Signal expands into the Signal Foundation with $50M from WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton


Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about Signal when I spoke with Moxie Marlinspike, the encrypted chat service’s creator, last year at Disrupt, was that it was essentially running on a shoestring budget. An indispensable tool used by millions and feared by governments worldwide, barely getting by! But $50 million from WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton should help secure the app’s future, through the newly founded Signal Foundation nonprofit.

The arrangement was announced in a dual blog post by Marlinspike and Acton on the Signal blog. As the former writes:

Signal has never taken VC funding or sought investment, because we felt that putting profit first would be incompatible with building a sustainable project that put users first. As a consequence, Signal has sometimes suffered from our lack of resources or capacity in the short term, but we’ve always felt those values would lead to the best possible experience in the long term.

This enforced austerity of having few developers (count them on one hand) and no real office (they work in a shared space) has finally resulted in substantial dividends — well, not dividends technically, but certainly just rewards.

Operating as a nonprofit keeps things simple for Signal, much as they have been for years: offer this service as a public good, cover the cost with donations and grants, and never feel any pressure to make any money or pay off investors. The $50M comes directly from Acton’s own funds.

Well, almost no pressure. In Acton’s part of the post, he explains that although the goal is “to pioneer a new model of technology nonprofit focused on privacy and data protection for everyone, everywhere,” they also want to make the Signal Foundation “financially self-sustaining.” Later, he suggests “multiple offerings that align with our core mission” are in the future.

There are more and less charitable ways to take these statements. The cynical reporter in me sees these as foreshadowing of some kind of monetization plan: turn Signal into a freemium offering, set up Signal Pro or the like. Acton did just recently come from the WhatsApp-Facebook colossus, after all.

But having met Marlinspike and seen what the team has done over the last few years (not to mention the good work that originally established WhatsApp), I’m far more inclined towards the more charitable interpretation, which is simply that that there’s a way to make Signal pay for itself without compromising the principles that led to its creation in the first place.

In terms of official roles, Acton will be executive chairman of the Signal Foundation, while Marlinspike will remain CEO (and chief developer presumably) of Signal Messenger, its own nonprofit under the Foundation umbrella.

Users likely won’t see any changes, except perhaps for features on the roadmap arriving a little sooner than expected.

I’ve asked Marlinspike for a few more specifics and will update if I hear back.

Click around sweet 3D Facebook posts as update adds more VR to News Feed

Virtual reality content isn’t just for Facebook Camera anymore. On Tuesday, February 20, Facebook added support for the GITF 2.0 file format — which means more interactive 3D posts are coming straight to your News Feed. The change brings more detailed interactive posts that allow users to scroll around in a 360 view of an object, all without leaving the News Feed.

Facebook announced 3D compatibility on the News Feed last fall, but the latest update adds support for an industry-standard file format. This format, Faceboook says, allows for more detailed interactive graphics to enter the News Feed, including 3D art that includes texture and lighting effects. Inside the News Feed, the more detailed 3D posts can be explored by tapping or clicking to explore every angle of the graphic.

Besides just the cool factor, the 3D posts open up potential real-world uses made possible by exploring the graphic from any angle. Wayfair, for example, has already used the new feature to allow Facebook fans to see furniture from every angle.

With the updated file format support, tech companies are already launching ways to use the new format. Sony has made the Xperia XZ1 3D Creator App scans compatible and Modo, a modeling software, has already built-in a Facebook-ready file feature. Facebook’s own Oculus Medium now allows users to share objects from the web gallery. Facebook is updating the GRAPH API to allow third-party apps to build the new format into their programs, so the number of 3D programs that can share to Facebook in-app will likely grow.

Facebook says the latest file format support is just the beginning — the social media giant is already discussing support for higher-quality 3D as well as mixing those 3D objects into the real world using augmented reality. “In the future, we envision a seamless digital world where people can share immersive experiences and objects like these across VR, AR and Facebook News Feed,” Facebook’s Aykud Gonen wrote on Facebook’s developer blog. “To get there, we’ll work on supporting even higher-quality 3D models, enabling interactive animations and bringing 3D content into the real world using AR. This is only the beginning, and we look forward to seeing the ecosystem of 3D content grow on Facebook as people, developers and artists contribute their creativity.”

Editors’ Recommendations

New wireless charging tech juices your phone from across the room using lasers

charging phone using lasers uwashington wireless laser 2017 12 20 0128

University of Washington

Today’s wireless charging tech may be called “wireless” charging, but it’s not exactly what people think of when they imagine charging their phones without the indignity of having to plug them in. Wireless charging tech of the kind employed by Apple, Samsung, and other device makers still involves plugging in a charging pad and putting your phone on it; it just means you don’t have to directly attach your phone.

Engineers at the University of Washington may now have developed the kind of long-range smartphone wireless charging folks have been longing for, and like the a lot of attention-grabbing tech innovations, it involves a laser. The result looks like the world’s most useful James Bond deathtrap.

As detailed in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable & Ubiquitous Technologies, the tech involves firing a narrow, invisible beam from a laser emitter, which can deliver a charge to a smartphone sitting on the other side of the room. This is achieved by mounting a thin power cell to the back of a smartphone, which enables it to absorb power from the laser. According to the team, the laser tech is as efficient for charging as plugging your smartphone charger into a USB port.

“The advantage to our technique is that it can work at much longer ranges than the near field wireless charging solutions built into phones,” Vikram Iyer, a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, told Digital Trends. “These chargers only work at ranges of a few centimeters. In contrast, our system works at ranges of a few meters or more. We chose lasers for our approach because they provide a focused beam of energy. Doing this with radio waves is much more inefficient because radio waves spread out significantly in space, requiring a very high transmit power to receive enough to charge a phone.”

The team’s laser charging technology also features all-important safety precautions. These include the addition of a metal, flat-plate heatsink on the smartphone which dissipates excess heat from the laser, as well as a method of shutting off the laser if a person moves into its path. This involves using “guard beams” which don’t deliver charge, but monitor movement, and can shut off the charging laser immediately if a human body is detected.

“What we’ve demonstrated here is a first proof of concept,” Iyer continued. “We’re looking at methods of improving things like the range and form factor of our current prototype. As far as commercialization, we’re currently exploring options.”

Editors’ Recommendations

Onward helps businesses automate their customer service


How much can customer service be automated? Onward has some straightforward targets — 40 percent of tickets and 40 percent of messages should be automated, and average response times should be 40 seconds on average.

Founders Rémi Cossart and Pramod Thammaiah describe this as Automation40 — basically, a set of goals for businesses looking to bring more automation into the customer service process. They compare these targets to fitness goals: The idea isn’t to hit them right away, but rather to have something to aim for.

This is a new direction (and new name) for Cossart and Thammaiah’s startup. They were previously building Agent Q, a text message-based shopping assistant. Like other founders building virtual assistants, they pitched Agent Q as a mix of automation and human interaction. Eventually, they decided that the real opportunity lay in helping other companies achieve that mix.

To do that, they’ve designed different solutions to address different types of customer service questions.

Automation40

For the most common questions, Onward can simply pull up a response from the company’s knowledge base. For queries that are a bit more difficult, there’s a visual bot builder, allowing customers to design the flow around how questions get answered, what information gets collected from the customer and so on.

In some cases, the system will need to hand customers over to a human agent. But even in those cases, the agents will be assisted by Onward’s technology, which will suggest different answers, hopefully making them faster and more accurate.

Onward is launching today as a self-serve product. Monthly pricing starts at $9 for the most basic version, going up to $99 per desk for features like integration into HubSpot and Salesforce.

Featured Image: Onward

Gabi gets $9.5M to help car and home owners find better insurance once it’s available


If you own a car or home, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is finding the right insurance plan that’ll cover everything you need and save you some money — but those plans are always changing, and consumers are getting stuck footing a bill they don’t necessarily need, according to HannoFichtner.

That’s why he started Gabi, which gives car and home owners a way to keep track of their insurance plans — and find new plans that are cheaper when they become available. The main goal is to help car owners avoid overpaying for car insurance as the plans change over time, and other providers end up giving them a better deal for the coverage they need. That can be a result of changes in your personal life, or changes on the provider’s end, but in the end consumers may have an opportunity to save money.Fichtner said today that Gabi has raised $9.5 million in a series A financing round led by Canvas Ventures, with Correlation Ventures, Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures, and Securian Ventures along with other existing investors participating.

“When you sign up for insurance, you buy it at some point and then you forget about it for like six years,” Fichtner said. “During that time, you are overpaying lots because you are not getting the cheapest rate and the best coverage. That’s due to changes in the insurance rate, changes in your personal life situation. That’s why people are overpaying, we calculated [consumers are overpaying around] $50 billion in insurance premiums per year. We tried to reduce that amount with technology.”

At each renewal period, Gabi users will get a notification if there are cheaper plans. The plans are generally pretty inflexible, which means that users should be keeping track of changes because that’s the way they’ll be able to save money on their insurance. The startup compares insurance from a few dozen companies and tries to identify the cheapest plan with that kind of coverage and then shows them the way to get that insurance for their property. Users give some information about their needs, and Gabi on the back end tries to figure out which plan suits them best.

While Gabi continues to collect data on user behavior and see what people are looking for over time, there are quite a number of opportunities. After all, it’s that store of data that usually ends up helping a startup have some kind of defense against potential competitors coming in, and it also helps them target the best offers to those customers. Sometime down the line, Fichtner also acknowledged that there may be an opportunity to look into providing insurance itself given the data it has, but in the mean time the challenge is making sure all those integrations with insurance providers are in place.

To be sure, there is a lot of brewing competition in the insurance policy comparison space — even if it may not be exploding in car or property insurance quite yet. There are startups like PolicyGenius which have raised big financing rounds, which offers renters insurance among others. But Fichtner says that the car and home insurance space, due to a constantly shifting environment, as well as the tools its created can offer something that can head off any potential competition coming his way.

“Insurance is super regulated and all rates need to be filed to the Department of Insurance on a bi-annual basis, so it’s impossible to negotiate rates,” Fichtner said. “Even if you said I’m leaving, can I have a cheaper deal, you won’t get it. Unless you change the coverage, but there’s no way to negotiate. If you look at our customer base, on average we find them $460 savings just on the auto insurance, and that’s on an equivalent basis. It’s the same coverage, just a different insurance company.”

Google tries to make Android more enterprise-friendly with new recommendation program


With so many Android devices out there to choose from, it’s not always easy to find one that’s enterprise-friendly. To help alleviate that problem, Google announced the Android Enterprise Recommended program today.

As the name implies, it’s designed to point enterprise IT departments at devices that Google has deemed to be enterprise-ready. This involves a number of criteria including minimum hardware specifications for Android 7.0 + devices, support for bulk deployment and managed profiles and devices for a consistent application experience across deployed devices. The full list includes all of the minimum app and hardware specifications required to be included in the program.

Photo: Google

The program also requires that manufacturers make security updates available within 90 days of Google releasing them for at least three years. Ninety days feels a bit long if there is a serious vulnerability in the wild, but Google indicated this was not a fixed list and the company would update the requirements as needed over time.

As for the devices they are recommending, these include a broad range of usual suspects such as BlackBerry KEYone and Motion; Google Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, and Pixel 2 XL (of course); Huawei Mate 10, Mate 10 Pro, P10, P10 Plus, P10 Lite, and P smart and LG V30 and G6, among others.

Conspicuously missing from this list is anything by Samsung, a company that has programs in place like Knox specifically designed for the enterprise. There are also no HTC phones, but to be fair the company left the door open for more devices  and additional partners to be added over time.

“You can expect more Android Enterprise Recommended devices to be added in the coming weeks and months. Throughout 2018, we will also be applying the Android Enterprise Recommended framework to additional partner types, including OEMs of “dedicated” and rugged devices, mobile carriers, enterprise mobility management (EMM) providers and systems integrators,” Google director of Android Enterprise, David Still wrote in a company blog post announcing the program.

While fewer companies are probably still buying phones for their employees — those kind of programs tended to peak with the old stalwart BlackBerry devices in the days before ‘Bring Your Own Device’ programs popped up — those that do and want to use Android, need to have devices that they can manage and deploy in a consistent way. This program is designed to provide a minimum set of specifications to meet that.

Featured Image: nurphoto/Getty Images

Raisin, the European savings deposit marketplace backed by PayPal, gets dedicated UK launch


Raisin, the PayPal-backed savings deposit marketplace that lets you shop for a better interest rate across Europe, has launched a dedicated U.K. site, meaning that savers can now access deposit accounts in Sterling.

The first partner bank on the British version of the platform is BACB, which is offering a range of fixed-term savings accounts, from 1 to 3 years, with what appears to be pretty competitive interest rates.

Originally founded in 2013, Raisin set out to crack open the savings deposit market in Europe by taking advantage of EU-wide banking regulation. The problem the startup solves is that saving deposit rates differ not only from one local bank offer to another but even more strikingly across Europe as a whole.

The Raisin marketplace lets you shop around and compare different rates European-wide. However, the key difference to a comparison site is that, via its own bank partner, the company offers consumers a single interface that includes account opening and anti-money laundering checks, making it easy to switch and continually ensure you get a competitive interest rate.

For the banks that integrate with the Raisin marketplace, especially smaller and midsize banks, they get exposure to customers across Europe that might otherwise never be reached. It also gives them potential access to many more deposits, which helps with their own balance sheet lending and scale.

However, until today, all of Raisin’s listed products were Euros-based only, although accessible pan-Europe by residents of any EU/EEA country or Switzerland (with the exception of Belgium, apparently). To that end, Raisin U.K. says it is currently on-boarding a number of additional banks to the platform and “will build a marketplace with a broad range of participating banks and savings products over the coming months.”

Last month, Berlin-based Raisin revealed that more than €5 billion has now been invested using its savings tool by more than 100,000 customers across Europe. Along with strategic investor PayPal, the fintech startup has raised more than €60 million from various backers, including Thrive Capital, Ribbit Capital and Index Ventures.

Adds Raisin U.K. CEO Kevin Mountford in a statement: “This represents the beginning of our journey to bring great partner banks with attractive offers to U.K. savers. Over time we will be introducing enticing marketplace features to offer savers a better deal for their money.”

Featured Image: Mario Gutiérrez/Getty Images

Apple could be buying cobalt from mining companies directly


Cobalt is the new oil. Car companies and battery manufacturers are all rushing to secure multiyear contracts with mining companies for their lithium-ion batteries. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is also participating in this game as the company wants to secure its long-term supplies.

The company has never done this before with cobalt. Apple relies on a ton of suppliers for all the components in its devices — including for batteries. And yet, cobalt prices have tripled over the past 18 months. Chances are Apple will secure a contract much more easily than a battery supplier.

While an Apple Watch battery is an order of magnitude smaller than a car battery, Apple sells hundreds of millions of devices every year. All those iPhone and Mac batteries represent quite a bit of cobalt.

But the issue is that car manufacturers are putting a ton of pressure on cobalt suppliers. BMW and Volkswagen are also looking at signing multiyear contracts to secure their supply chains. And other car manufacturers are probably also paying attention to cobalt prices.

As a side effect, buying cobalt straight from the mines makes it easier to control the supply chain. It’s hard to know where you cobalt is coming from when you buy batteries from third-party suppliers. And in that case, it can be a big issue.

Amnesty International published a report in January 2016 about cobalt mines, saying that tech companies and car manufacturers aren’t doing enough to prevent child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the country is responsible for 50 percent of global cobalt production.

A couple of months ago, Amnesty International published an update, saying that Apple is more transparent than others. The iPhone maker now publishes a list of its cobalt suppliers. But there’s still a long way to go in order to make sure that mining companies respect basic human rights.

But let’s be honest. In today’s case, Apple mostly wants to be able to buy enough cobalt at a fair price for its upcoming gadgets. And the company has deep enough pockets to sign this kind of deals.

Broken Corporate Processes Degrade Customer Experience: Survey

Broken corporate processes have been contributing to negative customer experiences, a recent survey suggests.

One thousand employees in United States companies with a workforce of 500 or more who work on a computer or mobile device for more than five hours a day responded to the online survey conducted by Nintex.

Overall, 54 percent observed broken administrative processes within their organization, and 39 percent saw broken document management or sales processes.

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Top broken administrative processes:

  • Identifying and recommending problem fixes at the company level (37 percent);
  • Identifying and recommending problem fixes at the team level (34 percent); and
  • Submitting expenses (28 percent).

Top broken document management or sales processes:

  • Locating documents (49 percent);
  • Document sharing (43 percent);
  • Document approval requests (43 percent);
  • Pulling and finding data on sales (41 percent);
  • Completing and filing new client paperwork (34 percent);
  • Document versioning (33 percent);
  • Getting sales contracts signed, negotiated and approved (27 percent);
  • Communicating sales results to the company (23 percent);
  • Referring potential new business (19 percent); and
  • Recommending a new business line or product to the management team (15 percent).

The findings on document mismanagement “definitely revealed some of the biggest issues in today’s organizations,” said Nintex spokesperson Kristin Treat.

“If employees can’t simply access or share files, their leaders can’t expect them to complete projects in a timely manner,” she told CRM Buyer.

Difficulty pulling sales data signals another growing issue, Treat said. “As organizations become increasingly reliant on customer data to personalize the customer experience, companies will need to significantly improve their data management processes to keep tip with the competition and attract clients.”

Sales, Document Management Are Key

Revamping sales and document management processes “may not be top of mind for C-suite leaders,” Treat noted. “They often underestimate the impact these small processes have on both employees and customers.”

Further, while CRM platforms and sales automation tools are becoming a necessity, many employees may not know how to effectively use the technology, she pointed out.

Organizations should “prioritize continual employee training for new platforms to patch up these processes and ensure everyone’s working as efficiently as possible,” Treat suggested.

Marketing: Tough Administrative Haul

Another area of inefficiencies occurs in partner marketing, which recently has become more important for many companies.

A survey of 100 senior U.S. marketing executives conducted last fall by WorkSpan found the following:

  • 78 percent of respondents employed someone solely to track the progress of marketing campaigns;
  • 47 percent spent more than four hours each week in meetings to review the progress of marketing projects; and
  • 27 percent used at least 10 different software programs to collaborate with marketing partners and colleagues.

There’s “a significant lack of innovation” in alliance business processes that cross company boundaries, said Chip Rodgers, VP of marketing at WorkSpan.

“To date, there has been no cross-company go-to-market business process automation to manage the complexities of these relationships,” he told CRM Buyer, “for a single source of the truth and effective, efficient processes to win in the market together.”

Solving the Process Patchwork Problem

Most companies are “made up of systems, processes and rules that have been layered over each other,” observed Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Automating processes at once isn’t the answer, because “automating a bad design will likely make things worse,” he told CRM Buyer. “You have to step back and redesign the system first.”

Companies should first conduct a forensic holistic review of their processes, then develop and execute a plan to “massively reduce” the complexity and control gaps in their policies and processes, Enderle recommended.

Once that is done, companies can automate piecemeal.

“Implementing workflow automation doesn’t necessarily have to start from the top down,” Nintex’s Treat said.

“Companies can automate first the one process that has the most significant effect on their ROI,” then assess its impact on customer satisfaction and employee efficiency, and evaluate what to automate next, she suggested.

That approach also would make it easier for employees to adapt, Treat said, and be willing to adopt similar workflows later.



Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.

Nest rolls out a $5 cloud recording plan for its cameras

Just a quick bit of news for those with Nest cams around the house: a new, cheaper Nest Aware (read: the cloud recording service that also gives the camera a bit more smarts) plan is on the way.

Nest has long offered two plans: a $10/month plan that lets you store the last 10 days of video history, and a $30/month plan that gives you 30 days of video history. This new plan will cost $5 per month and, as you’ve probably deduced, will give you five days of video history.

This is something folks have been asking for for a while now. Most people don’t really need 10 days or more of their video logs; in most cases, the bit of security footage you’re most interested in is from the last day or two. It’s also nice news for those with multiple Nest cams — each one needs its own Nest Aware subscription, so that $10 per month minimum added up fast.

In addition to the cloud video recording, a Nest Aware subscription also taps the cloud to teach the Nest Cam a few new tricks: it lets you set “Activity Zones” (letting you set up alerts when there’s motion in certain areas like, say, a door way), create timelapses and it can try to tell whether that thing moving around your living room is a person or just your dog.