Hitachi Vantara acquires what’s left of Containership

Hitachi Vantara, the wholly owned subsidiary of Hitachi that focuses on building hardware and software to help companies manage their data, today announced that it has acquired the assets of Containership, one of the earlier players in the container ecosystem, which shut down its operations last October.

Containership, which launched as part of our 2015 Disrupt New York Startup Battlefield, started as a service that helped businesses move their containerized workloads between clouds, but as so many similar startups, it then moved on to focus solely on Kubernetes and helping enterprises manage their Kubernetes infrastructure. Before it called it quits, the company’s specialty was managing multi-cloud Kubernetes deployments. The company wasn’t able to monetize its Kubernetes efforts quickly enough, though, the company said at the time in a blog post that it has now removed from its website.

Containership enables customers to easily deploy and manage Kubernetes clusters and containerized applications in public cloud, private cloud, and on-premise environments,” writes Bobby Soni, the COO for digital infrastructure at Hitachi Vantara. “The software addresses critical cloud native application issues facing customers working with Kubernetes such as persistent storage support, centralized authentication, access control, audit logging, continuous deployment, workload portability, cost analysis, autoscaling, upgrades, and more.”

Hitachi Vantara tells me that it is not acquiring any of Containership’s customer contracts or employees and has no plans to keep the Containership brand. “Our primary focus is to develop new offerings based on the Containership IP. We do hope to engage with prior customers once our new offerings become commercially available,” a company spokesperson said.

The companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition. Pittsburgh-based Containership only raised about $2.6 million since it was founded in 2014, though, and things had become pretty quiet around the company in the last year or two before its early demise. Chances are then that the price wasn’t all that high. Investors include Birchmere Ventures, Draper Triangle and Innovation Works.

Hitachi Vantara says it will continue to work with the Kubernetes community. Containership was a member of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Hitachi never was, but after this acquisition, that may change.

All the startups threatened by iOS 14’s new features

Fitness, wallpaper, and lost item-finding startups could have a big new competitor baked into everyone’s iPhones. Leaks of the code from iOS 14 that Apple is expected to reveal in June signal several new features and devices are on the way. Startups could be at risk due to Apple’s ability to integrate these additions at the iOS level, instantly gain an enormous install base and offer them for free or cheap, as long as they boost sales of its main money maker, the iPhone.

It’s unclear if all of these fresh finds will actually get official unveiling in June versus further down the line. But here’s a breakdown of what the iOS 14 code obtained by 9To5Mac’s Chance Miller shows and which startups could be impacted by Apple barging into their businesses:

Fitness – Codename: Seymour

Apple appears to be preparing a workout guide app for iOS, WatchOS and Apple TV that would let users download instructional video clips for doing different exercises. The app could potentially be called Fit or Fitness, according to MacRumors‘ Juli Clover, and offer help with stretching, core training, strength training, running, cycling, rowing, outdoor walking, dance and yoga. The Apple Watch appears to help track your progress through the workout routines.

Icons for Apple’s fitness feature from the iOS 14 code

The iOS Health app is already a popular way to track steps and other fitness goals. By using Health to personalize or promote a new Fitness feature, Apple has an easy path to a huge user base. Many people are afraid of weight and strength training because there’s a lot to learn about having proper form to avoid injury or embarrassment. Visual guides with videos shot from multiple angles could make sure you’re doing those pushups or bicep curls correctly.

Apple’s entrance into fitness could endanger startups like Future, which offer customized workout routines with video clips demonstrating how to do each exercise. The $11.5 million-funded Future actually sends you an Apple Watch with its $150 per month service to track your progress while using visuals, sounds and vibrations to tell you when to switch exercises without having to look at your phone. By removing Future’s human personal trainers that text to nag you if you don’t work out, Apple could offer a simplified version of this startup’s app for free.

Apple Fitness could be even more trouble for less premium apps like Sweat and Sworkit that provide basic visual guidance for workouts, or Aaptiv that’s restricted to just audio cues. Hardware startups like Peloton, which offers off-bike Beyond the Ride workouts with live or on-demand class, and Tempo’s giant 3D-sensing in-home screen for weight lifting, could also find casual customers picked off by a free or cheap alternative from Apple.

There’s no code indicating a payment mechanism, so Apple Fitness could be free. But it’s also easy to imagine Apple layering on a premium feature like remote personal training assistance from human experts or a wider array of exercises for a fee, tying into its increasing focus on services revenue.

Wallpapers – access for third-parties

The iPhone’s current wallpaper selector

In iOS 14, it appears that Apple will offer new categorizations for wallpapers beyond the existing Dynamic (slowly shifting), Still and Live (move when touched) options. Apple’s always only offered a few native wallpapers plus the option to pull one from your camera roll. But the iOS 14 code suggests Apple may open this up to third-party providers.

A wallpaper “store” could be both a blessing and a curse for entrepreneurs in the space. It could endanger sites and apps like Vellum, Unsplash, Clarity, WLPPR and Walli that aggregate wallpapers for browsing, purchase or download. Instead, Apple could make itself the ultimate aggregator by being built directly into the wallpaper settings. But for creators of beautiful wallpaper images, iOS 14 could potentially offer a new distribution method where their collections could be available straight from where users install their phone backgrounds.

The big question will be whether Apple merely works with a few providers to add wallpaper packs for free, does financially backed deals to bring in providers or creates a full-blown marketplace for wallpapers where creators can sell their imagery like developers do apps. By turning this formerly free feature into a marketplace, Apple could also start earning a cut of sales to add to its services revenue.

AirTags – find your stuff

Apple appears to be getting closer to launching its long-awaited AirTags, based on iOS 14 code snippets. These small tracking tags could be attached to your wallet, keys, gadgets or other important or easily lost items, and then located using the iOS Find My app. AirTags may be powered by removable coin-shaped batteries, according to MacRumors.

Native integration with iOS could make AirTags super-easy to set up. They also could benefit from the ubiquity of Apple devices, as the company could let the crowd help find your stuff by allowing AirTags to piggyback on the connectivity of any of its phones, tablets or laptops to send you the missing item’s coordinates.

Most obviously, AirTags could become a powerful competitor to the vertical’s long-standing frontrunner, Tile. The $104 million-funded startup sells $20 to $35 tracking tags that locate devices from 150 to 400 feet away. It also sells a $30 per year subscription for free battery replacements and 30-day location history. Other players in the space include Chipolo, Orbit and MYNT.

But as we saw with the launch of AirPods, Apple’s design expertise and native iOS integrations can allow its products to leapfrog what’s in the market. If AirTags get proprietary access to the iPhone’s Bluetooth and other connectivity hardware, and if they’re quicker to set up, Apple fans might jump from startups to these new devices. Apple also could develop a similar premium subscription for battery or full AirTag replacements, as well as bonus tracking features.

Augmented reality scanning – Codename: Gobi

iOS 14 includes code for a new augmented reality feature that lets users scan places or potentially items in the real world to pull up helpful information. The code indicates Apple is testing the feature, codenamed Gobi, at Apple Stores and Starbucks to let users see product, pricing and comparison info, according to 9To5Mac’s Benjamin Mayo. Gobi can recognize QR-style codes for specific locations like a certain shop, triggering a companion augmented reality experience.

It appears that an SDK would allow partners to build their own AR offerings and generate the QR codes that initiate them. Eventually, these capabilities could be extended from Apple’s mobile devices to the AR headset it’s working on so you’d instantly get a heads-up display of information when you entered the right place.

Apple moving to power lighter-weight AR experiences rather than just offering the AR Kit infrastructure for developers to build full-fledged apps could create competition for a range of startups and other tech giants. The whole point of augmented reality is that it’s convenient to explore hidden experiences in the real world, which is defeated if users have to know to download and then wait to install a different app for every place or product. Creating a central AR app for simpler experiences that load instantly could speed up adoption.

Snapchat’s Scan AR platform

Startups like Blippar have been working on AR scanning for years in hopes of making consumer packaged goods or retail locations come alive. But again, the need to download a separate app and remember to use it has kept these experiences out of the mainstream. Snapchat’s Scan platform can similarly trigger AR effects based on specific items from a more popular app. And teasers of Facebook and Google’s eventual augmented reality hardware and software hinge on adding utility to every day life.

If Apple can build this technology into everyone’s iPhone cameras, it could surmount one of AR’s biggest distribution challenges. That might help it build out a developer ecosystem and train customers to seek out AR so they’re all ready when its AR glasses finally arrive.

Matternet’s new drone landing station looks like a sci-fi movie prop

Drones making deliveries is of course the hot new hyperlocal tech play, but where are these futuristic aircraft supposed to land? On the lawn? Matternet has built a landing station for its cargo drones that looks less like a piece of infrastructure and more like a death ray from a ’60s sci-fi movie.

Far from the free-form delivery network envisioned by Prime Air or the like, Matternet’s drone deployments have been fixed point-to-point affairs focused on quickly connecting a handful of locations that frequently trade time-sensitive deliveries: hospitals.

The company has performed pilot tests in Switzerland and North Carolina, and just started a new one in San Diego, in which medical facilities are able to send blood samples, medications and (soon, one hopes) vaccines and other supplies back and forth without worrying about traffic or other complications on the ground.

But there’s the problem of where exactly the drones land, and what happens afterwards. Does someone have to swap out the battery? Who says when it’s safe to approach the drone, and how to detach its payload? Whatever the process is, it could probably be easier and more automated, and that’s what the station aims to accomplish.

With its techno-organic curves and flower-like hatch on top, the 10-foot-tall station seems to channel the likes of “Star Trek: The Original Series” and “Lost in Space,” and no doubt it’s intended to be eye-catching as well as functional.

When the drone arrives, the top opens and the drone lands right in the center, where it is enclosed and grasped by the station’s machinery, unburdened of its payload, and given a fresh battery. The payload is contained in the tower until it is called for by an authorized person, who scans a dongle to receive their package.

If there’s just the one drone, it can live in the top part, the bulb or whatever you’d call it, until it’s needed again. If there are multiple deliveries or drones, however, the one inside will leave and enter a holding pattern about 60 feet above, in an “imaginary donut.”

The station will get its first installation in the second quarter of this year, at one of Matternet’s existing customer hospitals. Presumably it will roll out more widely once this shakeout period ends.

You can see the full operation in the dramatization below:

R&D Roundup: Smart chips, dream logic and crowdsourcing space

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

This week: crowdsourcing in space, vision on a chip, robots underground and under the skin and other developments.

The eye is the brain

Computer vision is a challenging problem, but the perennial insult added to this difficulty is the fact that humans process visual information as well as we do. Part of that is because in computers, the “eye” — a photosensitive sensor — merely collects information and relays it to a “brain” or processing unit. In the human visual system, the eye itself does rudimentary processing before images are even sent to the brain, and when they do arrive, the task of breaking them down is split apart and parallelized in an amazingly effective manner.

The chip, divided into several sub-areas, which specialize in detecting different shapes

Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) integrate neural network logic directly into the sensor, grouping pixels and subpixels into tiny pattern recognition engines by individually tuning their sensitivity and carefully analyzing their output. In one demonstration described in Nature, the sensor was set up so that images of simplified letters falling on it would be recognized in nanoseconds because of their distinctive voltage response. That’s way, way faster than sending it off to a distant chip for analysis.

European startups applaud Commission plan to rethink stock options

Startups have welcomed proposals from the European Commission aimed at cutting red tape and shrinking cross-border barriers for small businesses as part of a new EU industrial strategy plan with a twin focus on digital and green transitions unveiled today.

Among the package of measures being proposed by the European Union’s executive body are for Member States to sign up to a “Startup Nations Standard” — which would aim to promote best practices to support startups and scale-ups, such as one-stop shops, favourable employee stock-options arrangements and visa processing to reduce cross-border friction for entrepreneurs starting and growing businesses in the bloc.

In recent years, European startups have organized to campaign for reforms to rules around stock options –with 30 CEOs from homegrown startups, including TransferWise, GetYourGuide, Revolut, Delivery Hero, TypeForm and Supercell (to name a few) signing an open letter to policymakers two years ago calling for legislators to fix what they dubbed “the patchy, inconsistent and often punitive rules that govern employee ownership.”

The effort appears to have made a dent in the EU policymaking universe. Both regulatory and practical barriers are now in the Commission’s sights, with it proposing a joint task force to work on sanding down business bumps.

It also today reiterated a perennial warning against Member States “goldplating” pan-EU rules by adding their own conditions on top. 

“The Single Market is our proudest achievement — yet 70% of businesses report that they do not find it is sufficiently integrated,” said EVP Margrethe Vestager, laying out an industrial strategy package with a big focus on smaller companies, including those with big ambitions to scale. “Across Europe barriers are still preventing startups from growing into European businesses and our report is identifying those barriers and we also then address them in the Single Market enforcement action plan.”

In a letter responding to the Commission’s plan for an EU Startup Nations Standard, 14 European startup founders (listed below) and a number of European startup associations welcomed the proposal — urging EU Member States to get behind it.

“By making it easier to start a business, expand across borders and attract top talent, this new Standard will help to level the playing field with powerful global tech hubs in the US and China,” the tech CEOs and startup advocacy organizations wrote. “We applaud the EU’s ambition of seeking a pan-European solution to address the needs of startups. We are also encouraged that the Commission has specifically called out the treatment of stock options as one of the key issues.

“As highlighted by more than 500 leading European entrepreneurs who joined the Not Optional campaign, the inability of startups to use stock options effectively to attract and retain talent is a major bottleneck to the growth of startups in Europe.”

“The Commission’s proposals will be a major step towards unleashing the full entrepreneurial firepower of Europe – but only if they are adopted and implemented by all Member States,” they added. “That’s why we are today calling on all Member States to sign up to the EU Startup Nations Standard, including a commitment to increase the attractiveness of employee ownership schemes.”

Here’s the list of startup CEOs signing the letter:

  • Christian Reber, CEO & Founder, Pitch
  • Felix Van de Maele, CEO & Founder, Collibra
  • Jean-Charles Samuelian, CEO & Founder, Alan
  • Johannes Reck, CEO & Co-Founder of GetYourGuide
  • Johannes Schildt, CEO & Founder, KRY / LIVI
  • John Collison, Co-Founder and President, Stripe
  • Juan de Antonio, CEO & Co-Founder, Cabify
  • Markus Villig, CEO & Founder, Bolt
  • Miki Kuusi, CEO & Co-Founder, Wolt
  • Nicolas Brusson, CEO & Co-Founder, BlaBlaCar
  • Peter Mühlmann, CEO & Founder, Trustpilot
  • Sebastian Siemiatkowski, CEO & Founder, Klarna
  • Taavet Hinrikus, Founder & Chairman, TransferWise
  • Tamaz Georgadze, CEO & Founder, Raisin

Also welcoming the stock option proposals, Martin Mignot, a partner at Index Ventures — another backer of the Not Optional campaign — said: “The biggest challenge facing startups today is recruiting and retaining top talent. That’s why we are pleased that the EU Startup Nations Standard addresses stock options, making it easier for startups to allow employees to share in their success.”

“We are pleased to see the European Commission recognise the contribution that startups make to Europe and its citizens, and pursue a pan-European policy initiative to support this growing sector,” he added in a statement. “For too long, the focus in Europe has been on taming US tech giants. Today’s announcement confirms Europe’s ambition to create its own champions.”

EU startup advocacy member association, Allied for Startups, is another signatory to the letter. And in an additional response, it broadly welcomed the Commission’s SME strategy — while pressing for a strong focus on startups as independent actors in the implementation of the strategy, rather than as a sub-category of SMEs.

“The talent-focus of the proposed Startup Nation Standard has significant potential for startup ecosystems, since access to talent is still a bottleneck for startups in Europe,” said Benedikt Blomeyer, the lobby group’s director of EU policy, in a statement.

“Through the SME strategy, we are pleased to see concrete measures such as better startup visas and improved employee stock options on the table. Allied for Startups has repeatedly called for both measures over the past years.”

“Unlike SMEs, startups can only succeed at scale,” he added. “They are global from day one and aim to grow big and fast. Specific measures that work for SMES, for instance a regulatory exemption, might not work for startups. On the contrary, it could incentivise a startup to stay small. To account for these differences, the European Commission should consider a startup strategy that focuses on scalability, complementing the SME strategy.”

Allied for Startups also welcomed the Commission’s general goal of reducing the administrative and regulatory burden for startups within the Single Market — saying the consideration of regulatory sandboxes as part of the support toolkit is “potentially valuable for startups, who build innovative products and services.”

The Commission is also looking to support SMEs to go public in Europe — announcing an SME Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) Fund under the InvestEU SME window, which will aim to make IPOs more accessible to local small businesses.

Another push aims to reduce late payments for SMEs, with the Commission noting today that one in four regional small businesses go bankrupt as a result of not being paid on time.

It also said it wants to stimulate investment in women-led companies and funds to “empower female entrepreneurship.” (Notably all the signatories on the aforementioned letter are male.)

Industrial to digital transformation

More broadly, the Commission’s new industrial strategy intends to underpin core EU policy priorities for the next five years — which include a focus on driving the digitization of legacy industries and simultaneous retooling to transition to a carbon neutral economy under the pan-EU Green Deal.

“Europe has the strongest industry in the world. Our companies — big and small — provide us with jobs, prosperity and strategic autonomy. Managing the green and digital transitions and avoiding external dependencies in a new geopolitical context requires radical change — and it needs to start now,” said Thierry Breton, commissioner for internal market, in a statement today.

During a press briefing, Vestager emphasized the Commission’s view that new and more inclusive working methods are needed to deliver on the planned transformation.

“The twin digital and green transitions are posing both opportunities and challenges for the industry in general and for small and medium sized businesses in particular. Business models are changing. All across Europe companies are confronted with consumers’ decreasing trust and increasing demand for transparency,” she said. “The world around us is also changing… Today global competition, trade disputes, the return of protectionism — I think that creates a shared feeling of uncertainty.

“This is challenging Europe’s industry as it sets out to meet the twin transitions. Fortunately, the European industry is coming to this reality from a strong position. Our new strategy is building on Europe’s strength and on our values.”

On the proposals to shift to “inclusive” working methods, Vestager said the aim is “to work much closer with small and large companies, Member States, researchers, academia, social partners and other EU institutions.”

To that end, the Commission is proposing a new industrial forum to enable closer working with such stakeholders that it aims to have set up by September.

It also wants to work on identifying a number of industrial ecosystems — which Vestager said “may require a bespoke approach,” in terms of policy support.

At the press briefing, Breton suggested there could be between 15 and 20 such industrial ecosystems.

“We don’t want to leave anybody out,” he said. “This is an industrial strategy but we all know that underpinning this there are large corporations but many, many, many small ones too and we have to bring these on board. If we don’t have the big and the small we won’t have a dynamic, innovative, living sector.

“A lot of companies do this among themselves already, locally in fact, but we do hope it is going to be done in an even more horizontal manner across the EU and within the internal market,” he added.

Skills is another focus for the SME strategy — with the Commission saying it will expand Digital Innovation Hubs to every region in Europe to help small businesses plug in cutting edge tech, with expanded options for volunteering and training on digital technologies.

Helping SMEs find the skills they need to shift to sustainable ways of working is another stated aim.

The Commission has published a Q&A on the industrial strategy here.

Last month the executive body also set out proposals aimed at encouraging industrial data sharing and reuse, along with proposals for regulating high-risk uses of artificial intelligence.

A further major piece of EU digital policy due later this year is the forthcoming Digital Services Act — which is slated to address platform liabilities and responsibilities, including toward smaller businesses that rely on them as a marketplace.

Dell spent $67B buying EMC — more than 3 years later, was it worth the debt?

Dell’s 2015 decision to buy EMC for $67 billion remains the largest pure tech deal in history, but a transaction of such magnitude created a mountain of debt for the Texas-based company and its primary backer, Silver Lake.

Dell would eventually take on close to $50 billion in debt. Years later, where are they in terms of paying that back, and has the deal paid for itself?

When EMC put itself up for sale, it was under pressure from activist investors Elliott Management to break up the company. In particular, Elliott reportedly wanted the company to sell one of its most valuable parts, VMware, which it believed would help boost EMC’s share price. (Elliott is currently turning the screws on Twitter and SoftBank.)

Whatever the reason, once the company went up for sale, Dell and private equity firm Silver Lake came ‘a callin with an offer EMC CEO Joe Tucci couldn’t refuse. The arrangement represented great returns for his shareholders, and Tucci got to exit on his terms, telling Elliott to take a hike (even if it was Elliott that got the ball rolling in the first place).

Dell eventually took itself public again in late 2018, probably to help raise some of the money it needed to pay off its debts. We are more than three years past the point where the Dell-EMC deal closed, so we decided to take a look back and see if Dell was wise to take on such debt or not.

What it got with EMC

Quibi and Eko are in a legal battle over video tech

Two video startups are making dueling legal claims against the other.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news yesterday that interactive video company Eko is accusing Quibi of infringing on its patented technology.

At around the same time, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Quibi (which is launching its short-form mobile video service next month) has filed a complaint in California federal court claiming that Eko has engaged in “a campaign of threats and harassment.”

At the heart of the dispute is Quibi’s Turnstyle technology, which allows viewers to seamlessly switch between landscape and portrait-mode viewing.

Both companies seem to agree that Eko CEO Yoni Bloch met with Jeffrey Katzenberg in March 2017 (before Katzenberg had even founded Quibi) about a possible investment in Eko, and that there was at least one follow-up meeting between Quibi and Eko employees in 2019.

Eko claims that it provided Quibi employees — both while they were working at Quibi and before then, when they were previously at Snap — with details and code behind its technology. Then, after Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman showed off Turnstyle at CES this year, Eko sent a letter to Quibi claiming that the feature infringed on its intellectual property. (According to the Journal’s story, Eko’s lawyers have sent a letter to Quibi but have not filed a lawsuit.)

“Our Turnstyle technology was developed internally at Quibi by our talented engineers and we have, in fact, received a patent for it,” Quibi said in a statement. “These claims have absolutely no merit and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them in court.”

Meanwhile, in a statement, Eko described Quibi’s technology as “a near-identical copy of its own,” and said the company’s legal motion is “nothing more than a PR stunt”:

It is telling that Quibi filed the motion only after learning the Wall Street Journal was going to publish an article exposing allegations of Quibi’s theft of Eko’s technology … Eko will take the legal actions necessary to defend its intellectual property and looks forward to demonstrating its patent rights to the court.

You can read Quibi’s full complaint below.

Quibi complaint by TechCrunch on Scribd