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Quill, the messaging app backed by Index, quietly comes out of stealth to take on Slack

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Slack took the workplace communications landscape by storm after it launched its integration-friendly, GIF-tastic chat platform in 2013. Within the space of a decade it entered into the pantheon of big tech: first with massive growth and usage, then a series of giant VC rounds and valuations, spawning controversial competition from incumbents, followed by a public listing and ultimately a $27.7 billion acquisition by Salesforce. Now that the cycle is complete, the decks are clear for a Slack disruptor!

Today, a new app quietly launched out of stealth called Quill, available by way of apps for the web, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Android and iOS.

Like Slack, Quill is a messaging app for co-workers to update each other on what they are doing, have conversations about projects and more.

Unlike Slack — the implication seems to be — the difference is that Quill is about delivering messaging in a non-distracting way that doesn’t take up too much of your time, your concentration, and your energy. Quill bills itself as “messaging for people that focus.”

So while you get a lot of the same features you have in Slack for chatting with workers, creating channels, integrating other apps, and having video and voice conversations — one of my colleagues quipped, “It looks like Slack, but more colorful!” — it also includes a bunch of features that put the focus on, well, focus.

“We grew exhausted having to skim thousands of messages every day to keep up, so we built a way to chat that’s even better than how we already communicate in person,” Quill notes on its website. “A more deliberate way to chat. That’s what Quill is all about.”

For example, “structured channels” let you enforce threads in a channel for different conversations rather than view chatter in a waterfall. Automatic sorting in the app moves up active conversations you’re in above others. Limitations on notifications mean you can have more nuance in what ultimately might end up distracting you, and senders for example can alter a setting (with a !!) to notify you if something is critical and needs to ping you. Video chats come automatically with a sidebar to continue texting, too.

Then, you get separate channels for social and non-work chat; and a series of features that let you manipulate conversations after they’ve already started: you can recast conversations into threads after they’ve already started and you have a fast way to reply to messages. There is an easier and more obvious way to pin important things to the tops of channels; and in addition to creating new threads after a conversation starts, you can also move messages from one channel or thread to another.

You can also interact with Quill chats using SMS and email, and like Slack, it offers the ability to integrate other app notifications into the process.

It’s also working on adding a Clubhouse-like feature for voice channels, end-to-end encryption, context-based search (it already has keyword search), and user profiles.

Managing “high load”

The app has been in stealth mode for nearly three years, and while some projects might never go noticed in that time, this one is a little different because of the pedigree and the context.

For starters, Quill was founded by the former creative director of Stripe, Ludwig Pettersson, who was given a lot of the credit for the simplicity and focus of the payment company’s flagship product and platform (simplicity that became the hallmark of the service and helped it balloon into a commerce behemoth).

His involvement signaled that the effort might get at least a little attention. In a landscape that seemed to be all but dominated by Slack and a few huge, well-funded rivals in the form of Microsoft and Facebook, it’s notable that when Quill was just an idea, it had already picked up $2 million in seed funding, from Sam Altman (at the time the head of Y Combinator) and General Catalyst.

Following that it raised a Series A of $12.5 million led by Sarah Cannon of Index Ventures, totaling some $14.5 million in funding in all. The Series A valued the company at $62.5 million, as we reported at the time.

Added to this is the story behind Quill and what brought Pettersson and others on his team to the idea of building it. From what we understand, the idea in its earliest inception was to capture something of the magic of communication that you get from messaging apps, and specifically from workplace communication tools like Slack, but without the distraction and resulting frustration that often come along with them.

By 2018, Slack was already a big product, valued at over $7 billion and attracting millions of users. But there was also a growing number of people criticizing it for being the opposite of productive. “It’s hard to track everything that’s going on in Slack, it can be distracting. Given the network effect, Slack has become powerful, but it was not designed as a high-load system,” Sam Altman, the investor and former head of both Y-Combinator and OpenAI, said to me back in 2018 when I asked him what he knew about Quill after I first got wind of it.

He said he was “super impressed” by Ludwig’s work at Stripe, and then OpenAI (where he stayed for a year after leaving Stripe), so much so that when Ludwig suggested building “a better version of Slack,” it seemed like a “credible idea” and one worth backing even without a product yet to be built.

It’s quite fitting that for an app focused on focus, Quill launched today quietly and without much fanfare: why worry about PR distraction when you can just get something out there?

In any case, we’re hoping to hear more and see what kind of momentum it picks up. We’ve asked Index if we can talk to Sarah Cannon about the investment, and we are still waiting to hear back. We are also trying to see if we can talk to Pettersson. But I should mention we have been trying to talk to him since first getting wind of this app back in August of 2018, so we’re not holding our breath (nor this story).

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Google says it won’t adopt new tracking tech after phasing out cookies

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While we’ve written about attempts to build alternatives to cookies that track users across websites, Google says it won’t be going down that route.

The search giant had already announced that it will be phasing out support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, but today it went further, with David Temkin (Google’s director of product management for ads privacy and trust) writing in a blog post that “once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.”

“We realize this means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like [personally identifiable information] graphs based on people’s email addresses,” Temkin continued. “We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment.”

This doesn’t mean ads won’t be targeted at all. Instead, he argued that thanks to “advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies,” it’s no longer necessary to “track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

As an example, Temkin pointed to a new approach being tested by Google called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which allows ads to be targeted at large groups of users based on common interests. He said Google will begin testing FLoCs with advertisers in the second quarter of this year.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has described FLoCs as “the opposite of privacy-preserving technology” and compared them to a “behavioral credit score.”

And while cookies seem to be on the way out across the industry, the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating Google’s cookie plan over antitrust concerns, with critics suggesting that Google is using privacy as an excuse to increase its market power. (A similar criticism has been leveled against Apple over upcoming privacy changes in iOS.)

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Yugabyte announces $48M Series C as cloud native database makes enterprise push

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As demand for cloud native applications is growing, Yugabyte, makers of the cloud native, open source YugabyteDB database are seeing a corresponding rise in demand for their products, especially with large enterprise customers. Today, the company announced a $48 million Series C financing round to help build on that momentum.

Lightspeed Venture Partners led the round with participation from Greenspring Associates, Dell Technologies Capital, Wipro Ventures and 8VC. Today’s round comes on the heels of the startup’s $30 million Series B last June, and brings the total raised to $103 million, according to the company.

Kannan Muthukkaruppan, Yugabyte co-founder and president, says the startup saw a marked increase in interest in both the open source and commercial offerings in 2020 as the pandemic pushed many companies to the cloud faster than they might have gone otherwise, something many startup founders have pointed out to me.

“The distributed SQL space is definitely heating up, and if anything over the last six months almost in every vector in terms of enterprise customers — from Fortune 500 companies across financial, retail, ISP or telcos — are putting Yugabyte in production to be the system of record database to meet some of their business critical services needs,” Muthukkaruppan told me.

In addition, he’s seeing a similar rise in the level of interest from the open source version of the product.”Similarly, the groundswell on the community and the open source adoption has been phenomenal. Our Slack [open source] user community quadrupled in 2020,” he said.

That kind of momentum led to the increased investor interest, says co-founder and CTO Karthik Ranganathan. “Some of the primary reasons to go and even ask for funding was that we realized we could accelerate some of this stuff, and we couldn’t do that with the original $30 million we had raised,” he said. The original thinking was to do a secondary raise in the $15-20 million, but multiple investors expressed interest in participating, and it ended up being a $48 million round when all was said and done.

Former Pivotal president Bill Cook came on board as CEO at the same time they were announcing their last funding round in June and brought some enterprise chops to the table. It was his job to figure out how to expand the market opportunity with larger high-value enterprise clients. “And so the last six or seven months has been about that, dealing with enterprise clients on one hand and then this emerging developer led cloud offering as well,” Cook said.

The company has a three tier offering that includes the open source YugabyteDB. Then there is a fully managed cloud version called Yugabyte Cloud, and finally there is a self-managed cloud version of the database called Yugabyte Platform. The latter is especially attractive to large enterprise customers, who want to be in the cloud, but still want to maintain control of their data and infrastructure, and so choose to manage the cloud installation themselves.

The company started last year with 50 employees, doubled that to this point, and now expects to reach 200 by the end of this year. As they add employees, the leadership team is cognizant of the importance of building a diverse and inclusive workforce, while recognizing the challenges in doing so.

“It’s work in progress as always. We’ve added diversity candidates right along the whole spectrum as we’ve grown but from my perspective it’s never sufficient, and we just need to keep pushing on it hard, and I think as a leadership team we recognize that,” Cook said.

The three leaders of the company have been working together remotely now since the announcement in June, and had only met briefly in person prior to the pandemic shutting down offices, but they say that it has gone smoothly. And while they would obviously like to meet in person again when the time is right, the momentum the company is experiencing shows that things are moving in the right direction, regardless of where they are getting their work done.

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$1.3M in grants go towards making the web’s open source infrastructure more equitable

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Open source software is at the core of… well, practically everything online. But while much of it is diligently maintained in some ways, in others it doesn’t receive the kind of scrutiny that something so foundational ought to. $1.3 million worth of grants were announced today, split among 13 projects looking to ensure open source software and development is being done equitably, sustainably, and responsibly.

The research projects will look into a number of questions about the way open source digital infrastructure is being used, maintained, and otherwise affected. For instance, many municipalities rely on and create this sort of infrastructure constantly as the need for government software solutions grows, but what are the processes by which this is done? Which approaches or frameworks succeed, and why?

And what about the private companies that contribute to major open-source projects, often without consulting one another — how do they communicate and share priorities and dependencies? How could that be improved, and with what costs and benefits?

These and other questions aren’t the type that any single organization or local government is likely to take on spontaneously, and of course the costs of such studies aren’t trivial. But they were deemed interesting enough (and possibly likely to generate new approaches and products) by a team of experts who sorted through about 250 applications over the last year.

The grantmaking operation is funded and organized by the Ford Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network, and the Mozilla Open Source Support Program in collaboration with the Open Collective Foundation.

“There’s a dearth of funding for looking at the needs and potential applications of free and open source infrastructure. The public interest issues behind open source have been the missing piece,” said Michael Brennan, who’s leading the grant program at the Ford Foundation.

“The president of the foundation [Darren Walker] once said, ‘a just society relies on a just Internet,’ ” he quoted. “So our question is how do we create that just Internet? How do we create and sustain an equitable Internet that serves everyone equally? We actually have a lot more questions than answers, and few people are funding research into those questions.”

Even finding the right questions is part of the question, of course, but in basic research that’s expected. Early work in a field can seem frustratingly general or inconclusive because it’s as much about establishing the scope and general direction of the work as it is about suggesting actual courses of action.

“The final portfolio wasn’t just about the ‘objectively best’ ones, but how do we find a diversity of approaches and ideas, and tackle different aspects of this work, and also be representative of the diverse and global nature of the project?” Brennan said. “This year we also accepted proposals for both research and implementation. We want to see that the research is informing the building of that equitable and sustainable infrastructure.”

You can read the full research abstracts here, but these are the short versions, with the proposer’s name:

  • How are COVID data infrastructures created and transformed by builders and maintainers from the open source community? – Megan Finn (University of Washington, University of Texas, Northeastern University)
  • How is digital infrastructure a critical response to fight climate change? – Narrira Lemos de Souza
  • How do perceptions of unfairness when contributing to an open source project affect the sustainability of critical open source digital infrastructure projects? – Atul Pokharel (NYU)
  • Supporting projects to implement research-informed best practices at the time of need on governance, sustainability, and inclusion. – Danielle Robinson (Code for Science & Society)
  • Assessing Partnerships for Municipal Digital Infrastructure – Anthony Townsend (Cornell Tech)
  • Implement recommendations for funders of open source infrastructure with guides, programming, and models – Eileen Wagner, Molly Wilson, Julia Kloiber, Elisa Lindinger, and Georgia Bullen (Simply Secure & Superrr)
  • How we can build a “Creative Commons” for API terms of Service, as a contract to automatically read, control and enforce APIs Terms of service between infrastructure and applications? – Mehdi Medjaoui (APIdays, LesMainteneurs, Inno3)
  • Indian case study of governance, implementation, and private sector role of open source infrastructure projects – ​Digital Asia Hub
  • Will cross-company visibility into shared free and open source dependencies lead to cross-company collaboration and efforts to sustain shared dependencies? – ​Duane O’Brien
  • How do open source tools contribute towards creating a multilingual internet? – Anushah Hossain (UC Berkeley)
  • How digital infrastructure projects could embrace cooperatives as a sustainable model for working – ​Jorge Benet (Cooperativa Tierra Común)
  • How do technical decision-makers assess the security ramifications of open source software components before adopting them in their projects and where can systemic interventions to the FOSS ecosystem be targeted to collectively improve its security? – Divyank Katira (Centre for Internet & Society in Bangalore)
  • How can African participation in the development, maintenance, and application of the global open source digital infrastructure be enhanced? – Alex Comninos (Research ICT Africa (RIA) and the University of Cape Town)

The projects will receive their grants soon, and later in the year (or whenever they’re ready) the organizers will coordinate some kind of event at which they can present their results. Brennan made it clear that the funders take no stake in the projects and aren’t retaining or publishing the research themselves; they’re just coordinating and offering support where it makes sense.

$1.3 million is an interesting number. For some, it’s peanuts. A startup might burn through that cash in a month or two. But in an academic context, a hundred grand can be the difference between work getting done or being abandoned. The hope is that small injections at the base layer produce a better environment for the type of support the Ford Foundation and others provide as part of their other philanthropic and grantmaking efforts.

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