Walt Disney Studios partners with Microsoft Azure on cloud innovation lab

Seems like everything is going to the cloud these days, so why should moving-making be left out? Today, Walt Disney Studios announced a five-year partnership with Microsoft around an innovation lab to find ways to shift content production to the Azure cloud.

The project involves the Walt Disney StudioLab, an innovation work space where Disney personnel can experiment with moving different workflows to the cloud. The movie production software company, Avid is also involved.

The hope is that by working together, the three parties can come up with creative, cloud-based workflows that can accelerate the innovation cycle at the prestigious movie maker. Every big company is looking for ways to innovate, regardless of their core business, and Disney is no different.

As movie making involves ever greater amounts of computing resources, the cloud is a perfect model for it, allowing them to scale up and down resources as needed, whether rendering scenes or adding special effects. As Disney’s CTO Jamie Voris sees it, this could make these processes more efficient, which could help lower cost and time to production.

“Through this innovation partnership with Microsoft, we’re able to streamline many of our processes so our talented filmmakers can focus on what they do best,” Voris said in a statement. It’s the same kind of cloud value proposition that many large organizations are seeking. They want to speed time to market, while letting technology handle some of the more mundane tasks.

The partnership builds on an existing one that Microsoft already had with Avid where the two companies have been working together to build cloud-based workflows for the film industry using Avid software solutions on Azure. Disney will add its unique requirements to the mix, and over the five years of the partnership, hopes to streamline some of its workflows in a more modern cloud context.

Microsoft debuts a new version of its To Do app as Wunderlist founder expresses remorse

Microsoft several years ago acquired the popular iOS app Wunderlist with the intention of building out its own list-making productivity app that brings the best of Wunderlist’s feature set to a larger group of mobile consumers. This is a similar path as Microsoft took with email app Accompli, which later became Microsft Outlook for mobile devices. In the case of Wunderlist, Microsoft didn’t just rebrand the app — it built a new one called Microsoft To Do. With Wunderlist up and running for years alongside To Do, its founder wants to know if he can just have it back.

The founder of Wunderlist maker 6 Wunderkinder, Christian Reber, recently tweeted a desire to buy his app back from Microsoft just as the company is launching a new version of To Do. 

According to the tweets, Reber says he’s serious about reacquiring Wunderlist and wants to make it open-source and free. He even tweeted a list of upgrades he’d like to build, including features like shared folders and cross-team collaboration, among other things.

The founder doesn’t come across as having sour grapes exactly. He just says he’s sad that his plans for Wunderlist didn’t work out, but he’s grateful for the Microsoft exit.

If anything, it seems to be just remorse over the fact that Wunderlist itself will be shut down.

Microsoft had said years ago this was its intention, but also that it would hold off until it felt it has a competitive product that Wunderlist’s users would love.

On Monday, Microsoft unveiled another upgrade for Microsoft To Do, which hints that the Wunderlist shut down could be nearing.

The upgrade delivers a more polished look-and-feel with a wider range of backgrounds, including the Berlin TV tower theme that was popular in Wunderlist.

To Do 2b

The app also includes smart lists and a personalized daily planner that offers smart suggestions of tasks that need to be accomplished, Microsoft reminded its users, and it’s supported across a variety of platforms including iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac.

The app is now also integrated with other Microsoft apps like Outlook, Microsoft Planner, Cortana, and Microsoft Launcher on Android, among others. And it works with Alexa, if you prefer.

With the release, Microsoft is again pushing users to migrate from Wunderlist to To Do to gain access to these features.

It did not, however, give an end-of-life date for Wunderlist, which is remarkably still a top 100 Productivity app in the U.S. App Store, according to data from App Annie, over four years after its acquisition.

We’ve asked Microsoft if it will share more details around its plans for Wunderlist and if it has any response to Reber’s request.

“Once we have incorporated the best of Wunderlist into Microsoft To Do, we will retire Wunderlist. We look forward to making Microsoft To Do even more useful, intuitive and personal,” a Microsoft spokesperson replied. The company declined to comment on Reber’s tweets.

As for Reber, he says he’s written to Microsoft many times before and now tried to make it more official via Twitter. The offer, he tells TechCrunch, is indeed serious, and the price would be based on the negotiation. “Chances are low, but I’m trying,” he says.

 

Top VCs on the changing landscape for enterprise startups

Yesterday at TechCrunch’s Enterprise event in San Francisco, we sat down with three venture capitalists who spend a lot of their time thinking about enterprise startups. We wanted to ask what trends they are seeing, what concerns they might have about the state of the market, and of course, how startups might persuade them to write out a check.

We covered a lot of ground with the investors — Jason Green of Emergence Capital, Rebecca Lynn of Canvas Ventures, and Maha Ibrahim of Canaan Partners — who told us, among other things, that startups shouldn’t expect a big M&A event right now, that there’s no first-mover advantage in the enterprise realm, and why grit may be the quality that ends up keeping a startup afloat.

On the growth of enterprise startups:

Jason Green: When we started Emergence 15 years ago, we saw maybe a few hundred startups a year, and we funded about five or six. Today, we see over 1,000 a year; we probably do deep diligence on 25.

Reps from DHS, the FBI and the ODNI met with tech companies at Facebook to talk election security

Representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security met with counterparts at tech companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter to discuss election security, Facebook confirmed.

The purpose was to build on previous discussions and further strengthen strategic collaboration regarding the security of the 2020 U.S. state, federal, and presidential elections,” according to a statement from Facebook head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher.

First reported by Bloomberg, the meeting between America’s largest technology companies and the trio of government security agencies responsible for election security is a sign of how seriously the government and the country’s largest technology companies are treating the threat of foreign intervention into elections.

Earlier this year the Office of the Inspector General issued a report saying that the Department of Homeland Security has not done enough to safeguard elections in the United States.

Throughout the year, reports of persistent media manipulation and the dissemination of propaganda on social media platforms have cropped up not just in the United States but around the world.

In April, Facebook removed a number of accounts ahead of the Spanish election for their role in spreading misinformation about the campaign.

Companies have responded to the threat by updating different mechanisms for users to call out fake accounts and improving in-house technologies used to combat the spread of misinformation.

Twitter, for instance, launched a reporting tool whereby users can flag misleading tweets.

“Improving election security and countering information operations are complex challenges that no organization can solve alone,” said Gleicher in a statement. “Today’s meeting builds on our continuing commitment to work with industry and government partners, as well as with civil society and security experts, to better understand emerging threats and prepare for future elections.”

Xbox Live is down for many

If you were trying to sneak in a quick game on Xbox Live during your Friday afternoon lunch break and found that you can’t get online: don’t worry, you’re not alone.

While Microsoft’s Xbox Live Status page still says all things are good to go (Update: Microsoft’s status page has now caught up with the outage, and says that it’s impacting sign-ins, account creations, and searches), reports are pouring in of an outage keeping many users from logging in.

Microsoft acknowledged the problem on Twitter, saying that they’re “looking into it now”

Story developing…

Skype upgrades its messaging feature with drafts, bookmarks and more

Skype is best known for being a video calling app and, to some extent, that’s because its messaging feature set has been a bit underdeveloped. Today, the company is working to change that image with a series of improvements to Skype’s chatting features aimed at further differentiating it from rival apps.

One of the most useful of the new features is support for Message Drafts.

Similar to email, any message you type up in Skype but don’t yet send is saved within the conversation with a “draft” tag attached. That way you can return to the message to finish it and send it later on.

Skype new features 1b

It’s a feature it would be great to see other messaging clients adopt, as well, given how much of modern business and personal communication takes place outside of email.

People have wanted the ability to draft and schedule iMessage texts for years — so much so that clever developers invented app-based workarounds to meet consumers’ needs. Some people even type up their texts in Notepad, while waiting for the right time to send them.

In another email-inspired addition, Skype is also introducing the ability to bookmark important messages. To access this option, you just have to long-press a message (on mobile) or right-click (on desktop), then tap or click “Add Bookmark.” This will add the message to your Bookmarks screen for easy retrieval.

Skype new features 2

You’ll also now be able to preview photos, videos, and files before you send them through messages — a worthwhile improvement, but one that’s more about playing catch-up to other communication apps than being particularly innovative.

Skype new features 4

And if you’re sharing a bunch of photos or videos all at once, Skype will now organize them neatly. Instead of overwhelming recipients with a large set of photos, the photos are grouped in a way that’s more common to what you’d see on social media. That is, only a few are display while the rest hide behind a “+” button you have to click in order to see more.

Skype new features 3b

Unrelated to the messaging improvements, Skype also rolled out split window support for all versions of Windows, Mac, and Linux. (Windows 10 support was already available).

As one of the older messaging apps still in use, Skype is no longer the largest or most popular, claiming only 300 million monthly active users compared to WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion, for example.

However, it’s good to see its team getting back to solving real consumer pain points rather than trying to clone Snapchat as it mistakenly tried to do not too long ago. (Thankfully, those changes were rolled back.) What Skype remaining users appreciate is the app’s ease-of-use and its productivity focus, and these changes are focused on that direction.

Outside of the expanded access to split view, noted above, all the other new features are rolling out across all Skype platforms, the company says.

 

 

Microsoft wants to bring exFAT to the Linux kernel

ExFAT, the Extended File Allocation Table, is Microsoft’s file system for flash drives and SD cards, which launched in 2006. Because it was proprietary, mounting these drives and cards on Linux machines generally involved installing additional software. Today, however, Microsoft announced that it is supporting the addition of exFAT to the Linux kernel and publishing the technical specifications for exFAT.

“It’s important to us that the Linux community can make use of exFAT included in the Linux kernel with confidence. To this end, we will be making Microsoft’s technical specification for exFAT publicly available
to facilitate development of conformant, interoperable implementations.”

In addition to wanting it to become part of the Linux kernel, Microsoft also says that it hopes that the exFAT specs will become part of the Open Invention Network’s  Linux definition. Once accepted, the code would benefit “from the defensive patent commitments of OIN’s 3040+ members and licensees,” the company notes.

Microsoft and Linux used to be mortal enemies — and some in the Linux community definitely still think of Microsoft as anti-open source. These days, though, Microsoft has clearly embraced open source and Linux, which is now the most popular operating system on Azure and, optionally, part of Windows 10, thanks to its Windows Subsystem for Linux. It’ll still be interesting to see how the community will react to this proposal. The aftertaste of Microsoft’s strategy of  “embrace, extend and extinguish” still lingers in the community, after all, and not too long ago, this move would’ve been interpreted as yet another example of this.

Lego is piloting audio and braille building instructions

Here’s a nice thing from some companies this morning — and it’s got a compelling back story, to boot. Lego this morning announced a new accessibility initiate that will make building instructions for select kits available as braille or text for voice readers, in order to reach builders with blindness and vision impairment.

The service is currently available for free through the Lego Audio Instructions site. It’s still in pilot mode, which mostly means it’s currently limited to four kits, with one each from Classic Lego, Lego City, Lego Friends and Lego Movie 2. The company is currently collecting feedback from the experiences with plans to build out its offerings at some point in the first half of next year.

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The idea comes from Matthew Shifrin, a 22-year-old blind Lego enthusiast. He approached the company with the idea after he and a friend worked together to create instructions for kits that he could read.

“I had a friend, Lilya, who would write down all the building steps for me so that I could upload them into a system that allowed me to read the building steps on a Braille reader through my fingers,” he says in a release. “She learned Braille to engage with me and support my LEGO passion, and then spent countless hours translating LEGO instructions into Braille.”

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MIT’s Media Lab helped create a software that uses AI to translate visual LXFML data (LEGO Exchange Format Mel Script) instructions into text. The result of those instructions are currently being hosted on the Lego site.

Ready, Set, Raise — the Y Combinator for female founders — announces second cohort

About one-fourth of the startups in Y Combinator’s summer batch had a female founder. Not the most disappointing statistic if you consider this: Companies with at least one female founder have raised only about 11% of venture capital funding in the U.S. in 2019, according to PitchBook. Companies with female founders exclusively have raised just 3%.

There is so much room for improvement.

To close the funding gap, programs tailored to female entrepreneurs are working tirelessly to mentor and incubate upstarts in hopes of impressing venture capitalists. Ready, Set, Raise, an accelerator program built for women, by women, is amongst the new efforts to help female and non-binary founders raise more dollars, or, at the very least, build relationships with investors.

The accelerator program, created by the Seattle-based network of startup founders and investors called the Female Founders Alliance, is today announcing its second batch of companies, a group that includes a sextech business, an AI-powered tool for podcasters and a line of workwear created for women who work on farms, construction sites and factory floors.

Ready, Set, Raise has partnered with Microsoft for Startups to provide entrepreneurs $120,000 in Azure credits, as well as technical and business mentoring from executives of the Redmond-based software giant. Other new partners include Brex and Carta, two well-funded companies that plan to lend the support of their executives to teach entrepreneurs about startup finance, valuation and fundraising terms. 

“Both FFA and Microsoft recognize a major lapse in opportunities given to women and non-binary founders,” writes Ian Bergman, a managing director of Microsoft for Startups, in a statement. “We look forward to our continued work together to promote this necessary shift in the VC landscape.”

FFA’s founder and chief executive officer Leslie Feinzaig, who launched the organization in 2017, has been an outspoken advocate of diversity in entrepreneurship and venture capital, and well as providing awareness and resources for founders who are also parents.

“My experience fundraising was undeniably shaped by the fact that I am a woman, and at the time was a new mom,” Feinzaig, who previously founded an edtech startup, told Seattle Business Magazine earlier this year. “A year later, I was about to give up. Instead, I started a Facebook group, including all of the founders and tech startup leaders I knew. It was the group that I needed, made up of people who knew exactly what I was going through. That’s how the Female Founders Alliance was born.”

FFA’s Ready, Set, Raise provides its companies childcare throughout the six-week program, in which companies work one-on-one with experienced coaches ahead of a demo day that will take place on October 16th. 

RSR Cohort 2 Twitter

Here’s a look at Ready, Set, Raise’s sophomore class of startups:

  • Echo Echo: AI-powered tools for podcasters.
  • Give InKind: Coordinates support through major life events.
  • Honistly: A provider of extended auto warranties to help with short-term cash needs.
  • Juicebox It: Modernizes erotica with a chatbot that is arousing and educational. 
  • Panty Drop: A personalized intimates shopping experience for women sizes XS-6XL.  
  • The Labz: A platform that protects and memorializes creative content development in real time.
  • Tougher: Functional, well-fitted workwear for women in the skilled trades. 

Microsoft’s next Surface event is October 2

Microsoft just sent out invites for its next big event. Set for October 2 in New York, the unveiling comes exactly a year after the company’s last major Surface hardware launch. The timing is certainly right for one last major product push ahead of the holidays, as well.

Last year’s big event featured the launch of the Surface Pro 6 hybrid, Surface Studio 2, some software announcements and the launch of the Surface Headphone line. There are plenty of entries in Microsoft’s line that are due for a refresh, including Surface laptop and miniature Surface Go tablet.

The company also likes to launch at least one new product line at these things. As the Verge notes, the company’s long-rumored dual-screen tablet certainly seems overripe at this point, which at least two years of product research under its belt.

The above save the day invite, which was sent out to reporters today, subtly alludes to the inclusion of several convertible form factors, while paying homage to the Windows 10 logo.