterprise companies will elect the copycat as a supplier.
A key enabler to this movement has been the more modern software licenses that companies have either originally embraced or migrated to over time. Mongo’s new license, as well as those of Elastic and Cockroach are good examples of these. Unlike the Apache incubated license – which was often the starting point for open source projects a decade ago, these licenses are far more business-friendly and most model open source businesses are adopting them.

MongoDB switches up its open-source license

The Future
When we originally penned this article on open source four years ago, we aspirationally hoped that we would see the birth of iconic open source companies. At a time where there was only one model – Redhat – we believed that there would be many more. Today, we see a healthy cohort of open source businesses, which is quite exciting. I believe we are just scratching the surface of the kind of iconic companies that we will see emerge from the open source gene pool. From one perspective, these companies valued in the billions are a testament to the power of the model. What is clear is that open source is no longer a fringe approach to software. When top companies around the world are polled, few of them intend to have their core software systems be anything but open source. And if the Fortune 5000 migrate their spend on closed source software to open source, we will see the emergence of a whole new landscape of software companies, with the leaders of this new cohort valued in the tens of billions of dollars.
Clearly, that day is not tomorrow. These open source companies will need to grow and mature and develop their products and organization in the coming decade. But the trend is undeniable and here at Index we’re honored to have been here for the early days of this journey.

How open source software took over the world

Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

Illegal child exploitation imagery is easy to find on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. But even more alarming is that Bing will suggest related keywords and images that provide pedophiles with more child pornography. Following an anonymous tip, TechCrunch commissioned a report from online safety startup AntiToxin to investigate. The results were alarming.
Bing searches can return illegal child abuse imagery
[WARNING: Do not search for the terms discussed in this article on Bing or elsewhere as you could be committing a crime. AntiToxin is closely supervised by legal counsel and works in conjunction with Israeli authorities to perform this research and properly hand its findings to law enforcement. No illegal imagery is contained in this article, and it has been redacted with red boxes here and inside AntiToxin’s report.]
The research found that terms like “porn kids,” “porn CP” (a known abbreviation for “child pornography”) and “nude family kids” all surfaced illegal child exploitation imagery. And even people not seeking this kind of disgusting imagery could be led to it by Bing.
When researchers searched for “Omegle Kids,” referring to a video chat app popular with teens, Bing’s auto-complete suggestions included “Omegle Kids Girls 13” that revealed extensive child pornography when searched. And if a user clicks on those images, Bing showed them more illegal child abuse imagery in its Similar Images feature. Another search for “Omegle for 12 years old” prompted Bing to suggest searching for “Kids On Omegle Showing,” which pulled in more criminal content.
Bing’s Similar Images feature can suggest additional illegal child abuse imagery
The evidence shows a massive failure on Microsoft’s part to adequately police its Bing search engine and to prevent its suggested searches and images from assisting pedophiles. Similar searches on Google did not produce as clearly illegal imagery or as much concerning content as did Bing. Internet companies like Microsoft Bing must invest more in combating this kind of abuse through both scalable technology solutions and human moderators. There’s no excuse for a company like Microsoft, which earned $8.8 billion in profit last quarter, to be underfunding safety measures.
Bing has previously been found to suggest racist search terms, conspiracy theories, and nude imagery in a report by How To Geek’s Chris Hoffman, yet still hasn’t sanitized its results
TechCrunch received an anonymous tip regarding the disturbing problem on Bing after my reports last month regarding WhatsApp child exploitation image trading group chats, the third-party Google Play apps that make these groups easy to find, and how these apps ran Google and Facebook’s ad networks to make themselves and the platforms money. In the wake of those reports, WhatsApp banned more of these groups and their members, Google kicked the WhatsApp group discovery apps off Google Play and both Google and Facebook blocked the apps from running their ads, with the latter agreeing to refund advertisers.

WhatsApp has an encrypted child porn problem

Unsafe search
Following up on the anonymous tip, TechCrunch commissioned AntiToxin to investigate the Bing problem, which conducted research from December 30th, 2018 to January 7th, 2019 with proper legal oversight. Searches were conducted on the desktop version of Bing with “Safe Search” turned off. AntiToxin was founded last year to build technologies that protect networks against bullying, predators and other forms of abuse. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.]
AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz tells me that “Speaking as a parent, we should expect responsible technology companies to double, and even triple-down to ensure they are not adding toxicity to an already perilous online environment for children. And as the CEO of AntiToxin Technologies, I want to make it clear that we will be on the beck and call to help any company that makes this its priority.” The full report, published for the first time, can be found here and embedded below:

TechCrunch provided a full list of troublesome search queries to Microsoft along with questions about how this happened. Microsoft’s chief vice president of Bing & AI Products Jordi Ribas provided this statement: “Clearly these results were unacceptable under our standards and policies and we appreciate TechCrunch making us aware. We acted immediately to remove them, but we also want to prevent any other similar violations in the future. We’re focused on learning from this so we can make any other improvements needed.”
A search query suggested by Bing surfaces illegal child abuse imagery
Microsoft claims it assigned an engineering team that fixed the issues we disclosed and it’s now working on blocking any similar queries as well problematic related search suggestions and similar images. However, AntiToxin found that while some search terms from its report are now properly banned or cleaned up, others still surface illegal content.
The company tells me it’s changing its Bing flagging options to include a broader set of categories users can report, including “child sexual abuse.” When asked how the failure could have occurred, a Microsoft spokesperson told us that “We index everything, as does Google, and we do the best job we can of screening it. We use a combination of PhotoDNA and human moderation but that doesn’t get us to perfect every time. We’re committed to getting better all the time.” 
BELLEVUE, WA – NOVEMBER 30: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Microsoft’s spokesperson refused to disclose how many human moderators work on Bing or whether it planned to increase its staff to shore up its defenses. But they then tried to object to that line of reasoning, saying, “I sort of get the sense that you’re saying we totally screwed up here and we’ve always been bad, and that’s clearly not the case in the historic context.” The truth is that it did totally screw up here, and the fact that it pioneered illegal imagery detection technology PhotoDNA that’s used by other tech companies doesn’t change that.
The Bing child pornography problem is another example of tech companies refusing to adequately reinvest the profits they earn into ensuring the security of their own customers and society at large. The public should no longer accept these shortcomings as repercussions of tech giants irresponsibly prioritizing growth and efficiency. Technology solutions are proving insufficient safeguards, and more human sentries are necessary. These companies must pay now to protect us from the dangers they’ve unleashed, or the world will be stuck paying with its safety.

Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

Oil and gas giants Chevron and Occidental are backing tech to combat carbon emissions

Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company developing technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and process it for use in enhanced oil recovery or in the creation of new synthetic fuels, has locked in financing from two big industry backers — Chevron and Occidental Petroleum — to bring its products to market.
The undisclosed amount of capital Carbon Engineering raised from the investment arms of two of the world’s largest oil and gas companies — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures — will be used to commercialize its technology at a time when legislation in California and British Columbia are making low carbon fuels more economically viable, according to a statement from the company’s chief executive, Steve Oldham. The company had already managed to nab Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as an investor.
Gates is one of several big-name backers to be drawn to renewable energy technologies in the face of a steadily warming planet that’s rapidly approaching a tipping point-of-no-return when it comes to global climate change. Together with a group of other multi-billionaires including Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, Masayoshi Son, and Meg Whitman, Gates launched a $1 billion fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures last year to back companies that are developing things like new energy storage and water production technologies.
The Squamish, B.C.-based Carbon Engineering isn’t in the Breakthrough portfolio, but is one of several companies working on making a technology called “direct air capture” of carbon dioxide economically viable.

At the company’s pilot plant in Squamish air gets hoovered up by giant fans into a processing facility where it is treated with potassium hydroxide, which captures and holds the carbon dioxide. Then more chemicals and heat are added to the mix to create millions of smell white pellets — which contain higher concentrations of the carbon dioxide.
After that, the pellets are heated again to create a gas which is almost pure carbon dioxide. That gas can be either sequestered underground (a proposition with no economic benefit for Carbon Engineering at the moment) or converted back into fuels, chemicals, or used in enhanced oil recovery.
Carbon Engineering and competitors like ClimeWorks or Global Thermostat claim that they can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for roughly $100 per ton or a bit less once they can get to scale. To make money though, they’ll need to refine that carbon dioxide into some sort of product — likely a fuel, which will return that carbon to the atmosphere.
Other companies tackling carbon capture like Newlight Technologies and Opus12 convert the carbon into plastics or chemicals while companies like CarbonCure aim to turn the captured carbon into a cement replacement.
While these products from carbon emissions are available, they’re not yet commercially viable at a significant scale. Oldham told National Public Radio that the fuel which Carbon Engineering manufactures is roughly 20 percent more expensive than regular gasoline.
That’s why states like California are putting incentives in place to offset the added costs of using these low carbon products.
Carbon Engineering has already spent $30 million to develop its process, while Climeworks raised $31 million last year to develop its own version of this carbon capture technology.
Not all climate watchers are convinced that these kinds of negative emission technologies are the answer. They argue that it’s less expensive to use renewable energy and other carbon-free energy sources than to take carbon dioxide out of the air.
At this point, though, emission reductions may not be enough. Given the dire reports coming out of the Trump Administration and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s going to take pretty much a combination of everything that humanity’s got to avoid a pretty catastrophic fate for a pretty large portion of the world’s population.

New US report says that climate change could cost nearly $500B per year by 2090

Even the companies that have been notorious for their contributions to the climate crisis that the world faces are waking up to the need for decarbonization (even if it’s an open question of whether they’re being dragged to the table or sitting down of their own free will).
Oxy Low Carbon Ventures is a good example. Reading the writing on the wall the firm has invested not just in Carbon Engineering, but another company called NET Power, which purports to have developed a power plant with zero emissions.
“It is a very important time for the air capture field right now,” said Oldham in a statement. “We’re seeing leading jurisdictions, like California and British Columbia, creating markets for low carbon fuels and technologies like DAC, through effective climate policy. These efficient market-based regulations, and action from energy industry leaders like Occidental and Chevron, show the power of policy in driving innovation and achieving emissions reductions while delivering reliable and affordable energy.”

Oil and gas giants Chevron and Occidental are backing tech to combat carbon emissions

Microsoft’s latest Teams features take aim at shift workers

Collaboration tools tend to be geared toward workers who are sitting at a desk for much of the day, but there are plenty of shift workers, also known as first-line workers, who rarely use a computer, but still need to communicate with one another and management. Microsoft released several new features today aimed at including these workers.
In a blog post announcing the new features, Emma Williams, Microsoft corporate vice president for modern workplace verticals, wrote that there are two billion such workers. By making the product more mobile-friendly and linking to existing enterprise employee management systems, Microsoft can make Teams more relevant for shift employees.
For starters, Microsoft is making mobile Teams more flexible to meet the needs of a variety of shift worker jobs. Some might need to record and share audio messages, while others might need to share their location or access the camera. Whatever the requirements, Microsoft has started with a Firstline Worker configuration policy template, which IT can customize to meet the needs of various worker types.
The mobile tool also includes a navigation bar, which allows workers to add the tools they use most often for easy access. The idea is to make it as simple as possible to access the tools they need, given that these workers tend to be on their feet or on the move a good part of the day.
Photo: MicrosoftNext, the company has released a new API to help IT connect Teams to existing workforce management systems. The Graph API for Shifts enables first-line managers, who are responsible for setting up worker schedules, to share data between a company’s workforce management system and Teams, allowing employees to get all of their shift information in one tool. This will be available in public preview later in the quarter, according to the company.
Finally, the tool now includes a new Praise feature, designed to let managers recognize good work by their employees by issuing badges with messages like “Thank you” and “Problem solver.”
The company wants Teams to be more than a tool for knowledge workers. These new features provide a way to include workers that are sometimes left out of these kinds of collaboration tools. The new features also help Microsoft compete with a number of startups that trying to attack the same problem.
These include Crew, a startup that scored a $35 million Series C round just last month and has raised almost $60 million, and Zinc, which also takes aim at the deskless worker, and has raised $16 million, according to Crunchbase.
Whether Microsoft can appeal to both the knowledge worker and the first-line variety in the same tool remains to be seen, but these updates are clearly an effort to take on this space.

Microsoft’s latest Teams features take aim at shift workers

China’s Nreal raises $15M to shrink augmented headsets to size of sunglasses

A former Magic Leap engineer believes the problem with most consumer-facing augmented headsets on the market is their bulky size.
“You wouldn’t want to wear them for more than one hour,” Xu Chi, founder and chief executive officer of Nreal told me as he put on a bright orange headgear that looked just like plastic Ray-Ban shades. Called Light and powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor, Nreal’s first-generation mixed reality glasses officially launched at Las Vegas’ tech trade show CES this week.
With a lightweight play, the two-year-old Chinese startup managed to bring in some big-name investors. Aside from debuting Light, Nreal also announced this week that it has raised $15 million in total funding to date. The proceeds include a Series A from Shunwei, the venture fund that Xiaomi’s founder set up, Baidu’s video streaming unit iQiyi, investment firm China Growth Capital and others. According to Xu, R&D is his company’s biggest expense at this stage.

Magic Leap and other AR startups have a rough 2019 ahead of them

The financial injection bears strategic significance to Xiaomi and iQIYI. The former is best known for its budget smartphones, but its bigger ambition lies in an Apple Home-like ecosystem that surely welcomes portable MR headsets. IQiyi, on the other hand, already has a channel dedicated to virtual reality, which is meant to immerse the end user in a completely digital environment. MR content may just be around the corner to provide an interactive experience of the real world.
Taking money from Shunwei rather than straight from Xiaomi is a thought-through choice. Xiaomi has backed hundreds of manufacturers to gain control over supply chains. Its portfolio companies, in turn, get access to Xiaomi’s retail channels, but they make comprises on various fronts, such as product design and pricing.
Founder and CEO Xu Chi holding Nreal Light’s glasses and chipset. Photo: Nreal
Xu doesn’t want his freshly minted business to lose independence. “We don’t want to pick sides. We want to be able to work with Oppo and a whole lot of other brands. We want to be compatible with a wide range of devices — smartphones, laptops, PCs, and so on,” said the founder.
In early 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur started Nreal with his co-founder Xiao Bing, an optical engineer. The brand “Nreal” conveys the partners’ vision to bring users to spaces that fall between the real and unreal. Xu, who spent years working and studying in the U.S., decided to pursue his ideas back in his homeland for easier access to supply chains.
“We are combining our technological know-how from overseas with great resources in China’s manufacturing industry,” the founder said of his firm’s edge.
The 85-gram (about 3-ounce) Nreal Light isn’t as featherweight as regular glasses, but it’s a significant improvement from the biggies it’s going after — Magic Leap One and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Nreal was able to shrink its gadget size because it uses a display solution that requires fewer cameras and sensors than its peers, Xu explained.
Furthermore, Nreal is fixated on the consumer market from the outset, unlike its bigger rivals which, in Xu’s words, are “building gadgets for the next five or even 10 years.”
“They want to disrupt everything from cell phones, computers to televisions. They are not necessarily oriented towards consumers,” Xu added.
The smart glasses come in a variety of colors. Photo: Nreal
When it comes to performance, Light claims its display has a 52-degree field of view and a 1080p resolution, which my human eyes weren’t able to verify when I wore it to play an interactive shooting game. That said, I did experience minimum dizziness and latency on Light, as the company promised.
The only irritating part was I started to feel the weight of the specs on my nose bridge a few minutes into my session. Xu assured me that what I tried on was a prototype and that an assortment of nose pads and lenses for different facial features will be available. The glasses also come in a variety of flashy coral colors.
Nreal Light won’t be shipping until Q2 this year and mass production won’t arrive until Q3. Xu hasn’t priced his brainchild, but said it will probably hover around $1,000. By comparison, HoloLens charges $3,000 and Magic Leap One costs $2,300.
Where does that price tag leave Nreal in terms of profitability? It’s a matter of what kind of consumer hardware Nreal wants to become. “Do we want to be Apple or Xiaomi?” The founder asked himself rhetorically. He’s sure of one thing: As the MR industry matures in China, production costs will also come down. The company is already mulling its own factory so as to beef up supply chains and reduce costs, according to Xu.

China’s Nreal raises $15M to shrink augmented headsets to size of sunglasses