Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FindItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.

This neural network detects whether faces have been Photoshopped

Using Photoshop and other image manipulation software to tweak faces in photos has become common practice, but it’s not always made clear when it’s been done. Berkeley and Adobe researchers have created a tool that not only can tell when a face has been Photoshopped, but can suggest how to undo it.

Right off the bat it must be noted that this project applies only to Photoshop manipulations, and in particular those made with the “Face Aware Liquify” feature, which allows for both subtle and major adjustments to many facial features. A universal detection tool is a long way off, but this is a start.

The researchers (among them Alexei Efros, who just appeared at our AI+Robotics event) began from the assumption that a great deal of image manipulation is performed with popular tools like Adobe’s, and as such a good place to start would be looking specifically at the manipulations possible in those tools.

They set up a script to take portrait photos and manipulate them slightly in various ways: move the eyes a bit and emphasize the smile, narrow the cheeks and nose, things like that. They then fed the originals and warped versions to the machine learning model en masse, with the hopes that it would learn to tell them apart.

Learn it did, and quite well. When humans were presented with images and asked which had been manipulated, they performed only slightly better than chance. But the trained neural network identified the manipulated images 99 percent of the time.

What is it seeing? Probably tiny patterns in the optical flow of the image that humans can’t really perceive. And those same little patterns also suggest to it what exact manipulations have been made, letting it suggest an “undo” of the manipulations even having never seen the original.

Since it’s limited to just faces tweaked by this Photoshop tool, don’t expect this research to form any significant barrier against the forces of evil lawlessly tweaking faces left and right out there. But this is just one of many small starts in the growing field of digital forensics.

“We live in a world where it’s becoming harder to trust the digital information we consume,” said Adobe’s Richard Zhang, who worked on the project, “and I look forward to further exploring this area of research.”

You can read the paper describing the project and inspect the team’s code at the project page.

Walmart Grocery is now offering a $98 per year ‘Delivery Unlimited’ subscription

Walmart is taking aim at Instacart, Target’s Shipt, and Amazon Prime Now/Whole Foods with a new grocery delivery subscription service called simply, “Delivery Unlimited.” Before, Walmart shoppers could order groceries online and pick them up at their local store for free or they could opt to pay the $9.95 (or sometimes less) per-order delivery fee. Delivery Unlimited is a third option that offers consumers a way to skip the per-order fee in favor of a monthly or annual subscription.

Currently, the retailer is offering a $12.95 per month plan or a $98 per year subscription, both of which include a 15-day trial period.  (See below)

Everything else about the service is the same.

You’ll still shop online or in the Walmart Grocery app, build a basket, and pick a time slot for your order. There aren’t any restrictions on delivery times, either. It’s just another way to pay for your online orders — and one that could potentially save you money if you order groceries online from Walmart more than once per month.

At $98 per year, Walmart’s Delivery Unlimited service is competitively priced.

Shipt today charges $99 annually, and Target just this week announced a way for Shipt shoppers to pay a per-order fee of $9.99 for the first time, with a Shipt integration on Target.com. Instacart, meanwhile, cut its annual fee to $99 in November. Prime Now is the most expensive option at $119 per year. But of course, it includes more than just grocery delivery — Prime is a comprehensive benefits program that includes fast shipping from Amazon.com, access to streaming services, free e-books, and more.

It’s unclear how broadly available Delivery Unlimited is today. The FAQ on Walmart’s website only vaguely answers a question about availability, saying that “there’s a good chance Delivery Unlimited is in your area.” 

Okay!

The service is also mentioned in an Instagram post from March published by the account belonging to a single Walmart store in Utah, which is likely one of the earlier test markets.

We reached out to Walmart for details, but the retailer yet to respond to questions about the Delivery Unlimited service, or clarify how long it’s been around.

The official Walmart Grocery FAQ makes no mention of a subscription option at this time, and there’s been no formal announcement.

Unlike some grocery delivery businesses, Walmart doesn’t operate its own network of delivery professionals or independent contractors. Instead, Walmart partners with delivery providers across the U.S., including Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire, Roadie, Postmates, and DoorDash. It has also tried then ended relationships with Deliv, Uber, and Lyft.

Walmart’s heavy investments in online grocery have boosted its bottom line. Grocery, along with the growth taking place across the home and fashion categories, have helped the retailer grow its e-commerce sales. In the first quarter, e-commerce sale were up 37%, Walmart said, with earnings per share of $1.13 versus $1.02 expected, and revenue of $123.93 billion above the $125.03 billion estimated.

The retailer currently offers grocery pickup at 2,450 locations and delivery at nearly 1,000 locations. It says it’s on track to offer pickup at 3,100 stores and delivery at 1,600 by the end of 2019.

 

 

Days after pledging to expand internet, Ethiopia’s govt shuts it off

Days after Ethiopian ICT officials made public pledges to improve net access, the government began playing on-again, off-again with the internet—shutting it down (almost completely) to coincide with the country’s national exams.

Data provided to TechCrunch from Oracle’s Internet Intelligence confirmed intermittent net blackouts from June 11 to 14, with connectivity returning for brief periods during that time-span.

Sources on the ground, including in the country’s tech community, confirmed to TechCrunch internet stoppage over the period.

Mobile and IP connectivity in Ethiopia is managed by state owned Ethio Telecom, though the governmentled by newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde—has committed to break up the telecom and privatize it.

On the reason for the outage, the government of Ethiopia has not issued a statement and a government official in charge of ICT policy did not respond to a TechCrunch inquiry.

Press reports, and a source speaking to TechCrunch on background, said Ethiopia’s internet stoppage was done to stop students from cheating on national exams, which took place this week.

Earlier this week I attended Ethiopia’s ICT Expo and first Startup Ethiopia event, moderating and sitting on panels with Ethiopian government representatives to discuss the country’s startup community and internet landscape. Several officials, such as State Minister of Innovation and Technology Jemal Beker, named specific commitments to improve the country’s internet quality, access, and choice within the next year.

Ethiopia took policy steps in that direction, announcing steps  this week to issue individual telco licences by the end of 2019.

The East African nation of 100 million with the continent’s seventh largest economy is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub.

Ethiopia has a budding tech scene, but lags the continent’s tech standouts—like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa—that have become focal-points for startup formation, exits, and VC.

Still, startups such as local ride-hail ventures Ride and ZayRide have started to gain traction (Uber has not yet entered Ethiopia). This week’s Startup Ethiopia event also showcased high-potential early-stage ventures such payment company YenaPay  and agtech, e-commerce startup Deamat.

One thing discussed at Startup Ethiopia was the need for startups—most of which operate on mobile platforms—to have consistent, affordable, and accessible internet to drive forward business models.

Ethiopia is taking steps and making statements in that direction, but this week’s net stoppage shows there are still hurdles and disconnects.

One of those is the country’s government pursuing an internet shutdown just days after attempting to convince investors, angel networks, and a global tech audience it’s serious about making Ethiopia an African startup hub.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Project Scarlett to Gooigi: The best of E3 2019

Every story about E3 has opened with a mention of Sony’s absence, and this one’s no different. The lack of one of gaming’s “big three” loomed large over the show, right down to a strange sense of space on the showroom floor.

Even Xbox chief Phil Spencer mourned the absence of the company’s biggest competitor, stating, “I wish Sony was here,” during a live stream.

But the show went on, as it has through countless ebbs and flows of the gaming industry. Sony’s clearly got plenty up its sleeve with regard to next-generation content, and frankly, no one’s too worried about their health.

Microsoft, meanwhile, came out swinging on Sunday. The company had a TON of games to reveal at the show, with dozens of trailers, all told. And while Microsoft did touch upon two key pieces of news, it ultimately ended up blowing through those announcements, with very little time devoted to either its next-generation 8K console, Project Scarlett, or its streaming service, Project xCloud.

In fact, we ultimately went back to Microsoft later in the week to clarify some things about the service and discovered in the process that console streaming will be free and not a part of the broader xCloud offering.

While Microsoft ultimately seemed cautious (or pressed for time) to go into either xCloud or Game Pass in too much detail onstage, streaming was unquestionably the biggest story of the show. That’s due in no small part to the fact that Google took a little wind out of E3’s sails by shedding more light on its Stadia offering during a surprise press conference last Friday.

On Tuesday, a Nintendo executive confirmed for me that the company is exploring streaming, but wasn’t able to comment on any specifics. Regardless, the writing is clearly on the wall here, and Nintendo has certainly taken notice. In the meantime, the company showed off its latest Animal Crossing title, a sneak peek of the next Zelda and the surprise hit of the show: A gooey Luigi called, naturally, Gooigi. Honestly though, I’m most excited about that Link’s Awakening remaster.

Square’s big event was fairly lackluster, though we did get a preview of the Uncanny (Valley) Avengers. Ubisoft had some cool demos on tap, including Watch Dogs: Legion and story mode for Assassin’s Creed. The publisher is also launching its own streaming service, with help from Google Stadia. Bethesda, meanwhile, is getting in on the battle royale phenomenon with a new mode for Fallout 76. Though the Fall Guys’ version is far more adorable.

There’s a Razer energy drink, Opera gaming browser, new George R.R. Martin game, Warcraft-meets-The-Office show from the It’s Always Sunny crew and a dance game for the Nintendo Wii. Not the Switch, not the Wii U, the Wii. Happy E3 2019!

ThinkGeek.com to close, replaced as a section of GameStop

Sad news for anyone who loves geeky goods and top-notch April Fools’ jokes: ThinkGeek.com, the 20 year old online retailer known for selling more geek-centric gadgets and peripherals than you could fit in a TARDIS, is going away.

According to an FAQ sitting at the top of its site, ThinkGeek isn’t “shutting down”. It just won’t continue on as the site we’ve come to know, instead living on as a shadow of its former self as a section in GameStop (which acquired ThinkGeek in 2015 for a reported $140M.)

Says the FAQ:

On July 2nd, 2019, ThinkGeek.com will be moving in with our parent company GameStop. After this move, you will be able to shop a curated selection of unique items historically found on ThinkGeek.com via a ThinkGeek section at GameStop

The word “curated” is pretty key, there, because there’s just no way a couple of shelves in GameStop will be able to cover the array of fandoms that ThinkGeek.com covered. From Marvel, to Star Wars, to Potter, to Tolkien, it covered a whole lot of (fan)bases in one swoop.

ThinkGeek.com is — or, I guess, was — one of those shops that was fun to explore; anytime I found myself there, I’d inevitably lose track of time clicking around from category to category, often throwing down a credit card for some Star Wars shirt or Aperture Science pint glass I probably didn’t need. Hopefully that sense of “Oooh, look at that! And that! And that!” will live on in whatever section springs up on GameStop’s site.

The company also says that the 40 standalone ThinkGeek retail stores dotting the US will stay open.

This news comes after a few back-to-back 75% off sales of all clearance goods, and now it looks like they’ve marked things down 50% site wide to clear the warehouses.

Perhaps most of all, we’ll miss ThinkGeek’s April Fools’ day gags. On a day in which many companies find themselves trying a bit too hard to make us laugh, ThinkGeek just always seemed to get it right. They’d sprinkle their site with fake product listings for people to stumble upon. Things like…

The Fortnite R/C Battle Bus:

Or the Admiral Ackbar Singing Bass:

Or the absolutely brilliant Tauntaun sleeping bag (a gag that proved so popular that they ended up making and selling them for a while):

Alas.

ThinkGeek says it’ll still take return requests for orders made before June 13th, and that any ThinkGeek gift cards you’ve got sitting around will be honored at GameStop’s online and real world locations.

NASA asks private companies to share how they might supply the Lunar Gateway

NASA’s stated goal of sending the first woman ever, and the first man since the Apollo program, to the Moon involves setting up a new space station that will orbit the Moon, which is supposed to begin being built by the end of 2022, per current timelines. Today, the U.S. space agency issued an open call for industry feedback and insight on how American companies might help supply said station.

Like the ISS, the forthcoming “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” (aka the LOP-G, but much more commonly simply referred to as “The Gateway”) will need regular resupply runs and delivery of cargo — both for the many stages of its build, which are projected to span at least six years to get to its target state of completion. NASA is also considering the possibility that private companies could provide transportation for parts of its lunar landing and, eventually, exploration and base building on the Moon.

NASA’s move today is to release a draft request for proposals, which means that at this stage, it’s not actually looking for providers to submit formal bids — this is the step before that happens, when it’s more informally looking for guidance from industry on what kinds of cargo delivery methods they might even be able to provide ahead of looking to lock in any official contract winners for ongoing business.

To dive deeper into what it’s after and field questions from industry, NASA is hosting a Q&A on June 26, and comments are due on July 10. The more formal actual RFP will happen later this summer, the agency expects, and ultimately, the contract award for this admittedly big job could be as high as $7 billion.

NASA previously awarded private official “Commercial Resupply Services” for the ISS, which is a similar type of business but much closer to home, to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, and then another round of CRS contracts more recently to Orbital ATK (the new Northrop Grumman-owned entity which Orbital Sciences became), Sierra Nevada and SpaceX once again. It’s likely SpaceX will once again bid, as could Blue Origin, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin, to name a few.

Price tag to return to the Moon could be $30 billion

NASA’s ambitious plan to return to the moon may cost as much as $30 billion over the next five years, the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, indicated in an interview this week. This is only a ballpark figure, but it’s the first all-inclusive one we’ve seen and, despite being a large amount of money, is lower than some might have guessed.

Bridenstine floated the figure in an interview with CNN, suggesting that the agency would need somewhere between $20 billion and $30 billion for the purpose of returning to the surface of the Moon. Anything beyond that, such as fleshing out the Lunar Gateway or establishing a persistent presence, would incur additional costs.

To put this figure in perspective, NASA’s annual budget is about $20 billion, very little compared to many other agencies and budget items in the federal government. The speculated additional costs would average $4-6 billion per year, though spending may not be so consistent. NASA only asked for an additional $1.6 billion for the upcoming year, for instance.

The idea that this return to the Moon could cost the same in 2019 dollars as Apollo cost in 1960s dollars (about $30 billion) may be surprising to some. But of course we are not inventing crewed interplanetary travel from scratch this time around. Billions have already been invested in the technologies and infrastructure underpinning the Artemis mission, both flight-proven and recently developed.

In addition to that, Bridenstine is likely counting on the cost savings NASA will see by partnering with commercial aerospace concerns far more extensively than in previous missions of this scale. Cost-sharing, co-development and use of commercial services rather than internal ones will likely save billions.

A secondary goal, Bridenstine told CNN, was “to make sure that we’re not cannibalizing parts of NASA to fund the Artemis program.” So sucking money out of other missions, or co-opting tech or parts from other projects, isn’t an option.

Whether Congress will approve the money is an open question. More concerning is the fundamental timeline of technology development and deployment over the next five years. Even with billions at its disposal, NASA may find that a mission to the lunar surface simply isn’t feasible to complete in that duration, even if all goes according to plan. The SLS and Orion projects are over budget and have been repeatedly delayed, for instance.

Ambition and aggressive timelines are part of NASA’s DNA, however, and although they can plan for the best, you better believe their engineers and program managers are preparing for the worst as well. We’ll get there when we get there.

You won the H-1B lottery: Don’t lose your ticket when changing jobs

Getting an H-1B skilled-worker visa is like winning the lottery — literally: With the number of new visas issued each year capped at 85,000, most of this year’s over 200,000 applicants face disappointment. But if you’re already working in the United States, then you’ve already won the H-1B lottery, and that makes you a hot commodity.

With H-1Bs in short supply, successful companies frequently poach skilled workers. Everyone knows the tech sector thrives on this free exchange of people and ideas, so if another employer needs your skills, why not start working for them?

Well, not so fast. H-1B holders can work only for the company that originally sponsored their visa application. So if you want to change employers, you’ll need to “transfer” your H-1B.

That process used to be relatively straightforward but not in the Trump era. (Boundless recently underwent this process with an employee, so we understand the pain.) The denial rate for initial H-1B applications spiked over five-fold to 32 percent just in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, up from 6 percent in 2015. Crucially, the Trump administration is targeting “continuing” H-1B applications used by existing employees to either renew their H-1B or switch it to a new employer. Even tech giants like Amazon are now seeing double-digit rejection rates.

The bottom line: The days of getting an H-1B transfer quickly rubber-stamped are long gone, and that makes it vital to do whatever you can to keep the odds in your favor. The stakes are high — if things go south, you could lose your right to live and work in the United States. Here’s what H-1B holders need to know about the right — and wrong — ways to set about switching employers:

Don’t take your transfer for granted.

First, understand that an H-1B “transfer” is actually a brand new visa application, not a simple handover of your existing H-1B visa from one employer to another — there’s no such thing.

No, I’m not selling TechCrunch stories for $20 on Fiverr

You weren’t going to try to buy a place on TechCrunch for $20. You, dear reader, are smarter than that. But that doesn’t make it any less concerning when a reader emails you in the middle of the night to let you know that someone’s posing as you on Fiverr, name, biography, picture and all.

Heck, it barely even bothered me that the U.K.-based individual was charging a mere $20 for “basic” TechCrunch writing, versus $30 for “standard” Forbes and $50 for “premium” New York Times. Okay, that one stung a little.

I’ve heard stories of individuals targeting colleagues for access to people and companies or review units, but this particular approach was a relatively new one for me. The listing stated that “I will publish your articles on TechCrunch and other high profile websites,” adding that I both write for a number of high-profile sites and have connections at others and, as such, “am ready to help as many people as I can with this platform.”

I scrambled to find the customer service info. The process was a bit convoluted, but I ultimately found the form and fired off an email. Fiverr’s robot sent a message informing me that, “due to excessive demand, a reply may take longer than one business day. Please accept our apologies in advance for any reply that exceeds this time frame, but be assured we are working hard to get back to you as quickly as possible to provide a considerate response.”

One wonders whether such delays are the result of limited staffing or excessive takedown requests. Probably some combination of the two. I ultimately reached out to someone at Fiverr directly both in hopes of expediting the removal process and getting some insight into how easy it was to pretend to be someone for money.

“Obviously the integrity of our marketplace is something we take very seriously as authenticity is a cornerstone of the Fiverr community,” a rep for the company told me. “Any Fiverr profile page and gig created with the intent to mislead is against our Terms of Service. Therefore in order to ensure a safe and reliable customer experience, we are implementing ID-verification protocols across the marketplace which is successfully routing out instances like this.”

The whole thing went down a few weeks back, but upon hearing the news of the company IPOing, I did another search to see if there were any more users claiming to be a direct conduit to these hallowed pages. I only feel slightly better for the fact that whoever is claiming to get stories on Forbes and TechCrunch is charging a slightly more premium $50 per.

I reached out again to get more information on the ID verification feature. More info can obtained be here, though not specifics on when the feature is implemented. In the meantime, I took it upon myself to offer up Anthony Ha’s Stanford-honed writing skills for $5 an article. Creating the account (I’ve since deactivated) was simple enough using my email and phone number. In fact, the only bit that took any time was the 40-question test required to offer up one’s services as a writer.

Hopefully the newly public company will use some additional resources to further discourage bad actors such as myself from dragging Anthony’s good name into the gig economy for $5 a pop.