Microsoft: Yeah, we make Office 2019 and Internet Explorer, but don’t use ‘em

Two twins race to complete a PowerPoint challenge.

In an unusual turn of events, Microsoft this week warned Windows users off from using its Internet Explorer and dissed its new Office 2019 suite in a series of videos that show it to be worse than the competition.

While Windows 10 uses the newer, faster, much more standards compliant Edge browser as its default, it still ships with Internet Explorer 11. Enterprise customers with legacy systems from time to time want to make Internet Explorer 11 the default, but Microsoft doesn’t think this is a good idea. Internet Explorer 11 isn’t being updated to support new Web technology (and indeed, hasn’t been updated for many years), existing only as a compatibility tool to access legacy “designed for Internet Explorer” content that simply won’t work properly in any other browser.

As such, while it might be tempting to set Internet Explorer as the default to ensure that any intranet and line-of-business applications continue to work, that comes at a price. It will be slower, less secure, and increasingly incompatible with the broader Web as developers drop the old browser from their testing. So please, use it only when it’s absolutely necessary.

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Someone could scoop up Slack before it IPOs

Earlier this week, Slack announced that it has filed the paperwork to go public at some point later this year. The big question is, will the company exit into the public markets as expected, or will one of the technology giants swoop in at the last minute with buckets of cash and take them off the market?

Slack, which raised more than $1 billion on an other-worldly $7 billion valuation, is an interesting property. It has managed to grow and be successful while competing with some of the world’s largest tech companies — Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, Google and Salesforce. Not coincidentally, these deep-pocketed companies could be the ones that come knock, knock, knocking at Slack’s door.

Slack has managed to hold its own against these giants by doing something in this space that hadn’t been done effectively before. It made it easy to plug in other services, effectively making Slack a work hub where you could spend your day because your work could get pushed to you there from other enterprise apps.

As I’ve discussed before, this centralized hub has been a dream of communications tools for most of the 21st century. It began with enterprise IM tools in the early 2000s, and progressed to Enterprise 2.0 tools in the 2007 time frame. That period culminated in 2012 when Microsoft bought Yammer for $1.2 billion, the only billion-dollar exit for that generation of tools.

I remember hearing complaints about Enterprise 2.0 tools. While they had utility, in many ways they were just one more thing employees had to check for information beyond email. The talk was these tools would replace email, but a decade later email’s still standing and that generation of tools has been absorbed.

In 2013, Slack came along, perhaps sensing that Enterprise 2.0 never really got mobile and the cloud, and it recreated the notion in a more modern guise. By taking all of that a step further and making the tool a kind of workplace hub, it has been tremendously successful, growing to 8 million daily users in roughly 4 years, around 3 million of which were the paying variety, at last count.

Slack’s growth numbers as of May 2018

All of this leads us back to the exit question. While the company has obviously filed for IPO paperwork, it might not be the way it ultimately exits. Just the other day CNBC’s Jay Yarrow posited this questions on Twitter:

Not sure where he pulled that number from, but if you figure 3x valuation, that could be the value for a company of this ilk. There would be symmetry in Microsoft buying Slack six years after it plucked Yammer off the market, and it would remove a major competitive piece from the board, while allowing Microsoft access to Slack’s growing customer base.

Nobody can see into the future, and maybe Slack does IPO and takes its turn as a public company, but it surely wouldn’t be a surprise if someone came along with an offer it couldn’t refuse, whatever that figure might be.

Messy office owners, rejoice: Skype now blurs the background to your video

Watch the user on the bottom left corner—voila! No more ho-hum apartment backdrop.

The desktop Skype client now supports blurring the background of your video calls so that all the clutter and mess that, ahem, some of us accumulate no longer needs to be broadcast to everyone you talk to.

The background blurring feature has already been rolled out to Microsoft’s corporate communication client, Teams, and now it’s in the consumer-oriented app. While bulletproof detection of the background requires a depth-sensing camera, the approach used in Skype (and Teams) uses machine learning-derived algorithms in order to work with any camera. The algorithms have been trained to detect human outlines, including the voluminous hair that some lucky people are blessed with as well as arms and hands. Presumably this means that it’ll properly detect even those arms and hands that appear dismembered, appearing from off the edge of the screen. Using blur is optional, and it can be enabled on a call-by-call basis.

This use of machine learning does, however, mean that it’s not 100 percent guaranteed to blur everything that you might want blurred. So if there’s anything too embarrassing behind you, you still might want to move it out of the camera shot just in case.

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Africa Roundup: Zimbabwe’s net blackout, Partech’s $143M fund, Andela’s $100M raise, Flutterwave’s pivot

A high court in Zimbabwe ended the government’s restrictions on internet and social media last month.

After days of intermittent blackouts at the order of the country’s Minister of State for National Security, ISPs restored connectivity per a January 21 judicial order.

Similar to net shutdowns around the continent, politics and protests were the catalyst. Shortly after the government announced a dramatic increase in fuel prices on January 12, Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions called for a national strike.

Web and app blackouts in the southern African country followed demonstrations that broke out in several cities. A government crackdown ensued, with deaths reported.

On January 15, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile carrier, Econet Wireless, confirmed that it had complied with a directive from the Minister of State for National Security to shutdown internet.

Net access was restored, taken down again, then restored, but social media sites remained blocked through January 21.

Throughout the restrictions, many of Zimbabwe’s citizens and techies resorted to VPNs and workarounds to access net and social media, as reported in this TechCrunch feature.

Global internet rights group Access Now sprung to action, attaching its #KeepItOn hashtag to calls for the country’s government to reopen cyberspace soon after digital interference began.

The cyber-affair adds Zimbabwe to a growing list of African countries — including Cameroon, Congo and Ethiopia — whose governments have restricted internet expression in recent years.

It also provides another case study for techies and ISPs regaining their cyber rights. Internet and social media are back up in Zimbabwe — at least for now.

Further attempts to restrict net and app access in Zimbabwe will likely revive what’s become a somewhat ironic cycle for cyber shutdowns. When governments cut off internet and social media access, citizens still find ways to use internet and social media to stop them.

Partech doubled its Africa VC fund to $143 million and opened a Nairobi office to complement its Dakar practice.

The Partech Africa Fund plans to make 20 to 25 investments across roughly 10 countries over the next several years, according to general partner Tidjane Deme. The fund has added Ceasar Nyagha as investment officer for the Kenya office to expand its East Africa reach.

Partech Africa will primarily target Series A and B investments and some pre-series rounds at higher dollar amounts. “We will consider seed-funding — what we call seed-plus — tickets in the $500,000 range,” Deme told TechCrunch for this story on the new fund. Partech is open to all sectors “with a strong appetite for people who are tapping into Africa’s informal economies,” he said.

Partech Africa joined several Africa-focused funds over the last few years to mark a surge in VC for the continent’s startups. Partech announced its first raise of $70 million in early 2018 next to TLcom Capital’s $40 million, and TPG Growth’s $2 billion.

Africa-focused VC firms, including those locally run and managed, have grown to 51 globally, according to recent Crunchbase research.

Andela, the company that connects Africa’s top software developers with technology companies from the U.S. and around the world, raised $100 million in a new round of funding.

The new financing from Generation Investment Management (an investment fund co-founded by former VP Al Gore) puts the valuation of the company at somewhere between $600 million and $700 million—based on data available from PitchBook on the company’s valuation.

The company now has more than 200 customers paying for access to the roughly 1,100 developers Andela has trained and manages.

With the new cash in hand, Andela says it will double in size, hiring another thousand developers, and invest in new product development and its own engineering and data resources. More on Andela’s recent raise and focus here at TechCrunch.

Fintech startup Flutterwave announced a new consumer payment product for Africa called GetBarter, in partnership with Visa.

The app-based offering is aimed at facilitating personal and small merchant payments within and across African countries. Existing Visa  cardholders can send and receive funds at home or internationally on GetBarter.

The product also lets non-cardholders (those with accounts or mobile wallets on other platforms) create a virtual Visa card to link to the app.  A Visa spokesperson confirmed the product partnership.

GetBarter allows Flutterwave  — which has scaled as a payment gateway for big companies through its Rave product — to pivot to African consumers and traders.

The app also creates a network for clients on multiple financial platforms to make transfers across payment products and national borders, and to shop online.

“The target market is pretty much everyone who has a payment need in Africa. That includes the entire customer base of M-Pesa,  the entire bank customer base in Nigeria, mobile money and bank customers in Ghana — pretty much the entire continent,” Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola told TechCrunch in this exclusive.

Flutterwave and Visa will focus on building a GetBarter user base across mobile money and bank clients in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, with plans to grow across the continent and reach those off the financial grid.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. It allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber,  Facebook,  Booking.com and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

Flutterwave added operations in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with its largest operations center in Nigeria, the startup plans to add operations centers in South Africa and Cameroon, which will also become new markets for GetBarter.

And sadly, Africa’s tech community mourned losses in January. A terrorist attack on Nairobi’s 14 Riverside complex claimed the lives of six employees of fintech startup Cellulant and I-Dev CEO Jason Spindler. Both organizations had been engaged with TechCrunch’s Africa work over the last 24 months. Condolences to  family, friends, and colleagues of those lost.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around The Net    

Skype can now blur the background during video calls

Thanks to the rise of WhatsApp and other free calling and messaging apps, Skype is no longer the go-to service it once was for many people. But the company just added a new feature which might raise its appeal among users.

The Microsoft-owned service’s latest addition is a screen-blurring feature designed to obscure your messy room or any other background details that you’d rather weren’t on display to the other party on the line.

Skype said that the feature — which is similar to the blurring added to Microsoft Teams last year — uses artificial intelligence to keep the focus on the caller. That also means it will detect features such as hair, hands and arms.

The feature is rolling out to Skype for desktop, the web and mobile although it doesn’t support all devices yet. It can be enabled in Skype’s settings or from the video call button inside the service.

Windows 7 Extended Security Updates will double in price each year

Windows 7’s free support period ends on January 14, 2020. Microsoft is offering three years of support updates for the operating system on a paid basis with a new program called Extended Security Updates. Unlike previous after-life support options for Windows, which were offered as part of separately negotiated support contracts, the Windows 7 ESU updates will be available to any volume license customer, regardless of size or sales channel.

Pricing for this support has now leaked to Mary Jo Foley. For organizations already subscribing to Windows Enterprise, the first year of updates will cost an additional $25 per device. This doubles to $50 for the second year and $100 for the third year. Organizations can’t skip a year, either; previous years must be paid for to obtain the year two and year three support. For companies sticking with Windows 7 Pro instead of subscribing to Windows Enterprise, the first year will cost $50 per device and will double each subsequent year to $100 and then $200.

There’s no minimum purchase for the ESU subscriptions, so companies can buy as few as they need. It’s not clear if there will be any volume discounts for larger deployments still stuck with the legacy operating system.

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Microsoft really, really, really doesn’t want you to buy Office 2019

Microsoft launched a new ad campaign for its Office suite today. Usually, that’s not something especially interesting, but this one is a bit different. Instead of simply highlighting the features of Word and Excel, Microsoft decided to pitch Office 365 and Office 2019 against each other (as an extra gimmick, it used twins to do so, too). But here’s the deal: Microsoft really doesn’t want you to buy Office 2019, and the ads make that abundantly clear.

The reason for that is obvious: Office 365 is a subscription product while Office 2019 (think Office Home & Student or other SKUs) comes with a perpetual license, so that’s a one-time sale for Microsoft. Subscriptions are a better business for Microsoft in the long run (hence its recent focus on products like Microsoft 365, too).

For the longest time, the annual non-365 Office release was simply a snapshot of the state of the Office apps at a given time. That changed with Office 365. Now, Office 365 users are the ones who get all the online features, including a bunch of AI-driven tools, while the Office 2019 versions don’t get any of these.

Office 365 subscriptions start at $70 for personal use and $8.25/month for business users. Office Home and Business is a one-time $250 purchase.

Unsurprisingly, in the new ads, which give the actors twins various challenges to perform in the likes of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Office 365 beats Office 2019 every time. Yawn. The ads aren’t very good and you will cringe a few times (though sadly, they are no rival to Microsoft’s worst commercial ever, 2009’s Songsmith debacle), but you’ll definitely come away with a sense that Microsoft really wants you to subscribe to Office 365 and not buy a perpetual Office 2019 license and then maybe buy the next update in 2025.

Microsoft’s Build developer conference returns to Seattle May 6 to 8

Microsoft’s Build developer conference is returning to Seattle May 6 to 8. This is a bit of a surprise since Microsoft itself leaked May 7 to 9 as Build’s dates last month, after all. But then Google’s announced exactly those dates for its I/O confab and like last year, Microsoft probably had to scramble a bit and we’ll get back-to-back developer keynotes from Microsoft and Google in early May.

To say that timing is a bit awkward is an understatement, but we’ll be there and do our thing and then fly out to California at night and do it all over again for Google I/O. For developers, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue, though, given that the target audience for both events is quite different.

Build is typically Microsoft’s biggest show for developers. Other events, including its massive Ignite show in Orlando, have a stronger emphasis on IT and productivity, but Build is where you can expect announcements around Windows, new developer tools and its Azure cloud, but also updates to how developers can integrate their tools and services into products like Office.

Since Microsoft will likely announce the next version of its HoloLens at MWC in Barcelona in just a few weeks, I think it’s a safe bet that Microsoft will also emphasize its mixed reality platform at Build.

Registration for Build opens February 27.