Fastly, the content delivery network, files for an IPO

Fastly, the content delivery network that’s raised $219 million in financing from investors (according to Crunchbase), is ready for its close up in the public markets.

The eight-year-old company is one of several businesses that improve the download time and delivery of different websites to internet browsers and it has just filed for an IPO.

Media companies like The New York Times use Fastly to cache their homepages, media and articles on Fastly’s servers so that when somebody wants to browse the Times online, Fastly’s servers can send it directly to the browser. In some cases, Fastly serves up to 90 percent of browser requests.

E-commerce companies like Stripe and Ticketmaster are also big users of the service. They appreciate Fastly because its network of servers enable faster load times — sometimes as quickly as 20 or 30 milliseconds, according to the company.

The company raised its last round of financing roughly nine months ago, a $40 million investment that Fastly said would be the last before a public offering.

True to its word, the company is hoping public markets have the appetite to feast on yet another “unicorn” business.

While Fastly lacks the sizzle of companies like Zoom, Pinterest or Lyft, its technology enables a huge portion of the activities in which consumers engage online, and it could be a bellwether for competitors like Cloudflare, which recently raised $150 million and was also exploring a public listing.

The company’s public filing has a placeholder amount of $100 million, but given the amount of funding the company has received, it’s far more likely to seek closer to $1 billion when it finally prices its shares.

Fastly reported revenue of roughly $145 million in 2018, compared to $105 million in 2017, and its losses declined year on year to $29 million, down from $31 million in the year-ago period. So its losses are shrinking, its revenue is growing (albeit slowly) and its cost of revenues are rising from $46 million to around $65 million over the same period.

That’s not a great number for the company, but it’s offset by the amount of money that the company’s getting from its customers. Fastly breaks out that number in its dollar-based net expansion rate figure, which grew 132 percent in 2018.

It’s an encouraging number, but as the company notes in its prospectus, it’s got an increasing number of challenges from new and legacy vendors in the content delivery network space.

The market for cloud computing platforms, particularly enterprise-grade products, “is highly fragmented, competitive and constantly evolving,” the company said in its prospectus. “With the introduction of new technologies and market entrants, we expect that the competitive environment in which we compete will remain intense going forward. Legacy CDNs, such as Akamai, Limelight, EdgeCast (part of Verizon Digital Media), Level3, and Imperva, and small business-focused CDNs, such as Cloudflare, InStart, StackPath, and Section.io, offer products that compete with ours. We also compete with cloud providers who are starting to offer compute functionality at the edge like Amazon’s CloudFront, AWS Lambda, and Google Cloud Platform.”

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Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M

Five years after Dropbox acquired their startup Zulip, Waseem Daher, Jeff Arnold and Jessica McKellar have gained traction for their third business together: Pilot.

Pilot helps startups and small businesses manage their back office. Chief executive officer Daher admits it may seem a little boring, but the market opportunity is undeniably huge. To tackle the market, Pilot is today announcing a $40 million Series B led by Index Ventures with participation from Stripe, the online payment processing system.

The round values Pilot, which has raised about $60 million to date, at $355 million.

“It’s a massive industry that has sucked in the past,” Daher told TechCrunch. “People want a really high-quality solution to the bookkeeping problem. The market really wants this to exist and we’ve assembled a world-class team that’s capable of knocking this out of the park.”

San Francisco-based Pilot launched in 2017, more than a decade after the three founders met in MIT’s student computing group. It’s not surprising they’ve garnered attention from venture capitalists, given that their first two companies resulted in notable acquisitions.

Pilot has taken on a massively overlooked but strategic segment — bookkeeping,” Index’s Mark Goldberg told TechCrunch via email. “While dry on the surface, the opportunity is enormous given that an estimated $60 billion is spent on bookkeeping and accounting in the U.S. alone. It’s a service industry that can finally be automated with technology and this is the perfect team to take this on — third-time founders with a perfect combo of financial acumen and engineering.”

The trio of founders’ first project, Linux upgrade software called Ksplice, sold to Oracle in 2011. Their next business, Zulip, exited to Dropbox before it even had the chance to publicly launch.

It was actually upon building Ksplice that Daher and team realized their dire need for tech-enabled bookkeeping solutions.

“We built something internally like this as a byproduct of just running [Ksplice],” Daher explained. “When Oracle was acquiring our company, we met with their finance people and we described this system to them and they were blown away.”

It took a few years for the team to refocus their efforts on streamlining back-office processes for startups, opting to build business chat software in Zulip first.

Pilot’s software integrates with other financial services products to bring the bookkeeping process into the 21st century. Its platform, for example, works seamlessly on top of QuickBooks so customers aren’t wasting precious time updating and managing the accounting application.

“It’s better than the slow, painful process of doing it yourself and it’s better than hiring a third-party bookkeeper,” Daher said. “If you care at all about having the work be high-quality, you have to have software do it. People aren’t good at these mechanical, repetitive, formula-driven tasks.”

Currently, Pilot handles bookkeeping for more than $100 million per month in financial transactions but hopes to use the infusion of venture funding to accelerate customer adoption. The company also plans to launch a tax prep offering that they say will make the tax prep experience “easy and seamless.”

“It’s our first foray into Pilot’s larger mission, which is taking care of running your companies entire back office so you can focus on your business,” Daher said.

As for whether the team will sell to another big acquirer, it’s unlikely.

“The opportunity for Pilot is so large and so substantive, I think it would be a mistake for this to be anything other than a large and enduring public company,” Daher said. “This is the company that we’re going to do this with.”

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Get ready for a new era of personalized entertainment

New machine learning technologies, user interfaces and automated content creation techniques are going to expand the personalization of storytelling beyond algorithmically generated news feeds and content recommendation.

The next wave will be software-generated narratives that are tailored to the tastes and sentiments of a consumer.

Concretely, it means that your digital footprint, personal preferences and context unlock alternative features in the content itself, be it a news article, live video or a hit series on your streaming service.

The title contains different experiences for different people.

From smart recommendations to smarter content

When you use Youtube, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix or Spotify, algorithms select what gets recommended to you. The current mainstream services and their user interfaces and recommendation engines have been optimized to serve you content you might be interested in.

Your data, other people’s data, content-related data and machine learning methods are used to match people and content, thus improving the relevance of content recommendations and efficiency of content distribution.

However, so far the content experience itself has mostly been similar to everyone. If the same news article, live video or TV series episode gets recommended to you and me, we both read and watch the same thing, experiencing the same content.

That’s about to change. Soon we’ll be seeing new forms of smart content, in which user interface, machine learning technologies and content itself are combined in a seamless manner to create a personalized content experience.

What is smart content?

Smart content means that content experience itself is affected by who is seeing, watching, reading or listening to content. The content itself changes based on who you are.

We are already seeing the first forerunners in this space. TikTok’s whole content experience is driven by very short videos, audiovisual content sequences if you will, ordered and woven together by algorithms. Every user sees a different, personalized, “whole” based on her viewing history and user profile.

At the same time, Netflix has recently started testing new forms of interactive content (TV series episodes, e.g. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) in which user’s own choices affect directly the content experience, including dialogue and storyline. And more is on its way. With Love, Death & Robots series, Netflix is experimenting with episode order within a series, serving the episodes in different order for different users.

Some earlier predecessors of interactive audio-visual content include sports event streaming, in which the user can decide which particular stream she follows and how she interacts with the live content, for example rewinding the stream and spotting the key moments based on her own interest.

Simultaneously, we’re seeing how machine learning technologies can be used to create photo-like images of imaginary people, creatures and places. Current systems can recreate and alter entire videos, for example by changing the style, scenery, lighting, environment or central character’s face. Additionally, AI solutions are able to generate music in different genres.

Now, imagine, that TikTok’s individual short videos would be automatically personalized by the effects chosen by an AI system, and thus the whole video would be customized for you. Or that the choices in the Netflix’s interactive content affecting the plot twists, dialogue and even soundtrack, were made automatically by algorithms based on your profile.

Personalized smart content is coming to news as well. Automated systems, using today’s state-of-the-art NLP technologies, can generate long pieces of concise, comprehensible and even inventive textual content at scale. At present, media houses use automated content creation systems, or “robot journalists”, to create news material varying from complete articles to audio-visual clips and visualizations. Through content atomization (breaking content into small modular chunks of information) and machine learning, content production can be increased massively to support smart content creation.

Say that a news article you read or listen to is about a specific political topic that is unfamiliar to you. When comparing the same article with your friend, your version of the story might use different concepts and offer a different angle than your friend’s who’s really deep into politics. A beginner’s smart content news experience would differ from the experience of a topic enthusiast.

Content itself will become a software-like fluid and personalized experience, where your digital footprint and preferences affect not just how the content is recommended and served to you, but what the content actually contains.

Automated storytelling?

How is it possible to create smart content that contains different experiences for different people?

Content needs to be thought and treated as an iterative and configurable process rather than a ready-made static whole that is finished when it has been published in the distribution pipeline.

Importantly, the core building blocks of the content experience change: smart content consists of atomized modular elements that can be modified, updated, remixed, replaced, omitted and activated based on varying rules. In addition, content modules that have been made in the past, can be reused if applicable. Content is designed and developed more like a software.

Currently a significant amount of human effort and computing resources are used to prepare content for machine-powered content distribution and recommendation systems, varying from smart news apps to on-demand streaming services. With smart content, the content creation and its preparation for publication and distribution channels wouldn’t be separate processes. Instead, metadata and other invisible features that describe and define the content are an integral part of the content creation process from the very beginning.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

With smart content, the narrative or image itself becomes an integral part of an iterative feedback loop, in which the user’s actions, emotions and other signals as well as the visible and invisible features of the content itself affect the whole content consumption cycle from the content creation and recommendation to the content experience. With smart content features, a news article or a movie activates different elements of the content for different people.

It’s very likely that smart content for entertainment purposes will have different features and functions than news media content. Moreover, people expect frictionless and effortless content experience and thus smart content experience differs from games. Smart content doesn’t necessarily require direct actions from the user. If the person wants, the content personalization happens proactively and automatically, without explicit user interaction.

Creating smart content requires both human curation and machine intelligence. Humans focus on things that require creativity and deep analysis while AI systems generate, assemble and iterate the content that becomes dynamic and adaptive just like software.

Sustainable smart content

Smart content has different configurations and representations for different users, user interfaces, devices, languages and environments. The same piece of content contains elements that can be accessed through voice user interface or presented in augmented reality applications. Or the whole content expands into a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

In the same way as with the personalized user interfaces and smart devices, smart content can be used for good and bad. It can be used to enlighten and empower, as well as to trick and mislead. Thus it’s critical, that human-centered approach and sustainable values are built in the very core of smart content creation. Personalization needs to be transparent and the user needs to be able to choose if she wants the content to be personalized or not. And of course, not all content will be smart in the same way, if at all.

If used in a sustainable manner, smart content can break filter bubbles and echo chambers as it can be used to make a wide variety of information more accessible for diverse audiences. Through personalization, challenging topics can be presented to people according to their abilities and preferences, regardless of their background or level of education. For example a beginner’s version of vaccination content or digital media literacy article uses gamification elements, and the more experienced user gets directly a thorough fact-packed account of the recent developments and research results.

Smart content is also aligned with the efforts against today’s information operations such as fake news and its different forms such as “deep fakes” (http://www.niemanlab.org/2018/11/how-the-wall-street-journal-is-preparing-its-journalists-to-detect-deepfakes). If the content is like software, a legit software runs on your devices and interfaces without a problem. On the other hand, even the machine-generated realistic-looking but suspicious content, like deep fake, can be detected and filtered out based on its signature and other machine readable qualities.


Smart content is the ultimate combination of user experience design, AI technologies and storytelling.

News media should be among the first to start experimenting with smart content. When the intelligent content starts eating the world, one should be creating ones own intelligent content.

The first players that master the smart content, will be among tomorrow’s reigning digital giants. And that’s one of the main reasons why today’s tech titans are going seriously into the content game. Smart content is coming.

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Hackers publish personal data on thousands of US police officers and federal agents

A hacker group has breached several FBI-affiliated websites and uploaded their contents to the web, including dozens of files containing the personal information of thousands of federal agents and law enforcement officers, TechCrunch has learned.

The hackers breached three sites associated with the FBI National Academy Association, a coalition of different chapters across the U.S. promoting federal and law enforcement leadership and training located at the FBI training academy in Quantico, VA. The hackers exploited flaws on at least three of the organization’s chapter websites — which we’re not naming — and downloaded the contents of each web server.

The hackers then put the data up for download on their own website, which we’re also not naming nor linking to given the sensitivity of the data.

The spreadsheets contained about 4,000 unique records after duplicates were removed, including member names, a mix of personal and government email addresses, job titles, phone numbers and their postal addresses. The FBINAA could not be reached for comment outside of business hours. If we hear back, we’ll update.

TechCrunch spoke to one of the hackers, who didn’t identify his or her name, through an encrypted chat late Friday.

“We hacked more than 1,000 sites,” said the hacker. “Now we are structuring all the data, and soon they will be sold. I think something else will publish from the list of hacked government sites.” We asked if the hacker was worried that the files they put up for download would put federal agents and law enforcement at risk. “Probably, yes,” the hacker said.

The hacker claimed to have “over a million data” [sic] on employees across several U.S. federal agencies and public service organizations.

It’s not uncommon for data to be stolen and sold in hacker forums and in marketplaces on the dark web, but the hackers said they would offer the data for free to show that they had something “interesting.”

Unprompted, the hacker sent a link to another FBINAA chapter website they claimed to have hacked. When we opened the page in a Tor browser session, the website had been defaced — prominently displaying a screenshot of the encrypted chat moments earlier.

The hacker — one of more than ten, they said — used public exploits, indicating that many of the websites they hit weren’t up-to-date and had outdated plugins.

In the encrypted chat, the hacker also provided evidence of other breached websites, including a subdomain belonging to manufacturing giant Foxconn. One of the links provided did not need a username or a password but revealed the back-end to a Lotus-based webmail system containing thousands of employee records, including email addresses and phone numbers.

Their end goal: “Experience and money,” the hacker said.

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The chat feature may soon return to Facebook’s mobile app

Facebook upset millions upon millions of users five years ago when it removed chat from its core mobile app and forced them to download Messenger to communicate privately with friends. Now it looks like it might be able to restore the option inside the Facebook app.

That’s according to a discovery from researcher Jane Manchun Wong who discovered an unreleased feature that brings limited chat features back into the core social networking app. Wong’s finding suggests that, at this point, calling, photo sharing and reactions won’t be supported inside the Facebook app chat feature, but it remains to be seen if that is simply because it is currently in development.

It is unclear whether the feature will ship to users at all since this is a test. Messenger, which has over 1.3 billion monthly users, will likely stick but this change would give users other options for chatting to friends.

We’ve contacted Facebook for comment, although we’re yet to hear back from the company. We’ll update this story with any comment that the company does share.

As you’d expect, the discovery has been greeted with cheers from many users who were disgruntled when Facebook yanked chat from the app all those years ago. I can’t help but wonder, however, if there are more people today who are content with using Messenger to chat without the entire Facebook service bolted on. Given all of Facebook’s missteps over the past year or two, consumer opinion of the social network has never been lower, which raises the appeal of using it to connect with friends but without engaging its advertising or newsfeed.

Wong’s finding comes barely a month after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sketched out a plan to pivot the company’s main focus to groups and private conversation rather than its previously public forum approach. That means messaging is about to become its crucial social graph, so why not bring it back to the core Facebook app? We’ll have to wait and see, but the evidence certainly shows Facebook is weighing the merits of such a move.

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