Why There Were So Many More Women at Google I/O This Year

As I turned the corner, I ran into a few thousand software developers. This was on the second floor of the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, where Google was holding its annual developer conference, the centerpiece of its year. During a two-hour-plus conference keynote, the company had just invited thousands of coders to start […]

Anonymous bulletin board app Yik Yak raises $10M Series A

Yik Yak, the anonymous geolocated messaging platform that raised a stir earlier this year when it became a vehicle for cyberbullying  among high schools, plans to announce on Monday that it has raised $10 million in a Series A round, led by DCM with participation from Azure Capital Partners, Chinese venture firm Renren Lianhe Holdings, and Tim Draper.

This brings the company’s total funding to $11.5 million — it raised $1.5 million in a seed round in April of this year, also led by DCM. The company said that it will use the capital to build new technical infrastructure, hire engineers and increase marketing efforts with the goal of reaching almost all U.S. college campuses by the end of this year. Currently, the platform supports 250 communities across the U.S. and worldwide.

“We’re seeing serious growth in our engagement rates – indicating a significant demand for localized, private interactions among mobile users of college age and above,” Yik Yak co-founder and CEO Tyler Droll said in the company’s press release. “In order to continue scaling and advancing the Yik Yak experience, we need to build a bigger team. This new funding will allow us to do that.”

The key word in that statement is “college age and above.” In spring of this year, Yik Yak caused controversy after multiple reports surfaced that showed the app was being abused by high school students at campuses. Reports of bomb threats, cyberbullying, and rape shaming led to arrests and suspensions, and the company had to turn off accessibility for the entire Chicago area after complaints from parents and schools. The company has since remedied the issue by allowing schools to geofence themselves in on the app and prevent usage on campus, and explicitly directed its efforts away from high schools.

The company’s fresh funding and focus on colleges will be a good indicator of how anonymous apps could grow over time — and whether they have lasting sustainability as a mobile trend.

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Anti-surveillance Blackphone handset starts shipping

Blackphone, the first consumer-grade handset explicitly marketed as a privacy guardian, has begun shipping.

Revealed at the start of this year, Blackphone runs a fork of Android called PrivatOS and comes bundled with a variety of security-centric tools and subscriptions, including Silent Phone and Silent Text (for normal voice, video and text communications), Disconnect (VPN and search), SpiderOak (cloud storage) and the Smarter Wi-Fi Manager (for protection from dodgy hotspots).

Shipping forecast

According to Toby Weir-Jones, CEO of recently funded Blackphone company SGP Technologies, the first units of the $629 handset to ship are for European LTE users, and U.S. units will follow. In both cases, preorder production runs come first, then units for those who have not already ordered the device.

Weir-Jones said the preordering process had not required people to say a lot about themselves, but it appeared that most preorders came from individuals rather than companies. About 58 percent of orders came from Europe, followed by the U.S., then Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and Africa.

“European carriers are the most progressive in terms of exploring how to take advantage of this as a commercial opportunity,” Weir-Jones added, pointing to KPN’s stocking of the handset. As he explained, SGP is selling the Blackphone to carriers at a “distributor-type price point,” unlike the “big players” who force carriers to pay close to retail price for their devices. It’s also touting the fact that customers will probably be frequent upgraders and high-margin data plan users.

Weir-Jones also noted that customers will enjoy frequent firmware updates, with over-the-air updates coming from Blackphone/SGP, not the carrier. This is necessary from a security standpoint if nothing else: “We’re not committing to a rigid schedule, because there will always be exceptions, but… I’d be surprised if a month went by without an update. In general, assume an average of every three weeks.”

Good start?

The first review of the Blackphone, over on Ars Technica, is pretty positive. As reviewer Sean Gallagher wrote:

“We found that Blackphone lives up to its privacy hype. During our testing in a number of scenarios, there was little if any data leakage that would give any third-party observer anything usable in terms of private information. As far as its functionality as a consumer device goes, Blackphone still has a few rough edges.”

That sounds like a good start, and I’m looking forward to playing around with a sample soon in order to form my own opinion of the Blackphone’s viability. Many security tools are out there, but using them isn’t simple enough, and the world needs products that package these tools in a user-friendly way.

Weir-Jones said the firm was already working on a “family of products” that will include a tablet and other phones. He said that, as a company that’s catering to “a niche that is very knowledgeable and has high expectations, but is also very interested in staying current,” SGP was particularly excited about upending “current commercial models for how platform ecosystems work in mobility.”

That’s an interesting aspect to keep an eye on: after all, this is a small player forking Android and therefore forgoing the Play Store in favor of a new ecosystem of privacy-centric service providers. If it targets its niche well, it could demonstrate the viability of surviving in the mobile manufacturer business without being Samsung or Apple.

“I’m comfortable with our Version 1 product and we’ve done a good job bringing it to market,” Weir-Jones said. “The feedback will inform our roadmap, and I’m interested to see what features they demand and hear stories about how they use the phone.”

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Cisco buys browser-based collaboration specialist Assemblage

Cisco has bought a British firm called Assemblage for its skills in wrangling browser technologies like WebRTC for real-time collaboration that don’t require the user to download any programs or plugins. Assemblage currently offers a range of tools including Kollaborate (for videoconferencing), Presentation and Same (for screen-sharing), and says it will continue to do so for now. In a blog post on Friday, Cisco — purveyors of expensive telepresence equipment that plays in the same space — said it was after the startup’s engineering prowess and third-party integration record.

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CoreOS gets $8 million to bring a specialized Linux OS for server deployments to the mainstream

CoreOS, the company that makes a scalable version of Linux custom tailored for servers, has raised $8 million in a Series A funding round and is now offering support services for companies that might need help getting their server operating systems off the ground. The new commercial-help service is called CoreOS Managed Linux, which the company describes as being an “OS-as-a-service” offering that provides organizations with constant patches and updates in case they don’t want the responsibility for having to deal with that type of admin work themselves.

Given that Google and Facebook are pretty open to the public in terms of how they engineer powerful cloud computing, especially when it comes to containers as Google’s Kubernetes tool can attest, CoreOS CEO Alex Polvi saw the opportunity to bring the technology of the tech giants to the regular Joe, Polvi said in an interview with Gigaom.

Polvi and CoreOS CTO Brandon Philips, also a co-founder, first started working on a version of the Linux OS that was built with security in mind. Linux-based operating systems, although they function well on servers and can allow for containers to be spun out on top of them to handle workloads, are generally a chore to update. Because of this annoyance, operations staff often overlook updating the OS, and as a result, the server’s security can be compromised.

Using the idea of how Google’s Chrome browser has auto updates that make it a whole lot easier for folks to do their patching, Polvi and his team developed a streamlined version of its Linux OS that had auto-updating capabilities as well as other tweaks that make it suitable for running exclusively on servers instead of having to be modified to do so.

“We’re not inventing a whole lot,” said Polvi. “Just a general purpose platform for server deployments for folks who aren’t Google and can’t build it themselves.”

Docker containers have been generating a lot of stream in the application development marketplace, but in order for a container to function, it needs an operating system from which it can latch onto and harness its power since containers don’t have their own OS. This is where CoreOS comes into play.

“Docker is the package manager for warehouse computing and we are the OS,” said Polvi.

CoreOS host-diagram

CoreOS host-diagram

The CoreOS Managed Linux offering comes with all the things you would want (except a server) to get containers up and running, including the container management system Docker 1.0 (Philips is a Docker board member, said Polvi); CoreUpdate, which is a dashboard that allows for control of updates; and the patching and updating service known as FastPatch. The product will function on bare metal machines, AWS, Google, Rackspace and other server environments.

The monthly charges for the service can range anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of servers one has, said Polvi.

When asked about current competitors in the field, Polvi named a few, noting that Red Hat’s Project Atomic is “a direct response to CoreOS.” Red Hat is also a member of the Docker governance board.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers drove this investment round with previous investors Sequoia Capital and Fuel Capital both contributing. CoreOS is based in San Francisco and has roughly 15 employees.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock user Thorsten Schmitt.

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The dark side of .io: How the U.K. is making web domain profits from a shady Cold War land deal

The .io country code top-level domain is pretty popular right now, particularly among tech startups that want to take advantage of the snappy input/output reference and the relative availability of names — Fusion.io, Wise.io and Import.io are just a few examples. But who benefits from the sale of .io domains? Sadly, not the people who ultimately should.

While .tv brings in millions of dollars each year for the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, and .me benefits Montenegro, the people of the British Indian Ocean Territory, or the Chagos Islands, have no such luck. Indeed, profits from the sale of each .io domain flow to the very force that expelled the Chagossian or Ilois people from their equatorial land just a generation or two ago: the British government.

“A few Tarzans and Man Fridays”

The Chagossians are largely descended from African slaves brought to the previously uninhabited islands, 2,200km (1,367 miles) north-east of Mauritius, by the French in the 18th century. The British took over in the early 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1835 and the Chagossians became contract workers on the islands’ coconut plantations. Many Indian workers joined the local population.

Map showing location of Chagos Archipeligo (red dot)

Map showing location of the Chagos Islands

In the 1960s, the U.S. decided it wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean, and it asked the British to provide unpopulated land. The U.K. dutifully detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, which was about to become independent, created the “British Indian Ocean Territory” and in 1966 granted the U.S. a 50-year lease to the Diego Garcia atoll (pictured above), where a military base was constructed. That facility would decades later become central to the “War on Terror” as a bomber base and secret CIA prison.

The problem, of course, was that the islands didn’t lack a civilian population, as the U.S. had required. So the British resolved to get rid of the Chagossians, with Colonial Office chief Denis Greenhill writing:

“Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”

The British bought and shut down the plantations in the hope of getting the Chagossians to leave of their own accord, but many stayed, so the U.K. forced them all off the islands anyway, lying to the United Nations that they were just migrant workers. Some resettled in Mauritius and the Seychelles; some dispersed around the world. In total, more than 1,500 Chagossians were expelled and barred from returning.

The British government gave refugees who resettled in Mauritius a small amount of compensation, but the Chagossian people — representatives of whom say the compensation was insubstantial and poorly distributed — have been frustrated in their quest to return home. The British High Court ruled in 2000 that they could do so, but the government ordered the ruling overturned and ultimately beat the subsequent challenges.

The Chagossians tried taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights, but failed on jurisdictional grounds. Right now they have no one left to appeal to. And cables leaked via Wikileaks showed that the U.K.’s recent establishment of a marine nature reserve around the Chagos archipelago was at least partly intended to make it harder for the Chagossians to ever return home.

The .io deal

The rights for selling .io domains are held by a British company called Internet Computer Bureau (ICB), which also holds the rights to sales of .ac and .sh domains — indicating the South Atlantic islands of Ascension and Saint Helena respectively — and others. The .io domains each cost £60 ($102) before taxes, or twice that if you’re outside the EU.

The British government granted these rights to ICB chief Paul Kane back in the 1990s. ICB gets to run .io “more or less indefinitely, unless we make a technical mistake,” Kane told me. (ICB has so far run a stable .io namespace. It should be noted that Kane is a respected veteran of the infrastructure scene, and has been entrusted by ICANN with one of the 7 so-called “keys to the internet”.)

Kane would not disclose the number of .io domains that are sold each year, nor how much of the revenue go to the government. However, he said a fixed amount per domain goes to the “Crown bank”, with the rest being reinvested in the Domain Name System (DNS) services he operates, such as CommunityDNS. “We are a for-profit company that has elected to make sure that the monies received go into infrastructure investment,” he said.

As for the money going to the British state, “profits are distributed to the authorities for them to operate services as they see fit,” Kane explained. “Each of the overseas territories has an account and the funds are deposited there because obviously the territories have expenses that they incur and it’s offsetting that.”

In other words, a cut from the sale of every .io domain goes to the British government for the administration of a territory whose original inhabitants should arguably be getting that money, and whose only current inhabitants are 5,000 U.S. troops and spooks, their civilian contractors, and a handful of British personnel who are there for policing and customs purposes.


When I approached representatives of the Chagossian community, they said they had been unaware that domains associated with their homeland were being sold for profit. Sabrina Jean, the chair of the U.K. Chagos Support Association, said in a statement:

“I am afraid that this is another example of the Chagossian people being robbed — when there were tuna fishing licences for sale the exiled Chagossians saw none of the profits, nor any of the tourist fees, nor of course the billions of pounds of rent paid by the U.S. military for leasing our homeland.”

That sentiment was shared by Roch Evenor and Bernadette Dugasse of the Chagos Seychelles Committee U.K.:

“While our community continue their lives in exile, enduring so much poverty and hardship, it greatly saddens us to hear of yet another example of how we are having taken from us what is rightfully ours.”

The U.S. lease is up for renewal later this year and Mauritius is trying to lay claim to the Chagos Islands. Earlier this year the U.K. government launched a survey to see if resettlement is feasible. A previous government study concluded that resettlement would be too costly for the British taxpayer.

Jean said her group would raise the .io matter with the Foreign Office and with those conducting the survey. I have asked the Foreign Office to explain how much it receives from .io domain sales and how those funds are used, but have not yet received an explanation.

Mixed startup reaction

I asked a few founders of “.io” startups whether they knew of the Chagossian association, and if it changed their view of the domain.

“That was kind of shocking – I had no idea, and of course it feels wrong,” Hampus Jakobsson, the founder of sales reporting startup Brisk.io, responded. “The problem is that there are, as you know, an issue with availability of good domains. I will think twice before buying a dot io, but that means it will be harder for me to find addresses.”

Thomas Schranz, founder of project management startup Blossom.io, concurred: “It does indeed change my perception of the .io domain in that I now see it as politically more nuanced/slightly problematic to choose it over a ‘neutral’ domain like .com or .net or .org or the upcoming new top-level domains.”

However, some startup founders don’t see the association with Chagossian history as a perception-changer.

“Nowadays, a lot of TLDs are used without any relation to the original country, such as .ly, .io, .me,” Jens Segers, founder of marketing tech firm Auki.io said. Another, Seats.io CEO Ben Verbeken, said: “To us, the .io domain is not a geographical indication, but we took it because it refers to ‘input-output’. And our customers (mostly tech savvy people) understand it like so.”

Oliver Gajek, co-founder of email security startup Whiteout.io, said he was uncertain how to feel about a situation that results in DNS infrastructure investment but that might also be “helping to prolong the Diego Garcia human rights violation.”

“I bet that, if done properly, a social media awareness campaign with a call-to-action for .io domain holders and their users to donate to a relevant charity would get some traction,” Gajek suggested.

There is another remote possibility — Mauritius might win its sovereignty dispute with the U.K. over the Chagos Islands. If that happens, the ownership of .io rights would probably be up in the air.

For now, though, the U.K. reaps the rewards of a hot top-level domain, and the Chagossians get nothing.