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Google has upgraded its Street View cameras for the first time in 8 years — and the implications are worrying

Google Street View Car A Google Street View car. Flickr / Sancho McCann

You’re about to see a lot more on Google Street View — and Street View’s about to see a lot more of you.

Google has upgraded the cameras for its mapping service for the first time in eight years to capture sharper images with more detail.

According to a profile in Wired, the new cameras are so sharp they might be able to see a store’s hours from a sign. And they’re feeding all that granular data back to Google’s machine-learning algorithms.

Like their predecessors, the new cameras will sit atop Google-branded cars, capturing information about the world and taking still, HD images on either side.

Better imagery should mean a more useful service. The head of Google’s mapping division, Jen Fitzpatrick, says people no longer search just for their addresses on Google Street View.

“People are coming to us every day with harder and deeper questions,” she told Wired, such as, “What’s a Thai place open now that does delivery to my address?”

Google has already invested huge amounts into artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it’s using that technology to scan Street View data to answer conversational queries.

Eventually, Fitzpatrick wants Google to be able to answer people’s questions that are even more conversational, like what the pink building down the road is.

“These are questions we can only answer if we have richer and deeper information,” she said.

What is less obvious is what else Google can figure out from the new Street View data and how it might use the information.

Wired reports that a team of Stanford researchers — including Google’s chief scientist at its cloud division, Fei-Fei Li — found they could use Street View data to predict income, race, and voting patterns. The team used software that analysed the make, model, and year of cars from Street View photos.

At the time, the team said, “Using the classified motor vehicles in each neighborhood, we infer a wide range of demographic statistics, socioeconomic attributes, and political preferences of its residents.”

What could Google figure out with even more detailed data?

When Wired asked Google whether it had planned anything similar, a representative said the company was always looking for ways to use Street View data to improve its platforms — including beyond maps.

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Amazon is eating away at Google’s core business

jeff bezos amazon ceo happy laughing smilingJeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.Alex Wong/Getty Images

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For more and more people, Amazon is the first port of call when it comes to researching potential purchases — and that’s bad news for Google.

Over half of Americans now go to Amazon to carry out their first search for products, turning away from search engines and other online retailers, according to a new study from the marketing company BloomReach. (The research was previously reported on by Bloomberg.)

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed made their first search on Amazon, up from 44% a year ago. At the same time, just 27% of people began at search engines, down from 34%. Retailers also saw a decline, dropping to 16% from 21%.

(The study took place on Labor Day, May 1, and surveyed 2,000 US consumers. There’s no word on data from other countries, but it seems reasonable to assume that the data might be similar in Western markets where Amazon has a similar presence as in the US.)

It’s a yet another sign of how fully Amazon is dominating online shopping — but it’s also particularly bad news for Google.

Google’s original, core business is a search engine. But more and more consumers are now opting to bypass it in favor of heading straight to the ultimate destination.

A customer pushes her shopping cart through the aisles at a Walmart store in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian Shopping IRL is so passé.Thomson Reuters

The ads Google can serve next to product or shopping searches are especially lucrative (as they can be highly targeted at users clearly intending to spend money), making this trend more damaging than if Google’s search market were eroding in a different sector (educational searches, for example).

A Google representative declined to comment.

There’s still no guarantee, however, that people who visit Amazon first will definitely buy from there — something BloomReach acknowledges. “Just because consumers start on Amazon, that doesn’t mean they ultimately buy from Amazon,” marketing head Jason Seeba said in a statement. “Instead, they’re often comparing and researching products on search engines and other retailers.”

Plus, it’s not as if Google is dependent solely on search: Its revenue now comes from everything from its DoubleClick ad network to its Google Play purchases.

But even so, Amazon has become the unrivalled go-to destination to start Americans’ search for products — and that has to worry the world’s largest search engine.

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Verizon to go ahead with bid for Yahoo as Google mulls offer

Yahoo’s sale “book” indicates a company in a financial free fall

What Yahoo investors can look forward to prior to shareholder meeting

As layoffs proceed, Yahoo’s head of hiring bails on CEO Marissa Mayer

Verizon Communications will reportedly make a bid to buy Yahoo’s Web business next week and Google may bid for the Sunnyvale online company’s core business.

Bloomberg cited unnamed sources on those two potential Yahoo suitors. Its sources also said that AT&T, Comcast and Microsoft have decided against bidding.

Bloomberg said that Time Inc. is reportedly still evaluating a bid and private equity funds Bain and TPG — among others — are also planning to enter the action, either alone or by backing a strategic acquirer.

First-round bids for the company’s main Web assets are reportedly due on Monday.

Verizon is said to be willing to acquire the Yahoo’s stake in Yahoo Japan Corp., figured to be worth about $8.5 billion, to help sweeten its offer. It may then give the Yahoo Japan stake to its shareholders or sell it.

Another potential player is Japan’s SoftBank Group, which is the majority owner of Yahoo Japan. But discussions there have reportedly centered around Softbank wanting to get a lower licensing fee before any sale, not in buying the rest of the shares in the company.

Verizon and its subsidiary AOL are working with at least three financial advisers on its bid, Bloomberg’s sources said. The company said late last year that it was interested in bidding for Yahoo and hiring so many bankers makes it appear that it is very serious about that.

Bloomberg’s sources said that Verizon values Yahoo’s core business at less than $8 billion, based on the financial information that it’s seen.

If successful, Verizon reportedly would replace Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer with AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and Marni Walden, Verizon’s executive vice president, who would run a combined Yahoo and AOL.

Re/code reported on Wednesday that a Yahoo slide deck that has been shown to potential buyers projects that its revenue will drop by almost 15 percent and earnings by more than 20 percent for 2016.

Cromwell Schubarth is TechFlash Editor at the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

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Search Engine DuckDuckGo Is Taking On Google By Doing The One Thing They Won’t Do

 

DuckDuckGo CEO gabriel weinberg

DuckDuckGo

Gabriel Weinberg, CEO at DuckDuckGo

 

DuckDuckGo bills itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you”. After the revelations in the US National Security Agency files, that sounds tempting.

Named after the playground game duck duck goose, the site is not just banking on the support of people paranoid about GCHQ and the NSA. Its founder, Gabriel Weinberg, argues that privacy makes the web search better, not worse. Since it doesn’t store your previous searches, it does not and cannot present personalized search results. That frees users from the filter bubble – the fear that, as search results are increasingly personalized, they are less likely to be presented with information that challenges their existing ideas.

It also means that DuckDuckGo is forced to keep its focus purely on search. With no stores or data to tap, it cannot become an advertising behemoth, it has no motivation to start trying to build a social network and it doesn’t get anything out of scanning your emails to create a personal profile.

Having answered one billion queries in 2013 alone, DuckDuckGo is on the rise. We asked Weinberg about his website’s journey.

Why did you set up DuckDuckGo in 2008?

DuckDuckGo didn’t come out of any real direct motivation to start a search engine. I had come off my last company in 2006, [The Names Database, a social network that Weinberg sold for $10m], and I was focused on a bunch of personal projects.

One was fighting spam in search results. There were a lot of sites that were just obviously spam in Google at the time, but they seemed pretty easy to identify. Another was crowdsourced data. I found myself going to Wikipedia and IMDB a lot, sites that used crowdsourced data, where you just get answers. The third leg was that I went to this stained-glass class, where they handed out a list of links that were the best places to go for more information on stained-glass production. They didn’t match the Google search results. So I started a third project about getting the links out of people’s heads, to find out where the best stuff was.

DuckDuckGo is based in the small town of Paoli, Pennsylvania. How much do you think that the location puts you outside the general Silicon Valley milieu?

Yeah, we don’t feel connected to that scene. I’m not actually from here, interestingly enough. My wife and I picked here together to move to because we thought it would be a good place to raise a family and for other, deeper reasons that don’t make sense to people outside the US. I think anyone in a similar position in Silicon Valley would have raised a ton more money a ton earlier. But that hasn’t been our focus. And also, just look at how we’ve got 75% remote workers. That’s a very non-Silicon Valley thing to do. Normally you hire the best engineers that you can out of Ivy League schools and bring them all in one place so you can get them in the company.

After all these years, it seems as if people are finally talking about privacy …

Yes, I do think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s a fad. One of the big things people have noticed in the last year is the ads that follow them around the internet and that’s perhaps the most visible notion of this new tracking mindset that most companies are adopting. Those trends are not disappearing. More tracking on the internet, more surveillance, so I think as people find out about it they’re going to be wanting to opt out in some percentage.

When you started, your sole aim was to build a better search engine. When did you decide that privacy was crucial to that?

Instant answers and spam filtering were really the initial focus there and still are in terms of product differentiation. But very quickly after that – I would have done it from the beginning had I actually thought about it, but I hadn’t – was privacy.

The data that you share with your search engine is the most personal data. Because you don’t hold back with your search engine. You don’t think about it in that context. You think “oh, I’ve got a financial problem … just type it in!” And so, that search history is really personal.

It has [also] increasingly been used for marketing, it is available to subpoena and, as we know from the last year, it’s also available through other hidden means for surveillance. Most money a search engine makes comes from showing an ad for something commercial like a car or shoes when users search for them, and it doesn’t impact that business model to not track.

Why not just anonymise the data you collect, rather than offer totally incognito searches?

The reality shows that every time someone had tried to anonymise data, it’s been a failure. As long as you can tie searches together and you keep any shred of the information, any personal information that can tie things back to you, then I think it’s not truly private.

Are you against tracking on a personal level, or is this just business?

No, I do have a philosophical opposition. I think of it as more privacy policy than general. I think they should be set up to be the minimal collection as needed, as opposed to the maximal collection possible.

The other way to look at that is I think they should have a quid pro quo, which is “you’re giving up this particular piece of personal information and you’re getting this benefit in return”, as opposed to the current status quo, which is “we will collect anything we can and not tell you what the benefits are”, just say, in general, “sure, you’ll benefit from this”.

I think that is the key difference. And you’ve seen some companies start to move to this direction, but very slowly.

Is it possible to make a good search engine without collecting Google levels of data?

I believe you can switch to us today, and you’ll be fine. And people are. And you can have a better experience! But also, if you look at your Google searches and what’s coming up, really the amount that they’re using your search history to change the search results is minimal. They are not really using that data currently to improve your search results in any significant way – as far as we can tell. They’re using it for other things. They’re using it to track you across the ad network.

Does that mean you’ve backed off a bit in your fight against personalised searches?

We’ve not backed off! I guess to restate my case I don’t think that personal data, that personalization, has been very useful.The case that everyone mentions is when, say, you type in the weather or you type in pizza and you want local weather or a local pizza place.

Do people eat pizza in the UK?

Yeah.

I figured so. So, we can do that in our instant answer box – using your location on the fly, and not store it – and not change the actual link results. So I think most of what people want that they call personalization is really localization and we can do that without tracking people.

You’ve said before that tracking might be used to charge people more if their profiles reveal they have a lot of money. Is that something you can really see happening, or is it a worst-case scenario?

It’s real, and it already is happening, and will be increased. My general view is that if information is out there that can lead companies to improve their profits, then they will do so unless it’s regulated against.

So I definitely think it’s out there, I think people just don’t know that it exists yet.

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk

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Article from GigaOm.

In contrast to the findings of a research note on Tuesday that says Silver Spring Networks could soon shelve its IPO, I’ve been hearing that Silver Spring is actually getting ready to finally go public within the next four weeks, a year and a half after filing its S-1. A delay that long between filing and finally trading is not ideal, but it’s not unheard of for companies to wait through difficult market conditions, particularly as they negotiate pricing.

Beyond discussions I’ve had with sources, in Silver Spring’s latest S-1 Amendment the company notes that longtime investor Foundation Capital now says it plans to purchase $12 million worth of stock at the IPO price, following the IPO, in a private placement. If Silver Spring was planning to shelve its IPO it probably wouldn’t be negotiating this detail with its investor, and also wouldn’t continue to update its S-1 every quarter (it would just withdraw it).

Solar installer SolarCity’s investors used a similar tactic when the company went public last year to try to create interest from Wall Street. SolarCity investors Elon Musk, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and DBL Investors, agreed to buy up about a third of the Solar City float the day before trading, and that helped it get out and pop on its first day. Bankers could take it as a good sign that Foundation Capital is looking to buy up even more shares of Silver Spring.

Silver Spring has continued to grow over the years, despite the fact that selling smart grid networks to utilities is a pretty difficult low margin business. If you only look at Silver Spring’s GAAP revenue and net income it doesn’t look all that amazing, which is what this analyst did. The company hasn’t ever had a positive net income, and it recorded revenue of $147 million for the nine months ended Sept 30, 2012, which was down from $176 million from the same period in 2011.

But if you look at the deals that Silver Spring closed in 2012, and the amount it billed its utility customers for, it actually had a decent year last year. The company recorded billings of $219 million for the nine months ended Sept 30, 2012, up from $183 million for the same period of 2011. Billings are how much Silver Spring invoiced its customers, and they are considered deferred revenue until they can be officially counted as revenue. It had its highest gross margin yet on those billings of 34 percent. The company has a total of $473 million in deferred revenue as of the nine months ended September 30, 2012, and about $60 million in cash for the same period.

That’s the problem with selling gear to utilities. The deals and the sales cycles take a really long time to negotiate from a trial to a commercial deal, and then a long time to see through to the end. We’ll see how comfortable Wall Street is with looking at both its GAAP and non-GAAP financials when it comes to interest in the IPO.

Silver Spring Networks has networked 13 million smart grid devices, and has contracts to network more than 22 million total. The company has a total backlog of $745 million in product and service billings.

Now, we’ll see if over the next four weeks, Silver Spring is able to negotiate and get enough interest to price its shares at the valuation it wants. But from what I’m hearing it’s starting to aggressively try to do just that.

Read more here.

 

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Article from GigaOm.

Between growing interest in fitness tracking devices, mobile health apps and software for adapting to the changing business of health care, digital health had a banner year in 2012.

According to a year-end funding report from health tech accelerator Rock Health, investors poured $1.4 billion into digital health companies last year, which is up 45 percent from their investment total of $968 million in 2011.  The report, released Monday by the San Francisco-based non-profit, also indicated a 56 percent increase in the number of deals closed in 2012.

As we’ve reported previously, these are interesting times in health care funding as investors rethink their support of biotech and traditional life sciences firms but back digital health companies that leverage mobile devices, cloud computing, open data, sensors and other emerging technology. Indeed, citing research from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Rock Health’s report said that investment in biotech and medical devices declined 4 percent and 16 percent respectively in 2012.

In total, the report said 134 digital health companies each raised more than $2 million in the last year, with one-third of all deals falling into four categories: healthcare purchasing tools for consumers, personal health tracking, Electronic Medical records and hospital administration.

While 179 firms and organizations invested in digital health companies, most only took part in a single deal, Rock Health said, with just eight investors making three or more investments in 2012. Qualcomm Ventures led the list of the most active investors, followed by Aberdare Ventures, Merck Global Health Innovation Fund and NEA.

The Bay Area and Boston lead the way in the number and value of  digital health deals, according to the report. But New York could be coming on strong given the launch of several health startup incubators including Blueprint HealthStartup Health and the New York Digital Health Accelerator in the Big Apple last year.

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Article from SFGate.

It’s suddenly a lot harder for venture capitalists and startups to raise funds, as investors fed up with low returns turn their backs on the sector.

Most industry observers agree that lots of young firms will simply not be able to raise their next round of funding, commencing a period of belt tightening, consolidation and closures. At a minimum, it seems to mark the beginning of a more level-headed investment climate in Silicon Valley, after years of insatiable lust for all things mobile and social.

But if the drop-off is too sudden and steep, this new austerity could spill over into an economy highly dependent on the tech sector. Indeed, as The Chronicle reported last week, the industry has an enormous impact, with each tech job creating 4.3 indirect jobs in the community, according to a Bay Area Council Economic Institute report.

The investors and venture capitalists I spoke to insisted that we’re not on the verge of anything like the dot-com meltdown, characterizing the shift as a minor and healthy correction, or a “rationalization.” One suggested it was little more than the usual process of separating good and bad ideas in the marketplace.

But the numbers suggest something new is afoot. In the third quarter, the amount that U.S. companies raised in venture capital dropped 32 percent from the prior year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Venture capital funds themselves raised 17 percent fewer dollars from the second to third quarter, even as the number of funds grew, according to a joint report from Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association.

Economic uncertainty

Some partially blame the economic uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the election and the “fiscal cliff.” But the main problem seems to be that many of the “limited partners” that fund venture capital are pulling back after years of frustration.

Ever since a brief period in the late 1990s when venture capital burned bright, the industry has been delivering consistently weak returns on the whole.

In fact, despite requiring greater risks and larger capital outlays, venture capital has been underperforming the stock market over the past decade, according to a report this year by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Joe Dear, chief investment officer for CalPERS, told Reuters this summer that venture capital “has been the most disappointing asset class over the past 10 years as far as returns.” The huge pension fund for California’s public employees didn’t return repeated calls from The Chronicle.

Investment horizons have steadily spread out, from five to 10 to sometimes 15 years, as exit opportunities like acquisitions and initial public offerings fail to materialize. This has sometimes forced investors to put in more money to protect their initial funds.

‘Pretty grumpy’

“The industry definitely, for the last decade, has been a tough place to be,” said Ray Rothrock of Palo Alto venture capital firm Venrock. “We’re all pretty grumpy right now.”

Some of this is due to macroeconomic conditions outside the control of venture capitalists, notably the housing and banking crises. But at least some of it has to do with poor picks and herd mentality, funding companies with few real prospects and driving up the entry price for legitimately promising companies beyond what they could pay off.

“The market overfunded the number of companies in the system,” said Hans Swildens, founder of Industry Ventures in San Francisco. “There’s a glut.”

Even the grand promise of Web 2.0 companies that lured so much recent money hasn’t generated the hoped-for returns. The ones that managed to go public were often disappointments, including Facebook, Zynga and Groupon, in some cases leaving late-stage investors underwater on their holdings.

That was a final straw for some.

Last week, Forbes dug up figures from CB Insights that highlighted a wide and growing gap between the number of companies that raised initial funding and companies securing the follow-on investments, known as a Series A, generally necessary to keep going. This year, there have been 1,747 seed or angel rounds but only 688 Series A deals, underscoring the coming crunch.

Bad businesses

Based on as scientific a survey as the PR pitches in my inbox, there’s a tremendous number of silly, redundant and poorly executed companies out there that don’t warrant additional funding. The real problem isn’t that many of these companies won’t raise more money; it’s that they raised money in the first place.

For the venture capital industry to get back on track, it needs to embrace a renewed sense of discipline – on company picks, deal terms and total spending.

But hope springs eternal in Silicon Valley.

Rothrock stresses that the industry’s trend-line averages mask very strong results and ongoing investment at top firms, as well as growing venture capital activity among corporations like Google. Companies are just being more selective and looking beyond consumer Internet opportunities.

“We’re steady as she goes in terms of funding enterprise,” he said.

Secondary opportunity

Swildens oversees a secondary fund that buys shares from limited partners and venture firms looking to liquidate part of their holdings. He sees this period as a ripe opportunity for bold investors to get into promising companies at suddenly reasonable rates.

“Ours is one of the few firms aggressively putting money into these funds,” he said.

Mark Heesen, president of National Venture Capital Association, is similarly optimistic. He says the industry could be primed for a strong comeback in 2013, as long as the broader economy strengthens.

Above all, what the industry needs are some wins – acquisitions or initial public offerings that put investors clearly in the black and start to restore some lost confidence.

“If we see these exit markets start to generate good returns, I think you’ll see limited partners look at this asset class again,” he said.

James Temple is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: jtemple@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jtemple

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