Amazon is bringing a cash-based checkout option, Amazon PayCode, to the U.S.

Amazon is making it easier for customers to pay with cash for their online purchases. The retailer today announced the U.S. arrival of Amazon PayCode, a new checkout option that will allow online shoppers to pay for Amazon.com purchases at one of 15,000 Western Union locations. Separately from this, Amazon said that its Amazon Cash service, which lets you load cash into an Amazon account, is now offered at over 100,000 cash-loading locations across the U.S.

Prior to today, PayCode was available in 19 countries around the world, including emerging markets where paying with cash is more common and bank account penetration is lower than in the U.S. or Europe.

The service itself launched earlier this year in partnership with Western Union, and was initially available in 10 markets: Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand. It has since expanded to Barbados, Costa Rica, Federated States of Micronesia, Kazakhstan, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Palau, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uruguay.

Instead of using a bank card to pay for online purchases, shoppers can instead choose the PayCode option at checkout on Amazon.com. They then receive a QR code they could take to a Western Union to pay for the items they wanted to buy.

At launch, Amazon said PayCode customers had 48 hours to make that payment. With its U.S. launch, that time frame narrows to 24 hours. This change is due to shorter delivery windows for U.S. customers versus cross-border customers, Amazon says, and the impact to the company’s delivery promises.

While the U.S. is a more developed market and less in need of supporting cash-based payments, cash still has a big foothold here. Amazon, citing data from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, noted that 39% of in-person payments continue to be made using cash, for example.

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In the past, Amazon has addressed the un-banked (or under-banked) U.S. consumer through the Amazon Cash service. This lets shoppers load up funds on their Amazon account at places like CVS, Rite Aid, GameStop, and 7-Eleven, as well as, now, Western Union.

PayCode may be a more convenient option, as it allows you to shop first, then pay — not vice versa. Plus, Amazon notes that 80% of Americans live within 5 miles of a participating Western Union.

“We’re constantly innovating to improve the shopping experience on behalf of our customers, and are proud to expand Amazon Paycode to customers in the U.S.,” said Ben Volk, Director, Payments at Amazon, in a statement. “Customers have told us they love the convenience of paying in cash. Together with Western Union, we’re able to offer customers more shopping choices, enabling them to pay for their online purchases in a way that is convenient for them,” he added.

Cash payments are only one way Amazon is reaching a different class of online shopper.

It also in 2017 launched a low-cost version of its membership program Prime for customers on government assistance, and this year joined a USDA pilot program that lets SNAP (food stamp) recipients shop for groceries online.

The general thinking is that online shopping is no longer a luxury — it’s a system that can even benefit budget shoppers. People who have access to shop online may be able to find better deals than available at brick-and-mortar stores. In the case of Amazon Cash or now, Amazon PayCode, they may be able to eliminate multiple trips to different retailers to instead place a single Amazon.com order — saving themselves both time and gas money.

“As one of the world’s largest digital and physical money movers, we’re innovating our service to give customers more access and choice,” said Khalid Fellahi, President, Consumer Money Transfer for Western Union, in a statement. “We’re embracing the complexity of a world where cash and digital payments are likely to coexist far into the future. We are providing easy solutions for customers who want access to the convenience of online shopping but prefer to pay in-person.”

Amazon PayCode will roll out to U.S. shoppers over the next few weeks.

Salesforce is building an app to gauge a company’s sustainability progress

Salesforce has always tried to be a socially responsible company, encouraging employees to work in the community, giving 1% of its profits to different causes and building and productizing the 1-1-1 philanthropic model. The company now wants to help other organizations be more sustainable to reduce their carbon footprint, and today it announced it is working on a product to help.

Patrick Flynn, VP of sustainability at Salesforce, says that it sees sustainability as a key issue, and one that requires action right now. The question was how Salesforce could help. As a highly successful software company, it decided to put that particular set of skills to work on the problem.

“We’ve been thinking about how can Salesforce really take action in the face of climate change. Climate change is the biggest, most important and most complex challenge humans have ever faced, and we know right now, every individual, every company needs to step forward and do everything it can,” Flynn told TechCrunch.

And to that end, the company is developing the Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, to help track a company’s sustainability efforts. The tool should look familiar to Salesforce customers, but instead of tracking customers or sales, this tool tracks carbon emissions, renewable energy usage and how well a company is meeting its sustainability goals.

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Image: Salesforce

The tool works with internal data and third-party data as needed, and is subject to both an internal audit by the Sustainability team and third-party organizations to be sure that Salesforce (and Sustainability Cloud customers) are meeting their goals.

Salesforce has been using this product internally to measure its own sustainability efforts, which Flynn leads. “We use the product to measure our footprint across all sorts of different aspects of our operations from data centers, public cloud, real estate — and we work with third-party providers everywhere we can to have them make their operations cleaner, and more powered by renewable energy and less carbon intensive,” he said. When there is carbon generated, the company uses carbon offsets to finance sustainability projects such as clean cookstoves or helping preserve the Amazon rainforest.

Flynn says increasingly the investor community is looking for proof that companies are building a real, verifiable sustainability program, and the Sustainability Cloud, is an effort to provide that information both for Salesforce and for other companies who are in a similar position.

The product is in Beta now and is expected to be ready next year. Flynn could not say how much they plan to charge for this service yet, but he said the goal of the product is positive social impact.

Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming, and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV let you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room where unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added  Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat, and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat smart screen. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop for $199 to $179. Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

Facebook Portal Lineup

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device” says  Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals all go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in the US and Canada plus new markets like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, and France (though the Hey Portal assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

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The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to compete where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling The Creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive”, we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removeable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off, and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

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One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

But if Portal if battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the call from the perspective of accessibility. “We say ‘oh they’re good enough” but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impedentment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

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Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel – ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why’.”

Hands-On With The New Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.

Portal Specs

The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel, they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram, or Camera roll photos.

Portal Mini Portal TV

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8 mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room. TechCrunch.

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users piece of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control felt a tad sluggish but passable.

Portal TV and Remote

Portal’s software is largely the same as before with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp, and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame as zoomed in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime where you don related AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

Portal Mini Alexa

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.

PortalTV CoWatching

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling, I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some  reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pre-text, to have an excuse to go be together.”

This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life, and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen to, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.

Andrew Mason’s Descript snags $15M, acquires Lyrebird to let users type text to create audio in their own voices

The boom in popularity for podcasting has given a new voice to the world of spoken word content that had been largely left for dead with the decline of broadcast radio. Now riding the wave of that growth, a startup called Descript that’s building tools to make the art of creating podcasts — or any other content that involves working with audio — a little easier with audio transcription and editing tools, has a trio of news announcements: funding, an acquisition, and the launch of a new tool that brings some of the magic of natural language processing and AI to the medium by letting people create audio of their own voices based on text that they type.

Descript, the latest startup from Groupon founder Andrew Mason, created as a spinoff of his audio-guide business Detour (which got acquired by Bose last year), is today announcing $15 million in funding, a Series A for expanding the business (including hiring more  people) that’s coming from Andreessen Horowitz (it also funded the startup’s seed round in 2017) and Redpoint.

Along with that, the company has acquired a Canadian startup, Lyrebird — which had, like Descript, also built audio editing tools. Together, the two are rolling out a new feature for Descript called Overdub: people will now be able to create “templates” of their voices that they can in turn use to create audio based on words that they type, part of a bigger production suite that will also let users edit multiple voices on multiple tracks. The audio can be standalone, or the audio track for a video. (The video transcription works a little differently: when you add in words, or take them out, the video makes jumps to account for the changes in timing.)

Overdub is the latest addition to a product that lets users create instant transcriptions of audio text, which is then has already established a following among podcasters and others that use transcription software as part of their audio production suites. The product is priced in a freemium format: no charge for up to four hours of voice content, and $10 per month after that.

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In the age of fake news aided and abetted by technology, you’d be forgiven for wondering if Overdub might not be a highway to deep fake city, where you could use the technology to create any manner of “statements” by famous voices.

Mason tells me that the company has built a way to keep that from being able to happen. To activate the editing feature, users have to first record a number of repeated-back, created on the fly and in real time, which are then used to shape your digital voice profile. This means that you can’t, for example, feed an audio of Donald Trump into the system to create a version of the President saying that he is awfully sorry for suggesting that building walls between the US and Mexico was a good idea, and that this would not, in fact, make America Great Again. (Too bad.)

But if you subscribe to the idea that tech advances in NLP and AI overall are something of a Pandora’s Box, the cat’s already out of the bag, and even if Descript doesn’t allow for it, someone else will likely hack this kind of technology for more nefarious ends. The answer, Mason says, is to keep talking about this and making sure people understand the potentials and pitfalls.

“People have already have created the ability to make deep fakes,” Mason said. “We should expect that not everybody is going to follow the same constrants that we have followed. But part of our role is to create awareness of the possibilities. Your voice is your identity, and you need to own that voice. It’s an issue of privacy, basically.”

The developments underscore the new opportunity that has opened up in tapping some of the developments in artificial intelligence to address what is a growing market. On one hand, it’s a big market: based just on ad revenues alone, podcasting is expected to bring in some $679 million this year, and $1 billion by 2021, according to the IAB — one reason why companies like Spotify and Apple are betting big on it as a complement to their music streaming businesses.

On the other, the area of production tools for podcasters is a very crowded market, with a number of startups and others putting out a lot of tools that all work quite well in identifying what people are saying and transcribing it accurately.

On the front of transcription and the area where Descript is working, rivals include the likes of Trint, Wreally and Otter, among many others. Decript itself doesn’t even create its basic NLP software; it uses Google’s, since basic NLP is now an area that has essentially become “commoditized,” said Mason in an interview.

That makes creating new features, tapping into AI and other advances, all the more essential, as we look to see if one tool emerges as a clear leader in this particular area of SaaS.

“In live multiuser collaboration, there is still no other tool out there that has done what we have done with large uncompressed audio files. That is no small feat, and it has taken time to get it right,” said Mason. “I have seen this transition manifest from documents to spreadsheets to product design. No one would have thought of something like product design to be huge space but just by taking these tools for collaboration and successfully porting them to the cloud, companies like Figma have emerged. And that’s how we got involved here.”

Cybersecurity company Acronis hits unicorn status after raising $147 million led by Goldman Sachs

Cyber security solutions provider Acronis announced today that it has raised $147 million in funding led by Goldman Sachs, bringing it to unicorn status. The company did not disclose its valuation, but founder and CEO Serguei Beloussov told TechCrunch that it is between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Founded in Singapore as a data backup and recovery company in 2003 and now headquartered in Switzerland, Acronis currently has more than 1,400 employees in 18 countries. Its cyber protection technology is used by 5 million consumers and 500,000 businesses.

Beloussov says this is the first time the company has raised capital. In 2004, Acronis sold part of its business to an outside firm in a secondary transaction for $11 million. Since then it has been profitable, but it is now aiming for very rapid growth, targeting $1 billion in revenue by 2022. The company wants to take advantage of increasing demand for cybersecurity solutions by expanding its research and development teams and making several acquisitions in the cybersecurity space.

In a statement, Holger Staude, the vice president of Goldman Sachs Growth, said “We are excited to invest in Acronis at this stage of rapid growth. The traditional backup and data protection market is being disrupted by Acronis Cyber Protection, an innovative solution delivered efficiently through a vast channel of service providers.”

Acronis’ products include Cyber Protection to safeguard data, a platform that allows third-party developers to integrate Acronis’ technology into their own applications and Cyber Cloud, which enables enterprise IT to deliver Acronis’ cyber protection services to end customers. It plans to grow its product roster by acquiring companies that protect applications it doesn’t already support. Beloussov says that the company will also add long-term protection for applications and data and integrate more data destinations.

“We are growing because we have completely changed the company strategy from being a data protection company to a cyber protection company, from data protection applications to being a cyber protection platform, and being a data protection provider to building a cyber protection infrastructure,” says Beloussov, adding that demand is being driven by three trends.

The first is the increasing adoption of edge computing and end point computing, which means more devices outside of data centers need to be protected. The second is the increasing sophistication of cyber crime. Companies need to protect themselves against attacks, but also be prepared to perform recovery and forensics when they happen. The third is the cost of protecting large amounts of data, meaning providers who are able to offer the lowest pricing gain an advantage.

Beloussov says Acronis differentiates from other data backup and security companies, like Veeam or Carbonite, by providing a comprehensive solution that addresses what Acronis refers to as the “Five Sectors of Cyber Protection”: safety, accessibility, privacy, authenticity and security of data. By being able to rely on one provider for more of their cybersecurity needs, companies can save money. Acronis also has a flexible business model, allowing customers to combine its products in a way that saves on costs, Beloussov adds.

“We have very aggressive plans and hope to provide cyber protection for as many workloads, customers and people as possible,” Beloussov says.

Apple Watch Series 5 review

Apple’s iPhones numbers may have suffered in recent years, but when it comes to smartwatches, the company remains utterly dominant. Recent figures from Counterpoint put Apple Watch growth at 48% year over year for the first quarter, commanding more than a third of the total global smartwatch market. Samsung’s myriad different models, meanwhile, put the company in a distant second with 11%.

All of that is to say that Apple’s clearly doing something right here, and competitors like Fitbit and Fossil (the latter of which has been working closely with Google) have plenty of catching up to do on the smartwatch front. Given the company’s sizable head start, it probably comes as no surprise that the latest version of the watch is more interested in refining the device, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Announced alongside a repositioned line of iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t include any hardware additions quite as flashy as the LTE functionality and ECG (electrocardiogram) monitor it introduced with previous updates. There’s an always-on display and a built-in compass — as far as smartwatch features go, neither is the sort of thing that’s likely to win over longtime holdouts. But taken as a whole, the new features go a ways toward maintaining the device’s spot at the top of the smartwatch heap.

Visually, Watch remains largely unchanged from previous generations, aside from the increased display size that arrived on the Series 4. The addition of the always-on display, however, addresses a longstanding issue with the device. When not in use, the Watch has traditionally been a blank screen. It seems like a massive oversight, but it’s also an understandable one. Battery life has always been a big concern with products this size, and keeping a screen on at all times is a surefire way to make sure you’ll run out of juice before the end of the day.

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While improved battery life would almost certainly be a welcomed feature in future updates, Apple’s made a bit of a compromise, offering an always-on watch that lasts the same stated 18 hours as its predecessors. I found I was, indeed, able to get through a day no problem with standard use. My own usage had the product lasting closer to 20 hours without the need to recharge, but even so, the device needs to get charged once a day, regardless — otherwise you’ll almost certainly be out of juice the following day.

The long-awaited addition of sleep tracking failed to materialize for this model — one of the few places where Apple continues to lag the competition. Of course, adding such a feature would require a much more robust battery than one capable of getting 18 hours on a charge.

Apple’s employed some clever fixes to ensure that the new feature won’t totally sap battery life. Each of the faces gets a low-power, always-on version. In the case of the Meridian face that I’ve been using (new for WatchOS 6), it’s white text on a black background. Hold the watch up to your face, however, and the colors invert. The active version is easier to see, and the always-on version uses less power.

The low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide display (LTPO), meanwhile, adjusts the refresh rate based on usage. It’s a broad spectrum: 60Hz at the high end and as little as 1Hz on the low. The ambient light sensor also automatically adjusts the brightness to help conserve power. Covering the watch with your hand will jumpstart the low-power mode.

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While complications and other features are still on display, they’re simplified, removing any power-hungry features. That means the second hand disappears on the standard watch face, and when the watch is in workout mode, the milliseconds will disappear until you bring the watch back up to your face.

The ambient light sensor also works to dim the display in those situations when a bright always-on screen are a genuine nuisance, like watching a movie in a theater. Though while it’s fairly dark, you’re probably better off switching the watching into Theater mode, which turns the screen off altogether until you press the crown.

The other big update on the hardware side is the addition of a built-in compass. Like LTE and the speaker before it, the feature represents another case of bringing more smartphone features over to the watch. At present, there are only a handful of Watch applications that utilize the new feature, the most prominent being Apple’s own Maps. The addition of the compass makes it much easier to navigate directly from the wearable itself.

It’s a handy offering on that front. If you don’t mind the smaller screen size, it’s great being able to find your way around a new area without pulling out your phone.There’s also Apple’s own Compass app, which could prove handy when going for a hike, and also includes a new elevation reading taken from a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, map data and barometric pressure to determine your positioning relative to sea level.

Given that the product isn’t actually available yet, the number of third-party apps that take advantage of the feature is still pretty limited. That said, the much-loved star map app Night Sky offers a pretty compelling use for the compass, as you swing your arm around to get a better notion of your own place of the massive, ever-expanding cosmos.

The last big addition is Emergency SOS. Of course, it’s not always possible to test out every new feature on a device for obvious reasons. We’re going to have to take Apple’s word for it on this one. The feature, which is only supported on the cellular version of the Series 5, brings the ability to call local emergency services when traveling abroad — even when there’s not a phone nearby. The feature also works with the fall-detection feature announced the last time around, sending an emergency SOS if the wearer takes a spill.

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The new watch will also feature a number of software additions new for WatchOS 6, including Cycle Tracking, which makes it possible to log menstrual health, symptoms, period and fertility windows. There’s also the Noise app, which utilizes the Watch’s built-in microphone to track when noise levels get beyond 90 decibels — at which point they can begin to cause hearing loss.

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the standard version and $499 for cellular. Prices go up from there, including the lovely new titanium version, which will ruin you $799. The ceramic is arguably the best looking of the bunch, but $1,299 disqualifies that model for the vast majority of us. No one ever said good looks came cheap. There are countless other combinations beyond that, which will be available for mix and match at Apple’s retail locations. Everyone you know may be wearing an Apple Watch, but it’s still possible to make yours stand out a bit.

In keeping with the addition of a low-cost iPhone 11, the company’s keeping the Series 3 around at $199, offering a much more accessible price point for first-time buyers. For those who already own the device, there’s probably not enough here to warrant an upgrade from last year’s model, but some welcome new features like the always-on help keep the line fresh.

Normative closes a $2.1M seed to help companies automate carbon reporting

Normative, a startup that lets companies automate their carbon reporting — and in turn help them decrease their environmental footprint — has picked up $2.1 million in seed funding.

Backing the Stockholm-based company is ByFounders, with participation from Soundcloud co-founder Eric Wahlforss, Luminar Ventures, and Wave Ventures.

The modest injection of capital will be used by Normative to “accelerate growth” and expand to key markets in the EU and the U.S.

Billed as wanting to become the “Quickbook of carbon reporting,” Normative is a SaaS that plugs into various data — both a company’s internal systems and external databases on the environmental impact of good and services. It then automatically calculates carbon usage and emissions for reporting purposes, which is traditionally a time consuming and costly process. Existing clients include Summa Equity, Bonava and Ikano.

“It is widely recognized that corporate activities are by far the largest contributor to climate change,” Normative co-founder and CEO Kristian Rönn tells TechCrunch. “To use my own country as a case study, H&M, Ericsson and Electrolux reportedly have larger CO2 emissions than the entire population of Sweden put together. This highlights the reality that in order to mitigate climate change, large companies need to mitigate their emissions”.

However, Rönn says that the first step to mitigating climate change is for companies to measure their climate impact, but only around 5,000 companies of an estimated 200 million companies are thought to measure sustainability at all. To make matters worse, even when carbon emissions are measured, companies typically only include emissions that are easy to track, such as electricity and car fuel consumption, which is estimated to be less than 10% of total company emissions. Missing in much of the data is supply chain emissions, transport, travel, and the production of goods and services.

Which, of course, is where Normative steps in.

“Normative helps large companies to go from mapping 10% of their CO2 to mapping 100% of their emissions for every product, service and activity, by reading data directly from their existing business systems e.g. SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Visma etc.,” explains Rönn. “Moreover, sustainability reporting has been completely inaccessible for the small enterprise segment (who would afford to pay $50k-200k per year?), but Normative makes the whole process 10x times cheaper”.

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The timing looks good, too. With movements like Extinction Rebellion and a regulatory, shareholder and consumer push for companies to improve their environmental footprint, carbon reporting is becoming more mandatory. In Europe this includes an EU directive stipulating that all large public companies with more than 500 employees must “disclose certain information on the way they operate and manage social and environmental challenges”. Rönn says similar laws are underway also in the U.S.

Adds the Normative co-founder: “Sustainability reporting is a pain and a huge cost in time and money. However, more and more stakeholders — everything from investors to consumers as well as the legislative sector — demands transparency about companies’ unpaid externalities. Recently many large investors have signed the UN PRI, saying that they will look at sustainability data and comprehensive reporting when they invest”.

Amazon’s Alexa now understands Hindi

Only about 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people know English. Yet, that is the only language Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa understands in the nation. That changes today.

At a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, the e-commerce giant said Alexa now supports Hindi, a language spoken by roughly half a billion people in India. Bringing support for Hindi to Alexa has been more than a year in making, company executives said, noting the unique contextual, cultural, and content-related challenges that Hindi implementation posed.

Users can now ask Alexa their commands in Hindi, and the digital assistant would be able to respond in the same language. The feature is now live in the country from the app settings. In the months to come, Amazon plans to add multilingual households support, allowing members in the family to interact with Alexa in the language they prefer.

Support for local languages has proven immensely beneficial to customers in the past, Manish Tiwari, head of devices category business for Amazon India, said at the event. Amazon last year introduced support for Hindi language on its apps and website. It has seen Hindi usage grow on the site by six times since then, he said.

“The adoption of Alexa in India has been phenomenal,” said Rohit Prasad, VP and Head Scientist, Alexa AI Amazon. Alexa has supported some Hinglish words, combination of English and Hindi, but the company wanted to bring full-fledged support. “A lot of how people in India engage with their smartphones and internet services is different from those of the people in the United States. For instance, in India, people often use the name of an actor instead of singer or band when looking for particular songs,” he added.

alexa hindi

The announcement comes months after Amazon added a Hindi voice model to its Alexa Skills Kit, enabling developers to update their skills in India to support the more popular local language. Google smart speakers gained support for Hindi language late last year.

Amazon says it offers it offers over its Alexa customers in India over 30,000 skills across various categories including cricket, education, and Bollywood. The company’s voice assistant is available to users through its smart speakers — Echo Dot, Echo Plus and more — and over three-dozen devices from other manufacturers including Sony, iBall, and LG, the company said.

Hindi should also help Amazon’s smart speakers maintain their lead over Google’s in India. Amazon commanded the local smart speakers market with a 59% market share in 2018, according to research firm IDC. (Google launched its smart speakers in India months after Amazon did its. IDC has not updated its findings since March this year.)

More to follow…

Festicket enables group festival bookings with ‘Pay with Friends’

Festicket, the U.K.-headquartered festival booking platform, is launching a new feature that allows users to pay for festival tickets as a group.

Described as removing the the pain of being the lead booker, “Pay with Friends” lets a single user reserve tickets for a whole group while only having to pay for part of the payment up-front. The other members of the group then have 48 hours to pay their individual part, whereby the booking is confirmed.

Notably, however, if this doesn’t happen there is a small non-refundable deposit charged to the lead booker to reserve the booking.

The idea is to avoid a situation that doubtless many of us have found ourselves in when trying to organise a group event or vacation, including attending a festival. This typically sees one person drawing the short straw and having to organise, book and pay for the trip. The new Festicket feature goes someway to mitigating this.

“Pay with Friends aims to reduce pressure on the lead booker by sharing the payment immediately with the rest of the group through a simple, fast and easy-to-use solution,” says Festicket.

The new feature was born out of the popularity of group bookings on Festicket, with around 60% of festival-goers attending as a group of more than three, and 20% more than six, according to a survey carried out by the company.

The macro trend is that festivals have become a popular alternative to group holidays with international festival travel increasing by 400% over the past 5 years, says Festicket.

Adds Jonathan Younes, CPO and co-founder of Festicket, in a statement: “It’s great to be able to offer our fans the option to Pay with Friends finally. We’ve created a fair solution that guarantees fans won’t be left out of pocket just because they’re the organised one out of their friends! We’ll continue to add features like this to the Festicket product to make sure all our customers have the best possible booking experience”.

This young litigation finance startup just secured $100 million to go after cases it thinks are winners

If you haven’t heard much about litigation finance, that may change soon. The practice dates back decades, though it’s been picking up momentum since 2006, when Credit Suisse Securities founded a litigation risk strategies unit that it later spun off.

What is litigation finance? In a nutshell, the idea is to fund plaintiffs and law firms in cases where it looks like there will be a winning ruling. When everything goes the right way, the capital that helps fund the lawsuits is returned — and then some — in return for the risk taken. Litigation finance firms — and there’s a growing number of them — basically want to estimate as accurately as possible the risk involved so they can bet on the right horses.

Interestingly, one of the newest entrants onto the scene wasn’t founded by career attorneys or spun out of a hedge fund or private equity group. Instead it’s a young, 11-person company called Legalist that’s run by a 23-year-old Harvard dropout named Eva Shang, who cofounded the company with her college classmate Christian Haigh (who graduated).

As interestingly, the pair, who say they honed the idea as part of a Y Combinator batch in 2016, just secured $100 million to put to work. That’s roughly ten times the $10.2 million they raised for a first fund that tested out their ability to find and finance civil lawsuits that pay.

We talked with Shang late last week to learn more about new fund, which was raised from non-profit endowments, family offices, and institutional investors (including an insurance company) and that’s styled like a private-equity fund with a traditional management fee and carry structure.

TC: First, how do you find these plaintiffs that you’re backing? Do you reach out to them?

ES: We don’t reach out to them. Attorneys bring us cases. They’re the repeat players in litigation funding industry; they’re seeing a lot of cases.

TC: And who are they telling you about? Who fits your criteria?

ES: The plaintiffs who we work with are involved in smaller cases, meaning they require less than a million dollars in funding. It’s a lot of money to pay a lawyer, but in the world of litigation, it’s akin to seed-stage investing. Once [we’ve found candidates], then the algorithms [do the] diligence.

TC: What kind of information or patterns are they seeking out?

ES: We scrape state and federal court records and look for indicators, like whether a court is favorable to plaintiffs, if particular case types tend to win, who the judge is. We also check for points at which the case could be dismissed. We’re focused exclusively on commercial cases, so often breach-of-contract [disputes] where it’s a David and Goliath situation and the smaller company is typically underfunded. When there’s litigation, we help pay for attorneys’ fees and if it’s successful, we recover and if not, we don’t.

TC: How many cases have you backed so far, and how many have you won?

ES: We’ve funded 38 cases, half of them have been resolved, and of those, we’ve had above an 80 percent success rate.

TC: And that has translated into what kind of return for your investors?

ES: We can’t talk about fund returns, but we scaled up our funds 10x [based on that performance].

TC: That’s a lot of cases to churn through. When do you step into the process in the lifespan of a lawsuit?

ES: The cases we’re [involved with] are more advanced and are showing success indicators, so we have a shorter time frame. We also fund smaller cases than most other litigation funders. Because of our approach, where we’re using tech to speed due diligence, we can do that.

TC: You can’t discuss returns but can you tell me what your investors expect to see back? We aren’t talking venture-like returns, presumably.

ES: Not venture-type returns but high-yield returns.

TC: There is movement in a small but growing number of states that want more transparency into third-party litigation funding agreements. It aims mostly to protect consumers, but it sounds like some outfits that fund commercial litigation aren’t so thrilled about it, either. What are you thoughts?

ES: We actually don’t mind disclosure regulation so much. As long as litigation funding is becoming more widely accepted, that’s a good thing and the rules shouldn’t impact us so much. I also think in the long run that it’s inevitable and won’t be a huge problem.

TC: Do you syndicate deals? Do you go it alone?

ES: It’s not like in VC. When we invest in a case, we’re [aren’t teaming up with other sources of funding].

TC: Who owns equity in Legalist? You went through Y Combinator. You raised a little venture funding. But you also now have this fund. 

ES: Y Combinator owns 7 percent of the company [because Legalist went through its accelerator program, intending to become a legal analytics company]. [Other stakeholders] include VY Capital and Refactor Capital .

TC: How will they eventually liquidate their stakes? Does a company like Legalist go public?

ES: There are two publicly traded litigation private finance companies. We’re a tech company; there are exit opportunities.

TC: How long will it take you to invest this $100 million?

ES: Our time horizon is five years and we expect to fund between 100 and 200 cases.

TC: What have you learned in those cases where your investment has gone to zero?

ES: That there’s idiosyncratic risk in the court system that can’t be anticipated. If a jury likes you, they’ll find a way to drape the law over you so you win, and if they don’t, you won’t. We see that. There’s also luck involved, as well as having a meritorious case. That’s why we want to diversify across a larger number of cases.

TC: You dropped out of Harvard because you were accepted into Y Combinator. Around the same time, you also received a Thiel Fellowship, wherein recipients are provided with a $100,000 grant to work on something for a couple of years. What do your parents think of all this?

ES: They really don’t understand it, but they can see that I like what I’m doing. My mom does keep asking me when I’m going back to school. She’s like, “I thought the Thiel fellowship was over after two years!”