Amazon said to be launch new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of device of Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the song quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, since it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up to launch speakers powered by its technology with Ikea, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

Tesla reportedly working on its own battery cell manufacturing capability

Automaker Tesla is looking into how it might own another key part of its supply chain, through research being done at a secret lab near its Fremont, CA HQ, CNBC reports. The company currently relies on Panasonic to build the battery pack and cells it uses for its vehicles, which is one of, if not the most significant component in terms of its overall bill of materials.

Tesla is no stranger to owning components of its own supply chain rather than farming them out to vendors as is more common among automakers – it builds its own seats at a facility down the road from its Fremont car factory, for instance, and it recently started building its own chip for its autonomous features, taking over those duties from Nvidia.

Eliminating links in the chain where possible is a move emulated from Tesla CEO Elon Musk inspiration Apple, which under Steve Jobs adopted an aggressive strategy of taking control of key parts of its own supply mix and continues to do so where it can eke out improvements to component cost. Musk has repeatedly pointed out that batteries are a primary constraint when it comes to Tesla’s ability to produce not only is cars, but also its home power products like the Powerwall consumer domestic battery for solar energy systems.

Per the CNBC report, Tesla is doing its battery research at an experimental lab near its factory in Fremont, at a property it maintains on Kato road. Tesla would need lots more time and effort to turn its battery ambitions into production at the scale it requires, however, so don’t expect it to replace Panasonic anytime soon. And in fact, it could add LG as a supplier in addition to Panasonic once its Shanghai factory starts producing Model 3s, per the report.

Moving deeper into enterprise cloud, Intel picks up Barefoot Networks

When it launched out of stealth just three years ago, Barefoot Networks was hailed as a company that would transform the way a generation of computing giants like Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft would function while making chip manufacturers like Intel and networking companies like Cisco take notice

Now, Intel has not only taken notice, it’s acquired Barefoot Networks for an undisclosed amount.

It’s a sign of just how important cloud computing has become, and an opportunity for Intel to stake more of a claim in the networking space after losing ground to the GPU manufacturers whose chipsets have been in demand since the rise of gaming, graphics, and artificial intelligence made them ascendant.

Essentially, Barefoot Networks chips allow its customers to program whatever functionality they need on to the networking chips that Barefoot sells them. 

Previously, companies could customize network architecture down to everything BUT the chipset. The lack of programmable chips meant that network architectures couldn’t be quite as responsive as a company like Facebook, Microsoft, or Google would want, because they were always working around chipsets that had been designed for specific functions.

Based in Santa Clara, Calif., Barefoot Networks was launched from stealth in late 2016 by Dr. Craig Barratt, a former Stanford University professor whose work was critical to the development of the networking architectures that allowed Alphabet, Facebook and others to operate at the massive scale they now have.

As these companies demanded more customized hardware ranging from chipsets to enable their various machine learning algorithms to manage and monitor content (and win Go games), to the servers and routers that they’ve put up in their own internal networks Barratt realized they’d need chipsets that they could modify.

With the acquisition, Intel adds a core knowledge set around p4-programmable high speed data paths, switch silicon development, P4 compilers, drivers oftware, network telemetry and computational networking.

It also provides another bulwark against rival chip manufacturer, Broadcom .

No word from some of Barefoot Networks investors on the result for them in this acquisition. The company raised $155.4 million from investors including Tencent Holdings, DHVC, Alibaba Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Lightspeed Ventures.

Jeff Bezos wants to build the infrastructure for space startups

At its re:Mars conference, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos took the stage today to be “interviewed” by Jenny Freshwater, Amazon’s director of forecasting. As any AWS machine learning tool could have forecasted, having an employee interview her boss didn’t lead to any challenging questions or especially illuminating answers, but Bezos did get a chance to talk about a variety of topics, ranging from business advice to his plans for Blue Origin.

We can safely ignore the business advice, given that Amazon’s principle of “disagree and commit” is about as well known as it could be, but his comments about Blue Origin, his plans for moon exploration and its relationship to startups were quite interesting.

He noted that we now know so much more about the moon than ever before, including that it does provide a number of resources that make it a good base for further space exploration. “The reason we need to go to space is to save the Earth,” he said. “We are going to grow this civilization — and I’m talking about something that our grandchildren will work on — and their grandchildren. This isn’t something that this generation is able to accomplish. But we need to move heavy industry off Earth.”

Building up the infrastructure for this is obviously expensive, though. “Infrastructure is always expensive,” he said. “Amazon was easy to start in 1994 with a small amount of capital because the transportation system already existed.” Similarly, the payment system, in the form of credit cards, was already in place, as was the telecom network.

“You cannot start an interesting space company today from your dorm room. The price of admission is too high and the reason for that is that the infrastructure doesn’t exist,” Bezos noted. “So my mission with Blue Origin is to help build that infrastructure, that heavy lifting infrastructure that future generations will be able to stand on top of the same way I stood on top of the U.S. Postal Service and so on.”

The obvious follow-ups here would have been about how Amazon is now building its own logistics network and replacing the U.S. Postal Service with its own delivery services.

Once the Amazon space station opens, Bezos expects that the first deliveries will be of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. “It’s going to be a small selection but a very important one,” he joked.

Either way, though, it’s clear that Bezos does see Blue Origin as having a vital mission for the future of mankind. In that, he shares his passion with Elon Musk and other space entrepreneurs.

It’s worth noting that Amazon already offers satellite ground stations as a service and is looking to offer space-based internet access with Project Kuiper.

Bezos’s fireside chat was briefly interrupted by a protestor, who urged the billionaire to “save the animals.” As far as conference protests go, this one was pretty mild, though the fact that the protestor made it onto the stage probably means that Amazon will step up security at its next events and that somebody on the security team is going to have to disagree and commit.

Apple is now the privacy-as-a-service company

Apple shared plenty of news today at its WWDC 2019 annual developer conference, but a few of the announcements early on are potentially its biggest in terms of what they signal about the company and its direction. Specifically, Apple unveiled a new single-sign on unified ID platform, as well as a new way it’ll operate as a go-between for security cameras that work with its HomeKit smart home services.

These didn’t come out of nowhere: Apple has been playing up its privacy game for at least a few years now, and in the Tim Cook era it’s especially come to the fore. But today’s announcements really crystallize how Apple’s approach to privacy will mesh with its transformation into becoming even more of a services company. It’s becoming a services company with a key differentiator – privacy – and it’s also extending that paradigm to third-parties, acting as an ecosystem layer that mediates between users, and anyone who would seek to monetize their info in aggregate.

Apple’s truly transforming into a privacy-as-a-service company, which shows in the way that it’s implementing both the new single sign-on account service, as well as its camera and location services updates in iOS 13. The SSO play is especially clever, because it includes a mechanism that will allow developers to still have the relevant info they need to maintain a direct relationship with their users – provided users willingly sign-up to have that relationship, but opting in to either or both name and email sharing.

The radial decision-making that also includes an option to create a tokenized single-use email for a direct, but unique relationship is especially inspired. It means a developer or service provider can still easily talk to you directly, but also means that they can’t then trade that on for profit by selling or sharing your information with other developers and providers. It’s entirely about moving the locus of control for privacy to the user, rather than playing the classic charade of providing “control” to users in the form of long, obscure and hard to reject terms of services with onerous requirements for the user re: their data sharing by the service provider.

Apple’s work with camera providers is also unique – providing actual on-device analysis of footage captured by third-party partners to deliver things that security device makers have typically offered as a value-add service themselves. That includes apparent identification of visitors to your home, for instance, and sending alerts when it detects people, as well as being able to differentiate that from other kinds of motion.

That’s going above and beyond simply protecting your data: It’s replacing a potential privacy-risk feature with a privacy-minded one, at a service level across an entire category of devices.

The new location services feature similarly puts all the control with users, instead of with service providers. Making it possible to provide single-use location permissions to apps is terrific for privacy-minded users, as are updates about usage, which sound like they could be detailed about what specific apps are doing with that data in Apple’s estimation.

Other new features, including HomeKit firewalling of specific services and devices, are similar in tone, and likely indicate what Apple intends to do more of in the future. Combined with its existing efforts, this begins to paint a picture of where Apple plans to play in offering a comprehensive consumer services product that is substantially differentiated from similar offerings by Google and others.

It’s a bold play, and one that could end with Apple accruing a huge amount of control over consumer relationships with not only hardware, but also anything else that software providers want to do on their platform. Given Apple’s track record with privacy to date, that’s reassuring, but we should definitely watch closely to see how their business evolves if they succeed in shifting that locus of control.

Bringing tech efficiencies to the agribusiness market, Silo harvests $3 million

Roughly $165 billion worth of wholesale produce is bought and sold every year in the U.S. And while that number is expected to go up to $1 trillion by 2025, the business of agribusiness remains unaffected by technology advancements that have reshaped almost every other industry. ‘

Now Silo, a company which has recently raised $3 million from investors led by Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital and including Semil Shah from Haystack Ventures; angel investors Kevin Mahaffey and Matt Brezina; and The Penny Newman Grain Company, an international grain and feed marketplace, is looking to change that. 

Silo’s chief executive, Ashton Braun, spent years working in commodities marketplaces as a coffee trader in Singapore and moved to California after business school. As part of the founding team at Kite with Adam Smith, Braun worked on getting Kite’s software to automate computer programming off the ground, but he’d never let go of creating a tool that could help farmers and buyers better communicate and respond to demand signals, Braun says.

“I was a super young, green, bright-eyed potential entrepreneur,” says Braun. Eventually, when Kite sold to Microsoft, Braun took the opportunity to develop the software that had been on his mind for four-and-a-half years.

He’d seen the technology work in another industry closer to home. Growing up in Boston, Braun had seen how technology was used to update the fishing industry, giving ships a knowledge of potential buyers of their catch while they were still out in ocean waters.

“When you’re moving a product that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars and has a shelf life of a few days there’s literally no room for error and there’s a lot you need to do,” says Braun. It’s a principle that applies not only to seafood but to the hundreds of millions of dollars of produce and meat that comes from farms in places like California. “What we want to do is we want communication and data to live int he right places at the right time.”

Braun says there’s limited data coming in to farmers to let them know what demand for certain produce looks like, so they’re making guesses that have real financial outcomes with very little data.

Silo’s software vets and supports buyers and suppliers to give farmers a window into demand and potential buyers a view into available supply and quality.

“What Silo is building has the potential to make marketing and distribution of agriculture incredibly more efficient, which is a win both for the suppliers and buyers. We’re excited to support and assist this team as they work to move agriculture forward,” said Eric Woersching, General Partner at Initialized Capital, in a statement.

Silo is using the new financing to make a hiring push and develop new products and services to support liquidity in its perishable goods marketplace.

While an earlier generation of agribusiness software focused on increasing productivity on farms, a new crop of companies is targeting the business of farming itself. Companies like AgriChain and GrainChain, also offer supply chain management software for farming, and WorldCover is creating insurance products for small farmowners in emerging markets.

The penetration of technology through near ubiquitous mobile devices, coupled with sensing technologies and machine learning enhanced predictive software is transforming one of the world’s oldest industries.

“I’ve come across quite a few marketplace platforms attempting to serve different segments of the agriculture supply chain, and none of which have come close to impressing me to the degree Silo has in their tech-forward approach to reducing the friction that comes with managing all aspects of the supply chain on their platform. Silo’s deployment of machine learning streamlines the process, requiring little to no change in their users’ workflow, and removes many barriers of their platform reaching critical mass,” said Matthew Nicoletti, commodity trader at The Penny Newman Grain Company.  

As meal-kit melee stretches on, Sun Basket whips up $30M Series E

Sun Basket, a provider of a healthy meal delivery service, has raised another $30 million in venture capital funding. The round, led by PivotNorth Capital, brings the company’s total raised to $125 million.

The Series E funding delays Sun Basket’s expected initial public offering once again. There’s been unsubstantiated talk of a Sun Basket float for quite some time; in fact, before Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, a pair of fellow meal kit delivery businesses, completed IPOs, Sun Basket was the subject of exit rumors. Alas, we will have to wait a while longer before the company makes the big leap.

After all, Blue Apron has performed very poorly since going public on the New York Stock Exchange two years ago. Sun Basket chief executive has been honest about the difficulties of being a meal kit startup in a post-Blue Apron IPO universe, telling PitchBook his company’s Series D round “was by far the most challenging fundraise” in his company’s history.

Sun Basket, headquartered in San Francisco, was founded in 2014 by award-winning chefs Adam Zbar and Justine Kelly. The company delivers fresh, organic and sustainable ingredients to customers, setting itself apart from the large number of meal-kit providers active in the U.S. Its latest infusion of capital will be used to expand their offerings to include breakfast, lunch and dinner, “personalized for any lifestyle.”

“We’re thrilled to have the strong support of our investors who share our vision for building the leading personalized healthy eating platform,” CEO Zbar said in a statement. “Food is a $1T market ripe for online disruption, and Sun Basket will continue to innovate, focusing on our customers’ top three needs: health, ease, and personalization.”

Sun Basket says its growing fast. In its funding announcement, the business cited a compound annual growth rate of 80 percent over the last three years with “the best unit economics in the space.” Sapphire Ventures, August Capital, Founders Circle, Unilever Ventures, Baseline Ventures, Relevance Capital, Accolade Partners, and Correlation Ventures have also particiated in the round.

Despite known issues in the space, a tough path to profitabliity and high-profile failures (see ‘After Raising $125M, Munchery Fails To Deliver’), venture capital investors continue to make deals in the meal kit/ food delivery space. From large financings like DoorDash’s $400 million Series F to GrubMarket’s recent $25 million deal, food startups continue to attract investment.

IDC: Asia-Pacific spending on AI systems will reach $5.5 billion this year, up 80 percent from 2018

Spending on artificial intelligence systems in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $5.5 billion this year, an almost 80 percent increase over 2018, driven by businesses in China and the retail industry, according to IDC. In a new report, the research firm also said it expects AI spending to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 50 percent from 2018 to 2022, reaching a total of $15.06 billion in 2022.

This means AI spending growth in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to outpace the rest of the world over the next three years. In March, IDC forecast that worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 38 percent between 2018 to 2022.

Most of the growth will happen in China, which IDC says will account for nearly two-thirds of AI spending in the region, excluding Japan, in all forecast years. Spending on AI systems will be driven by retail, professional services and government industries.

Retail demand for AI-based tools will also lead growth in the rest of the region, as companies begin to rely on it more for merchandising, product recommendations, automated customer service and supply and logistics. While the banking industry’s AI spending trails behind retail, it will also begin adopting the tech for fraud analysis, program advisors, recommendations and customer service. IDC forecasts that this year, companies will invest almost $700 million in automated service agents. The next largest area for investment is sales process recommendations and automation, with $450 million expected, and intelligent process automation at more than $350 million.

The fastest-growing industries for AI spending are expected to be healthcare (growing at 60.2 percent CAGR) and process manufacturing (60.1 percent CAGR). In terms of infrastructure, IDC says spending on hardware, including servers and storage, will reach almost $7 billion in 2019, while spending on software is expected to grow at a five-year CAGR of 80 percent.