Curve, the ‘over-the-top’ banking platform, adds support for Samsung Pay

Curve, the London-based “over-the-top banking platform,” has added support for Samsung Pay in the U.K., making it easy for Samsung smartphone owners to pay using their mobile phone, regardless of who they bank with.

The new feature is enabled by Curve’s ability to consolidate all of your bank cards into a single Curve card. This means that once you register your Curve card with the Samsung Pay app, you can link any of your other Mastercard and Visa debit or credit cards too.

That’s potentially quite significant for Samsung customers because of the lack of Samsung Pay support from many of the major banks who prefer instead to build NFC-enabled payments into their own banking apps.

Unlike Apple, which tightly controls the iPhone’s NFC technology and therefore arguably forces banks to work with them, the NFC tech in Samsung and other Android phones can be accessed by third-party developers. This means there is less incentive for banks to support competing NFC apps, including digital wallets such as Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

Related to this, I’m hearing from sources that Curve may be adding support for Google Pay in the coming weeks. Apple Pay is also known to be in the works. The company declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the roll out of Samsung Pay follows Curve’s $ 55 million Series B round announced in June, which valued the company at $ 250 million. At the time, Curve said it would use the new capital to continue adding more features to its platform and for further European expansion.

Like a plethora of fintech startups, Curve wants to turn your mobile phone into a financial control centre that re-bundles disparate financial products or functionality to offer a single app to help you manage “all things money.”

However, rather than building a new current account — as is the case with the challenger banks such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut — Curve’s “attack vector” is a card and app that lets you connect all of your other debit and credit cards so you only ever have to carry a single card.

Now with Samsung Pay support, for NFC-enabled purchases you only need to carry your Samsung phone.


Android – TechCrunch

Tile finds another $45M to expand its item-tracking devices and platform

Tile — the company that makes popular small square-shaped tags and other technology to help people keep track of physical belongings like keys and bags — has made more recent moves to link up with chipmakers, helping it expand to wireless headsets and other electronic and other connected items as part of a wider smart home strategy. Now, Tile is announcing a round of funding of $ 45 million to double down on those strategies and fulfil a plan to have its technology in millions of devices by the end of this year.

The growth equity is being led by Francisco Partners, with participation from previous investors GGV Capital and Bessemer Venture Partners and new backers Bryant Stibel and SVB Financial Group.

CJ Prober — who joined as CEO last year in part to develop Tile’s newer areas of business — said in an interview that the funding will help the startup be more aggressive in doubling down on these new opportunities.

“We’re seeing great business momentum, with the first embedded partner products from our strategic initiatives coming out this year,” he said. It now has partnerships with five semiconductor companies, including Qualcomm and most recently Nordic, which they integrate Tile functionality on to their hardware, he added. “All this is now paying off with great momentum.”

Prober would not comment on the company’s valuation with this round except to say that it was definitely an upround. It’s notable that this appears to be only the first close for the Series C, which has “opened” with this $ 45 million commitment, in the words of a spokesperson for the company.

Tile has declined to specify any more detail on this front, but this is pretty standard procedure, and the startup has previously raised its rounds in stages — as you can see by this timeline in PitchBook. For some more context, Tile’s last noted valuation (also in PitchBook) was around $ 166 million, but that was now more than two years ago, before the various initiatives and other changes at the company.

Tile is not disclosing any metrics on its market share or how many of its devices are now in use, but it typically is rated as the largest of a crowded market for item-tracking devices (with others in the space including TrackR (Adero), Chipolo, and more).

But it notes that its European business (a relatively new area of focus for Tile) has grown by 160% in the last quarter. That’s coming from a small base, though: Prober confirmed that the US is still by far its biggest market in terms of sales and users.

And it also had a strong Prime Day on Amazon this year, doubling its unit sales (but didn’t provide hard numbers for comparison). It said it has exceeded projections for sign-ups for its Premium tier, which provides free battery replacements, 30-day location history, smart alerts (prompting you for example when you’ve left your keys somewhere), customer support and more for $ 30 for the year or $ 3 per month.

The company has been planting a lot of seeds, and some of them have yet to sprout. Last year, Tile announced that it would take an investment from Comcast to help it develop new products for its wider connected consumer strategy.

Prober however described this as still in the “roadmapping phase” and would not get into specifics except to say that there are a number of different initiatives in the works. There is also a partnership with Google unveiled at the most recent I/O that will see its home devices also being able to be tracked by the Tile platform.

I asked Prober if he worries ultimately about whether large tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and the rest — which all want to “own” connected home customers and the ecosystem of hardware and services that they may use — are seen as opportunities or threats for Tile, given that it’s piggy backing on their platforms and devices. His and the company’s fundamental feeling — one that should be supported in the spirit of competition and consumer choice — is that having a cross-platform option is the way to go.

“Our customers have different devices, products from different companies and it’s our job to ensure that Tile works well across all of those,” he said. “We see ourselves a little bit like Switzerland, which is also something that our customers and partners appreciate.”

While we’re seeing a surge of new communications technologies and protocols — 5G being perhaps the one we are hearing about most at the moment — Tile is sticking for now to Bluetooth.

“We love what Bluetooth enables for our customers in terms of the form factor, the cost and profile of the device and the power consumption,” said Prober. “We’re constantly evaluating different alternatives, and if there is an alternative we would consider that, but in our view that doesn’t exist right now.”

It’s a choice that its investors are also supporting.

“Tile pioneered the smart location category,” said Andrew Kowal, partner with Francisco Partners, in a statement. “With Bluetooth technology projected to be included in nearly 30 billion devices shipping in the next five years, Tile is poised to deliver an embedded finding solution for a rapidly expanding market. We are extremely excited to be partnering with Tile as the company enters the next chapter of its growth story.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $ 100M funding round, bringing its total raised to over $ 250M — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, since few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Luminar IRIS AND TEST FLEET LiDARS

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another, and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true
series production vehicles,” he said (among many other things). The company who gets there first will lead the industry, and naturally he plans to make Luminar that company.

Part of that is of course the production process, which has been vastly improved over the last couple years. These units can be made quickly enough that they can be supplied by the thousands rather than dozens, and the cost has dropped precipitously — by design.

Iris will cost under $ 1,000 per unit for production vehicles seeking serious autonomy, and for $ 500 you can get a more limited version for more limited purposes like driver assistance, or ADAS. Luminar says Iris is “slated to launch commercially on production vehicles beginning in 2022,” but that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re shipping to customers right now. The company is negotiating more than a billion dollars in contracts at present, a representative told me, and 2022 would be the earliest that vehicles with Iris could be made available.

LUMINAR IRIS TRAFFIC JAM PILOT

The Iris units are about a foot below the center of the headlight units here. Note that this is not a production vehicle, just a test one.

Another part of integration is software. The signal from the sensor has to go somewhere, and while some lidar companies have indicated they plan to let the carmaker or whoever deal with it their own way, others have opted to build up the tech stack and create “perception” software on top of the lidar. Perception software can be a range of things: something as simple as drawing boxes around objects identified as people would count, as would a much richer process that flags intentions, gaze directions, characterizes motions and suspected next actions, and so on.

Luminar has opted to build into perception, or rather has revealed that it has been working on it for some time. It now has 60 people on the task split between Palo Alto and Orlando, and hired a new VP of Software, former robo-taxi head at Daimler Christoph Schroder.

What exactly will be the nature and limitations of Luminar’s perception stack? There are dangers waiting if you decide to take it too far, since at some point you begin to compete with your customers, carmakers who have their own perception and control stacks that may or may not overlap with yours. The company gave very few details as to what specifically would be covered by its platform, but no doubt that will become clearer as the product itself matures.

Last and certainly not least is the matter of the $ 100 million in additional funding. This brings Luminar to a total of over a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years, matching its competitor Innoviz, which has made similar decisions regarding commercialization and development.

The list of investors has gotten quite long, so I’ll just quote Luminar here:

G2VP, Moore Strategic Ventures, LLC, Nick Woodman, The Westly Group, 1517 Fund / Peter Thiel, Canvas Ventures, along with strategic investors Corning Inc, Cornes, and Volvo Cars Tech Fund.

The board has also grown, with former Broadcom exec Scott McGregor and G2VP’s Ben Kortland joining the table.

We may have already passed “peak lidar” as far as sheer number of deals and startups in the space, but that doesn’t mean things are going to cool down. If anything the opposite, as established companies battle over lucrative partnerships and begin eating one another to stay competitive. Seems like Luminar has no plans on becoming a meal.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Apollo raises $22M for its GraphQL platform

Apollo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a number of developer and operator tools and services around the GraphQL query language, today announced that it has raised a $ 22 million growth funding round co-led by Andreessen Horowitz and Matrix Partners. Existing investors Trinity Ventures and Webb Investment Network also participated in this round.

Today, Apollo is probably the biggest player in the GraphQL ecosystem. At its core, the company’s services allow businesses to use the Facebook-incubated GraphQL technology to shield their developers from the patchwork of legacy APIs and databases as they look to modernize their technology stacks. The team argues that while REST APIs that talked directly to other services and databases still made sense a few years ago, it doesn’t anymore now that the number of API endpoints keeps increasing rapidly.

Apollo replaces this with what it calls the Data Graph. “There is basically a missing piece where we think about how people build apps today, which is the piece that connects the billions of devices out there,” Apollo co-founder and CEO Geoff Schmidt told me. “You probably don’t just have one app anymore, you probably have three, for the web, iOS and Android . Or maybe six. And if you’re a two-sided marketplace you’ve got one for buyers, one for sellers and another for your ops team.” Managing the interfaces between all of these apps quickly becomes complicated and means you have to write a lot of custom code for every new feature. The promise of the Data Graph is that developers can use GraphQL to query the data in the graph and move on, all without having to write the boilerplate code that typically slows them down. At the same time, the ops teams can use the Graph to enforce access policies and implement other security features.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of analogies to what happened with relational databases in the 80s,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for a new layer in the stack. Previously, your query planner was a human being, not a piece of software, and a relational databased is a piece of software that would just give you a database. And you needed a way to query that database and that syntax was called SQL.”

Geoff Schmidt, Apollo CEO, and Matt DeBergalis, CTO.

GraphQL itself, of course, is open source. Apollo is now building a lot of the proprietary tools around this idea of the Data Graph that make it useful for businesses. There’s a cloud-hosted graph manager, for example, that lets you track your schema, as well as a dashboard to track performance, as well as integrations with continuous integration services. “It’s basically a set of services that keep track of the metadata about your graph and help you manage the configuration of your graph and all the workflows and processes around it,” Schmidt said.

The development of Apollo didn’t come out of nowhere. The founders previously launched Meteor, a framework and set of hosted services that allowed developers to write their apps in JavaScript, both on the front-end and back-end. Meteor was tightly coupled to MongoDB, though, which worked well for some use cases but also held the platform back in the long run. With Apollo, the team decided to go in the opposite direction and instead build a platform that makes being database agnostic the core of its value proposition.

The company also recently launched Apollo Federation, which makes it easier for businesses to work with a distributed graph. Sometimes, after all, your data lives in lots of different places. Federation allows for a distributed architecture that combines all of the different data sources into a single schema that developers can then query.

Schmidt tells me that the company started to get some serious traction last year and by December, it was getting calls from VCs that heard from their portfolio companies that they were using Apollo.

The company plans to use the new funding to build out its technology to scale its field team to support the enterprises that bet on its technology, including the open source technologies that power both the service.

“I see the Data Graph as a core new layer of the stack, just like we as an industry invested in the relational databased for decades, making it better and better,” Schmidt said. “We’re still finding new uses for SQL and that relational database model. I think the Data Graph is going to be the same way.”


Android – TechCrunch

Europe agrees platform rules to tackle unfair business practices

The European Union’s political institutions have reached agreement over new rules designed to boost transparency around online platform businesses and curb unfair practices to support traders and other businesses that rely on digital intermediaries for discovery and sales.

The European Commission proposed a regulation for fairness and transparency in online platform trading last April. And late yesterday the European Parliament, Council of the EU and Commission reached a political deal on regulating the business environment of platforms, announcing the accord in a press release today.

The political agreement paves the way for adoption and publication of the regulation, likely later this year. The rules will apply 12 months after that point.

Online platform intermediaries such as ecommerce marketplaces and search engines are covered by the new rules if they provide services to businesses established in the EU and which offer goods or services to consumers located in the EU.

The Commission estimates there are some 7,000 such platforms and marketplaces which will be covered by the regulation, noting this includes “world giants as well as very small start-ups”.

To be clear, the regulation does not target every online platform. For example, it does not cover online advertising (or b2b ad exchanges), payment services, SEO services or services that do not intermediate direct transactions between businesses and consumers.

The Commission also notes that online retailers that sell their own brand products and/or don’t rely on third party sellers on their own platform are also excluded from the regulation, such as retailers of brands or supermarkets.

On platforms where the new rules do apply, sudden and unexpected account suspensions will be banned — with the Commission saying platforms will have to provide “clear reasons” for any termination and also possibilities for appeal.

Terms and conditions must also be “easily available and provided in plain and intelligible language”.

There must also be advance notice of changes — of at least 15 days, with longer notice periods applying for more complex changes.

For search engines the focus is on ranking transparency. And on that front dominant search engine Google has attracted more than its fair share of criticism in Europe from a range of rivals (not all of whom are European).

In 2017, the search giant was also slapped with a $ 2.7BN antitrust fine related to its price comparison service, Google Shopping. The EC found Google had systematically given prominent placement to its own search comparison service while also demoting rival services in search results. (Google rejects the findings and is appealing.)

Given that history, the new transparency provisions look intended to make it harder for a dominant search player to use its market power against rivals.

Changing the online marketplace

The importance of legislating for platform fairness was also flagged by the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, last summer — when she handed Google another very large fine ($ 5BN) for anti-competitive behavior related to its mobile platform Android.

Vestager said then she wasn’t sure breaking Google up would be an effective competition fix, preferring to push for remedies to support “more players to have a real go”, as her Android decision attempts to do. But she also stressed the importance of “legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

If businesses have legal means to find out why, for example, their traffic has stopped and what they can do to get it back that will “change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses”, she argued.

Just such a change is now in sight thanks to EU political accord on the issue.

The regulation represents the first such rules for online platforms in Europe and — commissioners’ contend — anywhere in the world.

“Our target is to outlaw some of the most unfair practices and create a benchmark for transparency, at the same time safeguarding the great advantages of online platforms both for consumers and for businesses,” said Andrus Ansip, VP for the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative in a statement.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship, and SMEs, added that the rules are “especially designed with the millions of SMEs in mind”.

“Many of them do not have the bargaining muscle to enter into a dispute with a big platform, but with these new rules they have a new safety net and will no longer worry about being randomly kicked off a platform, or intransparent ranking in search results,” she said in another supporting statement.

In a factsheet about the new rules, the Commission specifies they cover third-party ecommerce market places (e.g. Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Fnac Marketplace, etc.); app stores (e.g. Google Play, Apple App Store, Microsoft Store etc.); social media for business (e.g. Facebook pages, Instagram used by makers/artists etc.); and price comparison tools (e.g. Skyscanner, Google Shopping etc.).

Where transparency is concerned, the rules require that marketplaces and search engines disclose the main parameters they use to rank goods and services on their site “to help sellers understand how to optimise their presence” — with the Commission saying the regulation aims to strike a balance of supporting sellers without allowing gaming of the ranking system.

Some platform business practices will also require mandatory disclosure — such as for platforms that not only provide a marketplace for sellers but sell on their platform themselves, as does Amazon for example.

The ecommerce giant’s use of merchant data remains under scrutiny in the EU. Vestager revealed a preliminary antitrust probe of Amazon last fall — when she said her department was gathering information to “try to get a full picture”.

She said her concern is dual platforms could gain an unfair advantage as a consequence of access to merchants’ data. And, again, the incoming transparency rules look intended to shrink that risk — requiring what the Commission couches as exhaustive disclosure of “any advantage” a platform may give to their own products over others.

“They must also disclose what data they collect, and how they use it — and in particular how such data is shared with other business partners they have,” it continues, noting also that: “Where personal data is concerned, the rules of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] apply.”

(GDPR of course places further transparency requirements on platforms by, for example, empowering individuals to request any personal data held on them, as well as the reasons why their information is being processed.)

The platform regulation also includes new avenues for dispute resolution by requiring platforms set up an internal complaint-handling system to assist business users.

“Only the smallest platforms in terms of head count or turnover will be exempt from this obligation,” the Commission notes. (The exemption limit is set at fewer than 50 staff and less than €10M revenue.)

It also says: “Platforms will have to provide businesses with more options to resolve a potential problem through mediators. This will help resolve more issues out of court, saving businesses time and money.”

But, at the same time, the new rules allow business associations to take platforms to court to stop any non-compliance — mirroring a provision in the GDPR which also allows for collective enforcement and redress of individual privacy rights (where Member States adopt it).

“This will help overcome fear of retaliation, and lower the cost of court cases for individual businesses, when the new rules are not followed,” the Commission argues.

“In addition, Member States can appoint public authorities with enforcement powers, if they wish, and businesses can turn to those authorities.”

One component of the regulation that appears to be being left up to EU Member States to tackle is penalties for non-compliance — with no clear regime of fines set out (as there is in GDPR). So it’s not clear whether the platform regulation might not have rather more bark than bite, at least initially.

“Member States shall need to take measures that are sufficiently dissuasive to ensure that the online intermediation platforms and search engines comply with the requirements in the Regulation,” the Commission writes in a section of its factsheet dealing with how to make sure platforms respect the new rules.

It also points again to the provision allowing business associations or organisations to take action in national courts on behalf of members — saying this offers a legal route to “stop or prohibit non-compliance with one or more of the requirements of the Regulation”. So, er, expect lawsuits.

The Commission says the rules will be subject to review within 18 months after they come into force — in a bid to ensure the regulation keeps pace with fast-paced tech developments.

A dedicated Online Platform Observatory has been established in the EU for the purpose of “monitoring the evolution of the market and the effective implementation of the rules”, it adds.


Android – TechCrunch