Forget Watson, the Red Hat acquisition may be the thing that saves IBM

With its latest $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, IBM may have found something more elementary than “Watson” to save its flagging business.

Though the acquisition of Red Hat  is by no means a guaranteed victory for the Armonk, N.Y.-based computing company that has had more downs than ups over the five years, it seems to be a better bet for “Big Blue” than an artificial intelligence program that was always more hype than reality.

Indeed, commentators are already noting that this may be a case where IBM finally hangs up the Watson hat and returns to the enterprise software and services business that has always been its core competency (albeit one that has been weighted far more heavily on consulting services — to the detriment of the company’s business).

Watson, the business division focused on artificial intelligence whose public claims were always more marketing than actually market-driven, has not performed as well as IBM had hoped and investors were losing their patience.

Critics — including analysts at the investment bank Jefferies (as early as one year ago) — were skeptical of Watson’s ability to deliver IBM from its business woes.

As we wrote at the time:

Jefferies pulls from an audit of a partnership between IBM Watson and MD Anderson as a case study for IBM’s broader problems scaling Watson. MD Anderson cut its ties with IBM after wasting $60 million on a Watson project that was ultimately deemed, “not ready for human investigational or clinical use.”

The MD Anderson nightmare doesn’t stand on its own. I regularly hear from startup founders in the AI space that their own financial services and biotech clients have had similar experiences working with IBM.

The narrative isn’t the product of any single malfunction, but rather the result of overhyped marketing, deficiencies in operating with deep learning and GPUs and intensive data preparation demands.

That’s not the only trouble IBM has had with Watson’s healthcare results. Earlier this year, the online medical journal Stat reported that Watson was giving clinicians recommendations for cancer treatments that were “unsafe and incorrect” — based on the training data it had received from the company’s own engineers and doctors at Sloan-Kettering who were working with the technology.

All of these woes were reflected in the company’s latest earnings call where it reported falling revenues primarily from the Cognitive Solutions business, which includes Watson’s artificial intelligence and supercomputing services. Though IBM chief financial officer pointed to “mid-to-high” single digit growth from Watson’s health business in the quarter, transaction processing software business fell by 8% and the company’s suite of hosted software services is basically an afterthought for business gravitating to Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon for cloud services.

To be sure, Watson is only one of the segments that IBM had been hoping to tap for its future growth; and while it was a huge investment area for the company, the company always had its eyes partly fixed on the cloud computing environment as it looked for areas of growth.

It’s this area of cloud computing where IBM hopes that Red Hat can help it gain ground.

“The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer. It changes everything about the cloud market,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a statement announcing the acquisition. “IBM will become the world’s number-one hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses.”

The acquisition also puts an incredible amount of marketing power behind Red Hat’s various open source services business — giving all of those IBM project managers and consultants new projects to pitch and maybe juicing open source software adoption a bit more aggressively in the enterprise.

As Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst told TheStreet in September, “The big secular driver of Linux is that big data workloads run on Linux. AI workloads run on Linux. DevOps and those platforms, almost exclusively Linux,” he said. “So much of the net new workloads that are being built have an affinity for Linux.”

 

Microsoft’s $7.5BN GitHub buy gets green-lit by EU regulators

Microsoft’s planned acquisition of Git-based code sharing and collaboration service, GitHub, has been given an unconditional greenlight from European Union regulators.

The software giant announced its intention to bag GitHub back in June, saying it would shell out $7.5 billion in stock to do so. At the time it also pledged: “GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries.”

The European Commission approved the plan today, saying its assessment had concluded there would be no adverse impact on competition in the relevant markets, owing to the combined entity continuing to face “significant competition”.

In particular, it said it looked at whether Microsoft would have the ability and incentive to further integrate its own devops tools and cloud services with GitHub while limiting integration with third party tools and services.

The Commission decided Microsoft would have no incentive to undermine the GitHub’s openness — saying any attempt to do so would reduce its value for developers, who the Commission judged as willing and able to switch to other platforms.

Microsoft has previously said it expects the acquisition to close before the end of the year.

ServiceNow to acquire FriendlyData for its natural language search technology

Enterprise cloud service management company ServiceNow announced today that it will acquire FriendlyData and integrate the startup’s natural language search technology into apps on its Now platform. Founded in 2016, FriendlyData’s natural language query (NLQ) technology enables enterprise customers to build search tools that allow users to ask technical questions even if they don’t know the right jargon.

FriendlyData’s NLQ tech figures out what they are trying to say and then answers with text responses or easy-to-understand data visualizations. ServiceNow said it will integrate FriendlyData’s tech into the Now Platform, which includes apps for IT, human resources, security operations, and customer service management. It will also be available in products for developers and ServiceNow’s partners.

In a statement, Pat Casey, senior vice president of development and operations at ServiceNow, said “ServiceNow is bringing NLQ capabilities to the Now Platform, enabling companies to ask technical questions in plain English and receive direct answers. With this technical enhancement, our goal is to allow anyone to easily make data driven decisions, increasing productivity and driving businesses forward faster.”

The acquisition of FriendlyData is the latest in ServiceNow’s initiative to reduce the friction of support requests within organizations with AI-based tools. For example, it launched a chatbot-building tools called Virtual Agent in May, which enables companies to create custom chatbots for services like Slack or Microsoft Teams to automatically handle routine inquiries such as equipment requests. It also announced the acquisition of Parlo, a chatbot startup, around the same time.

Africa Roundup: Paga goes global and 4 startups raise $99M in VC

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for international expansion with a $10 million round led by the Global Innovation Fund.

The company is exploring the release of its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he said of Kenya’s MPesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Launched in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay bills, and buy things digitally 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu. He joined Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge and Helios Investment Partners’ Fope Adelowo at Disrupt San Francisco to discuss fintech and Africa’s tech ecosystem.

South African fintech startup Jumo raised a $52 million round (led by Goldman Sachs) to bring its fintech services to Asia. The company—that offers loans to the unbanked in Africa—has opened an office in Singapore to lead the way.

The new round takes Jumo to $90 million raised from investors and also saw participation from existing backers that include Proparco — which is attached to the French Development Agency — Finnfund, Vostok Emerging Finance, Gemcorp Capital, and LeapFrog Investments.

Launched in 2014, Jumo specializes in social impact financial products. That means loans and saving options for those who sit outside of the existing banking system, and particularly small businesses.

To date, it claims to have helped nine million consumers across its six markets in Africa and originated over $700 million in loans. The company, which has some 350 staff across 10 offices in Africa, Europe and Asia, was part of Google’s Launchpad accelerator last year. Jumo is led by CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball, who has close to two decades in finance and investing.

Lagos based Paystack raised an $8 million Series A round led by Stripe.

In Nigeria the company’s payment API integrates with tens of thousands of businesses, and in two years it has grown to process 15 percent of all online payments.

In 2016, Paystack became the first startup from Nigeria to enter Y Combinator, and the incubator is doing some follow-on investing in this round.

Other strategic investors in this Series A include Visa and the Chinese online giant Tencent, parent of WeChat and a plethora of other services. Tencent also invested in Paystack’s previous round: the startup has raised $10 million to date.

Paystack integrates a wide range of payment options (wire transfers, cards, and mobile) that Nigerians (and soon, those in other countries in Africa) use both to accept and make payments. There’s more about the company’s platform and strategy in this TechCrunch feature.

South African startup Yoco raised $16 million in a new round of funding to expand its payment management and audit services for small and medium-sized businesses as it angles to become one of Africa’s billion-dollar businesses.

To get there the company that “builds tools and services to help SMEs get paid and manage their business” plans to tap $20 billion in commercial activity that the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Katlego Maphai estimates is waiting to move from cash payments to digital offerings.

Yoco offers a point of sale card reader that links to its proprietary payment and performance software at an entry cost of just over $100.

With this kit, cash-based businesses can start accepting cards and tracking metrics such as top-selling products, peak sales periods, and inventory flows.

Yoco has positioned itself as a missing link to “solving an access problem” for SMEs. Though South Africa has POS and business enterprise providers — and relatively high card (75 percent) and mobile penetration (68 percent) — the company estimates only 7 percent of South African businesses accept cards.

Yoco says it is already processing $280 million in annualized payment volume for just under 30,000 businesses.

The startup generates revenue through margins on hardware and software sales and fees of 2.95 percent per transaction on its POS devices.

Yoco will use the $16 million round on product and platform development, growing its distribution channels, and acquiring new talent.

Emerging markets credit startup Mines.io closed a $13 million Series A round led by The Rise Fund, and looks to expand in South America and Asia.

Mines provides business to consumer (B2C) “credit-as-a-service” products to large firms.

“We’re a technology company that facilitates local institutions — banks, mobile operators, retailers — to offer credit to their customers,” Mines CEO and co-founder Ekechi Nwokah told TechCrunch.

Most of Mines’ partnerships entail white-label lending products offered on mobile phones, including non-smart USSD devices.

With offices in San Mateo and Lagos, Mines uses big-data (extracted primarily from mobile users) and proprietary risk algorithms “to enable lending decisions,” Nwokah explained.

Mines started operations in Nigeria and counts payment processor Interswitch and mobile operator Airtel as current partners. In addition to talent acquisition, the startup plans to use the Series A to expand its credit-as-a-service products into new markets in South America and Southeast Asia “in the next few months,” according to its CEO.

Nwokah wouldn’t name specific countries for the startup’s pending South America and Southeast Asia expansion, but believes “this technology is scalable across geographies.”

As part of the Series A, Yemi Lalude from TPG Growth (founder of The Rise Fund) will join Mines’ board of directors.

 

Digital infrastructure company Liquid Telecom is betting big on African startups by rolling out multiple sponsorships and free internet across key access points to the continent’s tech entrepreneurs.

The Econet Wireless subsidiary is also partnering with local and global players like Afrilabs and Microsoft­­ to create a cross-border commercial network for the continent’s startup community.

“We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch.

With 13 offices on the continent, Liquid Telecom’s core business is building the infrastructure for all things digital in Africa.

The company provides voice, high-speed internet, and IP services at the carrier, enterprise, and retail level across Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. It operates data centers in Nairobi and Johannesburg with 6,800 square meters of rack space.

Liquid Telecom has built a 50,000 kilometer fiber network, from Cape Town to Nairobi and this year switched on the Cape to Cairo initiative—a land-based fiber link from South Africa to Egypt.

Though startups don’t provide an immediate revenue windfall, the company is betting they will as future enterprise clients.

“Step one…in supporting startups has been….supporting co-working spaces and events with sponsorships and free internet,” Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts told TechCrunch. “Step two is helping startups to adopt…business services.”

Liquid Telecom provides free internet to 30 hubs in seven countries and is active sponsoring startup related events.

On the infrastructure side, it’s developing commercial services for startups to plug into.

“At the early stage and middle stage, we’re offering startups connectivity, skills development, and access to capital through the hubs,” said Liquid Telecom’s Oswald Jumira.

“When they reach the more mature level, we’re focused on how we can scale them up…and be a go to market partner for them. To do that they’ll need to leverage…cloud services.”

Microsoft and Liquid Telecom announced a partnership in 2017 to offer cloud services such as Microsoft’s Azure, Dynamics 365, and Office 365 to select startups through free credits—and connected to comp packages of Liquid Telecom product offerings.

On the venture side, Liquid Telecom doesn’t have a fund but that could be in the cards.

“We haven’t yet started investing in startups, but I’d like to see that we do,” said chief technology officer Ben Roberts. “That can be the next move onwards… from having successful business partnerships.”

And finally, tickets are now available here for Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos this December. The first two speakers were also announced, TLcom Capital senior partner and former minister of communication technology for Nigeria Omobola Johnson and Singularity Investment’s Lexi Novitske will discuss keys to investing across Africa’s startup landscape.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around the Net

Amazon’s next conquest will be apparel

Late last year, after Amazon announced it had acquired the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic “Lord of the Rings” saga for $250 million, I wrote how the move underscored Amazon’s relentless pursuit to build one platform to “rule them all.” Now that Amazon is investing half a billion dollars into developing a Middle Earth show – making it the most expensive TV series ever made – it won’t be a surprise to see Jeff Bezos front and center at the Emmys soon.

But Hollywood isn’t the only industry Amazon wants to upend. Based on the company’s great ambitions in apparel, it may not be long before we also see Bezos at New York Fashion Week next to Anna Wintour.

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Fashion World

 

As traditional retail continues to recede, direct to commerce fashion brands continue to emerge. I’ve previously shared how Stitch Fix, Warby Parker, Everlane and Allbirds are just a few innovative companies proving the success of this model. As the master of D2C commerce, Amazon has been fine-tuning its fashion operation for over 15 years.

Amazon originally got into apparel all the way back in 2002 and acquired online shoe retailer Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009, marking the largest purchase in its history at the time. But the company’s quest to dominate fashion has faced several historical obstacles, chief among them that people have not trusted buying apparel online out of a desire to try on the items first and that Amazon was not perceived as a “cool” brand.

Headwinds are now tailwinds. Online shopping for apparel took off and is now the highest online-penetration CPG sector; the majority of women have shopped for clothing online. E-commerce accounts for nearly twice as big a proportion of total clothing sales as it does for retail more broadly (17 percent vs. 10 percent). Amazon, meanwhile, has honed its apparel strategy, providing free returns, better photography and greater selection. Today, the company is the largest apparel retailer by gross merchandise volume. Mission accomplished? Not quite.

Building A Private-Label ‘Fashion House’

An actual Amazon fashion shoot

Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn once said, “Selling a bunch of other people’s stuff is a low margin game that requires a lot of capital and, ultimately, it’s hard to beat Jeff Bezos at that.” This is true, but when it comes to apparel, Bezos has greater ambitions than selling other people’s stuff. Currently, though, that’s mostly what Amazon does.

According to analysis from Coresight Research, nearly 14 percent of listings on the U.S. Amazon Fashion site are from Amazon itself, while third-party sellers account for the remaining 86 percent. Amazon is highly incentivized to increase its share of that pie. Apparel is a highly profitable category for the company, with 40 percent peak gross margins in the last 10 years. Additionally, Prime members heavily overindex for buying apparel on Amazon – nearly two-thirds have done so in the past year.

As it ramps up its private-label offerings, Amazon is clearly keen to move beyond selling the apparel equivalent of batteries and diapers through its Amazon Essentials brand. It started selling thigh-high velvet boots in September, and Coresight’s analysis indicates that the company is focusing on higher-value categories.

If its recent Lord of the Rings rights acquisition was an attempt to further capture young affluent consumers’ eyeballs, and Whole Foods an attempt to lock down their stomachs, it follows that Amazon would want to ensnare their wardrobes as well. Acquiring a hot digitally native vertical brand – or brands – would be a speedy way to accomplish that. Walmart has already pursued this strategy by buying Bonobos, Modcloth and others; Amazon could take a similar path and seek to bring buzzy brands like Everlane into the everything store. This could also go a long way in helping Amazon shed its “uncool” label.

Becoming A Fashion (Power)House

The Echo Look is just one sign Amazon is serious about dominating fashion

Last year, Amazon introduced a number of innovations designed to turbocharge its apparel business and make the online shopping experience as frictionless as possible. It launched Prime Wardrobe, a Stitch Fix-style service that allows you to try three or more items on at home before sending back the items you don’t want for free in a resealable box with a prepaid label.

 It also debuted Echo Look, a new Alexa-powered device that the company dubs a “hands-free camera and style assistant.” The addition of a camera enables the device to record and comment on its owner’s clothing choices, using a combination of machine learning and human stylist feedback. This advice also takes the form of recommendations, which can drive revenue to Amazon Fashion, and specifically its private-label brands.

Amazon is iterating on and rolling out more features for the Echo Look, including curated content and even crowdsourced (human!) style feedback. It also created an AI algorithm for designing clothes and patented an AR mirror that lets you virtually try on clothes. The value of such a mirror was validated recently by L’Oreal’s acquisition of ModiFace, a company that produces technology that powers similar applications in beauty AR.

Analyzing all these moves together, Amazon’s apparel strategy begins to crystallize. First it sells tons of clothes to learn how clothes are sold. Then it starts selling its own clothes to generate higher gross margin. And now has it has Prime Wardrobe to increase lock-in and reduce points at which customers can choose not to buy Amazon’s own clothing (all while gathering more data about individual preferences); and Echo Look to be its data collection and voice-commerce portal (and as an added bonus, it can route ambiguous purchase requests to its growing inventory of private-label items). If this strategy is successful, it will give Amazon an enormous data moat to drive high-margin sales – a competitive advantage that will be extremely difficult for fashion retailers and brands to replicate.

Bezos doesn’t need to even ask.

Amazon has become increasingly dominant in several increasingly important arenas: cloud services, voice assistants, self-serving brick-and-mortar stores with Amazon Go, and of course its now-traditional role as the online everything store. The company is poised to add apparel to this growing list as it changes the way people shop for clothing (again) and entices more of its customers to buy Amazon’s own threads. And it bears mentioning that Amazon Fashion will get a helpful hand from Amazon Studios as well. Bezos once shared that, “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” If he has his way, Amazon will be doing a lot more of both in the coming years.

AWS moves into IT training and job placement with re:Start, a UK cloud skills program

Online education Amazon’s cloud storage business AWS has been gradually expanding into a range of cloud services for people not to simply host their business or app with AWS, but to use the platform for productivity and their own work purposes, too. Today came the latest development on that theme: AWS launched re:Start, a new portal for IT skills training, specifically in cloud computing, and job… Read More

IBM inks video deals with AOL, CBC, more; debuts quality live-stream over ‘commodity’ Internet

LA DEFENSE, FRANCE:  The French headquarters of IBM in La Defense on the outskirts of Paris are seen, 23 May 2005. The group said it would eliminate 10,000-13,000 jobs worldwide, with most of the cuts to come in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Europe accounts for about one-third of IBM's global work force of around 300,000.   AFP PHOTO JOEL ROBINE  (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images) IBM today unveiled some significant strides forward in its bid to be a major player in the world of online and cloud-based video services, three months after the company acquired live-streaming startup Ustream and formed a cloud video unit. AOL (which owns TechCrunch), the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Comic-Con and Mazda have all signed on for IBM to provide online video… Read More

It’s Time To Embrace, Not Fear, Shadow IT

ideas_1 At this very moment, the IT department at a typical enterprise is staring at a mind-numbing list of IT project requests from employees and business units — ranging from building a custom mobile app for warehouse operations to integrating Salesforce.com with back-end office systems. To manage this endless to-do list, the IT department logically arranges requests by how significantly… Read More