Google Meet and other Google services go down (Updated)

Google’s engineers aren’t having a good day today. This afternoon, a number of Google services went offline or are barely reachable. These services include Google Meet, Drive, Docs, Analytics, Classroom and Calendar, for example.

While Google’s own status dashboards don’t show any issues, we’re seeing reports from around the world from people who aren’t able to reach any of these services. Best we can tell, these issues started around 6pm PT.

It’s unusual for this number of Google services to go down at once. Usually, it’s only a single service that is affected. This time around, however, it’s clearly a far broader issue.

We’ve reached out to Google and will update this post once we hear more about what happened.

Update (6:30pm PT): and we’re back. It looks like most Google services are now recovering.

 

Amazon’s Alexa becomes a better conversationalist and can now ask you questions, too

At its annual hardware event, Amazon today announced new capabilities for its Alexa personal assistant that will allow it to become more personalized as it can now ask clarifying questions and then use this personalized data to interact with the user later on. In addition, Alex can now join a conversation, too, starting a mode where you don’t have to say ‘hey Alexa’ all the time. With that, multiple users can interact with Alexa and the system will chime in when it’s appropriate (or not — since we haven’t tested this yet).

As Amazon VP and head scientist Rohit Prasad noted, the system for asking questions and personalizing responses uses a deep learning-based approach that allows Alexa to acquire new concepts and actions based on what it learns from customers. Whatever it learns is personalized and only applies to this individual customer.

When you ask Alexa to set the temperature to your ‘favorite setting,’ for example, she will now ask what that setting is.

In addition, Alexa can now adapt its speaking style depending on the context, based on the team’s ability to better understand how to generate a natural-sounding voice for Alexa. In an example today, Amazon showed what that means when you ask it to play music for example, with Alex having a bit more pep in its voice compared to its regular, somewhat monotone voice.

The real breakthrough, though, is the conversation mode. In today’s demo, the company showed how Alexa could work when you’re ordering a pizza, for example. One of the actors said she wasn’t that hungry and wanted a smaller pizza. Alexa automatically changed that order for her. The team calls this ‘natural turn taking.’

Language learning service Babbel says it has now sold over 10M subscriptions

Babbel, the popular Berlin-based online language learning service, today announced that it has now sold a total of 10 million subscriptions to its service. For a language learning service, that’s quite a substantial number, especially given that Babbel doesn’t really offer a free tier. In part, the company’s march to 10 million subscriptions was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Babbel had already seen accelerating growth before, in no small part thanks to its aggressive expansion in the U.S. where Babbel’s subscriber volume and revenue have tripled year over year.

Image Credits: Babbel

The fact that growth accelerated during the pandemic actually came as a bit of a surprise to the team. Typically, at least in the U.S., demand for language learning is somewhat seasonal and users are often motivated to learn a new language because they are preparing a big trip to Europe, for example.

“We know that in the U.S., we typically find the number one motivation that our users give for why they would want to learn a language is travel, which of course, makes sense, because that is your chance to use the language,” Babbel US CEO Julie Hansen told me. “And in fact, last year, there was record travel from the U.S. to Europe. […] I was very, very concerned for the prospects of our business, not to mention the prospects of our national health.”

But with a bit of lag, after the lockdowns in the U.S. (and around the globe) started, Babbel saw an increase in interest in its service because people wanted to use this time for self-improvement. At the same time, Babbel — like so many other education-related services — launched free tiers for high school and college students, too. Hansen said the company saw at least a “couple of hundred thousand” downloads from those initiatives alone. With that, the company’s user base now also skews a little bit younger (though Hansen also credited the company’s advertising on social and especially TikTok for this).

“You can literally draw a graph per country with the date of school closures, the date of lockdown — and then maybe a day or two for the first couple of Netflix series to go by — and then language learning picked up quite quickly,” Babbel CEO Arne Schepker said.

One area that has been challenging is B2B sales, where Babbel (and its competitors) saw an immediate slowdown, but as Hansen noted, some companies also started leaning more into digital training for their employees, maybe in part because they replaced in-person classes with tools like Babbel. Yet, despite the overall slowdown, Babbel still doubled its B2B revenue year-over-year and recently signed on its fellow Berlin -based company Delivery Hero as one of its customers.

Image Credits: Babbel

Ahead of the pandemic, Babbel also started investing in its language travel business after it acquired LingoVentura in 2018. And while the team believes that this business will pick up again over time, Schebker acknowledged that nobody is traveling right now, so this business is currently in a holding pattern.

Looking ahead, the company will soon launch what Hensen called “other learning methods,” but the team isn’t quite ready to talk about these yet beyond the fact that Babbel plans to embrace “a multitude of learning experiences” to meet learners where they are.

Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn on getting funding for crazy ideas

It’s not easy getting funding for any startup, but when Cloudflare launched at one of our early events 10 years ago, most investors sure thought its idea was a bit out there. Today, Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn joined us at our virtual Disrupt event to talk with our enterprise reporter Ron Miller about those early days and how the team managed to get investors on board with its plan.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, what were we thinking? But really, I hope — as other entrepreneurs listen — that you do think, ‘hey, how can I be more bold?’ Because actually, that’s where a lot of greatness comes from,” Zatlyn said.

It’s maybe no surprise then that she found that when the team went to the Bay Area in the summer of 2009, trying to sell a product that democratized a service that was previously only available to the internet giants of that time, not everybody was ready.

“A lot of eyes glazed over,” she said. They kind of brushed us aside because we really had a big vision — we certainly did not lack in vision. So that was a lot of the conversations, but there were some conversations where people really leaned in and they’re like: ‘Oh, wow, tell me more.’ And maybe they knew a lot about cybersecurity or maybe they were really worried about the democratization of the internet and going behind guarded walls. And those people really got excited. And that’s how we found kind of our initial investors or initial teammates.”

Over time, the team found investors and an initial set of employees, but it wasn’t easy. “It was bold then and not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some people looked at us like we’re crazy, but I’d like to say that when people look at you like you’re crazy, you’re probably onto something big.”

While a lot of people looked at Cloudflare as a CDN in its early days, it was always meant to be a security product that needed the CDN to work (the company sometimes describes itself as an “accidental CDN” because of that). Ten years ago, the focus was mostly on web spammers, and because that was something everybody could relate to, it made its ability to combat that very explicit in its pitch deck.

“We literally had a slide in our pitch deck that had quotes from real-life IT administrators from some medium-sized businesses, small businesses and developers, explaining in their own words — and their very hard-hitting words — how much they despise like these cyber threats that were online. […] Even if you knew nothing about cybersecurity or global performance, you could all understand wow, there’s something here, right?” And of course, it helped that there was no real protection against these threats available at the time.

Still, getting early customers didn’t come easy, either, Zatlyn noted, because some just didn’t understand what the company was doing. But the team took that as feedback and improved how it explained itself.

“Early on as an entrepreneur, you got to try a lot of things. And you don’t need to know every single corner of your business, but you need to really have a high rate of learning. Actually, that’s an entrepreneur’s best friend. How fast can you learn, how fast can you take the feedback and iterate on it?”

You can watch the rest of the conversation, including Zatlyn’s thoughts about going public, below:

Mozilla shutters Firefox Send and Notes

Mozilla today announced that it will shutter two products: Firefox Send, the free file transfer service it already put on hiatus in July, and Firefox Notes, its note-taking extension and mobile app.

Firefox Send launched in March 2019. At the time, Mozilla described it as a file-sharing tool with a focus on privacy. That privacy is also what is now doing it in. When it paused the service earlier this year, the company said it was investigating reports of abuse, especially from malware groups. At the time, Mozilla said it was looking into how it could improve its abuse reporting capabilities and that it would add a requirement that users have a Firefox Account.

But instead of relaunching it, the organization decided to shutter the service instead.

“Firefox Send was a promising tool for encrypted file sharing,” the organization writes in today’s update. “Send garnered good reach, a loyal audience and real signs of value throughout its life. Unfortunately, some abusive users were beginning to use Send to distribute malware and as part of spear phishing attacks. This summer we took Firefox Send offline to address this challenge. In the intervening period, as we weighed the cost of our overall portfolio and strategic focus, we made the decision not to relaunch the service.”

Mozilla says that Firefox Notes was initially meant to be an experiment for testing new ways to sync encrypted data. “Having served that purpose, we kept the product as a little utility tool for Firefox and Android users,” Mozilla says, but it is now decommissioning it and shutting it down completely in early November.

It’s hard not to look at today’s announcement in the context of the overall challenges that Mozilla is going through. If the organization were in a better financial position — and hadn’t laid off around 25% of its staff this year —  it may have kept Notes alive and maybe tried to rework Send. Now, however, it has fewer options to experiment, especially with free services, as it tries to refocus on Firefox and a few other core projects.

ZenHub’s new automation tools improve developer hand-offs in GitHub

ZenHub, the popular project management solution for GitHub users, today announced the launch of its new features for automating hand-offs between teams. The idea behind Automated Workflows, as it is called, is to remove some of the manual busywork of updating multiple boards across teams when a new patch is ready to go to testing, for example (or when it fails those tests and the development team has to fix it).

As ZenHub founder and CEO Aaron Upright told me, Automated Workflows are only the first step in the company’s journey from not just being the most integrated service on GitHub but also the most automated.

Image Credits: ZenHub

Teams still struggle with the mechanics of agile project management, he noted. “Things like what frameworks to choose. How to organize their projects. You talk to small companies and teams, you talk to large companies — it’s a problem for everyone, where people don’t know if they should be Scrum, or Kanban or how to organize Sprint planning meetings.” What ZenHub wants to do is remove as many of these friction points as possible and automate them for teams.

It’s starting with the hand-off between teams because that’s one of the pain points its customers are struggling with all the time. And since teams tend to have their own projects and workspaces, the ZenHub team had to build a solution that worked across a company’s various boards.

The result is a new tool that is pretty much a drag-and-drop service that automatically creates notifications and moves items between workplaces as they move from QA to production, for example.

“It’s a way to automate work between different workspaces,” explained Upright. “And we’re really excited about this being kind of the first step in our automation journey.”

Over time, Upright expects, the team will be able to use machine learning to understand more about the connections that its users are making between teams. Using that data, its systems may be able to also recommend workflows as well.

The next part of ZenHub’s focus on automation will be a tool for managing the Sprint planning process.

“Already today’s, ZenHub is capturing things like velocity. We’re measuring that on a team by team basis. We understand the priority of issues in our workflow. What we want to be able to do is allow teams to automatically set a Sprint schedule, say, for example, every two weeks. Then, based on the velocity that we know about your team, maybe your team can accomplish 50 story points every two weeks — we want to auto-build that Sprint for you.”

Dgraph launches Slash GraphQL, a GraphQL-native database Backend-as-a-Service

Dgraph Labs, the startup behind the popular eponymous graph database, today announced the launch of its Slash GraphQL service. Slash GraphQL is a fully managed GraphQL backend service that is, of course, powered by Dgraph.

As Manish Jain, Dgraph’s CEO and founder (and one of the engineers behind Google’s massive graph database infrastructure), told me, the team considered simply launching a basic managed version of Dgraph. But the team decided to go well beyond this instead. Back in 2019, the team realized that GraphQL was becoming increasingly popular and that customers kept asking for it, Jain told me.

Image Credits: Dgraph

“I put together a team to build the official GraphQL support and then that led to the next thing, which is that as a database company, we need to do a hosted Dgraph,” he explained. “And so instead of just saying, ‘let’s do hosted Dgraph,’ we were like, ‘hey, why don’t we try to solve the GraphQL backend problem,’ which is where we see a bunch of struggle that’s happening.”

He acknowledged that simply launching a managed version of Dgraph would’ve been the natural thing to do, but building a managed GraphQL backend with support for authentication, backups, custom logic and other features seemed like the more satisfying solution.

Image Credits: Dgraph

For the developer, using Slash GraphQL means setting up a backend should be as easy as specifying the GraphQL schema and then clicking the deploy button. As you iterate, you can change your schema as needed, hit deploy again and then everything should simply work as expected.

“I think that’s the power that a native GraphQL database like the Dgraph can bring, because other solutions that are in the market are all GraphQL layers on top of other non-native GraphQL databases.”

One risk with using a backend-as-a-service tool like Slash GraphQL is lockin, something Jain is quite aware of. He argues that users can always take their databases out of the service as needed and switch to another hosted solution — or their own on-premises graph database — with minimal code changes.

Slash GraphQL essentially runs Dgraph on a Kubernetes infrastructure, with all the ancillary services necessary to power the service. Currently, the service runs on AWS, but Jain said the company plans to support GCP and Azure soon, too.

 

Spirit Airlines starts testing biometric check-ins

Discount carrier Spirit Airlines today announced that it is introducing biometric check-ins in its ticket lobby at Chicago’s O’Hare airport to streamline the check-in process and reduce face-to-face interactions between its employees and passengers during the pandemic.

The new process is straightforward, though it still involves one customer service agent at the beginning, who will check the flier’s ID before approaching the new check-in/bag drop units. If passengers opt in to the biometric procedure — and this remains optional — they scan their ID and the system will compare the photo with a facial scan captured by the machine.

Over time, Spirits hopes to do away with the first step of having an agent check the ID, but it is waiting for TSA approval to do so.

If everything works according to plan, the passenger can then drop of their bags and go their merry way (until they hit the TSA checkpoint, but that’s not the airline’s fault).

Image Credits: Spirit / Getty Images

“We started looking at ways to improve the check-in experience in 2019 as part of our pledge to invest in the Guest,” Spirit President and CEO Ted Christie explained in today’s announcement. “We knew early on that automation and biometric photo-matching would make the check-in process smoother. Now in 2020, we’re realizing those same elements are just as valuable when it comes to helping people feel comfortable flying. Limiting touchpoints and unnecessary face-to-face interactions will change the way airports operate.”

Before the pandemic, this would have looked like an obvious effort to save money by reducing the number of employees needed to run the check-in counters (with self-service bag drops having already become somewhat of a standard procedure). Now, it feels like just the right move, even as the number of travelers remains at record lows.

Image Credits: Spirit Airlines

Currently, 600 passengers use Spirit’s bag drop at O’Hare. In its tests, the airline found that the new process drops the average processing time by 70 seconds.

Spirit stresses that none of the data is transmitted to the government and that it doesn’t leave Spirit’s possession. Biometrics and especially facial recognition have long been good for controversy at airports, at least in the U.S., with Homeland security testing biometric scans before boarding international flights, for example, and the TSA now testing self-service checkpoints to get passengers through its security lines. And while a lot of fliers now feel comfortable using CLEAR to get through security with only their fingerprints or a facial scan, there is still a large chunk of the flying public that will feel somewhat uncomfortable with this, even during a pandemic and despite the airline’s argument that it doesn’t share data with the government.

Image Credits: Spirit Airlines

Google Cloud lets businesses create their own text-to-speech voices

Google launched a few updates to its Contact Center AI product today, but the most interesting one is probably the beta of its new Custom Voice service, which will let brands create their own text-to-speech voices to best represent their own brands.

Maybe your company has a well-known spokesperson for example, but it would be pretty arduous to have them record every sentence in an automated response system or bring them back to the studio whenever you launch a new product or procedure. With Custom Voice, businesses can bring in their voice talent to the studio and have them record a script provided by Google. The company will then take those recordings and train its speech models based on them.

As of now, this seems to be a somewhat manual task on Google’s side. Training and evaluating the model will take “several weeks,” the company says and Google itself will conduct its own tests of the trained model before sending it back to the business that commissioned the model. After that, the business must follow Google’s own testing process to evaluate the results and sign off on it.

For now, these custom voices are still in beta and only American English is supported so far.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s review process is meant to ensure that the result is aligned with its internal AI Principles, which it released back in 2018.

Like with similar projects, I would expect that this lengthy process of creating custom voices for these contact center solutions will become mainstream quickly. While it will just be a gimmick for some brands (remember those custom voices for stand-alone GPS systems back in the day?), it will allow the more forward-thinking brands to distinguish their own contact center experiences from those of the competition. Nobody likes calling customer support, but a more thoughtful experience that doesn’t make you think you’re talking to a random phone tree may just help alleviate some of the stress at least.

RealPage acquires real estate IoT startup Stratis

RealPage, a publicly traded full-service property management technology firm with over 12,200 clients worldwide, today announced that it has acquired Stratis IoT,  a startup that provides IoT services to the real estate industry, with a focus on access and energy management tools.

“RealPage aims to become a leading provider in the burgeoning rental property automation market, and thereby create significant opportunity for operators to increase rents, improve sustainability, add operational efficiencies, reduce operating costs and enhance the customer experience for the company’s approximately 19 million units throughout the United States,” said RealPage CEO Steve Winn. “The smart building technology also provides a launching pad for expanded international operations, thanks to Stratis’ existing international presence.”

Stratis is currently installed in about 380,000 homes in the U.S., Japan, UK and several countries in Europe and Latin America. Both Stratis and RealPage target a wide range of the real estate industry, ranging from multifamily units to student housing, vacation homes and commercial real estate.

Image Credits: Stratis

Traditionally, the real estate market wasn’t always the first to adopt modern technologies. That’s quickly changing now, though, in part because of the promise of IoT, which isn’t just a boon to renters looking for modern solutions in their apartments but also represents the possibility of significant cost savings for the industry. RealPage argues that smart technology can generate a revenue lift of $55 per unit, for example, and that’s the kind of saving (and higher revenues) that will push even legacy B2B platforms to modernize.

One area where Stratis stands out is its ability to integrate with a wide variety of third-party solutions.

“Holistic building-wide access and utility management and control are integral to building optimization and the resident experience, which have become increasingly intertwined,” said Stratis IoT CEO Felicite Moorman. “RealPage and Stratis IoT combine two industry-leading, best-in-class platforms to create a powerhouse of control and single-app resident experience for multifamily, student housing, and beyond.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition. It’s worth noting that RealPage isn’t a stranger to making acquisitions to bring its technology up to speed. A year ago, the company acquired Hipercept, for example, a firm that provided data services and data analytics to the institutional real estate market. Then, in December, it also acquired Buildium, a SaaS property management solution with over 2 million units under management. In 2019, the company said planned to spend just over $100 million on acquisitions.