Month: January 2019

Apple reactivates Facebook’s employee apps after punishment for Research spying

After TechCrunch caught Facebook violating Apple’s employee-only app distribution policy to pay people for all their phone data, Apple invalidated the social network’s Enterprise Certificate as punishment. That deactivated not only this Facebook Research app VPN, but also all of Facebook’s internal iOS apps for workplace collaboration, beta testing, and even getting the company lunch or bus schedule. That threw Facebook’s offices into chaos yesterday morning. Now after nearly two work days, Apple has ended Facebook’s time-out and restored its Enterprise Certification. That means employees can once again access all their office tools, pre-launch test versions of Facebook and Instagram…and the lunch menu.

A Facebook spokesperson issued this statement to TechCrunch: “We have had our Enterprise Certification, which enables our internal employee applications, restored. We are in the process of getting our internal apps up and running. To be clear, this didn’t have an impact on our consumer-facing services.”

 

Meanwhile, TechCrunch’s follow-up report found that Google was also violating the Enterprise Certificate program with its own “market research” VPN app called Screenwise Meter that paid people to snoop on their phone activity. After we informed Google and Apple yesterday, Google quickly apologized and took down the app. But apparently in service of consistency, this morning Apple invalidated Google’s Enterprise Certificate too, breaking its employee-only iOS apps.

Google’s internal apps are still broken. Unlike Facebook that has tons of employees on iOS, Google at least employs plenty of users of its own Android platform so the disruption may have caused fewer probelms in Mountain View than Menlo park. “We’re working with Apple to fix a temporary disruption to some of our corporate iOS apps, which we expect will be resolved soon,” said a Google spokesperson. A spokesperson for Apple said: “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly.”

TechCrunch’s investigation found that the Facebook Research app not only installed an Enterprise Certificate on users phones and a VPN that could collect their data, but also demanded root network access that allows Facebook to man-in-the-middle their traffic and even deencrypt secure transmissions. It paid users age 13 to 35 $10 to $20 per month to run the app so it could collect competitive intelligence on who to buy or copy. The Facebook Research app contained numerous code references to Onavo Protect, the app Apple banned and pushed Facebook to remove last August, yet Facebook kept on operating the Research data collection program.

When we first contacted Facebook, it claimed the Research app and its Enterprise Certificate distribution that sidestepped Apple’s oversight was in line with Apple’s policy. Seven hours later, Facebook announced it would shut down the Research app on iOS (though it’s still running on Android which has fewer rules). Facebook also claimed that “there was nothing ‘secret’ about this”, challenging the characterization of our reporting. However, TechCrunch has since reviewed communications proving that the Facebook Research program threatened legal action if its users spoke publicly about the app. That sounds pretty “secret” to us.

Then we learned yesterday morning that Facebook hadn’t voluntarily pulled the app as Apple had actually already invalidated Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate, thereby breaking the Research app and the social network’s employee tools. Apple provided this brutal statement, which it in turn applied to Google today:

We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

Apple is being likened to a vigilante privacy regulator overseeing Facebook and Google by The Verge’s Casey Newton and The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, perhaps with too much power given they’re all competitors. But in this case, both Facebook and Google blatantly violated Apple’s policies to collect the maximum amount of data about iOS users, including teenagers. That means Apple was fully within its right to shut down their market research apps. Breaking their employee apps too could be seen as just collateral damage since they all use the same Enterprise Certification, or as additional punishment for violating the rules. This only becomes a real problem if Apple steps beyond the boundaries of its policies. But now, all eyes are on how it enforces its rules, whether to benefit its users or beat up on its rivals.

A popular genealogy website just helped solve a serial killer cold case in Oregon

On Thursday, detectives in Portland, Ore. announced that a long-cold local murder case finally came to a resolution, 40 years after the fact.

In 1979, 20-year-old Anna Marie Hlavka was found dead in the Portland apartment she shared with her fiance and sister. According to police, she was strangled to death and sexually assaulted. Police followed a number of leads and kept tabs on the case for decades without a breakthrough.

Last May, detectives with Portland’s Cold Case Homicide Detail dug back into the case using the methodology made famous when investigators last year tracked down the man believed to be the Golden State Killer.

Around that time, detectives working the Hlavka case reached out to a company called Parabon NanoLabs to determine if their case could be solved the same way, by cross-referencing the suspect’s DNA with public DNA profiles uploaded to GEDmatch, a popular free ancestry and genealogy database.

“Most of our cases are cold cases, many of which are decades old like Anna Marie’s case,” Parabon Chief Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore told TechCrunch in an email interview.

Many law enforcement agencies are already familiar with a Parabon service called Snapshot Phenotype, which allows the company to predict aspects of a person’s physical appearance using only DNA. At Parabon, Moore’s team has successfully identified 33 individuals for law enforcement since its launch in May 2018. The team works both cold cases and active investigations.

Moore explained how her team takes a suspect’s DNA and uploads it into GEDmatch . There, the team can identify potential relatives, usually distant cousins and not-close relatives.

“We build their family trees and then try to determine who might be related to all of these different people and their ancestors,” Moore said. “When we are successful, we reverse engineer the family tree of the unknown suspect based on the trees of the people who share DNA with him in GEDMatch.”

According to the police bureau’s report, the breakthrough led them to Texas:

The forensic genealogist was able to map three of the four familial lines of the killer and identified the killer as Jerry Walter McFadden, born March 21, 1948. McFadden was a convicted murderer and was executed by the State of Texas in October 1999. Due to McFadden’s execution date, his DNA profile was never entered into the FBI CODIS database for comparison.

Detectives travelled to Texas to interview McFadden’s family members and obtain a confirmatory DNA standard to compare with the DNA evidence in the Hlavka murder. Detectives obtained DNA standards with their consent from members of McFadden’s family. Detectives also learned McFadden traveled to the Pacific Northwest in 1979 with an acquaintance from their home town. The woman reported dropping him off in Portland and having no further contact with him.

The case is the latest example of how the popularity of at-home DNA test kits — and the data they yield, often uploaded into open online genealogy databases — is a windfall for investigators. In the instance of McFadden, the DNA trail led to some surprising connections.

“In an earlier case I worked on [the 1981 murder of Ginny Freeman of Brazos, Texas], genetic genealogy analysis also led to a man who had been executed in 1999 in Texas, James Otto Earhart,” Moore told TechCrunch.

“It is really strange to think that these two serial killers that we identified through genetic genealogy a few months apart decades after their crimes, were on Texas death row together and executed the same year.

Amazon’s barely-transparent transparency report somehow gets more opaque

Amazon <a href=”https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=GYSDRGWQ2C2CRYEF”>posted its bi-annual report Thursday detailing the number of government data demands it receives.

The numbers themselves are unremarkable, neither spiking nor falling in the second-half of last year compared to the first-half. The number of subpoenas, search warrants and other court orders totaled 1,736 for the duration, down slightly on the previous report. Amazon still doesn’t break out demands for Echo data, but does with its Amazon Web Services content — a total of 175 requests down from 253 requests.

But noticeably absent compared to earlier reports was how many requests the company received to remove data from its service.

In its first-half report, the retail and cloud giant said in among the other demands it gets that it may receive court orders that might demand Amazon “remove user content or accounts.” Amazon used to report the requests “separately” in its report.

Now it’s gone. Yet where freedom of speech and expression is more important than ever, it’s just not there any more — not even a zero.

We reached out to Amazon to ask why it took out removal requests, but not a peep back on why.

Amazon has long had a love-hate relationship with transparency reports. Known for its notorious secrecy — once telling a reporter, “off the record, no comment” — the company doesn’t like to talk when it doesn’t have to. In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures, most companies that weren’t disclosing their government data demands quickly started. Even though Amazon wasn’t directly affected by the surveillance scandal, it held out — because it could — but later buckled, becoming the last of the major tech giants to come out with a transparency report.

Even then, the effort Amazon put in was lackluster.

Unlike most other transparency reports, Amazon’s is limited to just two pages — most of which are dedicated to explaining what it does in response to each kind of demand, from subpoenas to search warrants and court orders. No graphics, no international breakdown and no announcement. It’s almost as if Amazon doesn’t want anyone to notice.

That hasn’t changed in years. Where most other companies have expanded their reports — Apple records account deletions, so does Facebook, and Microsoft, Twitter, Google and a bunch more — Amazon’s report has stayed the same.

And for no good reason except that Amazon just can. Now it’s getting even slimmer.

Nintendo rumored to be working on a smaller, cheaper Switch

Remember when the rumor mill suggested that Nintendo was already working on a sequel to the Switch? Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa shut that down pretty quickly, saying that no successor was in the works.

Now the rumor mill has shifted gears: Rather than a whole new generation, the whispers suggest Nintendo is tinkering with a cheaper, more portable variation of the original.

The rumor stems from a report by Nikkei (Japan’s predominant financial newspaper), later translated by NintendoEverything. According to their translation, Nintendo “has informed multiple suppliers and game development companies that they intend to release them as early as 2019.”

While the Switch is already kinda-sorta portable, it’s also kinda-sorta not. In its handheld mode, it comes in at around 9.4 x 4 inches — the majority of which is made up of a big, oh-so-scratchable and fully exposed screen. Taking it on the road without some sort of hardshell case (which would further bulk things up) is pretty daunting — and then there’s the dock, which you’d need if you want to hook it up to a TV and get the system running at its full potential. You can definitely take it outside of the house, but it’s not quite as portable as, say, a DS.

Nintendo is no stranger to releasing new variations of existing consoles. Game Boy evolved into Game Boy Color. Game Boy Advance picked up a folding form factor and a backlight and became the Game Boy Advance SP. Two years later, they flattened it back out and released the itty-bitty Game Boy Micro. They released the 3DS with its 3D screen, then dropped the 3D for the 2DS, then brought the 3D back and made it huge for the 3DS XL, then completed the chain by dropping the 3D again and making it big with the 2DS XL.

But what would a smaller Switch look like? It’s tough to imagine a Switch with a smaller screen that would still let you pop the Joy-Con controllers on/off; perhaps the controls on a smaller version would be built-in and locked in place, but maintain wireless compatibility with Joy-Cons for multiplayer/motion-sensitive games? Maybe something with some sort of built-in screen cover or protection? Oh, and please, oh please, let there be a better kickstand.

As ArsTechnica points out, there’s also probably some room to be shed in rethinking the Switch’s dock. A smaller Switch would presumably need a different dock anyway — so why not make the dock itself more portable, too? DIY’ers and enthusiasts have been building their own micro docks for years now… and as someone who packs his Switch (dock and all) into a suitcase a dozen times a year, I certainly wouldn’t mind a smaller set.

Will tech companies change the way we manage our health?

As of September 2018, the top 10 tech companies in the U.S. had spent a total of $4.7 billion on healthcare acquisitions since 2012. The number of healthcare deals undertaken by those companies has consistently risen year-on-year. It all points to an increasing interest from technology companies in U.S. healthcare, which raises many questions as to what their intentions are, and what the ramifications will be for the health industry. 

It also begs the question as to why healthcare has become the latest target of U.S. tech giants. On the surface, they don’t seem like natural bedfellows. One is agile and quick, the other slow moving and pensive; one obsessed with looking forward, the other struggling to keep up with its past. 

And yet, it’s true. Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung and Uber have all flirted with healthcare in recent years, from data-collecting health apps and devices to a digital cab-hailing service for medical patients. Two of the most intriguing companies to make movements around healthcare recently, though, are Amazon and Alphabet. Both of them seem to have health insurance, in particular, set in their sights.

A is for: Alphabet, Amazon or Apple

Alphabet is currently the most active investor among large tech companies in U.S. healthcare, according to CB Insights. Via Verily, an Alphabet subsidiary that focuses on using technology to better understand health, and DeepMind, another Alphabet acquisition that deals in artificial intelligence solutions, the tech giant has been exploring how to use AI to tackle disease by using data generation, detection and positive lifestyle modifications. Alphabet has also made substantial investments in Oscar, Clover and Collective Health — companies that all have their eye on disrupting the health insurance sector. 

Meanwhile, Amazon raised eyebrows by making its biggest move into healthcare last summer, when it acquired the internet pharmacy startup PillPack. Then, in October 2018, it filed a patent for its Alexa voice assistant to detect colds and coughs. Furthermore, the e-commerce business has been working on an internal project named Hera, which involves using data from electronic medical records (EMRs) to identify incorrect misdiagnoses. And in January of last year, Amazon announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan for an employer health initiative — a thinly veiled tactic to better understand health insurance by using workers as beta-testers with an eye toward expanding into a public market further down the line.

Apple isn’t standing by quietly, either. It was recently announced that they’ve been working with Aetna since 2016 to provide incentives for healthy behavior to their customers through personalized exercise and health tips.

While all three are making strides in the healthcare industry, health insurance, in particular, seems like it may to be a major part of their long-term strategy for Alphabet and Amazon.

Can the tech giants cross the moat?

This isn’t the first time tech-savvy businesses have sized up the U..S healthcare and health insurance industries. They’ve been viewed as sitting ducks for disruption for many years. Unsurprisingly so, too. With their analogue systems, complex strata of silos and out-of-date technology, anyone would think they were primed and ready for digital disruption — that new technologies could help these out-of-date, yet highly lucrative industries, become more streamlined, efficient and customer-centric.

That’s what Better — a mobile experience for healthcare — thought when it was launched in 2013 by Health Hero co-founder and Rock Health mentor, Geoffrey Clapp. The startup struggled from day one with investments and the seemingly monumental task of applying a simple solution to a plethora of problems. Better admitted defeat just two years after it launched.

 “We were doing concierge services across all disease states, across anatomic states like a knee surgery or a stroke, and at the same time doing bundled payment services and multiple, different payment structures,” Clapp said in 2016, when looking back at Better. “People may love the product, but they want it to address whatever problem theirs might be. And we talked ourselves into thinking we would have verticals.” 

Health insurance is just as difficult a sector to disrupt as other areas of the U.S. healthcare industry, but is less appealing to startups due to the large resources companies need to have before they even enter the market.

Despite their size, capital and ingenuity, making inroads into the healthcare industry won’t be easy for tech companies.

An interesting case study over the past few years has been Oscar Health (which, incidentally, received $375 million in investment from Alphabet last year). Launched in 2012 under the proviso of using technology and customer experience insight to simplify health insurance, Oscar is often seen as the poster-boy of startups disrupting health insurance. However, its journey has been anything but smooth and, despite significant investment, its future is anything but clear. 

The company has struggled to compete in the market for individual healthcare, as well as assembling the necessary network of doctors and hospitals. And while Oscar recorded its first profitable quarter in its now seven-year lifespan in 2018, it has a history of hemorrhaging money, including more than $200 million in losses in 2016. If Oscar is the success story of startups disrupting U.S. health insurance, then it’s a stark reminder as to how much of an uphill battle that is.

Of course, Amazon and Alphabet don’t have to worry about losing money in their long-term game plan for health insurance. But they still have to overcome the long list of regulations and pragmatisms that can’t simply be overcome by throwing money at the problem. They won’t automatically succeed on account of their size and resources, as Google learned when it closed the doors of Google Health in 2012, citing that the service “is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would.”

It seems that Alphabet, Amazon et al. have learned from their mistakes, the mistakes of their peers and those of startups like Better. Alphabet isn’t diving in head-first this time around. Instead, it’s tackling specific diseases, partnering with hospitals and applying its vast know-how in AI to combat real problems that affect millions of Americans. And Amazon — via its partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan — is taking the time to better understand the market it hopes to disrupt by taking a close look at its problems on a micro scale.

Grow or die

If the U.S. health insurance industry is indeed so difficult to conquer, it begs the question as to why tech companies are taking another swing at it. The simple answer is revenue.

The U.S. health insurance net premiums recorded by life/health insurers in 2017 totaled $594.9 billion. That’s more than three times Amazon’s 2017 revenue ($178 billion) and more than times that of Alphabet’s ($111 billion).

There’s more to it.

When a business’ annual revenue exceeds $100 billion, it’s sufficiently difficult to find new avenues of meaningful growth. This is problematic for companies like Alphabet and Amazon. Growth and scale are vital for them. Without them, the vultures begin to circle, believing that they’re losing their grip on their ecosystems — and with that, stock prices take a hit. 

We’ve already seen the tech giants mitigate this risk by successfully expanding into other verticals in recent years. Whether it’s grocery delivery services, voice assistants or self-driving cars, tech businesses are constantly looking to expand their empires to fresh verticals. Healthcare is simply the next industry to be re-conquered.

Roadblocks along the way

Despite their size, capital and ingenuity, making inroads into the healthcare industry won’t be easy for tech companies, no matter how carefully they approach it. While they may seem to be old hands when it comes to disrupting industries, healthcare and health insurance are different beasts entirely. 

For a start, there’s regulation. In order to sell and distribute drugs, there are complex and expensive hoops to be jumped through, overseen by regulatory bodies, including the FDA and the DEA. 

There’s always been a question mark over how these companies use the vast swathes of data available to them.

Then there’s data and privacy. Tech giants may believe that technology gives them an upper-hand over the industry’s long-standing incumbents, but tech solutions require access to data that’s also regulated by strict privacy laws — a major barrier to be overcome for those looking to enter specifically into health insurance. 

And on top of all of that, the tech companies looking to take on the health insurance would have to navigate the state-based insurance regulatory system. What works in Utah, which is generally regarded as a more lenient state when it come to insurance regulation, may not work in California, which is seen as one of the strictest states.

Privacy, data and universal healthcare

While there may be challenges facing new businesses in becoming major players in the health insurance industry, it would take a brave person to bet against them. If they were to succeed, some of the ramifications might not be appealing to everyone. 

For a start, there’s always been a question mark over how these companies use the vast swathes of data available to them. Tech companies have been rocked in recent years by the public turning against them over how their data is used to turn a profit. But what if that data was used to calculate a customer’s insurance premium? It’s feasible that a user’s premium could go down if data shows they live a healthy lifestyle; for instance, they purchase healthy foods, have a gym a membership and track regular workouts through a device. 

On the other hand, inactive users shown to buy unhealthy foods and products could see their premiums go up over time. 

It’s a genuine concern according to Peter Swire, a privacy expert at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech and the White House coordinator for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy rule under President Clinton. “As far as I can tell, the Amazon website could use its information about the customer to inform its health insurance affiliate about the customer,” Swire says in an interview with Vice. “In other words, I’m not aware of rules that stop data from outside the healthcare system from being used by the health insurance company.” 

Tangent: Will tech companies push against a single-payer or universal healthcare system?

I’ll pause a moment to put on my tinfoil hat.

As recently as 2017, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini stated he’d be open to discussing a single-payer system, “Single-payer, I think we should have that debate as a nation.”

Single-payer or Medicare-for-all are both in the sights of progressive Democrats in Washington. Those fighting for a single-payer health system in the model of countries like the U.K. and Canada are already up against powerful lobbying groups from pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Game theory may tell us that adding the richest companies in the world to that group would surely push the idea of universal healthcare in the U.S. further away from reality.

This is a big, “what if” scenario that plagues me as we consider a future where the tech companies begin to create their own insurance solutions. They definitely would not want the government to come in and replace private insurance.

Let’s remove the tinfoil hat and we can return to the less conspiracy theory-themed conversation.

Better than the status quo

Of course, there’s no evidence to suggest that Amazon, Google or any other tech giant interested in exploring health insurance might use data against its users or lobby against universal healthcare. In fact, if there’s one thing these businesses know, it’s the importance of pleasing as many people as possible. They’re aware, often from personal experience, how damaging negative publicity can be — not just to a particular product or service, but to the whole business. Following nefarious money-making initiatives could destroy any hope of disrupting the health insurance industry before they’ve even begun.

We could imagine that tech companies would approach their solution with their special sauce.

Amazon may bring extreme efficiency, no frills and incredibly fast logistics to their offering. Google or an Alphabet company may come from an AI and predictive approach, wherein every person would have a health assistant backed by a field of specialists. Alphabet machines and kiosks you could drop into for a quick health check. Apple would bring their polished retail experience and love of control to create a vertical solution like what we see from Kaiser Permanente. They’d work to ensure the quality of the experience. Each company would, effectively, serve a different type of consumer.

If they decide to show their hand and go head-to-head with the health insurance industry’s current incumbents, they may do so by positioning themselves as the benevolent alternative that works for everyone in the system and is ultimately better, less expensive and more efficient. According to a 2017 McKinsey study, very few insurers are providing what the American people want from their providers, namely convenience, more incorporated technology, tools that promote health and wellness and greater value for the money. 

These are areas where technologists often excel: providing high levels of customer care, improving services and driving down cost, and doing so by incorporating cutting-edge technology. If they can do that with health insurance, then they may well be within a shot of finally delivering on technology’s promise to disrupt an out-of-date industry. 

Growth is the lifeblood of these companies, and the health vertical that is ripe for disruption is, coincidentally, vital to our survival. It’s going to be a fascinating battle when it plays out to see whether, like Uber’s cowboy start, tech companies can leapfrog regulation and force the hand of the legislatures with the help of consumer demand.

Apple has blocked Google from running internal iOS apps after certificate misuse

Apple has blocked Google from distributing its internal-only iOS apps on its corporate network after a TechCrunch investigation found the search giant abusing the certificates.

“We’re working with Apple to fix a temporary disruption to some of our corporate iOS apps, which we expect will be resolved soon,” said a Google spokesperson. A spokesperson for Apple said: “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly.”

TechCrunch reported Wednesday that Google was using an Apple-issued certificate that allows the company to create and build internal apps for its staff for one of its consumer-facing apps, called Screenwise Meter, in violation of Apple’s rules. The app was designed to collect an extensive amount of data from a person’s iPhone for research, but using the special certificate allowed the company to allow users to bypass Apple’s App Store. Google later apologized, and said that the app “should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake.”

It followed in the footsteps of Facebook, which we first reported earlier this week that it was also abusing its internal-only certificates for a research app — which the company used to pay teenagers to vacuum up their phone’s web activity.

It’s not immediately clear how damaging this will be for Google. Not only does it mean its Screenwise Meter app won’t work for iPhones, but any other app that the search giant relies on the certificate for.

According to The Verge, many internal Google apps have also stopped working. That includes early and pre-release versions of its consumer-facing apps, like Google Maps, Hangouts, Gmail and other employee-only apps, such as its transportation apps, are no longer functioning.

Facebook faced a similar rebuke after Apple stepped in. We reported that after Apple’s ban was handed down, many of Facebook’s pre-launch, test-only versions of Facebook and Instagram stopped working, as well as other employee-only apps for coordinating office collaboration, travel, and seeing the company’s daily lunch schedule. Neither block affects apps that consumers download from Apple’s App Store.

Facebook has over 35,000 employees. Google has more than 94,000 employees.

It’s not known when — or if — Apple will issue Google or Facebook with new internal-only certificates, but they will almost certainly have newer, stricter rules attached.

Lowe’s is killing off and bricking its Iris smart home products at the end of March

If you’ve got any gear from Lowe’s Iris line of smart home products, it’s time to start looking for alternatives.

Lowes has announced that the line is toast, with plans to flip the switch on “the platform and related services” at the end of March. In other words: much of this once smart connected gear is about to get bricked.

On the upside, Lowe’s is committing to refund customers for “eligible, connected Iris devices” — with the caveat that you’ve got to go through its redemption portal. “PLEASE DO NOT BRING YOUR CONNECTED IRIS DEVICES BACK TO A LOWE’S STORE”, they note repeatedly. They don’t want it either.

Refunds will be issued in the form of a prepaid Visa card. They also note that some — but definitely not all — Iris-compatible devices work with alternatives like Samsung’s SmartThings platform.

As of November of 2018, Lowes was attempting to find a buyer for the product line.

It might seem easier than ever to make any home a smart home — but for many, it’s still just a maze. Type “smart lightbulb” into your favorite mega online retail site — half of the results are probably from mystery brands that you’ve never heard of. Are they secure? If someone finds some nasty exploit that lets hackers tap that lightbulb to poke around your wider network, will it be patched? Will they even work in a year? For anyone who walked into a Lowe’s and figured they could count on the house brand to stick around, the answer to that last one, it seems, is a no.

This is why people worry about Internet of Things gadgets that can “betray you even after you toss them in the trash”: these things probably won’t last forever.

Kleiner Perkins gets back to early stage with its $600M 18th fund

“KP used be a small team doing hands-on company building. We’re moving away from being this institution with multiple products and really just focusing on early stage venture capital” Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman tells me. 47 years after its founding, the storied venture fund is going “back to the future” with today’s announcement of a 18th fund — a $600 million fund for seed, Series A, and Series B financings. It’s investing across consumer, enterprise, hard tech, and fintech, looking for high-potential teams to help mold into unicorns.

Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman

“We went out to market to LPs. We got a lot of interest. We we were significantly oversubscribed” Fushman says of the firm’s raise.

Kleiner Perkins was recently rocked by the departure of legendary investor Mary Meeker. She brought along Kleiner partners Mood Rowghani, Noah Knauf, and Juliet de Baubigny and they’re reportedly raising a $1.25 billion growth fund called Bond. Fushman explained that with Kleiner refocusing on early stage, their funds will be well differentiated. “They’re going to focus on very late stage growth” while he described Kleiner fund 18 as a place where partners can “collaborate and create” alongside new startups.

Other trends Kleiner is seeking to invest in include better distributed work tools, infrastructure for technology businesses, shifts in the urban and economic landscape, and security and identity tools to protect the software-enabled future. Recent early stage investments from the firm have included wellness product subscription service FabFitFun, tax and insurance safety net Catch, and food stamps app Propel.

With the explosion of early stage funds, competition for the best deals is cut throat. Kleiner will have to trade on its reputation, the expertise of its founders, and its extensive connections to lure in founders. If entrepreneurs think Kleiner can fund their mid-stage rounds like some seed funds can’t, or hook them up with potential acquirers whether things go peachy or pear-shaped, they’ll open their cap table.

Amazon reports better than expected Q4, but lowers Q1 guidance

Amazon had a heck of a holiday. The online retail giant posted Q4 earnings today, reporting $72.4 billion in revenue, topping last year’s $60.45 billion and besting the analysts’ forecast of $71.92 billion.

Extremely wealthy individual Jeff Bezos singled out Alexa’s record holiday season as a source of the robust quarter.

“Alexa was very busy during her holiday season. Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year,” the CEO said of the earnings. “The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear.”

Amazon Web Services also played a key role here, with a massive $2.2 billion operating income. AWS’s $7.43 billion sales beat the $7.29 billion analysts’ estimate and marked a healthy jump from last year’s $5.11 billion. 

The numbers look good, though; as CNBC notes, the 19.7 percent revenue growth for the quarter is the lowest since 2015. Wall Street reaction was further dampened by Amazon’s lowered guidance for Q1. Amazon put revenue for the upcoming quarter at between $56 billion and $60 billion, below analyst expectations of $60.99 billion.

China wants to keep its spot as a leader in the space race with plans to launch 30 missions

Keeping its spot among the top countries who are competing in the space race, China is planning to launch 30 missions this year, according to information from the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., reported by the Xinhua news agency.

Last year, China outpaced the United States in the number of national launches it had completed through the middle of December, according to a report in the MIT Technology ReviewPublic and private Chinese companies launched 35 missions that were reported to the public through 2018 compared to 30 from the U.S., wrote Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

“Privately funded space startups are changing China’s space industry,” Johnson-Freese wrote at the time. “And even without their help, China is poised to become a space power on par with the United States.”

Major missions for 2019 will include the Long March-5 large carrier rocket, whose last launch was marred by malfunction. If the new Long March launch goes well, China will stage another flight to launch a probe designed to bring lunar samples back to Earth at the end of 2019.

China will also send still another version of the Long March rocket to the lay the groundwork for the country’s private space station.

While the bulk of China’s activity in space is being handled through government ministries and state owned companies, private companies are starting to make their mark as well.

Landspace, OneSpace and iSpace form a triumvirate of privately held Chinese companies that are all developing launch vehicles and planning to carry payloads to space.

In all, using some back of the napkin math and the calendar of launches available at Spaceflight Insider , there were roughly 80 major rocket launches this year that were scheduled.

Those figures mean that over once a week a rocket blasted off to deliver some sort of payload to a place above the atmosphere. RocketLab put its first commercial payload into orbit in November, and launched a second rocket the following month. Meanwhile, SpaceX, the darling of the private space industry, launched 21 rockets itself.

 

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