Nintendo rumored to be working on a smaller, cheaper Switch

Remember when the rumor mill suggested that Nintendo was already working on a sequel to the Switch? Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa shut that down pretty quickly, saying that no successor was in the works.

Now the rumor mill has shifted gears: rather than a whole new generation, the whispers suggest Nintendo is tinkering with a cheaper, more portable variation of the original.

The rumor stems from a report by Nikkei (Japan’s predominant financial newspaper), later translated by NintendoEverything. According to their translation, Nintendo “has informed multiple suppliers and game development companies that they intend to release them as early as 2019”

While the Switch is already kinda-sorta portable, it’s also kinda-sorta not. In its handheld mode, it comes in around 9.4×4 inches — the majority of which is made up of a big, oh-so-scratchable and fully exposed screen. Taking it on the road without some sort of hardshell case (which would further bulk things up) is pretty daunting — and then there’s the dock, which you’d need if you want to hook it up to a TV and get the system running at its full potential. You can definitely take it outside of the house, but it’s not quite as portable as, say, a DS.

Nintendo is no stranger to releasing new variations of existing consoles. Game Boy evolved into Game Boy Color. Game Boy Advance picked up a folding form factor and a backlight and became the Game Boy Advance SP. Two years later, they flattened it back out and released the itty bitty Game Boy Micro. They released the 3DS with its 3D screen, then dropped the 3D for the 2DS, then brought the 3D back and made it huge for the 3DS XL, then completed the chain by dropping the 3D again and making it big with the 2DS XL.

But what would a smaller Switch look like? It’s tough to imagine a Switch with a smaller screen that would still let you pop the Joycon controllers on/off; perhaps the controls on a smaller version would be built-in and locked in place, but maintain wireless compatibility with Joycons for multiplayer/motion-sensitive games? Maybe something with some sort of built-in screen cover or protection? Oh, and please, oh please, let there be a better kickstand.

As ArsTechnica points out, there’s also probably some room to be shed in rethinking the Switch’s dock. A smaller Switch would presumably need a different dock anyway — so why not make the dock itself more portable, too? DIY’ers and enthusiasts have been building their own micro docks for years now… and as someone who packs his Switch (dock and all) into a suitcase a dozen times a year, I certainly wouldn’t mind a smaller set.

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Kleiner Perkins officially reboots with a $600 million early-stage fund

The venture firm Kleiner Perkins has enjoyed many iterations over its 47-year-old history. Today, in some ways, it kicks off its newest. According to a new SEC filing, the firm has just closed its eighteenth early-stage fund with $600 million in capital commitments. It’s the first fund that Kleiner has announced since June 2016.

Investors are betting on a very different team than last time around. Specifically, they look to be placing much of their faith in Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman. Hamid, who today runs Kleiner with longtime general partner Ted Schlein, was recruited into Kleiner in August 2017, after being courted by the firm for more than a year. It was hoped all along that Hamid — who’d previously cofounded Social Capital with Chamath Palihapitiya and gotten to know Kleiner during early discussions about potentially merging the two firms — would lead the next generation of investors for the old-guard firm.

Hamid wasted little time, in fact, is bringing aboard the firm’s next hire, Ilya Fushman, formerly an Index Ventures investor and an early Dropbox executive who had known Hamid through co-investments in both Slack and Intercom. Their paths also overlapped as children, living in Frankfurt, Germany. Though they did not know each other at the time, the investors, says one source, have a “definite chemistry.”

The duo, along with Schlein; longtime partner Wen Hsieh; and Bucky Moore — a principal at Costanoa Ventures for the last few years who was brought into Kleiner last year as a principal and was promoted to partner last — make up the new face of Kleiner, along with three associates.

It’s almost a full reboot, marking a new chapter in a firm that has seen a number of them, beginning with the swaggering Tom Perkins, one of the firm’s namesakes, who, with cofounder Eugene Kleiner, closed the firm’s debut fund with $8 million.

There was, of course, the very long era in which John Doerr was the most prominent investor at the firm, running it with the likes of Vinod Khosla and betting on what are now the world’s biggest companies, including Google and Amazon.

Then came what could perhaps described as the firm’s dark ages, beginning with some overly zealous fundraising, followed by a number of niche funds that didn’t pan out as planned, and punctuated by the firm’s public battle with former partner Ellen Pao, who unsuccessfully sued the firm for gender harassment but managed to give its male-heavy team a black eye in the process.

When Mary Meeker, the star analyst who’d joined the firm eight years ago, disclosed last fall that she was leaving the firm along with the rest of Kleiner’s growth-stage investors, it caused even more head scratching despite that the split was painted as amicable by both sides.

But Kleiner is now barreling forward, and it clearly has the support of plenty of institutional investors despite so many changes. Gone from Kleiner’s most recent funds is not just Meeker but another of its long-serving female partners, Beth Seidenberg, a renowned healthcare investor who peeled off early last year to cofound her own venture firm. One of Seidenberg’s colleagues, Lynne Chou-O’Keefe, who had spent more than five years investing in healthcare on behalf of Kleiner, also left last year to create her own debut fund, Define Ventures. And they follow in the path of two earlier investing partners, Aileen Lee and Trae Vassallo, who’ve have gone on to create Cowboy Ventures and Defy Partners, respectively.

Other former Kleiner Perkins investors to helm their own funds include Chi-Hua Chien, who today runs the consumer-tech focused venture firm Goodwater Capital; and Brook Porter, David Mount, Benjamin Kortlang and Daniel Oross, who’d focused on green and sustainability-related tech for Kleiner and who also left last year, closing their own $350 million fund with Kleiner’s financial support as a limited partner.

Whether the new team can restore Kleiner to its perch at the top of the venture heap remains an open question. The investors weren’t made available to us today and we don’t know as of this writing what they plan to do differently with their early-stage strategy to set themselves apart. (Note: We’ll be talking with Hamid and Fushman at a small industry event in San Francisco next week and expect to have many more details on their plans going forward then.)

We do suspect that hiring a woman into the firm’s most senior ranks remains a priority for the firm, given that its senior ranks are made up entirely of men, which is not a great look in 2019.

We also know that expectations are high, given the popularity that Hamid and Fushman enjoy among founders. Said one Kleiner investor to the WSJ as the Meeker news was breaking last fall, “We’re watching a dismantling and rebuilding of a storied firm . . . I feel for the first time in probably a decade they’re starting to have a direction.”

Some of Kleiner’s most recent bets include Toss, a three-year-old, South Korean peer-to-peer digital wallet startup (started by a former dentist, interestingly), that raised $80 million at a $1.2 billion valuation co-led by Kleiner and Ribbit Capital in December.

It also participated in another later-stage deal, a $104 million Series E round last month for Looker, a six-year-old, Santa Cruz, Ca.-based data analytics platform.

And it wrote a follow-on check in November to AEye, a five-year-old, Pleasanton, Ca.-based robotics startup that’s developing lidar technology.

Of course, in VC, much happens behind the scenes, too. For its part, Kleiner is making more seed-stage bets than outsiders might realize. Indeed, according to one source close to the firm, it has written checks to roughly 30 nascent startups in the last year-plus.

Above: Mamoon Hamid

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Will tech companies change the way we manage our health?

As of September 2018, the top 10 tech companies in the U.S. had spent a total of $4.7 billion on healthcare acquisitions since 2012. The number of healthcare deals undertaken by those companies has consistently risen year-on-year. It all points to an increasing interest from technology companies in U.S. healthcare, which raises many questions as to what their intentions are, and what the ramifications will be for the health industry. 

It also begs the question as to why healthcare has become the latest target of U.S. tech giants. On the surface, they don’t seem like natural bedfellows. One is agile and quick, the other slow moving and pensive; one obsessed with looking forward, the other struggling to keep up with its past. 

And yet, it’s true. Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung and Uber have all flirted with healthcare in recent years, from data-collecting health apps and devices to a digital cab-hailing service for medical patients. Two of the most intriguing companies to make movements around healthcare recently, though, are Amazon and Alphabet. Both of them seem to have health insurance, in particular, set in their sights.

A is for: Alphabet, Amazon or Apple

Alphabet is currently the most active investor among large tech companies in U.S. healthcare, according to CB Insights. Via Verily, an Alphabet subsidiary that focuses on using technology to better understand health, and DeepMind, another Alphabet acquisition that deals in artificial intelligence solutions, the tech giant has been exploring how to use AI to tackle disease by using data generation, detection and positive lifestyle modifications. Alphabet has also made substantial investments in Oscar, Clover and Collective Health — companies that all have their eye on disrupting the health insurance sector. 

Meanwhile, Amazon raised eyebrows by making its biggest move into healthcare last summer, when it acquired the internet pharmacy startup PillPack. Then, in October 2018, it filed a patent for its Alexa voice assistant to detect colds and coughs. Furthermore, the e-commerce business has been working on an internal project named Hera, which involves using data from electronic medical records (EMRs) to identify incorrect misdiagnoses. And in January of last year, Amazon announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan for an employer health initiative — a thinly veiled tactic to better understand health insurance by using workers as beta-testers with an eye toward expanding into a public market further down the line.

Apple isn’t standing by quietly, either. It was recently announced that they’ve been working with Aetna since 2016 to provide incentives for healthy behavior to their customers through personalized exercise and health tips.

While all three are making strides in the healthcare industry, health insurance, in particular, seems like it may to be a major part of their long-term strategy for Alphabet and Amazon.

Can the tech giants cross the moat?

This isn’t the first time tech-savvy businesses have sized up the U..S healthcare and health insurance industries. They’ve been viewed as sitting ducks for disruption for many years. Unsurprisingly so, too. With their analogue systems, complex strata of silos and out-of-date technology, anyone would think they were primed and ready for digital disruption — that new technologies could help these out-of-date, yet highly lucrative industries, become more streamlined, efficient and customer-centric.

That’s what Better — a mobile experience for healthcare — thought when it was launched in 2013 by Health Hero co-founder and Rock Health mentor, Geoffrey Clapp. The startup struggled from day one with investments and the seemingly monumental task of applying a simple solution to a plethora of problems. Better admitted defeat just two years after it launched.

 “We were doing concierge services across all disease states, across anatomic states like a knee surgery or a stroke, and at the same time doing bundled payment services and multiple, different payment structures,” Clapp said in 2016, when looking back at Better. “People may love the product, but they want it to address whatever problem theirs might be. And we talked ourselves into thinking we would have verticals.” 

Health insurance is just as difficult a sector to disrupt as other areas of the U.S. healthcare industry, but is less appealing to startups due to the large resources companies need to have before they even enter the market.

Despite their size, capital and ingenuity, making inroads into the healthcare industry won’t be easy for tech companies.

An interesting case study over the past few years has been Oscar Health (which, incidentally, received $375 million in investment from Alphabet last year). Launched in 2012 under the proviso of using technology and customer experience insight to simplify health insurance, Oscar is often seen as the poster-boy of startups disrupting health insurance. However, its journey has been anything but smooth and, despite significant investment, its future is anything but clear. 

The company has struggled to compete in the market for individual healthcare, as well as assembling the necessary network of doctors and hospitals. And while Oscar recorded its first profitable quarter in its now seven-year lifespan in 2018, it has a history of hemorrhaging money, including more than $200 million in losses in 2016. If Oscar is the success story of startups disrupting U.S. health insurance, then it’s a stark reminder as to how much of an uphill battle that is.

Of course, Amazon and Alphabet don’t have to worry about losing money in their long-term game plan for health insurance. But they still have to overcome the long list of regulations and pragmatisms that can’t simply be overcome by throwing money at the problem. They won’t automatically succeed on account of their size and resources, as Google learned when it closed the doors of Google Health in 2012, citing that the service “is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would.”

It seems that Alphabet, Amazon et al. have learned from their mistakes, the mistakes of their peers and those of startups like Better. Alphabet isn’t diving in head-first this time around. Instead, it’s tackling specific diseases, partnering with hospitals and applying its vast know-how in AI to combat real problems that affect millions of Americans. And Amazon — via its partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan — is taking the time to better understand the market it hopes to disrupt by taking a close look at its problems on a micro scale.

Grow or die

If the U.S. health insurance industry is indeed so difficult to conquer, it begs the question as to why tech companies are taking another swing at it. The simple answer is revenue.

The U.S. health insurance net premiums recorded by life/health insurers in 2017 totaled $594.9 billion. That’s more than three times Amazon’s 2017 revenue ($178 billion) and more than times that of Alphabet’s ($111 billion).

There’s more to it.

When a business’ annual revenue exceeds $100 billion, it’s sufficiently difficult to find new avenues of meaningful growth. This is problematic for companies like Alphabet and Amazon. Growth and scale are vital for them. Without them, the vultures begin to circle, believing that they’re losing their grip on their ecosystems — and with that, stock prices take a hit. 

We’ve already seen the tech giants mitigate this risk by successfully expanding into other verticals in recent years. Whether it’s grocery delivery services, voice assistants or self-driving cars, tech businesses are constantly looking to expand their empires to fresh verticals. Healthcare is simply the next industry to be re-conquered.

Roadblocks along the way

Despite their size, capital and ingenuity, making inroads into the healthcare industry won’t be easy for tech companies, no matter how carefully they approach it. While they may seem to be old hands when it comes to disrupting industries, healthcare and health insurance are different beasts entirely. 

For a start, there’s regulation. In order to sell and distribute drugs, there are complex and expensive hoops to be jumped through, overseen by regulatory bodies, including the FDA and the DEA. 

There’s always been a question mark over how these companies use the vast swathes of data available to them.

Then there’s data and privacy. Tech giants may believe that technology gives them an upper-hand over the industry’s long-standing incumbents, but tech solutions require access to data that’s also regulated by strict privacy laws — a major barrier to be overcome for those looking to enter specifically into health insurance. 

And on top of all of that, the tech companies looking to take on the health insurance would have to navigate the state-based insurance regulatory system. What works in Utah, which is generally regarded as a more lenient state when it come to insurance regulation, may not work in California, which is seen as one of the strictest states.

Privacy, data and universal healthcare

While there may be challenges facing new businesses in becoming major players in the health insurance industry, it would take a brave person to bet against them. If they were to succeed, some of the ramifications might not be appealing to everyone. 

For a start, there’s always been a question mark over how these companies use the vast swathes of data available to them. Tech companies have been rocked in recent years by the public turning against them over how their data is used to turn a profit. But what if that data was used to calculate a customer’s insurance premium? It’s feasible that a user’s premium could go down if data shows they live a healthy lifestyle; for instance, they purchase healthy foods, have a gym a membership and track regular workouts through a device. 

On the other hand, inactive users shown to buy unhealthy foods and products could see their premiums go up over time. 

It’s a genuine concern according to Peter Swire, a privacy expert at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech and the White House coordinator for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy rule under President Clinton. “As far as I can tell, the Amazon website could use its information about the customer to inform its health insurance affiliate about the customer,” Swire says in an interview with Vice. “In other words, I’m not aware of rules that stop data from outside the healthcare system from being used by the health insurance company.” 

Tangent: Will tech companies push against a single-payer or universal healthcare system?

I’ll pause a moment to put on my tinfoil hat.

As recently as 2017, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini stated he’d be open to discussing a single-payer system, “Single-payer, I think we should have that debate as a nation.”

Single-payer or Medicare-for-all are both in the sights of progressive Democrats in Washington. Those fighting for a single-payer health system in the model of countries like the U.K. and Canada are already up against powerful lobbying groups from pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Game theory may tell us that adding the richest companies in the world to that group would surely push the idea of universal healthcare in the U.S. further away from reality.

This is a big, “what if” scenario that plagues me as we consider a future where the tech companies begin to create their own insurance solutions. They definitely would not want the government to come in and replace private insurance.

Let’s remove the tinfoil hat and we can return to the less conspiracy theory-themed conversation.

Better than the status quo

Of course, there’s no evidence to suggest that Amazon, Google or any other tech giant interested in exploring health insurance might use data against its users or lobby against universal healthcare. In fact, if there’s one thing these businesses know, it’s the importance of pleasing as many people as possible. They’re aware, often from personal experience, how damaging negative publicity can be — not just to a particular product or service, but to the whole business. Following nefarious money-making initiatives could destroy any hope of disrupting the health insurance industry before they’ve even begun.

We could imagine that tech companies would approach their solution with their special sauce.

Amazon may bring extreme efficiency, no frills and incredibly fast logistics to their offering. Google or an Alphabet company may come from an AI and predictive approach, wherein every person would have a health assistant backed by a field of specialists. Alphabet machines and kiosks you could drop into for a quick health check. Apple would bring their polished retail experience and love of control to create a vertical solution like what we see from Kaiser Permanente. They’d work to ensure the quality of the experience. Each company would, effectively, serve a different type of consumer.

If they decide to show their hand and go head-to-head with the health insurance industry’s current incumbents, they may do so by positioning themselves as the benevolent alternative that works for everyone in the system and is ultimately better, less expensive and more efficient. According to a 2017 McKinsey study, very few insurers are providing what the American people want from their providers, namely convenience, more incorporated technology, tools that promote health and wellness and greater value for the money. 

These are areas where technologists often excel: providing high levels of customer care, improving services and driving down cost, and doing so by incorporating cutting-edge technology. If they can do that with health insurance, then they may well be within a shot of finally delivering on technology’s promise to disrupt an out-of-date industry. 

Growth is the lifeblood of these companies, and the health vertical that is ripe for disruption is, coincidentally, vital to our survival. It’s going to be a fascinating battle when it plays out to see whether, like Uber’s cowboy start, tech companies can leapfrog regulation and force the hand of the legislatures with the help of consumer demand.

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Apple has banned Google from running internal iOS apps after certificate misuse

Apple has blocked Google from distributing its internal-only iOS apps on its corporate network after a TechCrunch investigation found the search giant abusing the certificates.

“We’re working with Apple to fix a temporary disruption to some of our corporate iOS apps, which we expect will be resolved soon,” said a Google spokesperson.

Apple did not immediately comment.

TechCrunch reported Wednesday that Google was using an Apple-issued certificate that allows the company to create and build internal apps for its staff for one of its consumer-facing apps, called Screenwise Meter, in violation of Apple’s rules. The app was designed to collect an extensive amount of data from a person’s iPhone for research, but using the special certificate allowed the company to allow users to bypass Apple’s App Store. Google later apologized, and said that the app “should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake.”

It followed in the footsteps of Facebook, which we first reported earlier this week that it was also abusing its internal-only certificates for a research app — which the company used to pay teenagers to vacuum up their phone’s web activity.

It’s not immediately clear how damaging this will be for Google. Not only does it mean its Screenwise Meter app won’t work for iPhones, but any other app that the search giant relies on the certificate for.

According to The Verge, many internal Google apps have also stopped working. That includes early and pre-release versions of its consumer-facing apps, like Google Maps, Hangouts, Gmail and other employee-only apps, such as its transportation apps, are no longer functioning.

Facebook faced a similar rebuke after Apple stepped in. We reported that after Apple’s ban was handed down, many of Facebook’s pre-launch, test-only versions of Facebook and Instagram stopped working, as well as other employee-only apps for coordinating office collaboration, travel, and seeing the company’s daily lunch schedule. Neither ban affects apps that consumers download from Apple’s App Store.

Facebook has over 35,000 employees. Google has more than 94,000 employees.

It’s not known when — or if — Apple will issue Google or Facebook with new internal-only certificates, but they will almost certainly have newer, stricter rules attached.

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Lowe’s is killing off and bricking its Iris smart home products at the end of March

If you’ve got any gear from Lowe’s Iris line of smart home products, it’s time to start looking for alternatives.

Lowes has announced that the line is toast, with plans to flip the switch on “the platform and related services” at the end of March. In other words: much of this once smart connected gear is about to get bricked.

On the upside, Lowe’s is committing to refund customers for “eligible, connected Iris devices” — with the caveat that you’ve got to go through its redemption portal. “PLEASE DO NOT BRING YOUR CONNECTED IRIS DEVICES BACK TO A LOWE’S STORE”, they note repeatedly. They don’t want it either.

Refunds will be issued in the form of a prepaid Visa card. They also note that some — but definitely not all — Iris-compatible devices work with alternatives like Samsung’s SmartThings platform.

As of November of 2018, Lowes was attempting to find a buyer for the product line.

It might seem easier than ever to make any home a smart home — but for many, it’s still just a maze. Type “smart lightbulb” into your favorite mega online retail site — half of the results are probably from mystery brands that you’ve never heard of. Are they secure? If someone finds some nasty exploit that lets hackers tap that lightbulb to poke around your wider network, will it be patched? Will they even work in a year? For anyone who walked into a Lowe’s and figured they could count on the house brand to stick around, the answer to that last one, it seems, is a no.

This is why people worry about Internet of Things gadgets that can “betray you even after you toss them in the trash”: these things probably won’t last forever.

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Kleiner Perkins gets back to early stage with its $600M 18th fund

“KP used be a small team doing hands-on company building. We’re moving away from being this institution with multiple products and really just focusing on early stage venture capital” Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman tells me. 47 years after its founding, the storied venture fund is going “back to the future” with today’s announcement of a 18th fund — a $600 million fund for seed, Series A, and Series B financings. It’s investing across consumer, enterprise, hard tech, and fintech, looking for high-potential teams to help mold into unicorns.

Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman

“We went out to market to LPs. We got a lot of interest. We we were significantly oversubscribed” Fushman says of the firm’s raise.

Kleiner Perkins was recently rocked by the departure of legendary investor Mary Meeker. She brought along Kleiner partners Mood Rowghani, Noah Knauf, and Juliet de Baubigny and they’re reportedly raising a $1.25 billion growth fund called Bond. Fushman explained that with Kleiner refocusing on early stage, their funds will be well differentiated. “They’re going to focus on very late stage growth” while he described Kleiner fund 18 as a place where partners can “collaborate and create” alongside new startups.

Other trends Kleiner is seeking to invest in include better distributed work tools, infrastructure for technology businesses, shifts in the urban and economic landscape, and security and identity tools to protect the software-enabled future.

 

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Amazon reports better than expected Q4, but lowers Q1 guidance

Amazon had a heck of a holiday. The online retail giant posted Q4 earnings today, reporting $72.4 billion in revenue, topping last year’s $60.45 billion and besting the analyst forecat of $71.92 billion.

Extremely wealthy individual Jeff Bezos singled out Alexa’s record holiday season as a source of the robust quarter.

“Alexa was very busy during her holiday season. Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year,” the CEO said of the earnings. “The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear.”

Amazon Web Services also played a key role here, with a massive $2.2 billion operating income. AWS’s $7.43 billion sales beat the $7.29 billion analyst estimate and marked a healthy jump from last year’s $5.11 billion. 

The numbers look good, though, as CNBC notes, the 19.7 revenue growth for the quarter, is the lowest since 2015. Wall Street reaction was further damped by Amazon’s lowered guidance for Q1. Amazon’s put revenue for the upcoming quarter at between $56 billion and $60 billion, below analyst expectations of $60.99 billion.

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China wants to keep its spot as a leader in the space race with plans to launch 30 missions

Keeping its spot among the top countries who are competing in the space race, China is planning to launch 30 missions this year, according to information from the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., reported by the Xinhua news agency.

Last year, China outpaced the United States in the number of national launches it had completed through the middle of December, according to a report in the MIT Technology ReviewPublic and private Chinese companies launched 35 missions that were reported to the public through 2018 compared to 30 from the U.S., wrote Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

“Privately funded space startups are changing China’s space industry,” Johnson-Freese wrote at the time. “And even without their help, China is poised to become a space power on par with the United States.”

Major missions for 2019 will include the Long March-5 large carrier rocket, whose last launch was marred by malfunction. If the new Long March launch goes well, China will stage another flight to launch a probe designed to bring lunar samples back to Earth at the end of 2019.

China will also send still another version of the Long March rocket to the lay the groundwork for the country’s private space station.

While the bulk of China’s activity in space is being handled through government ministries and state owned companies, private companies are starting to make their mark as well.

Landspace, OneSpace and iSpace form a triumvirate of privately held Chinese companies that are all developing launch vehicles and planning to carry payloads to space.

In all, using some back of the napkin math and the calendar of launches available at Spaceflight Insider , there were roughly 80 major rocket launches this year that were scheduled.

Those figures mean that over once a week a rocket blasted off to deliver some sort of payload to a place above the atmosphere. RocketLab put its first commercial payload into orbit in November, and launched a second rocket the following month. Meanwhile, SpaceX, the darling of the private space industry, launched 21 rockets itself.

 

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Twitter cuts off API access to follow/unfollow spam dealers

Notification spam ruins social networks, diluting the real human interaction. Desperate to gain an audience, users pay services to rapidly follow and unfollow tons of people in hopes that some will follow them back. The services can either automate this process or provide tools for users to generate this spam themselves, Earlier this month, a TechCrunch investigation found over two dozen follow-spam companies were paying Instagram to run ads for them. Instagram banned all the services in response an vowed to hunt down similar ones more aggressively.

ManageFlitter’s spammy follow/unfollow tools

Today, Twitter is stepping up its fight against notification spammers. Earlier today, the functionality of three of these services — ManageFlitter, Statusbrew, Crowdfire — ceased to function, as spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra.

TechCrunch inquired with Twitter about whether it had enforced its policy against those companies. A spokesperson provided this comment: “We have suspended these three apps for having repeatedly violated our API rules related to aggressive following & follow churn. As a part of our commitment to building a healthy service, we remain focused on rapidly curbing spam and abuse originating from use of Twitter’s APIs.” These apps will cease to function since they’ll no longer be able to programatically interact with Twitter to follow or unfollow people or take other actions.

Twitter’s policies specify that “Aggressive following (Accounts who follow or unfollow Twitter accounts in a bulk, aggressive, or indiscriminate manner) is a violation of the Twitter Rules.” This is to prevent a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation. These services and their customers exploit Twitter’s platform, worsening the experience of everyone else to grow these customers’ follower counts. We dug into these three apps and found they each promoted features designed to help their customers spam Twitter users.

ManageFlitter‘s site promotes how “Following relevant people on Twitter is a great way to gain new followers. Find people who are interested in similar topics, follow them and often they will follow you back.” For $12 to $49 per month, customers can use this feature shown in the GIF above to rapidly follow others, while another feature lets them check back a few days later and rapidly unfollow everyone who didn’t follow them back. 

Crowdfire had already gotten in trouble with Twitter for offering a prohibited auto-DM feature and tools specifically for generating follow notifications. Yep it only changed its functionality to dip just beneath the rate limits Twitter imposes. It seems it preferred charging users up to $75 per month to abuse the Twitter ecosystem than accept that what it was doing was wrong.

StatusBrew details how “Many a time when you follow users, they do not follow back . . . thereby, you might want to disconnect with such users after let’s say 7 days. Under ‘Cleanup Suggestion’ we give you a reverse sorted list of the people who’re Not Following Back”. It charges $25 to $416 month for these spam tools. After losing its API access today, StatusBrew posted a confusing half-mea culpa, half-“it was our customers’ fault” blog post announcing it will shut down its follow/unfollow features.

Twitter tells TechCrunch it will allow these companies “apply for a new developer account and register a new, compliant app” but the existing apps will remain suspended. I think they deserve an additional time-out period. But still, this is a good step towards Twitter protecting the health of conversation on its platform from greedy spam services. I’d urge the company to also work to prevent companies and sketchy individuals from selling fake followers or follow/unfollow spam via Twitter ads or tweets.

When you can’t trust that someone who follows you is real, the notifications become meaningless distractions, faith in finding real connection sinks, and we become skeptical of the whole app. It’s the users that lose, so it’s the platforms’ responsibility to play referee.

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Houzz resets user passwords after data breach

Houzz, a $4 billion-valued home improvement startup that recently laid off 10 percent of its staff, has admitted a data breach.

A reader contacted TechCrunch on Thursday with a copy of an email sent by the company. It doesn’t say much — such as when the breach happened, what was stolen, or if a hacker to blame or if it was a data exposure that the company could’ve prevented.

Houzz spokesperson Gabriela Hebert would not comment beyond an FAQ posted on the company’s website, citing an ongoing investigation.

In that FAQ, the company said it “recently learned that a file containing some of our user data was obtained by an unauthorized third party.” It added: “We immediately launched an investigation and engaged with a leading forensics firm to assist in our investigation, containment, and remediation efforts.”

The company said it was notifiying all of its users who may have been affected.

An email from a Houzz user. (Image: supplied)

Houzz said some publicly visible information from a user’s Houzz profile, such as name, citiy, state, country and profile description, along with internal identifiers and fields “that have no discernible meaning to anyone outside of Houzz,” such as the region and location of the user and if they have a profile image, for example, the company said.

The company also said that usernames and scrambled passwords were also taken.

Houzz said that the passwords were scrambled and salted using a one-way hashing algorithm, but did not provide specifics on what kind of hashing algorithm was used. Some algorithms, like MD5, are old and outdated but still in use, while newer hashing algorithms — like bcrypt — are stronger and can be more difficult to crack, depending on the number of rounds the passwords go through.

Regardless, the company recommended users change their passwords.

No financial information was taken, according to the FAQ.

The company was last year among many mocked for sending out emails to users alerting them of mandatory changes to their privacy policies ahead of the 2018-introduced EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law, saying it “value[s]” its customers privacy. “Their opening lines offer a glimpse of the way legal policy and user experience are colliding under the new regulations,” said Fast Company.

But it’s not clear if the company will face penalties — up to four percent of its global revenue — as a result of the regulation, only that the company “notified EU authorities within the statutory period,” said the spokesperson.

Another day, another breach.

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