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Amazon shuts down its personal file storage service to focus on photos

Amazon’s consumer-focused storage service, Amazon Drive, will wind down over the next year, Amazon announced today. In an email to users, the company said that it was taking the opportunity to “more fully focus” its efforts on Amazon Photos, Amazon’s answer to iCloud Photos and Google Photos.
Amazon Drive customers have until December 31, 2023 to save their stored files; as of January 1, 2023, file uploading will cease to work. Photos and videos will be transferred to Amazon Photos automatically, but other file types must be downloaded manually from the Amazon Drive web dashboard.
Users who currently subscribe to paid Amazon Drive plans can cancel their subscriptions now for a potential refund. Cancellation can be done on the web or through the Android and iOS apps — at least before the apps are removed from the Google Play and App Store, respectively, on October 31.
Amazon launched Amazon Drive as Amazon Cloud Drive in 2011, initially offering pay-as-you-need tiered storage plans both for Amazon Prime and non-Prime users. November 2014 saw the rollout of an API that allowed third-party developers to integrate Amazon Drive into their own apps to save things like game settings, preferences and other app state data in the cloud.
Unlimited plans for Amazon Drive were introduced in 2015, and then discontinued two years later. Storage became limited to 5 GB for non-photo uploads a short time afterward. Amazon Prime members and Fire Tablet owners, however. retained free unlimited photo storage.
Competition was likely a factor in Amazon Drive’s demise. After all, countless providers offer cheap cloud file storage these days, including Google Drive, Dropbox, Box and OneDrive. Amazon Drive’s pricing wasn’t even particularly competitive — the service charged $119 a year for 2 TB, the going rate for the same volume of storage at Dropbox and Google Drive.
According to Statista, Google Drive was the most popular cloud storage service as of September 2021, followed by iCloud and OneDrive.
Amazon shuts down its personal file storage service to focus on photos

Google delays move away from cookies in Chrome to 2024

Google is again delaying plans to phase out Chrome’s use of third-party cookies — the files websites use to remember preferences and track online activity. In a blog post, Anthony Chavez, Google’s VP of Privacy Sandbox, said that the company is now targeting the “second half of 2024” as the timeframe for adopting an alternative technology.
It’ll be a long time coming. Last June, Google said it would depreciate cookies in the second half of 2023. Before then, in January 2020, the company pledged to make the switch by 2022.
“We’ve worked closely to refine our design proposals based on input from developers, publishers, marketers, and regulators via forums,” Chavez wrote. “The most consistent feedback we’ve received is the need for more time to evaluate and test the new … technologies before deprecating third-party cookies in Chrome.”
Google’s efforts to move away from cookies date back to 2019, when the company announced a long-term roadmap to adopt ostensibly more private ways of tracking web users. The linchpin is Privacy Sandbox, which aims to create web standards that power advertising without the use of so-called “tracking” cookies. Tracking cookies, used to personalize ads, can capture a person’s web history and remain active for years without their knowledge.
Privacy Sandbox proposes using an in-browser algorithm, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), to analyze a users’ activity and generate a “privacy-preserving” ID that can be used by advertisers for targeting. Google claims that FLoC is more anonymous than cookies, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation has described it as “the opposite of privacy-preserving technology” and akin to a “behavioral credit score.”
Privacy Sandbox has also prompted regulators to investigate whether Google’s adtech aims are anticompetitive. In January 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the U.K. announced plans to focus on Privacy Sandbox’s potential impacts on both publishers and users. And in March, 15 attorneys general of U.S. states and Puerto Rico amended an antitrust complaint filed the previous December saying that the changes in the Privacy Sandbox would require advertisers to use Google as a middleman in order to advertise.
Google earlier this year reached an agreement with the CMA on how it develops and releases Privacy Sandbox in Chrome, which will include working with the CMA to “resolve concerns” and consulting and updating the CMA and the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office on an ongoing basis.
In the meantime, Chavez says that Google will expand a trial of its Privacy Sandbox technologies to “millions” of Chrome users beginning in August. It’ll then gradually increase the trial population throughout the year into 2023, offering an opt-out option to users who don’t wish to participate.
Google now expects Privacy Sandbox APIs to be launched and generally available in Chrome by the third quarter of 2023.
“Improving people’s privacy, while giving businesses the tools they need to succeed online, is vital to the future of the open web,” Chavez wrote. “As the web community tests these APIs, we’ll continue to listen and respond to feedback.”
Google delays move away from cookies in Chrome to 2024

Datch secures $10M to build voice assistants to factory floors

Datch, a company that develops AI-powered voice assistants for industrial customers, today announced that it raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Blackhorn Ventures. The proceeds will be used to expand operations, CEO Mark Fosdike said, as well as develop new software support, tools and capabilities.
Datch started when Fosdike, who has a background in aerospace engineering, met two former Siemens engineers — Aric Thorn and Ben Purcell. They came to the collective realization that voice products built for business customers have to overcome business-specific challenges, like understanding jargon, acronyms and syntax unique to particular customers.
“The way we extract information from systems changes every year, but the way we input information — especially in the industrial world — hasn’t changed since the invention of the keyboard and database,” Fosdike said. “The industrial world had been left in the dark for years, and we knew that developing a technology with voice-visual AI would help light the way for these factories.”
The voice assistants that Datch builds leverage AI to collect and structure data from users in a factory or in the field, parsing commands like “Report an issue for the Line 1 Spot Welder. I estimate it will take half a day to fix.” They run on a smartphone and link to existing systems to write and read records, including records from enterprise resource and asset management platforms.
Datch’s assistants provide a timeline of events and can capture data without an internet connection; they auto-sync once back online. Using them, workers can fill out company forms, create and update work orders, assign tasks and search through company records all via voice.
Fosdike didn’t go into detail about how Datch treats the voice data, save that it encrypts data both in-transit and at rest and performs daily backups.
“We have to employ a lot of tight, automated feedback loops to train the voice and [language] data, and so everyone’s interaction with Datch is slightly different, depending on the company and team they work within,” Fosdike explained. “Customers are exploring different use cases such as using the [language] data in predictive maintenance, automated classification of cause codes, and using the voice data to predict worker fatigue before it becomes a critical safety risk.”
That last bit about predicting worker fatigue is a little suspect. The idea that conditions like tiredness can be detected in a person’s voice isn’t a new one, but some researchers believe it’s unlikely AI can flag them with 100% accuracy. After all, people express tiredness in different ways, depending not only on the workplace environment but on their sex and cultural, ethnic and demographic backgrounds.
The tiredness-detecting scenario aside, Fosdike asserts that Datch’s technology is helping industrial clients get ahead of turbulence in the economy by “vastly improving” the efficiency of their operations. Frontline staff typically have to work with reporting tools that aren’t intuitive, he notes, and in many cases, voice makes for a less cumbersome, faster alternative form of input.
“We help frontline workers with productivity and solve the pain point of time wasted on their reports by decreasing the process time,” Fosdike said. “Industrial companies are fast realizing that to keep up with demand or position themselves to withstand a global pandemic, they need to find a way to scale with more than just peoplepower. Our AI offers these companies an efficient solution in a fraction of the time and with less overhead needed.”
Datch competes with Rain, Aiqudo and Onvego, all of which are developing voice technologies for industrial customers. Deloitte’s Maxwell, Genba and Athena are rivals in Fosdike’s eyes, as as well. But business remains steady — Datch counts ConEd, Singapore Airlines, ABB Robotics and the New York Power Authority among its clients.
“We raised this latest round earlier than expected due to the influx of demand from the market. The timing is right to capitalize on both the post-COVID boom in digital transformation as well as corporate investments driven by the infrastructure bill,” Fosdike said, referring to the $1 trillion package U.S. lawmakers passed last November. “Currently we have a team of 20, and plan to use the funds to grow to 55 to 60 people, scaling to roughly 40 by the end of the year.”
To date, Datch has raised $15 million in venture capital.
Datch secures $10M to build voice assistants to factory floors

PayTalk promises to handle all sorts of payments with voice, but the app has a long way to go

Neji Tawo, the founder of boutique software development company Wiscount Corporation, says he was inspired by his dad to become an engineer. When Tawo was a kid, his dad tasked him with coming up with a formula to calculate the gas in the fuel tanks at his family’s station. Tawo then created an app for gas stations to help prevent gas siphoning.
The seed of the idea for Tawo’s latest venture came from a different source: a TV ad for a charity. Frustrated by his experience filling out donation forms, Tawo sought an alternative, faster way to complete such transactions. He settled on voice.
Tawo’s PayTalk, which is one of the first products in Amazon’s Black Founders Build with Alexa Program, uses conversational AI to carry out transactions via smart devices. Using the PayTalk app, users can do things like find a ride, order a meal, pay bills, purchase tickets and even apply for a loan, Tawo says.
“We see the opportunity in a generation that’s already using voice services for day-to-day tasks like checking the weather, playing music, calling friends and more,” Tawo said. “At PayTalk, we feel voice services should function like a person — being capable of doing several things from hailing you a ride to taking your delivery order to paying your phone bills.”

PayTalk is powered by out-of-the-box voice recognition models on the frontend and various API connectors behind the scenes, Tawo explains. In addition to Alexa, the app integrates with Siri and Google Assistant, letting users add voice shortcuts like “Hey Siri, make a reservation on PayTalk.”
“Myself and my team have bootstrapped this all along the way, as many VCs we approached early on were skeptical about voice being the device form factor of the future. The industry is in its nascent stages and many still view it with skepticism,” Tawo said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to doing more remotely across different types of transactions (i.e. ordering food from home, shopping online, etc.), we … saw that there was increased interest in the use of voice services. This in turn boosted demand for our product and we believe that we are positioned to continue to expand our offerings and make voice services more useful as a result.”
Tawo’s pitch for PayTalk reminded me much of Viv, the startup launched by Siri co-creator Adam Cheyer (later acquired by Samsung) that proposed voice as the connective tissue between disparate apps and services. It’s a promising idea — tantalizing, even. But where PayTalk is concerned, the execution isn’t quite there yet. 
The PayTalk app is only available for iOS and Android at the moment, and in my experience with it, it’s a little rough around the edges. A chatbot-like flow allows you to type commands — a nice fallback for situations where voice doesn’t make sense (or isn’t appropriate) — but doesn’t transition to activities particularly gracefully. When I used it to look for a cab by typing the suggested “book a ride” command, PayTalk asked for a pickup and dropoff location before throwing me into an Apple Maps screen without any of the information I’d just entered.
The reservation and booking functionality seems broken as well. PayTalk walked me through the steps of finding a restaurant, asking which time I’d like to reserve, the size of my party and so on. But the app let me “confirm” a table for 2 a.m. at SS106 Aperitivo Bar — an Italian restaurant in Alberta — on a day the restaurant closes at 10 p.m.
Image Credits: PayTalk
Other “categories” of commands in PayTalk are very limited in what they can accomplish — or simply nonfunctional. I can only order groceries from two services in my area (Downtown Brooklyn) at present — MNO African Market and Simi African Foods Market. Requesting a loan prompts an email with a link to Glance Capital, a personal loan provider for gig workers, that throws a 404 error when clicked. A command to book “luxury services” like a yacht or “sea plane” (yes, really) fails to reach anything resembling a confirmation screen, while the “pay for parking” command confusingly asks for a zone number.
To fund purchases through PayTalk (e.g. parking), there’s an in-app wallet. I couldn’t figure out a way to transfer money to it, though. The app purports to accept payment cards, but tapping on the “Use Card” button triggers a loading animation that quickly times out.
I could go on. But suffice it to say that PayTalk is in the very earliest stages of development. I began to think the app had been released prematurely, but PayTalk’s official Twitter account has been advertising it for at least the past few months.
Perhaps PayTalk will eventually grow into the shoes of the pitch Tawo gave me, so to speak — Wiscount is kicking off a four-month tenure at the Black Founders Build with Alexa Program. In the meantime, it must be pointed out that Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are already capable of handling much of what PayTalk promises to one day accomplish.

The battle for voice recognition inside vehicles is heating up

“With the potential $100,000 investment [from the Black Founders Build with Alexa Program], we will seek to raise a seed round to expand our product offerings to include features that would allow customers to seamlessly carry out e-commerce and financial transactions on voice service-powered devices,” Tawo said. “PayTalk is mainly a business-to-consumer platform. However, as we continue to innovate and integrate voice-activated options … we see the potential to support enterprise use cases by replacing and automating the lengthy form filling processes that are common for many industries like healthcare.”
Hopefully, the app’s basic capabilities get attention before anything else.
PayTalk promises to handle all sorts of payments with voice, but the app has a long way to go

Tiger Global backs SaaS omnichannel social commerce platform SleekFlow in $8M funding

Social commerce — the process of buying and selling products or services directly through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok — is becoming the most natural way for consumers to make purchases since people use social media and messaging apps almost every day.
SleekFlow, an omnichannel social commerce platform that helps businesses build customer flow automation from messaging and live video to transactions, has closed $8 million Series A funding led by Tiger Global Management. Transcend Capital and AEF Greater Bay Area Fund, managed by Gobi Partners GBA, also participated in the round.
“Consumers now spend 80 percent of their time on social platforms, and it is already a habit to discover and buy products directly from here,” said founder and CEO of SleekFlow Henson Tsai. “SleekFlow aims to drive this e-commerce revolution by being the top social commerce unified hub — merging conversations, product catalogs, payment solutions, and order management into one for businesses.”
Image Credits: SleekFlow
Founded in 2019, SleekFlow now serves more than 5,000 businesses across the globe, including NARS Cosmetics, Bossini, Lalamove Hong Kong and PSB Academy. The company claims that it saw approximately 500% revenue growth after its recent pre-Series A funding backed by Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund (AHKEF) in May 2021. (SleekFlow did not provide its baseline for that growth.)
The Hong Kong-headquartered startup will use the fresh capital for its market penetration into Southeast Asia, specifically Singapore and Malaysia, as well as the U.K. and other countries in Europe. In addition, the latest funding will enable SleekFlow to enhance its product development with fintech and data analytics functions, one-click checkouts via social media platforms, and easy in-chat payment integrations for online to offline (O2O) and e-commerce brands’ seamless workflow.
The startup has recently launched a fintech product social-to-payment feature to provide a comprehensive solution for both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar businesses. In Southeast Asia alone, about 90% of digital merchants use digital payments for profitability and survival, the company says, adding that the chat-to-checkout tool is significant in driving sales and conversions from various digital sales channels. SleekFlow also introduced a new sales and analytics and customer service performance tracking that helps users track and analyze consumer profiles and behaviors for personalized communications after its partnership with Shopify last November.
The global social commerce market is projected to rise to $6.2 trillion by 2030.
According to the company, one in five dollars spent on retail in Southeast Asia is transacted through social media, and more consumers are looking to businesses offering convenient communications. SleekFlow integrates multiple messaging channels such as Official WhatsApp Business API, Facebook Messenger, Instagram chat, SMS and Telegram to address the challenges of managing multiple messaging and social media platforms.
“Despite the economic downturn, the social commerce market is going stronger than ever, reaching $474 billion in 2021,” Chibo Tang, managing partner of Gobi Partners GBA said in a statement. “Eight in 10 U.S. businesses anticipate increased sales via social media within the next three years. SleekFlow’s innovative solutions will help these global commerce businesses meet the evolving needs of customers who are turning to social channels to purchase more than ever before.”
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Tiger Global backs SaaS omnichannel social commerce platform SleekFlow in $8M funding