Since its launch on our stage way back in 2010, Cloudflare has focused on making the internet faster and more modern — but the mobile internet has until recently been beyond its reach. Today the company introduced a new service called Warp described as “the VPN for people who don’t know what VPN stands for.”
In case you’re one of those people, and there’s no shame in it, a VPN is a virtual private network: something that acts as an intermediary between you and the wider internet, allowing you to customize how you connect in many helpful ways, such as changing your apparent location or avoiding IP-based tracking.
The trouble with these services is that many of them just aren’t very good. Trusting a company you’ve never heard of with all your internet traffic just isn’t generally a good idea, and even the biggest and most proven VPN providers are far from household names. What’s more, they can introduce latency and performance issues, which on the mobile web are already trouble enough. In the best case they may take configuration and tweaking that casual users aren’t up to.
Warp, according to a blog post by CEO Matthew Prince, will provide many of the benefits of a VPN with none of the drawbacks, speeding up your connection while adding privacy and security.
“We’ve been tinkering with this idea for three or four years,” Prince told me. Originally there was the idea of making a browser, “but that’s insane,” he said; Apple and Google would crush it. Besides, everything is going app-based and mobile — the real opportunity, they perceived, lay in the layer between those things and the broader internet: “So, a VPN, and it made all the sense in the world for us.”
But they didn’t want to simply compete with a bunch of small providers appealing to a variety of niche power users.
“To be honest, for the vast majority of existing VPN users, this is probably not the right solution for them,” admitted Prince. “If you want to change your country to access Netflix while you’re traveling, there are lots of people that offer that service, but that’s not the market we’re getting into. We wanted something with mass appeal instead of trying to cannibalize what’s out there.”
In order to become a drawback-free default for millions of users, Cloudflare didn’t so much build something from the ground up as adapt nascent work by developers on the cutting edge of networking. It rewrote the already efficient open-source VPN layer created by Wireguard to be even more so, and added a UDP-based protocol created by Neumob, a company it bought in late 2017. Add to this the large network of Cloudflare servers all around the world and it’s a recipe for a quick, secure service that could very well be both better and faster than your existing connection.
You may remember that at this time last year, Cloudflare debuted its DNS service, 18.104.22.168, both for desktops and mobile (via the 22.214.171.124 app). It’s leveraging this presence to offer Warp as an optional and free upgrade.
So what is it? When your mobile wants to make a connection for a Google search or to get an update for an app or whatever, there’s a whole process of reaching out on the internet, finding the right IP to talk to, establishing a secure connection and so on. Cloudflare’s Warp VPN (like other VPNs) takes over this process, encrypting where it otherwise might not be, but also accelerating it by passing the requests over its own network using that Neumob protocol.
The technical aspects will no doubt be exposed and inspected in time, but Cloudflare claims that using Warp should improve your connection and make it more secure, while preventing your DNS lookup data (which says exactly which sites you request to connect to) from being collected and sold. Prince said his post lacked direct comparisons to existing VPNs because they don’t think those are relevant for the millions of non-VPN-using people they’re targeting with Warp.
“Will people do comparisons? Yes. Will I retweet those when they make us look good? Yes,” Prince said. “But we don’t expect to take a lot of users from them. We want the market to expand — we want to be the biggest VPN in the world without taking a single user from any other provider.”
Part of that is the lack of some of existing VPNs’ most attractive features, such as blocking ads at the IP level. Prince said he and the others at the company were uncomfortable with the idea of picking and choosing content, not least because many of their customers are ad-supported sites. “There’s just something creepy about when the internet’s underlying pipes start making editorial decisions,” Prince said. “When we start messing with the contents of a page, even if people want us to, it sets a dangerous precedent.”
Warp can be offered for free because the company is planning a more high-end service that it’ll sell for a monthly fee. Later, an enterprise version could be sold to replace the clunky ones currently out there (which many of our readers likely have already had the pleasure of using). Prince says he envisions a day when a kid can walk into the living room at home and say, “Mom, the internet is being slow, can I use your corporate VPN?” Unlikely, but even CEOs of major infrastructure companies have dreams. Be kind.
Until then, like the rest of Cloudflare’s connectivity suite, Warp will be free and come with few if any caveats.
Well, except one — it’s not available yet. They wanted to make the announcement on April 1 because it’s exactly a year since they announced 126.96.36.199 (get it? 4/1?), but they missed the date. (“I wanted to just turn this on for everyone, but our tech operations team was like, ‘No. You’re not allowed to do that. The network would fall over.’ “) So what you can do now is get the 188.8.131.52 app and request a spot in line. Since they just announced it, the wait probably won’t be that long… oh.
Google consolidates its Chrome and Android password managers – TechCrunch
Google today announced an update to its password manager that will finally introduce a consistent look-and-feel across the service’s Chrome and Android implementations. Users will soon see a new unified user experience that will automatically group multiple passwords for the same sites or apps together, as well as a new shortcut on the Android home screen to get access to these passwords.
In addition to this, Google is also now adding a new password-related feature to Chrome on iOS, which can now generate strong passwords for you (once you set Chrome as an autofill provider).
Meanwhile, on Android, Google’s password check can now also flag weak and re-used passwords and help you to automatically change them, while Chrome users across platforms will now see compromised password warnings.
With this release today, Google will now also finally let you manually add passwords to its passwords manager (“due to popular demand,” Google says) and the company is bringing Touch-to-Login to Chrome on Android to log you in to supported sites with a single tap.
TaskHuman lands $20M to expand its virtual coaching platform – TechCrunch
TaskHuman, a professional development platform focused on coaching, today announced that it raised $20 million in Series B funding led by Madrona with participation from Impact Venture Capital, RingCentral Ventures, Sure Ventures, USVP, Gaingels, PeopleTech Angels, Propel(x) and Zoom Ventures. The latest infusion brings the company’s total raised to $35 million, which CEO Ravi Swaminathan said is being put toward product development, marketing and sales efforts.
Swaminathan and Daniel Mazzella co-founded TaskHuman in 2017, with the goal of connecting users with specialists on topics related to their personal and professional lives. Swaminathan was previously a program and logistics manager at Dell and VP of software solutions at SanDisk, while Mazzella was a system admin at Stamps.com. The two met at Wizr, a startup developing AI systems to analyze security camera footage.
“When it comes to learning and personal development, no amount of generic articles or watching pre-recorded videos [can replace] a real person with experience in a given area. Creating TaskHuman was our response to solve this challenge,” Swaminathan told TechCrunch in an email Q&A. “We started by offering foundational needs, including health and wellness, physical fitness, mental, spiritual, emotional wellbeing, and more. Since then, we’ve continued to expand and support the entire needs of an individual for personal and professional growth, like financial wellbeing, sales and leadership coaching, pet training, travel planning, and more.”
TaskHuman users connect with experts over live video chats. The company claims to have a network of over 1,000 “coaches” across nearly 50 countries, each specializing in distinctive areas. An AI-powered search feature lets users search for topics and coaches in natural language (e.g., “I want to lose weight”), while a recommendation engine attempts to personalize the browsing experience by suggesting, for example, similar coaches based on past sessions.
“TaskHuman has a direct relationship with each coach, and we pay them according to the terms of our relationship for their coaching contributions. They are all contractors globally,” Swaminathan said, when asked about the coaching payment structure.
Users can buy access to the TaskHuman network with “TaskHuman minutes,” which can be applied to a chat session with any specialist or topic, Swaminathan says. Alternatively, companies can subscribe to TaskHuman to offer unlimited access to their employees as well as in-app content and group sessions.
Swaminathan makes the case that the enterprise in particular stands to benefit from TaskHuman’s platform. It’s true that corporate training programs tend to be a mixed bag, with only 25% of respondents to a McKinsey survey saying that their company’s training improved their job performance. According to another survey, 75% of managers were dissatisfied with their company’s learning and development function in 2019.
“At the board and C-suite level, many companies view insufficient attention to employee well-being as a threat to productivity and, conversely, a strong commitment to each worker’s physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity as a competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining talent in a time of labor shortages and the ‘Great Resignation,’” Swaminathan said. “From case studies, we have found return on investment in four main areas: preventing burnout, reducing employee attrition, improving employee engagement and recruitment, and reducing medical cost claims.”
Competition in the crowded e-learning field spans BetterUp, CoachHub and Torch. Swaminathan argues that his company’s offering is broader in scope, however, and offers superior access to specialists because it doesn’t require scheduling sessions in advance.
“We have found that the pandemic really allowed people to go beyond their comfort zones and embrace video technologies like TaskHuman, Zoom, RingCentral, and others,” Swaminathan said. “We feel a need to accelerate our mission during these difficult times to help people in both their personal and professional lives, and we feel an urgency to combat the current mental health crisis and Great Resignation culture by fulfilling the dire craving for 1:1, personalized engagement for personal and professional growth.”
Certainly, TaskHuman has benefited from the pandemic, which spurred coaches of all types to move online. According to a 2021 survey by the International Coaching Federation, 83% of coaches increased their use of audio-video platforms for coaching during the health crisis while 82% saw a decrease for in-person sessions.
TaskHuman says that its customers include Zoom, Dr. Scholl’s, RingCentral and public and government institutions like Purdue University, Oakland Housing Authority and Job Corps centers run by the U.S. Department of Labor. While Swaminathan declined to disclose financials, he said that annual recurring revenue has grown by more than 5 times year over year.
“Our company is laser-focused on global expansion and scaling its network of coaches,” Swaminathan said. “We will be continually adding to the set of human experience and expertise that are available on the platform and expanding support for providers in even more languages and countries around the world.”
European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade – TechCrunch
Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.
The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.
This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.
The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.
Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.
The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).
“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”
The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.
The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.
But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.
Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”
Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.
The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.
“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.
The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.
“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.
“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”
The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.
“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”
The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.
Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.
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