Amazon says it will add 1,000 more employees in the UK, bringing the total to 28,500, bucking the Brexit chill

A lot of uncertainty hangs over the UK as continues its slow march out of the European Union, but today one of the world’s biggest companies announced plans to expand its presence in the country. Amazon today said it would add another 1,000 workers in the UK, including establishing its first corporate and R&D office in Manchester.

Amazon said it also plans to add more people to its R&D bases in Edinburgh and Cambridge — respectively known for developing search technology as well as the AI technology that powers Alexa, among other things. The company says it currently has 27,500 “roles” in the UK.

The government is positioning Amazon’s news as a win at a time when many have been criticising how it has been handling Brexit negotiations. “Ensuring that the world’s best and brightest companies continue to invest and innovate in the UK is at the heart of our Global Britain agenda,” said Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, in a statement. “Amazon’s decision to create hundreds of highly-skilled jobs in Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge is an enormous vote of confidence in the UK and a signal to the world that the UK is very much open for business.”

The news was announced today as the company presented an “Innovation Day” to journalists, showcasing some of the different areas that are the focus of its R&D hubs in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK. I was at the event, and while I wouldn’t say that the day was strong on news announcements around that work, it’s instructive to consider what Amazon chose to show (and perhaps not show, too).

For example, in one demo the company showed off today, a new computer vision-based system Amazon is building in Berlin will allow robots to identify what produce is ripe or rotten, so that automatic pickers can select more robust fruit and vegetables to pack off to consumers; and identify what needs to be discarded. This underscores the company’s ambitions in the business of fresh food sales and delivery. Earlier this summer there were reports that Amazon was interested in bidding for a number of large retail locations that were due to be shut down by Homebase, a DIY chain, so that it could set up more delivery (or perhaps even retail) spots across key UK cities. However, so far nothing has materialised.

A walk through some of the company’s transportation work, meanwhile, focused more incremental developments rather than fundamental shifts for the company. The focus in the presentation was not on drones (which Amazon has also been building in Europe), nor on autonomous cars (which Amazon is also working on) but on its real-time street navigation services, and other tools to help delivery people make more accurate parcel drops.

While Amazon is continuing to add employees in the UK, it has also had its share of employment controversies. Warehouse workers regularly strike during the company’s busiest sales periods, to protest working conditions. And earlier this month, Reuters reported that the company had built an AI prototype to assist with finding and screening suitable candidates to help make its hiring spree more efficient. But the project had to be scrapped after it was found to be biased against women (highlighting some of the problems with “training” in machine learning). 

 

Stripe hires Niels Provos away from Google to be its new head of security

On the heels of raising new funding on a $20 billion valuation, payments and financial services startup Stripe is making a key hire to reinforce its message to the world that it’s taking security of its cloud-based services seriously. Today the company is announcing that it has hired Niels Provos as its new head of security. Provos was most recently a distinguished engineer at Google, where he has led some of the search giant’s biggest efforts to make its service secure, perhaps most famously Safe Browsing, but also more recently Google Cloud Platform and Google’s production infrastructure.

He’s also a well known cryptographer and researcher that has had a big impact on other projects aimed at improving internet security, such as bcrypt, honeyd, and OpenSSH. He’s also a blacksmith who makes swords and knives (another kind of security tool, I suppose).

From what I understand, Provos had been talking to Stripe about the job for a while before leaving Google.

“Over the last twenty years, I have applied myself to improving and advancing the security of the Internet not only for billions of users but also for businesses who are in critical need of a secure foundation,” he said in a statement. “I believe that what Google was to search, Stripe will be to commerce: global infrastructure that’s remaking what’s possible online. I am really excited to join Stripe’s excellent security team and to work with them helping businesses running on Stripe improve their security as well.”

Provos is the latest hire in a series of moves to beef up security talent at Stripe, at a time when security breaches are at an all-time high, with the financial services industry the largest target of that rise. Equifax is the breach we all know (some of us in a more painful way than others, unfortunately), but there have been many more. A study from Accenture estimates that the number of breaches go up by nearly 10 percent each year, with the cost to fix them rising about 40 percent each year, and are currently at around $18 million per organization.

In that context, it’s no surprise that Stripe is bringing in top talent to lead its efforts and also to shore up industry confidence in its services (because, despite the fact that Stripe has millions of customers, there remains a lot of competition in payments, Stripe’s core business). But it’s been a long-term process there, not just involving hiring talent but launching products like Radar for fraud prevention.

Interestingly, from what I understand Provos was hired by another security star, Mudge, who joined Stripe in May 2017, also to be its head of security. How does that square up? Mudge is apparently still staying on, but not in that role.

“We’re lucky to work with some of the foremost security experts in the world, especially Mudge, whose contributions to Stripe have been enormous,” said David Singleton, Stripe’s director of engineering. “Mudge joined us with the specific goal of building out a world class security team, and that’s exactly what he’s done — hiring dozens of security leaders and spinning up teams to focus on data privacy, security engineering, threat operations, application security, and more. He also helped us hire Niels, whom he’s known for over twenty years. While the bulk of his initial work is done, we’re grateful to have Mudge’s continued support at Stripe.”

Temasek acquires Sygnia, an Israeli cybersecurity startup, for $250M

Temasek, the Singaporean government-controlled company that is one of the world’s biggest investors, is today announcing an acquisition to beef up its cybersecurity business. It is acquiring Sygnia, a startup out of Israel that keeps a low profile, but has built technology and services to help large organizations respond to cyber threats. The price of the deal is not being officially disclosed, but a source close to it says that Temasek is buying Sygnia for $250 million. After the deal closes, Temasek will continue to let Syngia operate as an independent entity.

Sygnia came out of stealth less than a year ago, after being incubated by Team8, an investor/company builder in Israel that itself has been built like a startup, with Intel, Microsoft, AT&T, Qualcomm, Cisco, Nokia and Temasek all backers. Team8’s focus is on cybersecurity, and as such it lives somewhat under the radar, but the other three companies that have been spun out of so far it are Illusive Networks, Claroty and Hysolate.

Sygnia is typical of the makeup of Team8-incubated startups. It was co-founded by a team of elite security specialists from Israel: Shachar Levy (who is the CEO), Ariel Smoler, Arick Goomanovsky and Ami Kor, with its chairman Nadav Zafrir, the co-founder and CEO of Team8 and a former commander of Unit 8200. The basic idea behind Sygnia is both to build technology, tools and services to help an organization’s resilience — both to reduce the likelihood of a breach, and to help the company weather an attack if one does happen. Other members of the team come from military and security industry backgrounds, and generally are always in training, either to hone their own skills or to train customers with whom it works.

Team8 had invested only $4.3 million into Sygnia, the only outside funding the startup had ever taken.

Part of the reason for that is because Sygnia has been generating revenue since before it came out of stealth. It doesn’t name specific customers, or threat incidents that it has helped manage (or avoid, for that matter), but notes that typically it interacts with executive management, boards, and technology teams, and it has customers in the financial, legal, retail and consumer goods products, information technology, media and entertainment, pharmaceutical, telecommunication, logistics and manufacturing sectors, with customers based in the US, Canada, EMEA and Latin America.

The deal should help Sygnia add another part of the world of the world to that list: Asia, both providing services for Temasek portfolio companies and others. Although Temasek will operate Sygnia as its own independent entity, this deal is a sign of how the Singaporean company is ramping up its cybersecurity activities overall: just last month, it formed a cybersecurity joint venture called Ensign InfoSecurity with StarHub, the Singaporen carrier, bringing together Temasek subsidiary Quann and StarHub subsidiary Accel Systems.

If Sygnia’s customer list and trade were both strong and today, more than ever before, cybersecurity is a huge priority (and business opportunity), it’s worth wondering why the startup decided to sell up so quickly. From what I understand, an acquisition by Temasek — itself a huge holding company by way of its many investments — is essentially like securing a dedicated and large-pocketed owner that will help the company scale in an efficient way to meet demand.

“Cyber, in its current magnitude, is a new domain of technology, a new domain of warfare, and a new domain of business,” said Sygnia’s Levy in a statement. “Companies are today confronted with a level of risk which until lately was the realm of militaries and states. We assist them in balancing this asymmetry with ‘military grade security’ – conceptual frameworks,  methodologies and technologies built to build resilience and win the battle within their network.”

Team8 will continue to be involved with the company post-acquisition — not least because of the chairman connection.

“Sygnia has built a powerful combination of professional proficiency, methodologies, technologies, and a culture of excellence, which is critically needed in confronting the growing complexity of cyber,” said Zafrir in a statement. “Team8 will remain committed to Sygnia’s success and we will continue to collaborate and work closely together.”

Zimmer and Apple launch clinical study covering up to 10K patients who get knee and hip replacements

Apple has made health — and helping people keep tabs on theirs — a cornerstone of how it is presenting the benefits of its newest Apple Watch, and today comes news of another way that this is taking shape. Zimmer Biomet, a world leader in developing the components and systems for joint replacements, says that it is working with Apple on a new clinical study focused on people who get knee and hip replacements.

The trial will come in three stages, and within two years, Zimmer projects that there to be up to 10,000 people involved, Ted Spooner, Zimmer’s vice president of connected health, said in an interview.

It will cover three aspects of patient care, he said: monitoring patients before and after operations using sensors on the Apple Watch and iPhone; providing education and information to patients to help improve their pre- and post-operation care; and providing a communications channel between doctors, caregivers and patients to ask questions, give answer and more, using Zimmer’s mymobility app.

Institutions that will be participating include University of Utah Health; Rush University Medical Center; University of Pennsylvania Health System; Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital/Emory Healthcare; Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California; Newton-Wellesley Hospital, member of Partners HealthCare founded by Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Centura Health, Porter Hospital – Colorado Joint Replacement (CJR); ROC Orthopedics, affiliated with Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center; OrthoBethesda; OrthoArizona; Midwest Center for Joint Replacement; Hartzband Center for Hip & Knee Replacement; New Mexico Orthopaedic Associates; The DeClaire LaMacchia Orthopaedic Institute, affiliated with Michigan Institute for Advanced Surgery; Joint Implant Surgeons; Orthopedic and Fracture Clinic; Panorama Orthopedic and Spine Center.

The study — which for now will be US-only — comes after two years of Zimmer working with Apple behind the scenes, Spooner said, on not just making sure the parameters of what Zimmer hoped to achieve in a connected app would be possible, but also for Apple to understand what stakeholders in the health industry would want to see out of a health service built around a smartwatch and smartphone. Zimmer was a key target because today it accounts for one in every four knee replacements globally, and it has similarly strong market positions in hip, shoulder, foot, dental and spine products.

A measure of where Apple is placing the importantance of this study is who they have commenting on its launch.

“We believe one of the best ways to empower consumers is by giving them the ability to use their health and activity information to improve their own care,” said Jeff Williams, Chief Operating Officer, Apple, in a statement. “We are proud to enable knee and hip replacement patients to use their own data and share it with their doctors seamlessly, so that they can participate in their care and recovery in a way not previously possible through traditional in-person visits. This solution will connect consumers with their doctors continuously, before and after surgery.”

Hip and knee replacements are the most common “replacement” procedures that take place, accounting for one million operations each year in the US, according to Deloitte, a figure that will grow to 3.5 million by 2035 as our population grows, stays alive for longer, and includes more people who were much more active in their earlier years in a wider upswing for fitness.

You might assume that it would be an uphill challenge to sell the idea of connected health services to older people — who are the typical recipients of these operations — but Spooner said that the opposite is the case.

“It turns out that the fastest adoption group for smartphones is 55-64 right now,” he said, saying that they are currently buying smartphones and other connected devices three times as fast as the next group down. Some of that of course might be because older people have been slower to adopt, but nevertheless, he points out, the stats “are really staggering, considering that other groups are at less than a two percent compound annual growth rate.” Smart watches, he said, have a similarly high growth rate among the elderly. “When they use it, the utility they get is higher than in younger populations, and people have such sensitivity to their health as they get older, that we thought this is the right time to do what we are doing.”

The  core problems that Zimmer and Apple are hoping to address are around making sure that patients are able to be more engaged with their course of treatment, and in cases when something has not gone to plan, people are able to identify this and act on it. Part of the system will involve a larger dashboard and analytics for doctors and caregivers to help assess how people are doing in between in-person appointments.

On the patient side, they will be getting alerts leading up to their operations, suggesting activities that they should be doing to keep themselves active ahead of surgery. And doctors will be able to monitor just how well they are actually doing them, by looking at things like movement, heart rate, and specifically how much they are doing basic things like standing during the day. The same will continue after the operation. Throughout, a patient will also be able to contact their medical team if, for example, they are worried about how a scar is looking, although Spooner said that he is not sure that this has been conceived as the primary use case as much as monitoring and education.

Zimmer’s move into collaborating and working more closely with Apple comes at a time when medical companies — like those across so many other industries — are realising that they have to jump on the innovations afforded by the rise in digital services, lest they be cut out of whatever the future holds for medicine and healthcare. Spooner says that he came to Zimmer by way of RespondWell, a startup he founded focused specifically on this challenge.

“We were in the marketplace trying to understand what kind of biometric data collection was available so that we could measure patients continuously to use that data to drive more insight into conditions and how to work with caregivers,” he said. The startup was using Microsoft Connect, “|but at the same time Zimmer was having preliminary conversations with Apple. We went to Cupertino with the idea of a common vision, and that is what led to this collaboration.”

 

 

 

 

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Truphone, an eSIM mobile carrier that works with Apple, raises another $71M, now valued at $507M

Truphone — a UK startup that provides global mobile voice and data services by way of an eSIM model for phones, tablets and IoT devices — said that it has raised another £18 million ($23.7 million) in funding; plus it said it has secured £36 million ($47 million) more “on a conditional basis” to expand its business after signing “a number of high-value deals.”

It doesn’t specify which deals these are, but Truphone was an early partner of Apple’s to provide eSIM-based connectivity to the iPad; and it will also be offering a service for new iPhone XS and XR models, taking advantage of the dual SIM capability. Truphone says that strategic partners of the company include Apple (“which chose Truphone as the only carrier to offer global data, voice and text plans on the iPad and iPhone digital eSIM”); Synopsys, which has integrated Truphone’s eSIM technology into its chipset designs; and Workz Group, a SIM manufacturer, which has a license from Truphone for its GSMA-accredited remote SIM provisioning platform and SIM operating system.

The company said that this funding, which was made by way of a rights issue, values Truphone at £386 million ($507 million at today’s rates) post-money. Truphone told TechCrunch that the funding came from Vollin Holdings and Minden Worldwide — two investment firms with ties to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who also owns the Chelsea football club, among other things — along with unspecified minority shareholders. Collectively, Abramovich-connected entities control more than 80 percent of the company.

We have asked the company for more detail on what the conditions are for the additional £36 million in funding to be released and all it is willing to say is that “it’s KPI-driven and related to the speed of growth in the business.” It’s unclear what the state of the business is at the moment because Truphone has not updated its accounts at Companies House (they are overdue). We have asked about that, too.

For some context, Truphone most recently raised money almost exactly a year ago, when it picked up £255 million also by way of a rights issue, and also from the same two big investors. The large amount that time was partly being raised to retire debt. That deal was done at a valuation of £370 million ($491 million at the time of the deal). Going just on sterling values, this is a slight down-round.

Truphone, however, says that business is strong right now:

“The appetite for our technology has been enormous and we are thrilled that our investors have given us the opportunity to accelerate and scale these groundbreaking products to market,” said Ralph Steffens, CEO, Truphone, in a statement. “We recognised early on that the more integrated the supply chain, the smoother the customer experience. That recognition paid off—not just for our customers, but for our business. Because we have this capability, we can move at a speed and proficiency that has never before seen in our industry. This investment is particularly important because it is testament not just to our investors’ confidence in our ambitions, but pride in our accomplishments and enthusiasm to see more of what we can do.”

Truphone is one of a handful of providers that is working with Apple to provide plans for the digital eSIM by way of the MyTruphone app. Essentially this will give users an option for international data plans while travelling — Truphone’s network covers 80 countries — without having to swap out the SIMs for their home networks.

The eSIM technology is bigger than the iPhone itself, of course: some believe it could be the future of how we connect on mobile networks. On phones and tablets, it does away with users ordering, and inserting or swapping small, fiddly chips into their devices (that ironically is also one reason that carriers have been resistant to eSIMs traditionally: it makes it much easier for their customers to churn away). And in IoT networks where you might have thousands of connected, unmanned devices, this becomes one way of scaling those networks.

“eSIM technology is the next big thing in telecommunications and the impact will be felt by everyone involved, from consumers to chipset manufacturers and all those in-between,” said Steve Alder, chief business development officer at Truphone. “We’re one of only a handful of network operators that work with the iPhone digital eSIM. Choosing Truphone means that your new iPhone works across the world—just as it was intended.” Of note, Alder was the person who brokered the first iPhone carrier deal in the UK, when he was with O2.

Truphone has not released numbers detailing how many devices are using its eSIM services at the moment — either among enterprises or consumers — but it has said that customers include more than 3,500 multinational enterprises in 196 countries. We have asked for more detail and will update this post as we learn more.

Apple has acquired Spektral, a Danish computer vision startup, for augmented reality technology

On the heels of Apple this morning inking a $600 million deal to acquire IP, talent and licenses from Dialog Semiconductor in Europe, it has also confirmed another acquisition of a smaller startup in the region.

Apple has purchased Spektral, a computer vision company based out of Denmark that has worked segmentation technology, a more efficient way to “cut out” figures from their backgrounds in digital images and videos, reportedly for about $30 million.

This type of technology can be used, for example, to make quicker and more accurate/realistic cut-out images in augmented reality environments, but also for more standard applications like school photos (which was actually the first market the startup targeted, in 2015, although it appeared to shift strategy after that to build up IP and make deeper inroads into video).

Rumors of the deal started to surface yesterday, first in Danish financial newspaper Børsen, without confirmation from Apple. We reached out, and Apple has today finally confirmed the deal with its standard statement: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”

From what we understand, the acquisition happened a while back — which lines up with a LinkedIn profile for Toke Jansen, who had been a co-founder of Spektral but now notes that as of December 2017 he has been a manager of computational imaging at Apple.

Others associated with the company — including the other co-founder, Henrik Paltoft — have not updated their profiles, so it’s unclear how many others have joined. Børsen reports that the deal includes the company’s engineers and was in the region of 200 million Danish kroner, which is equivalent to around $31 million.

Spektral started life as CloudCutout, built on algorithms from Jansen’s PhD. The startup initially pitched its product as a cheaper and more efficient “green screen” technology, to remove primary images from their plain (typically green) or standard-pattern backgrounds, with the early iteration of the product built by training the system on over 100,000 professional cutouts.

Spectral’s first application may have been the fairly retro world of school pictures, but what’s most notable here is what Spektral might contribute to Apple’s imaging business. That goes not just in applications that Apple has yet to launch, but to improve the quality of those that are already in the market, from legacy products like PhotoBooth through to ARKit, the company’s platform for mobile development.

Segmentation could help add live filters to human figures in a photo but can also be effective in occluding AR environments behind figures to make digital AR content appear interact with the position of humans.

Spektral’s segmentation technology is also able to run on mobile phones, making it potentially a quicker and more efficient way of processing AR images directly on devices.

“To provide high quality cutouts, the core of our engine exploits recent advances in spectral graph theory and neural networks. The computation of pixel transparencies (the alpha channel) for a single image involves solving multiple large-scale equation systems, as well as carrying out multiple feed-forward passes in our neural networks,” we reported the founders saying when the startup raised its seed round. (It raised more funding in 2017, $2.8 million from Litecap and Amp Ventures, to diver deeper into video.)

“We pose the problem of determining an alpha channel of an image as a machine learning task. Compared to usual chroma keying, this allows us to consider a much broader range of backgrounds since the model will learn, i.e., texture representations from existing training data.”

Computer vision has been a key focus (sorry!) for Apple for a while now. The iPhone and Mac giant has made more than 40 acquisitions in Europe in the last 10 years — I guess we may still have some hunting to do — and a number of its acquisitions both in Europe and elsewhere have been in the area of computer vision. They have included Akonia Holographics, InVisage Technologies, Regaind, Vrvana, SensoMotoric Instruments, Indoor.io, Flyby Media, Emotient, Faceshift, Metaio, Polar Rose and more.

Additional reporting Natasha Lomas.

Apple is paying $300M in cash to buy a part of Dialog Semiconductor and expand its chipmaking in Europe

Apple has quietly been putting considerable effort into building faster and more efficient chips that can help differentiate its hardware from the rest of the consumer electronics pack, and today it’s taking its next (and possibly biggest) step in that strategy. Apple is paying $300 million in cash to purchase a portion of Dialog Semiconductor, a chipmaker based out of Europe that it has been working with since the first iPhone. On top of the main acquisition, Apple is also committing $300 million to make further purchases from the remaining part of Dialog’s business.

This will be Apple’s biggest acquisition by far in terms of people: 300 people will be joining Apple as part of the deal, or about 16 percent of Dialog’s total workforce. From what we understand, those who are joining have already been working tightly with Apple up to now. The teams joining are based across Livorno in Italy, Swindon in England, and Nabern and Neuaubing in Germany, near Munich, where Apple already has an operation.

In some cases, Apple will be taking over entire buildings that had been owned by Dialog, and in others they will be colocating in buildings where Dialog will continue to develop its own business (another sign of how closely the two have and will continue to work together). The Dialog employees Apple is picking up in this acquisition will report to Apple’s SVP of hardware technologies, Johny Srouji. 

“Dialog has deep expertise in chip development, and we are thrilled to have this talented group of engineers who’ve long supported our products now working directly for Apple,” said Srouji, in a statement. “Our relationship with Dialog goes all the way back to the early iPhones, and we look forward to continuing this long-standing relationship with them.”

Apple’s acquisition will also include IP and licenses for further IP, we understand.

The deal — which is expected to close in the first half of 2019, pending regulatory approvals — comes at a time when many expect Apple to release a VR headset in the future, and while our sources haven’t told us specifically about this, what we do know is that one big, more general focus for the company is to continue working on power management and chips that are more efficient in that regard, particularly considering the newest devices that Apple has added to its range: AirPods headphones and the Watch — wireless, high-performing hardware.

It also comes at a time when Apple has been in the spotlight for another kind of chip story: the company was named in a controversial Bloomberg report alleging that there have been “spy chips” secretly implanted on Apple hardware by way of Supermicro motherboards — a report that Apple and others have strongly denied. This could shift the focus on what people are talking about when they think of Apple and chips, although I have a feeling that earlier story could see some more developments before it goes away.

“This transaction reaffirms our long-standing relationship with Apple, and demonstrates the value of the strong business and technologies we have built at Dialog,” said Jalal Bagherli, CEO of Dialog, in a statement. “Going forward, we will have a clear strategic focus, building on our custom and configurable mixed-signal IC expertise and world-class power-efficient design. Our execution track record, deep customer relationships, and talented employees give us great confidence in our future growth prospects… We believe that this transaction is in the best interests of our employees and shareholders who will benefit from a business with enhanced focus, strong growth prospects and additional financial flexibility to invest in strategic growth initiatives.”

Dialog is holding a conference call later this morning to talk more about the deal and we will update this story as we learn more.

More to come.

Facebook Workplace adds algorithmic feed, Safety Check and enhanced chat

Workplace, the version of Facebook tailored to enterprises that has over 30,000 organizations as paying customers, is ramping up the service today with a rush of new features to help it competes with the likes of Slack and Microsoft’s Teams.

The additions are being announced at a new, standalone conference called Flow — the first time Facebook has built what’s likely to become a recurring event for a specific product, Workplace’s head Julien Codorniou told me in an interview. He described Workplace as “Facebook’s first SaaS startup.” He tells us that for existing clients, the goal of Flow is to show off new features that deepen employee engagement with Workplace so they can’t imagine switching away. And for enterprise software partners Facebook integrates with, it’s to foster an ecosystem surrounding Workplace so it can adapt to any business.

In a big upgrade to the “chat” features of Workplace (conversations that happen outside the news feed, first launched last year), users will now be able to start chats, calls and video conversations either one-to-one or in groups, in the style of WhatsApp or Messenger. Facebook is also making it easier to navigate through high volumes of messages in your channels by adding in replies, do not disturb and pinning features — Facebook’s first move to bring in algorithmic sorting to Workplace. And Facebook is also bringing its Safety Check feature from the main app to Workplace, delivered via Workchat, as a tool that can be controlled by admins to check on the status of employees during a critical incident.

Workplace has picked up 30,000 businesses as customers in the two years since it launched (including some biggies like Walmart, the world’s largest employer); and today it also added a couple of notable large enterprises to the mix: GSK, Astra Zeneca, Chevron, Kantar, Telefonica, Securitas, Clarins UK, Jumia and GRAB.

But Facebook has never revealed how many users (or “seats”, in enterprise parlance) it has on Workplace. As a point of comparison, Slack today has 8 million users across 70,000 organizations, and Facebook hasn’t updated its 30,000 figure in a year.

Facebook Workplace multi-company chat

The range of features Facebook is introducing today are notable both for their breadth and for what they are aiming to do. Some help put Workplace more on par with the core Facebook experience in terms of functionality, but ultimately they are all squarely aimed at making Workplace into something that fits more closely with how enterprises already use IT.

The chat features that are being incorporated build on the minimal chat features that were already present in Workplace and essentially create something like WhatsApp or Messenger that sits within the same secure framework as Workplace itself. It’s effectively Facebook’s first step forward into unified communications — a specific branch of enterprise IT that used to be centred around PBXs and other expensive physical equipment, but has more recently become more virtualised with the rise of voice of IP and cloud-based systems that can be used over any internet connection.

Workplace had already had a feature in place for up to 50 companies to converse in multi-organizational conversations on the platform, and now if some members of those groups want to take the conversation to a more direct channel potentially with voice or video calling, they can do that directly from within the app without having to open a separate messaging client (which may or may not be under the control of IT).

The three features that help you better organise your conversations — do not disturb, replies and pinning important items — will be especially welcome to people who have especially “noisy” channels on Workplace.

Replies, Codorniou said, will work “like on WhatsApp” — where you can select a message and reply to it and it will appear with its mini thread later in the feed.

But they are perhaps most notable of all because they will be the first time that Facebook is introducing “algorithmic” sorting to Workplace. For those who already use normal Facebook, or Twitter, or other social media services, algorithmic sorting is something that is well-known, as it plays with the sequence of posts to show you what is deemed to be more important, versus what’s most recent.

In the case of pinning, Facebook is letting the IT admins, and users, effectively play a part in the algorithmic sorting: Admins can pin “important” posts to the top of a feed, and that will affect what users see and can respond to first. “If the CEO posts a message, this might be more important than something posted an intern,” he said.

Do not disturb, meanwhile, will let users set times when they do not get pinged with messages, but when you “return” again to Workplace, Facebook decides what gets sorted to the top of what you view.

Facebook’s VP of Workplace Julien Codorniou

Codorniou notes that Facebook uses machine learning and AI “to make sure that if you don’t use Workplace for two weeks [as an example] you have the most relevant information on top of the news feed.” Signals that it uses to sort include who you work with, and which groups you are most active in. “It’s algorithmic by default,” he noted, and added that this was something that was requested by Workplace users. “People don’t believe in the chronological feed anymore,” he said. “It’s important to guarantee reach to communications teams.”

The Safety Check also fits into this concept. Here, Facebook will be putting IT managers/Workplace admins into the driver’s seat, “giving them the keys to the feature”, said Codorniou, and letting them control the use and distribution of a feature that in regular Facebook is controlled by Facebook itself.

Frederic takes a deeper diver into Safety Check here, but the main idea, as Codorniou described it to me, is that it allows companies “to track and clear who is safe and who is not” when a particular location has been through an emergency or critical incident. There are apps that companies can use to run safety checks, or sometimes they might use SMS, but these tend to work more manually and are harder to execute quickly, he said. Facebook doesn’t reveal how well penetrated their apps are at organizations like Walmart and Starbucks, but this potentially becomes one lever to helping get Workplace distributed more widely.

“Employees are a company’s number-one asset of the company, and this helps make sure you are safe,” he added. “People don’t want to play Candy Crush, but things like Live” — which Workplace launched last year — “and Safety Check are relevant. They help turn companies into communities.”

(Community, of course, is the big theme for Facebook these days.)

All these updates are happening at a time when many people have been scrutinising Facebook for its approach to user privacy and personal data.

The issue was notably highlighted over the Cambridge Analytica scandal many months ago, specifically over how third parties were able to access users’ information; and then more recently Facebook faced criticism two weeks ago, when it emerged that a bug in one of its features exposed user information to malicious hackers. Both of these problems were squarely about Facebook’s core consumer app, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of an impact it has had on the company’s enterprise business — given that levels of security in workplace networks typically tend to be higher as they are connected to corporate information.

“We had a few questions of course but we have no reason to believe that Workplace was affected,” Codorniou said. He noted that there had once been a feature to log in to Workplace using a user’s Facebook ID, but that was disabled some time go. “We have been investigating, but most customers are on single sign on,” he noted, which uses services like Okta, One Login and Ping to connect and sign in employees to their Workplace spaces.

Facebook’s scale brings it huge advantages in the enterprise. The consumerization of the office stack means Facebook can easily port over its familiar features. It’s big enough to extensively dogfood Workplace within the company. And it already has advertising relationships with many of the world’s top brands. But being a tech giant comes with the associated scandals and constant criticism. Facebook will have to convince business leaders that its social troubles won’t muddy their suits.

Google’s Home Hub has a screen but no camera ‘so that it is comfortable in private spaces’

Is Google finally taking consumers’ privacy concerns to heart? Today, the search and Android giant took the wraps off its $149 Home Hub, a new screen-based smart home device that lets you interact with Google services, Google Photos and connected smart home devices. It’s Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo Show and Facebook’s new Portal. But in this age of privacy, the company made an interesting feature decision: it will be shipping the first version of the device without a camera built in.

“We also consciously did not put a camera on so that it was comfortable to us in the private spaces of your home like your bedroom,” noted Diya Jolly, VP of product management in the presentation today, while going through other features on the device.

The feature — or lack thereof, as the case may be — is notable. Just yesterday, Facebook unveiled its own connected home screen device, the Portal, and Amazon has been working hard to push the Echo Show, its Alexa-powered home hub with a screen. Both companies are focused on just now how to show images, but how to capture them and to use visual cues to build more intelligent services.

Google it seems is taking a different approach: tech companies have been under the spotlight for how they are handling privacy these days, and Google’s decision to leave a camera out of this device plays into the idea of how tech companies are trying to be more sensitive to what users want — and maybe need, since we have so many other devices with cameras on them.

For Google specifically, the timing is especially important: just this week the company announced that it would be shutting down Google+, its ill-fated social network that had a bug in it that exposed the private information of users. The optics — pun intended — of pushing out a new device with a camera on it, at a time when many wonder just how much information these smart home speakers are picking up, would look very bad indeed.

On the other hand, leaving a camera out could serve other ends for Google. It helps it keep the cost of the device down, with $149 a very competitive price point. It also could help Google keep this device from competing with others that it is pushing to users — specifically its phones and now its new Pixel Slate tablet, which has a front-facing camera for video chat. Lastly, it helps Google start to build a roadmap for features that it could add into the product in later iterations, if it finds that users are requesting it.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

Klarna raises $20M from H&M, will build financing and payment services for the fashion retailer

As more traditional brick-and-mortar retailers look to capitalise on the growth of e-commerce and mobile to compete against the likes of Amazon, fintech startups are reaping the rewards. In the latest development, Klarna, the payments startup out of Sweden that helps online shoppers arrange for financing at the point of sale, has picked up $20 million from H&M, the fashion retailer with 4,800 stores in 70 markets.

The investment kicks off a partnership between the two to build an “omni-channel” payments service spanning H&M’s physical and online storefronts. Klarna says the deal will cover “frictionless” in-store, mobile and online payments across the company’s whole footprint, a better delivery and return process, and more flexible payment options, including “try before you buy” pay later services, to be delivered through H&M’s app and its Club loyalty program. The first phase of the partnership will go live in 2019 in H&M’s home market of Sweden before a global roll out.

The companies are not disclosing the valuation with this investment, but a source close to the deal says that the $20 million equates to “much less than one percent of the company” and would place it as an upround, valuing Klarna north of $2.5 billion. For some context, Klarna was last valued at $2.5 billion in 2017, a year in which it made a series of investment announcements. They included a $225 million stake from Klarna’s first fashion world investor, Anders Holch Povlsen (owner of fashion conglomerate Bestseller); a strategic stake from credit card giant Visa; and a $250 million investment from PE firm Permira. (Previous investors have included Sequoia, Northzone and IVP.)

We’ve heard that Klarna has also been eyeing up an IPO as a further liquidity event although a spokesperson declined to comment on this when asked today.

For H&M, the move aims to give the company a stronger push into digital sales both to grow its business, but also to match what its competitors are doing to court the same audience of mostly-young shoppers.

Some high-street retailers have made online, and specifically mobile, a cornerstone of their sales, and there are, indeed, a number of businesses that have built presences only online such as Farfetch, Matches, and ASOS. Added to that, there is the presence of Amazon, a retailing behemoth that has its sights on growing its share of fashion commerce both with its own labels, and via partnerships with key brands that have jumped into bed with Amazon to tap its audience, logistics prowess and more.

In that context, H&M has always put a strong emphasis on the physical store experience over the years, and so some of that wave of buying trends — including not just the most cutting-edge web expereinces, but also being able to pay at a physical cash register using your mobile phone — has potentially passed it by.

“We are impressed with what Klarna has achieved to date and now we will work together to elevate the modern shopping experience,” said Karl-J​ohan Persson, CEO H&M, in a statement. “This strategic partnership between H&M group and Klarna is based on a joint relentless focus on creating great customer experiences.”

To be fair, given that online is still less than 10 percent all retail sales globally, it’s not clear how much of an impact ignoring newer sales channels and having better digital experiences has had on H&M, but more urgently, the company has seen a big drop in its share price in the last year. In other words, this investment, and the fruits of it, could also potentially help shore up confidence, and perhaps sales, at the business at a crucial time.

“We at H&M are very excited about this partnership. We want to make it possible for customers to move freely between the various channels and choose how they want to shop and experience our offering online and in store,” said Daniel Claesson, Head of Business Development H&M group, in a statement. “This partnership will bring tailor-made payment solutions to our customers and accommodate evolving shopping patterns and needs. This includes the possibility to ‘try before you buy’ which is very relevant to online fashion retail today and to pay with their mobile phone directly through the H&M app both instore and online.”

Klarna had already cut its teeth in working with retailers, including Povlsen’s Bestseller-owned range of brands, as well as Ikea and ASOS, and so it is in that regard a safe bet for H&M to try something new. Klarna itself started out focusing on financing at the point of sale, and this is still what it’s best known for, but in 2017 it also obtained a full banking license and so it’s been moving into more financial services around that (including on credit products with Visa), so this opens the door to working on a number of other services with its customers.

Given that e-commerce is still a very small percentage of all retail — accounting for only around 10 percent this year in developed markets like the US, and far lower in other places — there is a long way to go tapping the market and building services for legacy brick-and-mortar businesses, an opportunity Klarna has been tackling.

“Retail is changing, and the future of fashion retail is high tech powering high touch experiences for customers. Regardless of how and when customers want to shop, we need to be there for them,” said Sebastian Siemiatkowski, CEO and co-founder of Klarna, in a statement. “​Customers will no longer be forgiving of unnecessary complexity or when their retail experience does not leverage the insight available to make their engagement smart, personal and easy.”