Layer gets $5.6M to make joint working on spreadsheets less hassle

Layer is not trying to replace Excel or Google Sheets. Instead the Berlin-based productivity startup wants to make life easier for those whose job entails wrangling massive spreadsheets and managing data inputs from across an organization — such as for budgeting, financial reporting or HR functions — by adding a granular control access layer on top.

The idea for a ‘SaaS to supercharge spreadsheets’ came to the co-founders as a result of their own experience of workflow process pain-points at the place they used to work, as is often the case with productivity startups.

“Constantin [Schünemann] and I met at Helpling, the marketplace for cleaning services, where I was the company’s CFO and I had to deal with spreadsheets on a daily level,” explains co-founder Moritz ten Eikelder. “There was one particular reference case for what we’re building here — the update of the company’s financial model and business case which was a 20MB Excel file with 30 different tabs, hundreds of roles of assumptions. It was a key steering tool for management and founders. It was also the basis for the financial reporting.

“On average it needed to be updated twice per month. And that required input by around about 20-25 people across the organization. So right then about 40 different country managers and various department heads. The problem was we could not share the entire file with [all the] people involved because it contained a lot of very sensitive information like salary data, cash burn, cash management etc.”

While sharing a Dropbox link to the file with the necessary individuals so they could update the sheet with their respective contributions would have risked breaking the master file. So instead he says they created individual templates and “carve outs” for different contributors. But this was still far from optimal from a productivity point of view. Hence feeling the workflow burn — and their own entrepreneurial itch.

“Once all the input was collected from the stakeholders you would start a very extensive and tedious copy paste exercise — where you would copy from these 25 difference sources and insert them data into your master file in order to create an up to date version,” says ten Eikelder, adding: “The pain points are pretty clear. It’s an extremely time consuming and tedious process… And it’s extremely prone to error.”

Enter Layer: A web app that’s billed as a productivity platform for spreadsheets which augments rather than replaces them — sitting atop Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets files and bringing in a range of granular controls.

The idea is to offer a one-stop shop for managing access and data flows around multi-stakeholder spreadsheets, enabling access down to individual cell level and aiding collaboration and overall productivity around these key documents by streamlining the process of making and receiving data input requests.

“You start off by uploading an Excel file to our web application. In that web app you can start to build workflows across a feature spectrum,” says Schünemann — noting, for example, that the web viewer allows users to drag the curser to highlight a range of cells they wish to share.

“You can do granular user provisioning on top of that where in the offline world you’d have to create manual carve outs or manual copies of that file to be able to shield away data for example,” he goes on. “On top of that you can then request input [via an email asking for a data submission].

“Your colleagues keep on working in their known environments and then once he has submitted input we’ve built something that is very similar to a track changes functionality in Word. So you as a master user could review all changes in the Layer app — regardless of whether they’re coming through Excel or Google Sheets… And then we’ve built a consolidation feature so that you don’t need to manually copy-paste from different spreadsheets into one. So with just a couple of clicks you can accept changes and they will be taken over into your master file.”

Layer’s initial sales focus is on the financial reporting function but the co-founders say they see this as a way of getting a toe in the door of their target mid-sized companies.

The team believes there are wider use-cases for the tool, given the ubiquity of spreadsheets as a business tool. Although, for now, their target users are organizations with between 150-250 employees so they’re not (yet) going after the enterprise market.

“We believe this is a pretty big [opportunity],” Schünemann tells TechCrunch. “Why because back in 2018 when we did our first research we initially started out with this one spreadsheet at Helpling but after talking to 50 executives, most of them from the finance world or from the financial function of different sized companies, it’s pretty clear that the spreadsheet dependency is still to this day extremely high. And that holds true for financial use cases — 87% of all budgeting globally is still done via spreadsheets and not big ERP systems… but it also goes beyond that. If you think about it spreadsheets are really the number one workflow platform still used to this day. It’s probably the most used user interface in any given company of a certain size.”

“Our current users we have, for example, a real estate company whereby the finance function is using Layer but also the project controller and also some parts of the HR team,” he adds. “And this is a similar pattern. You have similarly structured workflows on top of spreadsheets in almost all functions of a company. And the bigger you get, the more of them you have.

“We use the finance function as our wedge into a company — just because it’s where our domain experience lies. You also usually have a couple of selective use cases which tend to have these problems more because of the intersections between other departments… However sharing or collecting data in spreadsheets is used not only in finance functions.”

The 2019 founded startup’s productivity platform remains in private beta for now — and likely the rest of this year — but they’ve just nabbed €5 million (~$5.6M) in seed funding to get the product to market, with a launch pegged for Q1 2021.

The seed round is led by Index Ventures (Max Rimpel is lead there), and with participation from earlier backers btov Partners. Angel investors also joining the seed include Ajay Vashee (CFO at Dropbox); Carlos Gonzales-Cadenaz (COO of GoCardless), Felix Jahn (founder and CEO of McMakler), Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless and Nested) and Max Tayenthal (co-founder and CFO of N26).

Commenting in a statement, Index’s Rimpel emphasized the utility the tool offers for “large distributed organizations”, saying: “Spreadsheets are one of the most successful UI’s ever created, but they’ve been built primarily for a single user, not for large distributed organisations with many teams and departments inputting data to a single document. Just as GitHub has helped developers contribute seamlessly to a single code base, Layer is now bringing sophisticated collaboration tools to the one billion spreadsheet users across the globe.”

On the competition front, Layer said it sees its product as complementary to tech giants Google and Microsoft, given the platform plugs directly into those spreadsheet standards. Whereas other productivity startups, such as the likes of Airtable (a database tool for non-coders) and Smartsheets (which bills itself as a “collaboration platform”) are taking a more direct swing at the giants by gunning to assimilate the spreadsheet function itself, at least for certain use cases.

“We never want to be a new Excel and we’re also not aiming to be a new Google Sheets,” says Schünemann, discussing the differences between Layer and Airtable et al. “What Github is to code we want to be to spreadsheets.”

Given it’s working with the prevailing spreadsheet standard it’s a productivity play which, should it prove successful, could see tech giants copying or cloning some of its features. Given enough scale, the startup could even end up as an acquisition target for a larger productivity focused giant wanting to enhance its own product offering. Though the team claims not to have entertained anything but the most passing thoughts of such an exit at this early stage of their business building journey.

“Right now we are really complementary to both big platforms [Google and Microsoft],” says Schünemann. “However it would be naive for us to think that one or the other feature that we build won’t make it onto the product roadmap of either Microsoft or Google. However our value proposition goes beyond just a single feature. So we really view ourselves as being complementary now and also in the future. Because we don’t push out Excel or Google Sheets from an organization. We augment both.”

“Our biggest competitor right now is probably the ‘we’ve always done it like that’ attitude in companies,” he adds, rolling out the standard early stage startup response when asked to name major obstacles. “Because any company has hacked their processes and tools to make it work for them. Some have built little macros. Some are using Jira or Atlassian tools for their project management. Some have hired people to manage their spreadsheet ensembles for them.”

On the acquisition point, Schünemann also has this to say: “A pre-requisite for any successful exit is building a successful company beforehand and I think we believe we are in a space where there are a couple of interesting exit routes to be taken. And Microsoft and Google are obviously candidates where there would be a very obvious fit but the list goes beyond that — all the file hosting tools like Dropbox or the big CRM tools, Salesforce, could also be interesting for them because it very much integrates into the heart of any organization… But we haven’t gone beyond that simple high level thought of who could acquire us at some point.” 

Decrypted: As tech giants rally against Hong Kong security law, Apple holds out

It’s not often Silicon Valley gets behind a single cause. Supporting net neutrality was one, reforming government surveillance another. Last week, Big Tech took up its latest: halting any cooperation with Hong Kong police.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even China-headquartered TikTok said last week they would no longer respond to demands for user data from Hong Kong law enforcement — read: Chinese authorities — citing the new unilaterally imposed Beijing national security law. Critics say the law, ratified on June 30, effectively kills China’s “one country, two systems” policy allowing Hong Kong to maintain its freedoms and some autonomy after the British handed over control of the city-state back to Beijing in 1997.

Noticeably absent from the list of tech giants pulling cooperation was Apple, which said it was still “assessing the new law.” What’s left to assess remains unclear, given the new powers explicitly allow warrantless searches of data, intercept and restrict internet data, and censor information online, things that Apple has historically opposed if not in so many words.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can live without China. They already do — both Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, and Google pulled out after it accused Beijing of cyberattacks. But Apple cannot. China is at the heart of its iPhone and Mac manufacturing pipeline, and accounts for over 16% of its revenue — some $9 billion last quarter alone. Pulling out of China would be catastrophic for Apple’s finances and market position.

The move by Silicon Valley to cut off Hong Kong authorities from their vast pools of data may be a largely symbolic move, given any overseas data demands are first screened by the Justice Department in a laborious and frequently lengthy legal process. But by holding out, Apple is also sending its own message: Its ardent commitment to human rights — privacy and free speech — stops at the border of Hong Kong.

Here’s what else is in this week’s Decrypted.


THE BIG PICTURE

Police used Twitter-backed Dataminr to snoop on protests

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020 will launch on August 18

After a series of closed alpha tests, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios and Asobo Studio today announced that the next-gen Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 will launch on August 18. Pre-orders are now live and FS 2020 will come in three editions, standard ($59.99), deluxe ($89.99) and premium deluxe ($119.99), with the more expensive versions featuring more planes and handcrafted international airports.

The last part may come as a bit of a surprise, given that Microsoft and Asobo are using assets from Bing Maps and some AI magic on Azure to essentially recreate the Earth — and all of its airports — in Flight Simulator 2020. Still, the team must have spent some extra time on making some of these larger airports especially realistic and today, if you were to buy even one of these larger airports as an add-on for Flight Simulator X or X-Plane, you’d easily be spending $30 or more.

The default edition features 20 planes and 30 hand-modeled airports, while the deluxe edition bumps that up to 25 planes and 35 airports and the high-end version comes with 30 planes and 40 airports.

Among those airports not modeled in all their glorious detail in the default edition (they are still available there, by the way — just without some of the extra detail) are the likes of Amsterdam Schiphol, Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Frankfurt, Heathrow and San Francisco.

The same holds true for planes, with the 787 only available in the deluxe package, for example. Still, based on what Asobo has shown in its regular updates so far, even the 20 planes in the standard edition have been modeled in far more detail than in previous versions, and maybe even beyond what some add-ons provide today.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Because a lot of what Microsoft and Adobo are doing here involves using cloud technology to, for example, stream some of the more detailed scenery to your computer on demand, chances are we’ll see regular content updates for these various editions as well, though the details here aren’t yet clear.

“Your fleet of planes and detailed airports from whatever edition you choose are all available on launch day as well as access to the ongoing content updates that will continually evolve and expand the flight simulation platform,” is what Microsoft has to say about this for the time being.

Chances are we will get more details in the coming weeks, as Flight Simulator 2020 is about to enter its closed beta phase.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft spins out 5-year-old Chinese chatbot Xiaoice

Microsoft is shedding its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the U.S. software behemoth said (in Chinese) Monday, confirming an earlier report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.

The announcement came several months after Microsoft announced it would close down its voice assistant app Cortana in China among other countries late last year.

Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to accelerate Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and buildout of the chatbot’s “commercial ecosystem.”

The spinoff will see the new entity license technologies from Microsoft for subsequent research and development in Xiaoice and continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its stakes in the new company.

In 2014, a small team of Microsoft’s Bing researchers unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately created a sensation in China and was regarded by many as their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just a few weeks after Microsoft rolled out Cortana in the country. Modeled on the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be a user’s friend.

Like all foreign companies, Microsoft has to grapple with China’s censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed by Tencent’s instant messenger QQ over suspicions of politically sensitive speech.

The project has involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI land, ranging from Lu Qi, who went on to join Baidu as its chief operating officer and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took up a post at Baidu to head the search giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive at Microsoft’s storied Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of fledgling news app News Break.

Shum will serve as chairman at Xiaoice’s new standalone entity. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as chief executive officer. Chen Zhan, a developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, is appointed general manager of the Japanese office.

The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with a mission to further develop its client base across the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.

Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice has a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices globally at the last count. The chatbot has found applications in such areas as finance, retail, auto, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed it can “mine context, tonality and emotions from text to create unique patterns within seconds.”

Microsoft makes Teams video meetings less tiring with its new Together mode

Video meetings. While the move to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic may have made them mainstream, they are not without issues and more and more people are now opting out. For good reason. As it turns out, it’s really hard for our brains to sustain concentration while we’re trying to focus on 20 people in neat squares, all with different backgrounds and never quite looking at the camera. While we’ve had quite a bit of anecdotal evidence for this, Microsoft today released some of the research it did in this area, as well as new features in Teams that it hopes will make video meetings easier and less tiring.

The first of these is Together mode. The idea here is actually pretty simple. To be able to change backgrounds or add background blur, Teams already features Microsoft’s AI segmentation technology to detect and cut out a participant’s image from the background. Now, with Together Mode, it is taking everybody’s images and putting them into a shared space, starting with an auditorium. So instead of lots of little squares, all of the meeting participants now sit in this auditorium. This, Microsoft’s research shows, is actually quite a bit easier on the brain to process than standard remote collaboration tools.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“In our preliminary research — and it’s only been preliminary thus far, this has only been around for a couple of months — we’ve noticed quite a few things,” Microsoft’s Marissa Salazar explained to me ahead of today’s announcement. “First and foremost, you’ll notice the way that we’re looking at each other is obviously very different than something we’re used to, not only are we out of the grid, but we’re looking at this, ‘mirror image’ of ourselves.” This view of ourselves, Microsoft argues, is something we’re quite used to from being at the barbershop, for example, where we talk to the mirror. This also tricks our brain into mitigating some of the eye contact problems we’ve all experienced in video meetings.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Our research has also shown that people tend to be happier, be more engaged in meetings, feel more comfortable keeping their camera on longer — even if they’re not asked to in this mode. And then — I think most importantly — be able to pick up on the behavioral social cues that are so important to human interaction,” said Salazar.

Michael Bohan, a director in Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, noted that just removing the grid view already makes a major difference here. “When you have a grid view, everybody’s boxed off and so your brain has to treat those as individual parts — it has to parse all information. When you remove those edges, then your brain can start to see a more unified view of things.”

For now, Together Mode only features the auditorium view, which can handle up to 49 participants, but Microsoft is already working on other views, including a more intimate coffee shop mode.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The other new mode Microsoft is introducing is Dynamic view. The idea here is that Together Mode is obviously not perfect for every kind of meeting, so this view provides more control over how you see shared content and the other participants in a meeting, including the ability to see content and specific participants side-by-side.

Also new in this update are video filters, to tweak your lighting levels, for example, and soon, Teams will add live reactions, which let you share your sentiment with emojis without interrupting the meeting. Coming soon, too, are PowerPoint Live Presentations to Teams, chat bubbles so you don’t have to keep a separate chat view open, and speaker attribution and translation for live captions and transcripts. For chats in teams, Microsoft is introducing Gmail-like suggested replies.

But there is more. Teams will soon let you bring the whole company together, with meetings that can support up to 1,000 participants. For presentations, Teams will support up to 20,000 participants.

And since Cortana still lives, she is also now coming to the Teams mobile app to help you make calls, join meetings and more.

Microsoft also today reintroduced its dedicated Team Displays that it first announced at CES.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Another new feature Microsoft CVP Jared Spataro stressed when I talked to him ahead of today’s announcement was the new Reflect messaging extension. “This allows you to have a manager check in on the well-being of your team,” he explained. “You can do that anonymously or publicly. We’ve already been doing some of that on my team — just trying to check in with people — and this gives you a more structured way to do that. I think it’ll be really well-received based on what I’m talking about with customers because this well-being component is becoming very important.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

How Reliance Jio Platforms became India’s biggest telecom network

It’s raised $5.7 billion from Facebook. It’s taken $1.5 billion from KKR, another $1.5 billion from Vista Equity Partners, $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund$1.35 billion from Silver Lake, $1.2 billion from Mubadala, $870 million from General Atlantic, $750 million from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, $600 million from TPG, and $250 million from L Catterton.

And it’s done all that in just nine weeks.

India’s Reliance Jio Platforms is the world’s most ambitious tech company. Founder Mukesh Ambani has made it his dream to provide every Indian with access to affordable and comprehensive telecommunications services, and Jio has so far proven successful, attracting nearly 400 million subscribers in just a few years.

The unparalleled growth of Reliance Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of India’s most-valued firm (Reliance Industries), has shocked rivals and spooked foreign tech companies such as Google and Amazon, both of which are now reportedly eyeing a slice of one of the world’s largest telecom markets.

What can we learn from Reliance Jio Platforms’s growth? What does the future hold for Jio and for India’s tech startup ecosystem in general?

Through a series of reports, Extra Crunch is going to investigate those questions. We previously profiled Mukesh Ambani himself, and in today’s installment, we are going to look at how Reliance Jio went from a telco upstart to the dominant tech company in four years.

The birth of a new empire

Months after India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched his telecom network Reliance Jio, Sunil Mittal of Airtel — his chief rival — was struggling in public to contain his frustration.

That Ambani would try to win over subscribers by offering them free voice calling wasn’t a surprise, Mittal said at the World Economic Forum in January 2017. But making voice calls and the bulk of 4G mobile data completely free for seven months clearly “meant that they have not gotten the attention they wanted,” he said, hopeful the local regulator would soon intervene.

This wasn’t the first time Ambani and Mittal were competing directly against each other: in 2002, Ambani had launched a telecommunications company and sought to win the market by distributing free handsets.

In India, carrier lock-in is not popular as people prefer pay-as-you-go voice and data plans. But luckily for Mittal in their first go around, Ambani’s journey was cut short due to a family feud with his brother — read more about that here.

Affirming the position of tech advocates, Supreme Court overturns Trump’s termination of DACA

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that President Donald Trump’s administration unlawfully ended the federal policy providing temporary legal status for immigrants who came to the country as children.

The decision, issued Thursday, called the termination of the Obama-era policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result of its ruling, nearly 640,000 people living in the United States are now temporarily protected from deportation.

While a blow to the Trump Administration, the ruling is sure to be hailed nearly unanimously by the tech industry and its leaders, who had come out strongly in favor of the policy in the days leading up to its termination by the current President and his advisors.

At the beginning of 2018, many of tech’s most prominent executives, including the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before it expired in March.

Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai who made a full throated defense of the policy and pleaded with Congress to pass legislation ensuring that Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation.

At the time, those executives said the decision to end the program could potentially cost the U.S. economy as much as $215 billion.

In a 2017 tweet, Tim Cook noted that Apple employed roughly 250 of the company’s employees were “Dreamers”.

The list of tech executives who came out to support the DACA initiative is long. It included: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal, Code.org, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash, Verizon (the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch).

At the heart of the court’s ruling is the majority view that Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t provide a strong enough reason to terminate the program in September 2017. Now, the issue of immigration status gets punted back to the White House and Congress to address.

As the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts did not determine whether the Obama-era policy or its revocation were correct, just that the DHS didn’t make a strong enough case to end the policy.

“We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote. 

While the ruling from the Supreme Court is some good news for the population of “dreamers,” the question of their citizenship status in the country is far from settled. And the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has basically consisted of freezing as much of the nation’s immigration apparatus as possible.

An Executive Order in late April froze the green card process for would-be immigrants, and the administration was rumored to be considering a ban on temporary workers under H1-B visas as well.

The President has, indeed, ramped up the crackdown with strict border control policies and other measures to curb both legal and illegal immigration. 

More than 800,000 people joined the workforce as a result of the 2012 program crafted by the Obama administration. DACA allows anyone under 30 to apply for protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they were younger than 16 when they were brought to the US, had not committed a crime, and were either working or in school.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the President tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”

 

 

No-code industrial robotics programming startup Wandelbots raises $30 million

Dresden, Germany-based Wandelbots – a startup dedicated to making it easier for non-programmers to ‘teach’ industrial robots how to do specific tasks – has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by 83North, an with participation from Next47 and Microsoft’s M12 venture funding arm.

Wandelbots will use the funding to help it speed the market debut of its TracePen, a hand-held, code-free device that allows human operators to quickly and easily demonstrate desired behavior for industrial robots to mimic. Programming robots to perform specific tasks typically requires massive amounts of code, as well as programmers with very specific, in-demand skillsets to accomplish; Wandelbots wants to make it as easy as simply showing a robot what it is you want it to do – and then showing it a different set of behaviors should you need to reprogram it to accomplish a new task or fill in for a different part of the assembly line.

The software that Wandelbots developed to make this possible originally sprung out of work done at the Faculty of Computer Science at the Technical University of Dresden. The startup was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition in 2017, and raised a $6.8 million Series A round in 2018 led by Paua Ventures, EQT Ventures and others.

Wandelbots already has some big-name clients, including industrial giants like Volkswagen, BMW, Infineon and others, and as of June 17, it’ll be launching its TracePen publicly for the first time. The company’s technology has the potential to save anyone who makes use of industrial robots many months of programming time, and the associated costs – and could ultimately make use of this kind of robotics practical even for smaller companies for whom the budgetary requirements of doing so previously put it out of reach.

I asked Wandelbots CEO and co-founder Christian Piechnick via email whether their platform can overcome some of the challenges companies including Tesla have faced with introducing ever-greater automation to their manufacturing facilities.

“The reversals regarding automation were caused by the inflexibility, complexity and cost introduced by automation with robots,” Piechnick told me via email. “People are usually not aware that 75% of the total cost of ownership of a robot comes from software development. The problems introduced by robots were killing the benefit. This is exactly the problem we are tackling. We enable manufacturers to use robots with an unseen flexibility and we dramatically lower the cost of using robots. Our product enables non-programmers to easily teach a robot new tasks and thus, reduces the involvement of hard-to-find and costly programmers.”

TracePen, the device and companion platform that Wandelbots is launching this week, is actually an evolution of their original vision, which focuses more on using smart clothes to fully model human behavior in real-time in order to translate that to robotic instruction. The company’s pivot to TracePen employs the same underlying software tech, but meets customers much closer to where they already are in terms of processes and operations, while still providing the same cost reduction benefits and flexibility, according to Piechnick.

I asked Piechnick about COVID-19 and how that has impacted Wandelbots’ business, and he replied that in fact it’s driven up demand for automation, and efficiencies that benefit automation, in a number of key ways.

“COVID-19 has impacted the thinking on global manufacturing in various ways,” he wrote. “First there is the massive trend of reshoring to reduce the risk of globally distributed supply chains. In order to scale volume, ensure quality and reduce cost, automation is a natural consequence for developed countries. With a technology that leads to almost immediate ROI and extremely short time-to-market, we hit a trend. Furthermore, the dependency on human workers and the workplace restrictions (e.g., distance between workers) increases the demand for automation tremendously.”

Microsoft moves its Windows 10 Insider Program from rings to release channels

For the last few years, Microsoft has given Windows enthusiasts the ability to opt in to early release “rings,” with the choice to pick between “fast” and “slow” rings, as well as a relatively stable “release preview” option. Today, the company announced a major change to this program as it is moving to release channels, similar to what you’re probably familiar with from most browser manufacturers.

“We are transitioning and converting our current ring model, based on the frequency of builds, to a new channel model that pivots on the quality of builds and better supports parallel coding efforts,” writes Microsoft principal program manager lead Amanda Langowski in a blog post today.

She notes that the result of the ring-based system was that in the middle of 2019, for example, Windows Insiders were running builds from three different releases, depending on which ring they chose.

“As we continue to evolve the way we release Windows 10 and the diversity of Insiders we serve is greater than ever, it is critical that Insiders have a flighting option that is tailored to their needs,” she adds. “We believe the best way to do this is to shift focus from frequency to quality.”

Image Credits: MicrosoftSo starting later this month, the “fast” ring will become the Dev Channel, the “slow” ring the Beta Channel and the “release preview” will now be known as the Release Preview Channel.

The Dev Channel is meant for users who want to get very early access to new features, which isn’t all that different from fast rings, but what’s important here is that this channel isn’t tied to any specific release. New features in this channel will make their way into releases once they are ready, whether that’s as part of a major update or a servicing release. Because of its unstable nature, Microsoft says this release is mostly meant for highly technical users.

As for the Beta Channel, the main difference here is that it is really the beta version of a specific release and meant for early adopters. And the Release Preview is exactly what you would think, and meant to test relatively stable builds before they get shipped to the wider Windows 10 user base (and with that, IT admins can also test those releases ahead of their release to a company’s employees, too).

If you’re part of the Windows Insider program, those changes will be automatic and start with builds that are set to launch later this month.