Google expands its African startup initiatives

Alphabet is committing to training another 1 million students under its Digital Skills for Africa program in the next 12 months, the company said at events in Southern Africa’s three most populous cities — Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg.

The commitment follows the company’s 1 million mark milestone reached earlier this year and follows the opening of Google’s Launchpad Accelerator for African startups earlier this month — tracking a growing presence by the global internet services firm on the continent.

Debuted in April 2016 with a goal of training 1 million within a year, Digital Skills for Africa offers online and face to face instruction to individuals and small businesses through 14 partners across 27 African countries. Anyone can register for free and set an individualized plan across three primary categories: business development, career advancement, or basic internet use. Users can choose from 89 courses across 23 topic areas and earn badges and certificates for successful completion.

“Across Africa…one of the things that hold people back from taking advantage of the web is a lack of understanding on how to use digital tools,” said Bunmi Banjo, Google’s Growth Engine and Brand Lead for Sub-Saharan Africa. “We are providing training to young people and business owners to succeed however, they define success for themselves―finding a job, growing a business, starting on email,” she told TechCrunch.

To meet the goal of another million trained, Google will add countries and regions to Digital Skills for Africa in 2017. It will include more offline versions of online training materials for low net access areas. Google will also offer instruction in new languages, such as Swahili, IsiZulu, and Hausa. Digital Skills for Africa will also increase its partner network for in-person instruction. Current partners include organizations like the eMobilus technical institute in Kenya and vocational training company Centrum Learning in Nigeria.

 As for Google’s overall Africa presence, it now has country heads in core economy nations such as South Africa (Luke Mckend), Nigeria (Juliet Ehimuan), and Kenya (Charles Murito). The Launchpad Accelerator―which offers 6 months of equity free Google startup support with two weeks in Silicon Valley―is now accepting Africa applications.

Google provides financial and capacity support to five African tech hubs in Kenya (iHub), South Africa, Ghana, and Uganda, and Nigeria (CCHub). The company has also begun programs and partnerships to overcome Africa’s internet access and connectivity challenges. Despite progress on mobile phone ownership and ICT infrastructure over the last decade, the continent remains one of the world’s most digitally disconnected. Though some countries, such as Kenya and South Africa, have attained high usage, Africa’s internet penetration lingers at less than one- third of the continent’s estimated 1.2 billion people.

In 2016, Google entered a licensing pact with South African startup Onyx, which plans to manufacture Android smartphones on the continent. In several African countries, the company also offers its “Add to Offline” option for YouTube video playback with little to no connectivity.

Though Google could not provide overall traffic data, African search activity has increased significantly in recent years, a spokesperson confirmed. Statistics are available for popular search terms across Africa’s largest economies, providing insight on the interest palette of the continent’s growing online community.

In 2016, Nigeria’s top Google person search was for Donald Trump. South Africa’s most searched term was Pokémon Go. Kenyans were most keen on football, googling “Euro 2016” more than any other topic last year.

Chat app Line is developing an AI assistant and Amazon Echo-style smart speaker

Messaging app Line is taking a leaf out of the books of Amazon, Google and others after it launched its own artificial intelligence platform.

A voice-powered concierge service called Clova — short for “Cloud Virtual Assistant” — is the centerpiece of the service, much like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant. Beyond the assistant living inside the main Line chat app, the company said it has plans to release hardware with support for Clova baked-in, as Amazon and Google have done, and work with third parties to integrate the service into additional hardware. Sony and toy maker Tomy are among the early partners it is talking to.

Also, interestingly, Line has acquired a majority stake in the Japanese company behind a ‘holographic’ AI service. Vinclu is the startup, and its Gatebox is its ‘virtual robot’ that gives AI a graphical presence in the form of manga cartoon-style female — very Japanese.

“Gatebox’s holographic home assistant is voice activated and uses a variety of sensors to interact with the device’s operator in a realistic and natural manner, while also connecting to a range of devices in the home,” Line said.

As this promotional video shows, Gatebox is painted more like a virtual companion than a gender-neutral AI assistant. That might require a different approach if the product is to ship outside of Japan, perhaps involving Brown the bear and others who star in Line’s sticker packs.


There’s no word on what Line plans to do specifically with Gatebox, but the chat app firm did say that it will introduce Clova to the Line app and begin selling a Clova-powered smart speaker in Japan and Korea in “early summer.” The first iteration of Clova will allow the kind of things other AI apps already do, such as getting news, weather info, playing music, etc.

Initially the firm is developing Clova-related services itself — alongside parent firm Naver — but Line said it plans to open the AI platform for both software and hardware up to third parties in the future. That’s where tasks could get more complicated and intricate.

 “The goal is to create a thriving ecosystem of contents, services and devices with a wide range of partners, allowing the Clova platform to continue to expand and develop over time,” Line said in a statement.

The company’s foray into AI seems fairly standard compared to what those leading the space are doing, but Line is the first chat app company to make a sustained push. While an AI might help increase engagement with existing users, it doesn’t seem like a bridge to bring new users into the fold and that is among the key issues Line is currently grappling with.

The company, which went public in a dual U.S.-Japan IPO worth $1.1 billion last year, recently posted its largest revenue drop amid slowing user growth, putting it under pressure to generate new revenue streams.

In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Takeshi Idezawa admitted that the AI strategy — which will include more M&A deals — would not immediately address those concerns.

“It’s one of the longer-term bets. The point is to secure a position early on. People will probably begin to use these services more regularly three to five years from now,” he said.

In the nearer term, Line is focusing on adding advertising to its monetization mix, which is primarily composed of in-app purchases for games and sticker pack sales.

One of its other bets has been doubling down on different areas of social. The firm recently increased its stake in Snapchat-like service Snow — also owned by Naver — to close to 50 percent, while it has long pledged to be more than just a chat app. Related services it currently offers include mobile payments, music streaming, taxis on-demand and more.

China’s taxi on-demand war reignited: Didi rival UCAR is raising $1 billion

Didi Chuxing’s deal to acquire Uber China seemingly left the Chinese ride-hailing giant as the last man standing and therefore sole winner of China’s vast ride-sharing market. However, Didi’s success has also served to open new opportunities for other competitors. It would seem that there’s no way for a single company to gobble up the entire market as a whole, even if it’s Didi.

UCAR, a prominent rival of Didi in China, announced this week that it raised an initial RMB 4.6 billion ($670 million) in new funds from four investors including China’s interbank network, UnionPay. The company counts high-profile names like Warburg Pincus and Jack Ma among its roster of backers.

There’s more to come, however. Board chairman Lu Zhengyao told local media [Chinese] that the total financing will surpass RMB 7 billion ($1.02 billion) via additional commitments. He said the money raised will be used for marketing, recruitment, expanding its offline presence and increasing its fleet.

UCAR is no stranger to large investment deals. Last October it raised RMB 10 billion ($1.45 billion) via a private placement plan. Impressive though that is, Didi has the financial clout to blow rivals out of the water, as did with Uber China. Didi has raised more than $10.5 billion from investors, including its most recent $7.3 billion round which included input from tech heavyweights Apple, Tencent, Alibaba and SoftBank.

While Didi relies on private cars and crowd-sourced drivers, UCAR offers its services via an in-house fleet and licensed drivers. These drivers provide UCAR with a way to potentially increase margins and also, importantly, avoid government concerns around its legal status.

 The firm currently operates four product lines: Car. Inc, its Hong Kong-listed car rental arm, Shenzhou Zhuanche, the chauffeured car service, as well as an online car marketplace and a car loan service. That’s quite a spread but CEO Charles Lu disclosed that the company is keen to venture into new areas. He said that all of its business units are on track to record a profit this year, and that car manufacturing is one possible expansion up for consideration.

Like many Chinese tech startups, UCAR is listed on the Chinese over-the-counter (OTC) market. It was the first of its kind when it was went public in September last year and is currently valued at RMB 40.93 billion, $5.95 billion. Didi has not gone public yet and no specific timetable for its IPO has been disclosed.

Despite the fierce competition and government constraints, local companies continue to fight their way into to China’s ride-hailing market. LeEco-backed Yidao is another upstart that is hoping to fill a gap once Didi completes its protracted acquisition of Uber China. Yidao itself completed a $700 million funding round at a valuation of $1 billion in 2015.

Beyond those services, China’s top local services firm Meituan recently added a car-hailing function to its app, while car manufacturer Geely has expanded its ride-summoning service Caocao Zhuanche to more cities.

Major mergers — like the coming together of Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache in 2015 and the ongoing Didi-Uber China deal — left many predicting that the battle in China’s ride-hailing industry is over. UCAR’s news investment shows that while the market is more mature now, the war is not over just yet.

Nintendo Switch UI shown off as one gamer gets console early

With the Nintendo Switch launch date a mere two weeks away, it was only a matter of time before someone posted a video of themselves playing around with the new hardware.

Lo and behold, today on NeoGAF a guy going by the username hiphoptherobot did just that.

The NeoGAF user posted a short three-minute video of himself playing around with the Nintendo Switch’s start-up screen before walking us through the system’s home and settings menus. It’s a bit dry, honestly, but it does provide our first look at what the system’s user interface is going to look like.

That being said, there aren’t many gems to be mined from the video, with the exception of the data storage screen. The menu shows that a brand-new Nintendo Switch has about 30GB of free space – meaning the hard drive is about 32GB, the same size as the Deluxe Edition of the Wii U .

The video shows us our first look at the Switch’s user interface – a simple, straightforward one by the looks of things. It’s reminiscent of the Nintendo 3DS start screen, if you’ve ever seen that, or a condensed version of the Wii’s interface.

Hiphoptherobot wouldn’t give us the location of where he got his unit early, instead citing that it came from an “unnamed store” who decided to ship him an early Switch. Too bad this “unnamed store” couldn’t ship him any games to go along with the console.

Productivity primed: MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar now supports Microsoft Office

Apple”s newest MacBook Pro is getting more features from an unlikely source, as Microsoft is rolling out Microsoft Office support for the laptop’s unique Touch Bar.

Originally previewed last week for beta users, MacBook Pro owners at large can now access special shortcut features on the Touch Bar for Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and even Outlook.

Similar to supported apps like Spotify and Photoshop , Touch Bar support allows users quicker and easier access to the Microsoft Office suite’s most used features, as well as make the Touch Bar itself more enticing to customers than just a fancy way of playing DOOM .

Office stays in Touch

As for how this new update can actually help a MacBook Pro user’s workflow, Word now cuts out clutter for a clearer screen, moving several formatting tools to the Touch Bar.

PowerPoint pros can use the keyboard-inlaid screen to track their presentation and timer (a major plus for timed school or keynote presentations), while Excel spreadsheets can use the Touch Bar to quickly access important functions and cell formatting.

Outlook on the Touch Bar can tack on attachments to emails with a single press of the touch-sensitive screen, as well as look up calendar appointments and even join in on meetings via Skype.

Though useful for productivity, some folks might want to be wary where they use their MacBook Pro, as some law examination boards in the US have banned the Touch Bar from bar exams. (We guess you can say it…didn’t pass the Bar?)

IBM’s hub for wearables could have you out of the hospital faster

Researchers at IBM have developed a hub for wearables that can gather information from multiple wearable devices and share it with a doctor, potentially cutting down on the time patients need to spend in a hospital.img 0514

The gadget, which IBM has dubbed a ‘cognitive hypervisor,’ funnels data from devices such as smart watches and fitness bands into the IBM Cloud. There, it’s analyzed and the results are shared with the user and their doctor.

The idea is that patients can be monitored reliably through the device so they can be sent home to recover from illnesses a day or two earlier than they might otherwise have been allowed. It also means that should a problem develop, a doctor can be alerted immediately and an ambulance dispatched if it’s serious enough.

IBM demonstrated a prototype of the device in San Francisco on Tuesday.

“I am Chiyo, your new companion. During this time, please touch me to start,” it said after powering up. “Every time you touch me, I will tell you about your status.”

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IBM’s Chiyo health device as seen during a demonstration in San Francisco on February 14, 2017.

Fed with simulated data, the prototype alerted to a low blood oxygen level and a high temperature after it was tapped.

The device will react to voice commands and interact through a text-to-speech engine. One of the jobs facing researchers is to make the digital speech more realistic and more conversational.

Doing that will encourage users to interact with the device, said Rahel Strässle, a researcher working on the technology at IBM Research in Switzerland.

In developing the system, IBM isn’t planning to get into the wearables business. Instead, it plans to offer the service as a platform on which other companies can build their own health services.

“They can use this technology to build their own wearable devices,” said Bruno Michel, manager of smart system integration at the same IBM Research office.

The prototype is about the size of a grapefruit and is built with off-the-shelf components such as a Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards, but Michel thinks it can be made much smaller.

“I think in about five years, we will be able to have that fit into the ear canal,” he said.

Microsoft’s Email Insights finally adds some useful search smarts to Outlook

Email Insights, a new experimental app from the Microsoft Garage, is the answer to a problem Google’s Gmail solved more than a decade ago: how to search Outlook and find exactly what you insights search

Google’s Gmail gained enormous traction in part because it allowed a quick, convenient way to search emails. Today, you can search Outlook, but it arranges the results in order with no real preference given to what might be most relevant.

Email Insights works with both your Microsoft Outlook desktop application as well as Gmail, and attempts to bring the three most relevant results to the top of your inbox via an “intent pane.” The tool also provides contextual autocomplete, spelling correction and a fuzzy name search that will pull up the name of a contact, even if you’re not entirely sure how to spell it.

email insights intent pane


The “intent pane” within Email Insights brings up relevant search results to the top of your inbox.

Users can open tabs within Email Insights to perform multiple searches. The search box can also be used to fire off a quick, one-line email to a contact, or even set up a quick meeting—functions that are becoming more common in the notifications window within smartphones.

If you’d like, you can even “detach” the Email Insights toolbar from Outlook itself and drag it down to your taskbar, Microsoft said.

 Let’s face it: Gmail is still easier to use than Outlook, at least where everyday email searches are concerned. If Email Insights proves as useful as it sounds, maybe Outlook will incorporate it into a future release. The problem, though, is that this app is being published via Microsoft Garage, Microsoft’s online home for app experiments. If you like Email Insights, encourage others to download it, too. Otherwise, Microsoft could kill it, as it recently did with Cache, its erstwhile Google Keep killer.

AT&T plans a national IoT network with LTE-M by midyear

AT&T is accelerating its rollout of LTE-M, an IoT network that’s already being used to track shipping containers and pallets, monitor water use, and connect fleets to the internet.Sign at AT&T's flagship San Francisco store

The carrier said Tuesday it will have nationwide LTE-M coverage in the U.S. by the middle of this year, six months ahead of schedule. Previously, AT&T had said LTE-M would cover the U.S. by year’s end.

That means everywhere in the country that AT&T has an LTE network, it will also offer LTE-M. By the end of the year, it will have LTE-M across Mexico too, creating a broad coverage area for businesses that operate on both sides of the border.

LTE-M is one of several LPWANs (low-power, wide-area networks) that are emerging to link sensors and other devices to the internet of things. It’s not as fast as the LTE that smartphones use, but it’s designed to allow for longer battery life, lower cost, smaller parts, and better coverage. LTE-M has a top speed of around 1Mbps (bits per second) upstream and downstream and a range of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles), including better penetration through walls.

AT&T is part of a wave of mobile operators considering or rolling out LTE-M. Others include Orange in France and SoftBank in Japan. AT&T launched its first commercial trial of LTE-M last October in San Ramon, California, and has since opened another in Columbus, Ohio.

Several companies are already using the network for enterprise and consumer applications, AT&T said. They include Capstone Metering, a supplier of wireless water meters; RM2, which makes storage pallets with sensors for monitoring inventory; and PepsiCo, which is using LTE-M to collect usage data from soda fountains. Consumers can dispense their own blends of soda from these fountains, and PepsiCo uses sensors to keep the fountains stocked and learn what blends are popular.

There are already several emerging LPWAN systems from mobile operators and other service providers. The growing LoRaWAN, Sigfox and Ingenu technologies come from outside the traditional mobile industry.

LTE-M and another technology, NB-IoT, are based on LTE and are designed to run over carriers’ licensed spectrum. They may be the best options for enterprises concerned about interference and security, Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said.

Though alternative LPWAN providers got a head start as these LTE-based standards were developed, mobile operators can roll out the LTE technologies quickly because they often require nothing more than a software upgrade.

Doubts abound over US action on cybersecurity

How should the U.S. respond to cyber attacks? That’s been a major question at this year’s RSA security conference, following Russia’s suspected attempt to influence last year’s election.p1170191 1

Clearly, the government should be doing more on cybersecurity, said U.S. lawmakers and officials at the show, but they admit that politics and policy conflicts have hampered the government’s approach.

“I wish the federal government could do this, but it’s very hard, unfortunately, due to partisan politics,” said Virginia State Governor Terry McAuliffe, during a speech at the show. “They haven’t been able to take the lead on this issue as they should have.”

Instead, it might be up to the states to assume a larger role in promoting cybersecurity, given that divisive U.S. politics at the federal level have been stalling government action, McAuliffe said on Tuesday.

RSA conference 2017
The RSA conference 2017.

Collectively, state governments store more data than the federal government, including residents’ tax returns, healthcare records and drivers’ licenses, he said. That can make them targets of hackers, so McAuliffe has been urging other states to make cybersecurity a priority.

“It’s up to the governors of this country to lean in and take the lead,” he said.

At the RSA show, U.S. Representative Michael McCaul also spoke and said the U.S. is falling behind on cybersecurity, pointing to the numerous hacks from state-sponsored hackers. “We are in the fight of our digital lives and we are not winning,” he said.

McCaul, who also chairs the House committee on Homeland Security, said Russia’s suspected involvement in influencing last year’s election was a “wake up call.” But he was disappointed with the responses from the  administration of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate,  to the Kremlin’s alleged meddling.

“If there are no consequences for bad behavior, the bad behavior will continue,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still do not have a clear proportionate response, policies for striking back.”

However, actually coming up with a U.S. doctrine on stopping serious cyber attacks is easier said than done.

“One of the big questions out there is what is an act of war in cyberspace?” said Daniel Lerner, a staff member at the U.S. Senate committee on Armed Services, who also spoke at the show.

Currently, the U.S. treats every serious cyberattack on a case-by-case basis, which does little to dissuade the state-sponsored hackers from attacking in the first place, he said.

“That’s no way to project deterrence. And it really undermines our overall security posture, if every instance is a crisis,” Lerner said.

It doesn’t help that trying to accurately prove a foreign country was behind a cyberattack can be incredibly hard and might involve sensitive intelligence.

For instance, U.S. intelligence agencies have declined to share publicly classified evidence showing why they suspect Russia was behind last year’s election-related hacks. In addition, the Kremlin has denied any involvement.

Nevertheless, more officials in the U.S. government want to see the country take action in the event of another cyberattack, said Brendan Shields, staff director at the House committee of Homeland Security.

“The fuse is getting shorter and shorter,” he said at a panel discussion at RSA. “I think there is a growing desire for making sure deterrence is real.”


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Virginia state governor Terry McAuliffe (left) speaking at the RSA conference.

However, going after state-sponsored hackers is only one aspect of the problem. Much more of it has to do with defense, and protecting users from hacking threats that are coming over consumer-made products or websites.

It’s an area where the private sector also needs to play a crucial role, given that IT vendors have most of the cybersecurity talent, said the Virginia governor.

“We need your ideas. We need the private sector,” McAuliffe said. “We at the state government cannot drive this. The federal government cannot drive this.”

India launches 88 earth imaging satellites from Planet Labs

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) has launched into space 88 satellites from earth imaging company Planet Labs, giving the startup the ability to “image all of Earth’s landmass every day.”ISRO PSLV-C37 satellite launch vehicle

Planet Labs earlier this month entered into an agreement to acquire Google’s Terra Bella business, including the SkySat constellation of satellites, and said that Google upon closing, will enter into a multi-year contract to purchase Earth-imaging data from Planet.

The startup expects its data to be useful for a variety of applications such as measuring agricultural yields, monitoring natural resources, or aiding first responders after natural disasters.

The launch of the PSLV-37 on Wednesday morning local time was a record for India’s space program as it carried 104 satellites into orbit, the largest number so far on a single launch.  Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in south India, the PSLV-C37 launched its primary payload, the 714 kilograms Cartosat-2 series satellite for earth observation, and 103 co-passenger satellites that weighed about 663 kg at lift-off into a 505 kilometer polar Sun Synchronous Orbit.

A Sun Synchronous Orbit ensures that a satellite passes over a section of the planet’s surface at the same local time each day.

Planet Lab’s Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Robbie Schingler said that as a result of the PSLV launch, the company now has 144 satellites in orbit.

Besides miniaturizing its Dove satellites and learning to build them at scale, the company has “constructed the world’s second largest private network of ground stations; custom built an automated mission control system; created a massive data pipeline able to process the vast amount of imagery we collect; and developed a software platform that lets customers, researchers, governments and NGOs access imagery quickly,” Schingler wrote in a post soon after the launch.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said Wednesday that besides the Cartosat-2 series satellite, the PSLV-37 carried 101 co-passenger satellites, consisting of smaller nano-satellites, including one each from Kazakhstan, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates and 96 from the U.S., besides two nano-satellites from ISRO.

The ISRO nano-satellites are modular units weighing less than 10 kg and with payloads of up to 5 kg. They are designed to travel into orbit as co-passenger satellites to accompany larger satellites on PSLV. Besides satellites from Planet, the PSLV also launched eight satellites from remote tracking company Spire.