Snap appoints new execs as it aims to keep 2019 momentum

Snap has another appointment in the apt saga of the its ephemeral CFOs.

Four months after losing its CFO Tim Stone following a reported “personality clash” between Stone and CEO Evan Spiegel, Snap has promoted its VP of Finance Derek Andersen to the role, the company said Monday. Andersen is the company’s third CFO since March of 2017 when it went public.

Lara Sweet, who was serving as the company’s interim CFO as well as the Chief Accounting Officer, will be stepping into a new role as Chief People Officer.

Snap has has a less cataclysmic 2019 in the public markets compared to its two previous calendar years. Snap has nearly doubled its share price since the year’s start though the stock still sits just above where it was one year ago.

Glass graduates from Google X as it scores new hardware update

Google’s head-worn smart display, Google Glass, in finally ready to move the tassel.

After defining the company’s far-flung connected dreams when it was first announced in 2013, the enterprise-refocused headset is graduating from the X moonshot factory with a new hardware update that aims to make it more approachable for companies.

After a soft consumer tease that was buzz-worthy if not laughably pre-mature, Google Glass Enterprise Edition was announced two years ago and the dedicated group has been plugging along since then courting businesses to hop on board.

The design of Glass Enterprise Edition 2 doesn’t appear to be radically different from its predecessor, but under the hood there are some noteworthy changes, namely the platform now runs on Android and Android Enterprise Mobile Device Management. Those changes alone are probably enough for enterprise customers to move from the non-starter camp to giving it a first look.

The software upgrades are made possible by the headset’s transition to Qualcomm’s AR/VR-focused XR1 chipset. The company also says the new headset has “improved camera performance and quality” as well as USB-C connectivity.

The Glass team joins Google’s AR/VR team and marks another key point in the company’s gradual pivot away from driving to the consumer hoop. In the past year, Google has minimized product updates to its consumer VR platform, while shuttering some groups focused on creative content production and refocusing efforts on enterprise and consumer products more heavily leveraging machine learning.

With its move from X, the Glass team joins projects like Waymo, Wing and Loon that also proved worthy of moving deeper inside Google.

Week-in-Review: Apple has a Supreme headache and Bitcoin bites back

For all of the swirling conversations of tech regulation that have continues the past several years, few of those waxing poetic on the topic likely assumed that Apple would be the first tech giant to capture the government’s ire, but a Supreme Court ruling this week cleared the way for an anti-trust reckoning for Apple’s walled garden App Store.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Apple on Monday, determining that a group of iPhone users will be allowed to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the tech giant. The group is alleging that Apple’s 30 percent cut in the App Store passes on an unfair cost to users that have no other options to get the apps onto their phone.

The ruling is decidedly not great for Apple, which has long-enjoyed a monopoly on app sales on its devices, with, to be fair, some very clear benefits for users along the way. If Apple were forced to allow other stores on its platform or significantly shape how it monetized app sales, this could have pretty significant effects on how platforms like iOS operate.

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While this ruling won’t impact Apple in the near-term obviously, it could have some massive effects if and when other lawsuits in this vein pop up against Apple, especially given the company’s renewed reliance on software services as its iPhone sales slow.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Bitcoin bites back
    After a nice lengthy free fall, the bear cryptocurrency market began showing some strength as Bitcoin brought a number of popular coins back with substantial gains. Bitcoin passed above $8,000 this week and is still hovering in that range. What’s the reason? There are a lot of theories, we detailed some of them here.
  • ZombieLoad is coming for you
    If you recall the pandemonium of Spectre and Meltdown, you should probably keep an eye on a new Intel exploit that emerged onto the scene this week, ZombieLoad. The bug allows hackers to effectively exploit design flaws as opposed to injecting malicious code onto affected systems. Intel is already on it, but you should read up some more on it from my much more in-the-know colleague Zack Whittaker.
  • Trump takes on Twitter with his full presidential might
    Trump’s war on Silicon Valley’s most popular social media sites took an aggressive turn this week, when the president… shared a survey. The 16-part Typeform survey is aiming to gather some very scientific data about Americans who have had their social media accounts banned for perceived “political bias.”
  • TikTok won’t stop
    I’m very intrigued by the success of TikTok, turns out a lot of other people are intrigued by the social app given that it’s topped the App Store for the last five quarters now. The next few popular apps for the first quarter were YouTube and four Facebook apps, so it definitely looks like Chinese tech giant ByteDance is beating Silicon Valley’s best in the app game lately.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Google’s brand new security key already gets hacked:
    [Google recalls its bluetooth titan security keys because of a security bug]
  2. Alexa outage leaves users hanging:
    [Having trouble with Amazon Alexa? You’re not the only one.]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. This week, we published a deep dive into world of startups aiming to build affordable housing solutions. It’s a terrific deep dive, that’s certainly academic in nature but gets to a lot of the root problems and solutions at play.

Market Map: the 200+ startups tackling affordable housing

“Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers, this week IPOs and public company sagas were front of min for a lot of the TechCrunch writers…

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Starbucks’ Chinese nemesis Luckin Coffee surges 20 percent in public debut

Shares of Luckin Coffee jumped 20 percent in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq stock market.

After opening at $17.00, shares of the Chinese Starbucks competitor climbed as high as $25.96, or more than 50 percent, before settling back down to $20.38 at the market’s close. The company has a market cap north of $5 billion after its first day of trading.

The brick-and-mortar coffee chain has achieved major success in China by offering speedy delivery services to Chineses consumers. The company has nearly 2,400 stores compared to Starbucks’ 3,500 but it has plans to more than double that number by the end of the year as it seeks to become the country’s coffee king.

Luckin’s success doesn’t immediately seem to be thwarting the stock market success of Starbucks, which has had a glowing 2019. The company hit another all-time high Friday closing out the day at $78.91, up more than 35 percent from a year ago, giving the Seattle company a market cap of nearly $96 billion.

Starbucks and Luckin Coffee may seem like mortal enemies but their rivalry is more complicated than one might immediately think. Check out our ExtraCrunch deep dive from earlier this week on the Xiamen-based company’s financials.

Magic Leap buys Belgian startup building hologram teleconferencing software

Princess Leia’s hologram message to Obi-Wan is getting closer to reality, at least augmented reality.

Magic Leap announced yesterday that they’ve agreed to acquire Belgian startup Mimesys. The team has been working on bringing Star Wars-esque volumetric video calls to the Magic Leap platform, and it seems that the Florida AR startup liked what they were developing. We didn’t get any details on deal terms.

The team is joining Magic Leap but will continue to service their enterprise clients including BNP Paribas and Orange, according to their website. The startup first showed off their video conferencing tech at CES this year, which allows someone in a Magic Leap One headset to visualize a 3D representation of a person during a “video” call.

Volumetric video can be fairly fickle, the solution Mimesys has been going after relied on Intel’s RealSense depth cameras to collect and stitch footage on PCs locally then stream it to a user’s headset. As is the case with almost all volumetric video footage, Mimesys’s early work appeared to suffer from some noisiness, though this acquisition makes one wonders whether Magic Leap will end up creating their own external depth camera hardware to appeal to enterprise customers.

It seems that almost every new platform promises to revolutionize video calls and yet hangups continue because its one of the more high-bandwidth activities we regularly do. This is only going to be more difficult in AR since you’re sending live 3D footage of people through the internet tubes. Like much of what Magic Leap is promising, the feasibility of pulling this off likely relies in no small part to 5G tech proliferating.

Jeff Bezos personally dumps a truckload of dirt on FedEx’s future

Amazon want to be plenty of things, the most predictable of which is its ambitions to control America’s shipping backbone. The company’s efforts to bring users whatever they desire in 24 hours requires movements by land, air and sea.

Today, the company broke ground on expanding its airborne ambitions, breaking ground on a three million square-foot Prime Air airport outside Cincinnati (in Kentucky). In case the optics of three million square feet is lost on you, it’s essentially a parking garage for a 100 cargo jets. Amazon doesn’t even have that many jets yet, but the hub is a housing for the company’s grand logistics ambitions.

Per Bezos’ tweet, Amazon is investing $1.5 billion in this effort. The company says the hub will create 2,000 jobs.

Like most ground breaking events, it was a ceremonial affair with a lot of pomp and photo-ops. CEO Jeff Bezos himself made a surprise appearance, jumping into the driver’s seat of a front-end loader and dropping some dirt onto an already hefty pile.

The optics were also clear that Amazon is adding salt to the wound as it moves to take down the country’s logistics kings like FedEx and UPS.

Even as Amazon looks to add new regional Prime Air hubs in Texas and Ohio this year, it’s clear the tech giant still has a lot of ground to make up. Amazon has a few dozen planes flying several hundred flights per week while UPS and Fedex have hundreds of planes flying thousands of flights.

One thing that’s certain, Amazon is encroaching on the core businesses of FedEx and UPS while it doesn’t quite seem like Amazon is in any danger of the opposite coming true.

VR’s most popular game is getting more features (and more expensive)

VR’s most hyped game is getting a price bump later this month as it expands the amount of headsets that it’s playable on.

We did a big deep-dive last week on Beat Saber, the best seller from a tiny Prague VR studio that’s pulling in big revenues. The game is part Guitar Hero, part Fruit Ninja and you’ve got some light sabers to guide you through EDM tunes. It’s sold over 1 million copies.

This week, the company Beat Games shared some updates that are likely to increase those revenues further as the company grows more confident that they’ve ironed out most of the game’s bugs.

On May 21, Beat Games is bumping the price from $20 to $30 on Valve’s Steam store and the Oculus Home platform, bringing the price in line with the PS VR version. This price bump comes as the company abandons the “Early Access” title, a classifier that has long signified that a game is in beta and hasn’t had all of the kinks ironed out. With this, the studio detailed in a Medium post, they feel the game has reached a “stable version,” and that it is now a “full game.”

When the game exits early access, it will be picking up a long-promised level editor so that gamers can create custom levels for their own audio tracks.

The price change on May 21 isn’t an arbitrary date, that’s when Oculus will be releasing both of its new headsets, the Rift S and Quest.

Speaking of the Quest, Oculus had introduced a feature called cross-buy that would enable users who already owned a copy of a game on Rift to let users download that game for free on Quest. On Twitter, Beat Games noted today that they won’t be supporting this for the base game so Quest users will still have to pay up, though the studio said they will enable the feature for add-ons like additional music packs.

Beat Saber is going to be unified across all platforms moving forward, meaning you won’t see certain versions getting updates that the others won’t pick up that functionality for a long time. This opens up the potential for cross-platform multiplayer as the studio continues to work on a mode for multiple concurrent users.

The price jump comes next week, you’ll still be able to score the game at the Early Access price before May 21.

Week-in-Review: Google impersonates Apple and Bezos eyes the moon

After Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy mea culpa at F8 last week, Google got its turn at I/O to promise consumers that their data wasn’t going anywhere that they didn’t want it to go. In short: they aimed to take a page from Apple.

For Google, a clear strategy at the event was essentially highlighting how it wasn’t collecting user data in certain circumstances; those circumstances seemed to be largely focused on whenever the data wasn’t all that useful to Google to begin with.

Google received applause for “privacy commitments” on its new Next Home Max like not cloud-uploading a 3D mesh of a user’s face that’s used for tailoring information, as though doing it in the cloud would make any sense for the company to do. Keeping information on-device was still the exception to the rule at I/O this week, the cloud is still where Google keeps its sharpest wits.

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Are expectations so low that we expect Google to keeps everything that we enter on its services forever? While the company has introduced opt-out auto-delete features for information like location data and web history, Google still writes the rules for you handle your own data, specifying that you still allow the data to stay on Google servers for either 3 or 18 months, periods of time that still allow Google to hold onto the most relevant of your info in order to surface information.

Privacy is a product of tradeoffs when you’re online, but companies like Google often seem to communicate that trading information is an inevitability of getting a tailored experience.

Look at a product from Apple like News+, one would imagine that the only way a service could understand what you like to read is by handing that user information to the service owner and sending those suggestions back down. Apple instead handles this by sending users a package of articles and by using on-device processing, the company is able to suggest your next article without publishers or Apple knowing what it is that you’re reading across the network of sites.

Apple is of course reliant on a business model that’s focused on selling hardware not advertising, and thus they’re in a bit more understandable of a position when it comes to eschewing personal data collection in most circumstances.

The company made some partial progress towards righting privacy wrongs, but the biggest winner in the company’s privacy rebrand was meant to be Google.

My colleague Josh had a less cynical view on Google’s promises, though we both share the opinion that Facebook doesn’t deserve much trust in its new privacy “mission,” here’s his piece that runs counter to about everything above:

Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Bezos’ moon moonshot
    Amazon’s CEO is psyched about the moon but he’s not planning to put HQ2 on it, he wants his rocket company Blue Origin to plant its newly-unveiled lunar lander on the surface. At a dedicated event, Bezos discussed some of the company’s plans to turn the moon into a future home for humanity. “It’s time to go back to the Moon. This time to stay,” Bezos said.
  • No five-star rating for Uber opening
    After several weeks of headlines surrounding Lyft’s disappointing public debut, Uber got its turn Friday. The result was none too pretty, after opening at the lowest end of its range, the company still dove in first day trading ending the day with a share price of $41.50. The company has an uphill road to profitability, but as it looks to cut costs, some Uber drivers showcased at a protest that they were already feeling the squeeze.
  • Elon’s tweets land him in more trouble
    Elon’s tweet about the cave-diver, calling him a “pedo guy” is going to trial after all. You can peep the legal documents alongside out full story here.
  • I have you now
    This week, I wrote a feature on a tiny Czech game studio that’s built the most popular VR game on the market. It involves light sabers and EDM and a music-mixing CEO who had plenty to say about banking $20 million in revenue and opting not to raise any outside cash along the way.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Googlers want some acknowledgment from the top:
    [Google employees demand Larry Page address walkout and retaliation]
  2. Protestors take to the skies during Google’s privacy keynote:
    [Protestors fly banner-towing plane over Google I/O]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service continues to churn out some great pieces. We had a fascinating piece go up this week where my colleague Eric chatted with some of Silicon Valley’s most prolific investors about where the puck is moving on media investments. Here’s one tidbit from Sequoia’s Stephanie Zhan:

Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

At Sequoia, we see incredible potential for the world of gaming and entertainment. Among others, we are excited about: The next virtual third place where consumers are hanging out with friends. In the past, your local Starbucks or AIM would have been your go-to place to see and be seen. Today…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers, check out the read butting heads with growing discontent for office Slack usage…

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With new raise, Unity’s valuation could climb towards $6 billion

Unity Technologies, the company behind one of the world’s most popular game engines, could nearly double its reported valuation in a new round of funding.

The company has filed to raise up to $125 million in Series E funding according to a Delaware stock authorization filing uncovered by Prime Unicorn Index and reviewed by TechCrunch. If Unity closes the full authorized raise it will hold a valuation of $5.96 billion.

A Unity spokesperson confirmed the details of the document.

The SF company builds developer tools that allow game-makers to build titles and deploy them on consoles, mobile and PC. More than half of all new games are built using the platform. Customers pay for the platform per developer once their projects reach a certain scale.

Unity’s competitors include Fortnite-maker Epic Games, which has been able to rapidly acquire startups and game studios in the past two years fueled by the profits of their blockbuster hit.

Unity most recently closed $400 million in Series D funding led by Silver Lake, a “big chunk” of which went toward purchasing the shares of longtime employees and earlier investors. The round left the company’s valuation north of $3 billion. The company, founded in 2003, has raised more than $600 million to date.

The company’s previous backers include Sequoia, DFJ Growth and Silver Lake Partners.

Earlier this year, Cheddar reported that Unity was eyeing a 2020 IPO, though the company did not comment on the report.

Facebook VR VP Hugo Barra is being replaced

Facebook’s VP of VR product Hugo Barra is out after some leadership changes at the top of the Oculus organization. He’ll be stepping down into a new role leading global AR/VR partnerships, while Eric Tseng, Facebook’s director of product management, will be replacing Barra with a new title as head of VR product management.

Barra came on in early 2017 after the ouster of Oculus’s existing leadership structure, when then-CEO Brendan Iribe was demoted alongside much of the founding team to lead product-specific verticals. Later that year Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was ousted.

Barra’s role inside CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inner-circle was soon diminished after longtime executive Andrew Bosworth was placed ahead of him in the org chart leading AR/VR at Facebook in a role that also included other consumer hardware efforts like Portal. Barra’s departure comes as the company prepares to release two of its latest virtual reality products, the Rift S and Quest.

Late last year, Oculus had an internal reorganization that shifted the team to more specialization-focused groups as opposed to product-focused.

It’s unclear what the full scope of Barra’s new role is. Facebook partnered with Xiaomi — where Barra previously led international efforts — to build the Oculus Go and Xiaomi’s Mi VR headset. Facebook’s recent partnership with Lenovo to build the Rift S showcases just how important these hardware partnerships are to the company.

On Tseng’s promotion, a Facebook spokesperson said, “He is the right person to step into this role because of his experience leading product teams at Facebook, and leading the Android product team at Google.”

Alongside this news, Facebook noted that longtime content exec Jason Rubin has seen his role expand as well and has received a new title, VP of Special Gaming Initiatives.