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December 10, 2018

Alexa gains support for location-based reminders and routines, calling features & more

Amazon Alexa is gaining new capabilities, including support for location-based reminders and routines, the ability to call local businesses by voice, and the ability to check your email, hands-free, on supported Alexa devices, among other things. These features were previously introduced this fall at Amazon’s Echo event in Seattle, alongside a host of other capabilities for the smart assistant, including things like hunches, cooking instructions, multi-step requests, and more. However, not all the announced features had yet to roll out to Alexa device owners.

According to Amazon, Alexa will soon allow you to set reminders that are tied to a specific location. This feature is starting to arrive now for users in the U.S. and will continue to roll out over the next few weeks, Amazon says.

Once enabled, you could say something like, “Alexa, reminder me to turn on the dishwasher when I get home,” or “Alexa, remind me to take the chicken out when I get home,” for example. Alexa will automatically speak the reminder and send a notification to your phone.

In the case where an Echo device is not available – like the office, perhaps – the push notification will be your alert.

In addition, Alexa’s Routines feature will now add support for location-based routines, as well.

Routines are a set of several commands you can kick off through a trigger phrase. For instance, you could currently say something like “Good morning” to have Alexa raise the blinds, turn on the coffee maker, and offer you the news, weather and traffic reports.

Location-based routines, meanwhile, are those that trigger when you leave or arrive home or work.

That means you could have Alexa turn on your lights and play music when you’re a block from home, for example.

Along with the feature’s launch, you’ll also be able to save personalized locations to use with the location-based features, so you can more easily create these customized commands.

Routines are being upgraded in several other ways, too.

For starters, parents will soon be able to set up kid-friendly routines using their Echo Dot Kid’s Edition or any other Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Plus that’s FreeTime-enabled. For instance, a “good night” routine could have Alexa share a good night message, turn off the lights then play sleep sounds or music for an hour. Customizable routines will also be available to parents.

Similarly, adults will be able to take advantage of time-limited music in Alexa Routines with the update, too, and they’ll be able to include “wait actions” within routines – meaning, pauses in between taking action on various commands. (E.g. “good morning” could turn on the lights, but wait 20 minutes before offering the news.)

Routines can also turn on Do Not Disturb or stop the audio from playing.

Routines can now support Announcements, too – like a Dinner Time routine could include a command to announce to everyone it’s time to eat across all the household Echo devices.

And finally, routines will now support push notifications as part of the routine. That means you could program a routine to send a notification to a shared Alexa app that says “I’m on the way home,” when you run your “I’m leaving work” routine.

Timers are being improved as well, as Alexa will soon allow you to add and remove time from timers with your voice. For instance, you can say “Alexa, add five minutes to my timer,” instead of having to cancel it and start a new one.

Alexa will work as a phone replacement of sorts, too. Alexa users can now search and call local businesses and restaurants by voice from their device, by saying things like “Alexa, what’s the number for Domino’s” or “Alexa, where is the nearest Whole Foods,” followed by “Call them,” when the answer is provided.

The new email feature was also announced in September, and essentially allows you to check your inbox by voice.

The feature works with Gmail, Outlook.com and Hotmail.com inboxes for the time being. To use the option, you first have to link your inbox to Alexa through the Alexa app. You can then ask Alexa to check and reply to emails, hands-free by asking her to “check my email.” You can opt to read, reply to, delete or archive messages by voice, says Amazon.

Alexa doesn’t have to read your emails one-by-one, however. You can also say things like, “Alexa, do I have any emails from Sarah?,” for instance.

If there aren’t any emails from the person specified, Alexa can be used to set up a one-time notification so you get the message you’re waiting on when it arrives. Alexa is also aware of the email importance settings from the email providers, so you can manage the messages flagged as “important.”

The email option isn’t limited to one user, but allows everyone in the household to manage their own inbox, protected with a personalized voice PIN.

This feature is rolling out to U.S. users today, while others are launching in the days and weeks ahead in the U.S.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Trello acquires Butler to add power of automation

Trello, the organizational tool owned by Atlassian, announced an acquisition of its very own this morning when it bought Butler for an undisclosed amount.

What Butler brings to Trello is the power of automation, stringing together a bunch of commands to make something complex happen automatically. As Trello’s Michael Pryor pointed out in a blog post announcing the acquisition, we are used to tools like IFTTT, Zapier and Apple Shortcuts, and this will bring a similar type of functionality directly into Trello.

Screenshot: Trello

“Over the years, teams have discovered that by automating processes on Trello boards with the Butler Power-Up, they could spend more time on important tasks and be more productive. Butler helps teams codify business rules and processes, taking something that might take ten steps to accomplish and automating it into one click.” Pryor wrote.

This means that Trello can be more than a static organizational tool. Instead, it can move into the realm of light-weight business process automation. For example, this could allow you to move an item from your To Do board to your Doing board automatically based on dates, or to share tasks with appropriate teams as a project moves through its lifecycle, saving a bunch of manual steps that tend to add up.

The company indicated that it will be incorporating the Alfred’s capabilities directly into Trello in the coming months. It will make it available to all level of users including the free tier, but they promise more advanced functionality for Business and Enterprise customers when the integration is complete. Pryor also suggested that more automation could be coming to Trello. “Butler is Trello’s first step down this road, enabling every user to automate pieces of their Trello workflow to save time, stay organized and get more done.”

Atlassian bought Trello in 2017 for $425 million, but this acquisition indicates it is functioning quasi-independently as part of the Atlassian family.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Solo.io raises $11M to help enterprises adopt cloud-native technologies

Solo.io, a Cambridge, Mass-based startup that helps enterprises adopt cloud-native technologies, is coming out of stealth mode today and announcing both its Series A funding round and the launch of its Gloo Enterprise API gateway.

Redpoint Ventures led the $11 million Series A round, with participation from seed investor True Ventures . Like most companies at the Series A state, Solo.io plans to use the money to invest in the product development of its enterprise and open-source tools, as well as to grow its sales and marketing teams.

Solo.io offers a number of open-source tools, like the Gloo function gateway, the Sqoop GraphQL server and the SuperGloo (see a theme here?) service mesh orchestration platform. In addition, the team has also, among others, open-sourced its Kubernetes debugger, a tool for building and running unikernels.

Its first commercial offering, though, is an enterprise version of the Gloo function gateway. Built on top of the Envoy proxy, Gloo can handle the routing necessary to connect incoming API requests to microservices, serverless applications (on the likes of AWS Lambda) and traditional monolithic applications behind the proxy. Gloo handles the load balancing and other functions necessary to aggregate the incoming API requests and route them to their destinations.

“Costumers who use Gloo to connect between microservices and serverless found that invocation of [AWS] Lambda is 350ms faster than the AWS API Gateway,” Idit Levine, the founder and CEO of Solo.io, told me. “Gloo also offers them direct money saving, since AWS bills per invocation. In general, Gloo offers money saving because it allows our clients to use the less expensive technologies — like their legacy apps, and sometimes containers — whenever they can, and limit the use of more expensive stuff to whenever it’s necessary.”

The enterprise version adds features like audit controls, single sign-on and more advanced security tools to the platform.

In addition to broadening its customer base, the company plans to invest heavily into its customer success and support teams, as well as its evangelism and education efforts, Levine tells me.

“Helping enterprises easily adopt innovative technologies like microservices, serverless and service mesh is our goal at Solo.io,” Levine in today’s announcement. “Melding different technologies into one coherent environment, by supplying a suite of tools to route, debug, manage, monitor and secure applications, lets organizations focus on their software without worrying about the complexity of the underlying environment.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

How Uber will become an ad company, starting with Eats Pool

Where there is discovery in an app, there is paid discovery. Google helped you choose between links, then sold ads that promote a few. Facebook helped you choose between pieces of content, then sold ads that promote a few. And eventually, as Uber helps you choose between restaurants, it will sell ads that promote a few. It could become the marketing platform through which the physical world vies for your attention.

We got our first glimpse of this future last week when I reported that Uber Eats was offering restaurants in India bonus visibility in a Specials section if they’d offer discounts on meal bundles to Uber’s customers. Knock some rupees off the price of a sandwich, fries, and a drink, and a restaurants wins itself some enhanced discoverability. Whether a chef wants to boost orders during slow hours, get rid of surplus food, preference high margin items, or just score new customers, there’s plenty of reasons to pay Uber — even if currently only indirectly through discounts instead of a direct ad buy.

But now Uber’s senior director and head of Eats product Stephen Chau has confirmed to me the company’s intentions to become an ad company. “There’s a bunch of different ways we can work with restaurants over time. If we have all the restaurants on the marketplace and we give them tools to help them grow, then this will be a very efficient marketplace. They’re going to be spending those ad dollars somewhere” Chau tells me. “One of the things we’ve been experimenting with is allowing retailers to create promotions themselves and show them within the product.”

This conversation emerged from TechCrunch spotting Uber’s latest effort to influence where people choose to eat. To be worthy of ad dollars, Uber has to build leverage over restaurants by accruing sway over how people decide between restaurants. And with Uber confidentially filing to go public last week, it needs to prep new revenue streams. So it’s created what’s effectively “Uber Eats Pool”.

Gaining Leverage With Eats Pool

In response to our inquiry, Uber confirmed it’s now testing in some markets a system designed to batch multiple orders from different customers nearby each other to a single restaurant. That way, a single delivery driver can pick up all the orders at once and then speedily distribute them to neighbors or co-workers. Uber must incentivize customers who are close to each other to pick the same restaurant in rapid succession, so it offers a discount.

“$2 off your order — share a courier with a nearby order” the promotion announces atop the Uber Eats homescreen above a carousel of restaurants where you can grab the discount. It’s equipped with a countdown timer to when it will refresh the list of restaurants that follows users on an eatery’s order page. This triggers a sense of urgency to hurriedly buy through Uber Eats (and not check competitors), but also to ensure orders come in close enough together that the first one cooked won’t have to wait long for the last before they’re all scooped up for delivery.

Some customers actually play the Uber Eats Pool discounts like a game they can beat, waiting through several rounds of the timer until they spot one of their favorite restaurants, Chau says with a laugh. For now, passengers don’t ride alongside food orders, though that’s certainly a possibility in the future. And if Uber Eats can batch your order into a Pool with other customers, it will retroactively give you the discount.

“It’s similar to what we did with Uber Pool” Chau tells me. “Generally people are coming in with an intent to eat but there are many, many options available to them. We’re giving you a discount on the food delivery by using machine learning to understand these are some restaurants it might make sense to order from. When multiple people order from the same restaurant, delivery drivers can pick up multiple people’s food.”

Therein lies the leverage. As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson writes about aggregation theory, internet companies are gaining great influence by becoming marketplaces that connect customers with suppliers when previously customers preemptively chose a particular supplier. These platforms not only gain enormous amounts of data on customer preferences, but they also hold the power to point customers to certain suppliers that are willing to play ball.

Uber Builds A Toll Bridge

With all the data, the platforms know just who to show the ads to for a maximum conversion rate. And over time as the aggregator’s perks lure in more customers, it can pit suppliers against each other to further drop their prices or pay more for ads. Spotify used its own playlists to control what songs became popular, and the artists and record labels became beholden to cutting it sweeter deals to stay visible. Amazon looks like the best place to shop because it makes merchants fiercely fight to offer the lowest prices and best customer experience. With Uber Eats Pool, Uber is flexing its ability to influence where you eat, training you to trust where it points you when businesses eventually pay directly to be ranked higher in its app.

“Eats proves the power and potential of the Uber platform, showing how our logistics expertise can create the easiest way to eat” Chau tells me. “We partner with a wide selection of restaurants and bring our trademark speed and coverage to the food delivery experience. This feature shows how leveraging the Uber network allows us to offer people even more affordable dining options.” That quote is even more telling than at first glance. It’s the logistic network that accrues the power and creates leverage over the supplier to benefit customers with the lowest prices.

“We can see on Eats how much more business they’re bringing in and how much is incremental new business. Eventually we’ll be able to do very precise targeting. ‘People who haven’t tried my restaurant before, let’s give them a discount’” Chau tells us. Restaurants are asking him how to grow delivery as a percentage of their orders. “We can see the types of food people are ordering right now but also what they’re searching or are not able to order [because that cuisine isn’t available nearby]. We’re working with them to create new options to fill that gap. They’re able to get much more utilization of their fixed assets and iterate on these concepts much faster than they’re used to.”

Uber demonstrated the data science it could dangle over restaurants with its review of Uber Eats 2018 trends it published this morning. It predicts clean eating, plant-based foods, smoothie bowls, milk alternatives, fermented items like kimchi, and Instagrammably dark ‘goth food’ will rise in popularity next year. Meanwhile, now-tired social media bait ‘rainbow-colored foods’, brussel sprouts, and seaweed are on the decline.

It becomes easy to imagine restaurants running Uber Eats software for tracking order trends and predicting spikes to better manage food and staffing resources, with a baked-in option to buy ads or give deeper discounts to get seen by more hungry people. Chau concludes “Restaurants can think of Uber Eats as a platform that gives them this intelligence.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google Maps’ new personalized suggestions come to iOS

A more personalized version of Google Maps is now arriving on iOS. At Google’s I/O developer conference earlier this year, the company introduced a series of new features designed to help Google Maps users learn what’s happening around them, track area businesses to receive updates about their events and promotions, and receive personalized suggestions of places to visit, dine, and more. The latter now appear in a “For You” tab in the revamped Google Maps app, which first arrived on Android this June.

Today, the feature is rolling out more broadly.

According to Google, the “For You” tab is now making its way to over 130  more countries on Android and is launching on iOS across 40+ countries.

When switching over to this tab, you’ll see any number of suggestions – from newly opened places to visit or restaurants to try to new pop-ups – to new menu items at favorite restaurants and restaurant suggestions Google thinks you’d like to try. It bases these on your personal tastes and preferences it’s inferred from your use of the Google Maps app, including what sort of businesses you search and follow.

The “For You” tab can also help you with travel planning, by making suggestions of places before you depart, Google notes.

To get better recommendations, you’ll want to follow local businesses you like in Google Maps, or even neighborhoods you frequent, to personalize your suggestions further.

The feature is part of a larger overhaul of Google Maps that’s aiming to challenge Facebook as the place where businesses offer updates of their goings-on, news about their sales, events, and other information they want to share with customers – as well as target potential new customers through ads and being featured in users’ recommendations.

In October, Google Maps launched the “Follow” button for tracking businesses, and last month rolled out a new “Google My Business” app for business owners, so they could more easily create and publish content to their business profile on Google.

With these products in place – content publication tools and the ability for users to follow that content – Google is now ready to turn those signals into personalized suggestions. You’ll find it at the bottom of the Google Maps app, where it will show you potential “matches” (and the percentage for the match), plus news about recent openings, trending spots, and other suggestions.

The company says the “For You” tab is rolling out starting today across the new markets and on iOS.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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