Microsoft Office 2021 will be available on October 5th

Microsoft will release Office 2021, the next consumer version of its productivity suite, on October 5th. That’s the same day the company will launch Windows 11. Much like Office 2019 before it, Office 2021 is a one-time purchase that will be available on both Windows and macOS. It’s for people who don’t want to subscribe to the company’s Microsoft 365 subscription.

Microsoft promised to share more details on Office 2021 soon, but we know from reporting by The Verge’s Tom Warren that the release will feature many of the same improvements found in Office LTSC, a variant of the software the company released today for enterprise customers who can’t access the Cloud. Among other improvements, it adds accessibility features and dark mode support. We also know from a previous announcement Microsoft plans to support the software for at least five years, and that the software will work with both 32- and 64-bit systems out of the box.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck will discuss taking a company interplanetary at Disrupt 2021

Building an orbital launch business from scratch is no simple matter, but what if that business is just a stepping stone to a vertically integrated, interplanetary space company? Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck will be joining us next week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 (Sept 21-23) to talk about the challenge and exhilaration of pursuing his passion for space, all the way to orbit, the moon and beyond.

Rocket Lab started over a decade ago as Beck tested increasingly large rockets, with the (supposedly) ultimate goal of building a small, reliable and relatively inexpensive launch vehicle that could deliver payloads to orbit at a weekly cadence — or even faster.

Since then the company and its Electron launch vehicle have become not just a sought-after ride to orbit, but it has begun expanding into spacecraft design and manufacturing with Photon, and announced a much larger vehicle called Neutron. Now they’ve even been tapped for an Artemis-related lunar mission and are planning a privately funded mission to Venus. (And of course they’ve raised a boatload of money and are going public.)

The always forthcoming, Beck will join us virtually from his home country HQ in New Zealand to discuss Rocket Lab’s success and future endeavors, and the challenge of adapting a company from underdog launch provider to sprawling space services company with competition nipping at its heels.

We hope you’ll join us next week at Disrupt. You can get your passes now for under $100 until Monday, September 20.

For the love of the loot: Blockchain, the metaverse and gaming’s blind spot

The speed at which gaming has proliferated is matched only by the pace of new buzzwords inundating the ecosystem. Marketers and decision makers, already suffering from FOMO about opportunities within gaming, have latched onto buzzy trends like the applications of blockchain in gaming and the “metaverse” in an effort to get ahead of the trend rather than constantly play catch-up.

The allure is obvious, as the relationship between the blockchain, metaverse, and gaming makes sense. Gaming has always been on the forefront of digital ownership (one can credit gaming platform Steam for normalizing the concept for games, and arguably other media such as movies), and most agreed upon visions of the metaverse rely upon virtual environments common in games with decentralized digital ownership.

Whatever your opinion of either, I believe they both have an interrelated future in gaming. However, the success or relevance of either of these buzzy topics is dependent upon a crucial step that is being skipped at this point.

Let’s start with the example of blockchain and, more specifically, NFTs. Collecting items of varying rarities and often random distribution form some of the core “loops” in many games (i.e. kill monster, get better weapon, kill tougher monster, get even better weapon, etc.), and collecting “skins” (e.g. different outfits/permutation of game character) is one of the most embraced paradigms of micro-transactions in games.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track.

Now, NFTs are positioned to be a natural fit with various rare items having permanent, trackable, and open value. Recent releases such as “Loot (for Adventurers)” have introduced a novel approach wherein the NFTs are simply descriptions of fantasy-inspired gear and offered in a way that other creators can use them as tools to build worlds around. It’s not hard to imagine a game built around NFT items, à la Loot.

But that’s been done before… kind of. Developers of games with a “loot loop” like the one described above have long had a problem with “farmers”, who acquire game currencies and items to sell to players for real money, against the terms of service of the game. The solution was to implement in-game “auction houses” where players could instead use real money to purchase items from one another.

Unfortunately, this had an unwanted side-effect. As noted by renowned game psychologist Jamie Madigan, our brains are evolved to pay special attention to rewards that are both unexpected and beneficial. When much of the joy in some games comes from an unexpected or randomized reward, being able to easily acquire a known reward with real money robbed the game of what made it fun.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track. The most extreme examples of this phenomena commit the biggest cardinal sin in gaming — a game that is “pay to win,” where a player with a big bankroll can acquire a material advantage in a competitive game.

Blockchain games such as Axie Infinity have rapidly increased enthusiasm around the concept of “play to earn,” where players can potentially earn money by selling tokenized resources or characters earned within a blockchain game environment. If this sounds like a scenario that can come dangerously close to “pay to win,” that’s because it is.

What is less clear is whether it matters in this context. Does anyone care enough about the core game itself rather than the potential market value of NFTs or earning potential through playing? More fundamentally, if real-world earnings are the point, is it truly a game or just a gamified micro-economy, where “farming” as described above is not an illicit activity, but rather the core game mechanic?

The technology culture around blockchain has elevated solving for very hard problems that very few people care about. The solution (like many problems in tech) involves reevaluation from a more humanist approach. In the case of gaming, there are some fundamental gameplay and game psychology issues to be tackled before these technologies can gain mainstream traction.

We can turn to the metaverse for a related example. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in gaming, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept after Mark Zuckerberg staked the future of Facebook upon it. For all the excitement, the fundamental issue is that it simply doesn’t exist, and the closest analogs are massive digital game spaces (such as Fortnite) or sandboxes (such as Roblox). Yet, many brands and marketers who haven’t really done the work to understand gaming are trying to fast-track to an opportunity that isn’t likely to materialize for a long time.

Gaming can be seen as the training wheels for the metaverse — the ways we communicate within, navigate, and think about virtual spaces are all based upon mechanics and systems with foundations in gaming. I’d go so far as to predict the first adopters of any “metaverse” will indeed be gamers who have honed these skills and find themselves comfortable within virtual environments.

By now, you might be seeing a pattern: We’re far more interested in the “future” applications of gaming without having much of a perspective on the “now” of gaming. Game scholarship has proliferated since the early aughts due to a recognition of how games were influencing thought in fields ranging from sociology to medicine, and yet the business world hasn’t paid it much attention until recently.

The result is that marketers and decision makers are doing what they do best (chasing the next big thing) without the usual history of why said thing should be big, or what to do with it when they get there. The growth of gaming has yielded an immense opportunity, but the sophistication of the conversations around these possibilities remains stunted, due in part to our misdirected attention.

There is no “pay to win” fast track out of this blind spot. We have to put in the work to win.

Crypto’s networked collaboration will drive Web 3.0

Web 1.0 was the static web, and Web 2.0 is the social web, but Web 3.0 will be the decentralized web. It will move us from a world in which communities contribute but don’t own or profit, to one where they can through collaboration.

By breaking away from traditional business models centered around benefiting large corporations, Web3 brings the possibility of community-centered economies of scale. This collaborative spirit and its associated incentive mechanisms are attracting some of the most talented and ambitious developers today, unlocking projects that were previously not possible.

Web3 might not be the final answer, but it’s the current iteration, and innovation isn’t always obvious in the beginning.

Web3, as Ki Chong Tran once said, is “The next major iteration of the internet, which promises to wrest control from the centralized corporations that today dominate the web.” Web3-enabled collaboration is made possible by decentralized networks that no single entity controls.

In closed-source business models, users trust a business to manage funds and execute services. With open-source projects, users trust the technology to perform these tasks. In Web2, the bigger network wins. In Web3, whoever builds the biggest network together wins.

In a decentralized world, not only is participation open to all, the incentive structure is designed so that greater the number of participants, the more everybody succeeds.

Learning from Linux

Linux, which is behind a majority of Web2’s websites, changed the paradigm for how the internet was developed and provides a clear example of how collaborative processes can drive the future of technology. Linux wasn’t developed by an incumbent tech giant, but by a group of volunteer programmers who used networked collaboration, which is when people freely share information without central control.

In The Cathedral & The Bazaar, author Eric S. Raymond shares his observations of the Linux kernel development process and his experiences managing open source projects. Raymond depicts a time when the popular mindset was to develop complex operating systems carefully coordinated by a small, exclusionary group of people — “cathedrals,” which are corporations and financial institutions.

Linux evolved in a completely different way. Raymond explains, “Quality was maintained not by rigid standards or autocracy, but by the naively simple strategy of releasing every week and getting feedback from hundreds of users within days, creating a sort of Darwinian selection on the mutations introduced by developers. To the amazement of almost everyone, this worked quite well.” This Linux development model, or “bazaar” model as Raymond puts it, assumes that “bugs are generally shallow phenomena” when exposed to an army of hackers without significant coordination.

Confluent CEO Jay Kreps is coming to TC Sessions: SaaS for a fireside chat

As companies process ever-increasing amounts of data, moving it in real time is a huge challenge for organizations. Confluent is a streaming data platform built on top of the open source Apache Kafka project that’s been designed to process massive numbers of events. To discuss this, and more, Confluent CEO and co-founder Jay Kreps will be joining us at TC Sessions: SaaS on Oct 27th for a fireside chat.

Data is a big part of the story we are telling at the SaaS event, as it has such a critical role in every business. Kreps has said in the past the data streams are at the core of every business, from sales to orders to customer experiences. As he wrote in a company blog post announcing the company’s $250 million Series E in April 2020, Confluent is working to process all of this data in real time — and that was a big reason why investors were willing to pour so much money into the company.

“The reason is simple: though new data technologies come and go, event streaming is emerging as a major new category that is on a path to be as important and foundational in the architecture of a modern digital company as databases have been,” Kreps wrote at the time.

The company’s streaming data platform takes a multi-faceted approach to streaming and builds on the open source Kafka project. While anyone can download and use Kafka, as with many open source projects, companies may lack the resources or expertise to deal with the raw open source code. Many a startup have been built on open source to help simplify whatever the project does, and Confluent and Kafka are no different.

Kreps told us in 2017 that companies using Kafka as a core technology include Netflix, Uber, Cisco and Goldman Sachs. But those companies have the resources to manage complex software like this. Mere mortal companies can pay Confluent to access a managed cloud version or they can manage it themselves and install it in the cloud infrastructure provider of choice.

The project was actually born at LinkedIn in 2011 when their engineers were tasked with building a tool to process the enormous number of events flowing through the platform. The company eventually open sourced the technology it had created and Apache Kafka was born.

Confluent launched in 2014 and raised over $450 million along the way. In its last private round in April 2020, the company scored a $4.5 billion valuation on a $250 million investment. As of today, it has a market cap of over $17 billion.

In addition to our discussion with Kreps, the conference will also include Google’s Javier Soltero, Amplitude’s Olivia Rose, as well as investors Kobie Fuller and Casey Aylward, among others. We hope you’ll join us. It’s going to be a thought-provoking lineup.

Buy your pass now to save up to $100 when you book by October 1. We can’t wait to see you in October!

Whatnot raises another $150M for its livestream shopping platform, evolves into a unicorn

Whatnot, a live streaming shopping platform for collectors to buy and sell things like rare Pokémon cards and Funko Pops, has closed a $150M Series C — its third round of fundraising in 2021 alone. This round pins Whatnot’s valuation at $1.5B, earning it a spot on the ever-growing list of unicorns.

So what’s a Whatnot? The app captures a trend that had been growing popular on platforms like Instagram in the US (and was already hugely popular in China): live shopping. Verified sellers can go on the air at any time, hosting on-the-fly video auctions for their goods. Sometimes buyers know exactly what they’re getting. Other times it’s more of a mystery bag; with the popular “card break” concept, for example, users buy assigned portions of an unopened (and often itself rare) box of Pokémon or sports cards and watch its contents revealed live.

This round was funded by return investors A16Z and Y Combinator’s Continuity fund, along with one new firm joining them: CapitalG. They’ve also added a few well-known names to their list of angel investors, including Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans, and Logan Paul of the YouTubes. Initial word of this round broke last week, via TheInformation.

Whatnot originally started out as a more standard (less live) resale platform, at first focused on authenticating just one kind of collectable: Funko Pops. As the pandemic took over and everyone was suddenly stuck at home, they leaned hard into live shopping — and grew rapidly as a result.

Meanwhile, the company has been quickly expanding its scope; it grew from just Funko Pops to all sorts of other collectables, including Pokémon cards, pins, vintage clothing, sneakers, and more. Whatnot co-founder Grant Lafontaine tells me that its biggest driver is sports cards, followed by Pokémon and Funko Pops. With each category it dives into, Whatnot focuses on onboarding sellers that are already known and trusted in their respective community; each streamer on the platform is currently vetted by the company before they can go live, helping them keep fraud to a minimum. Doing anything sketchy just means getting booted off the platform and burning your own reputation in the process.

A few other key bits from my conversation with Lafontaine:

  • He sees “thousands” of potential categories they can expand into. One they’re working on right now: NFTs. Streamers would be able to import their NFTs into Whatnot, displaying them on screen and bringing them in as (static or animated) overlays in the livestream. Users could tap an onscreen NFT to reveal its metadata and learn more about it.
  • He says there are “a couple thousand active livestream sellers” on the platform right now.
  • The company’s GMV (the total value of everything sold on the platform) is up 30x since its Series A back in the beginning of this year. Whatnot takes an 8% cut on each sale.
  • They’re in the middle of rolling out a “pre-bidding” feature, which will allow users to bid on items they know they want ahead of a livestream — if, for example, the user knows they want a certain thing and want a shot at it, but won’t be able to watch live. Others could still out bid them, of course.
  • The company is soon rolling out a complete rebuild of both its iOS and Android apps, with a new UI meant to make the entire process smoother and easier for both buyers and sellers. Lafontaine expects it to ship to everyone in “the next week or two.”

This round brings the company’s total funds raised to $225M — pretty much all of that in the last year. Meanwhile, competition in the space is heating up; Competitors like Popshop have been raising millions for their platforms, and Miami’s Loupe raised $12M back in June (and is opening a physical retail space soon) with its focus laser locked on sports cards live sales.The existing giants want in on it too: YouTube is playing with the live shopping concept, and Amazon has been bringing in influencers to host live sessions. In other words: watch this space. Maybe watch it via livestream.

Facebook revamps its business tool lineup following threats to its ad targeting business

Facebook today is announcing the launch of new products and features for business owners, following the threat to its ad targeting business driven by Apple’s new privacy features, which now allow mobile users to opt out of being tracked across their iOS apps. The social networking giant has repeatedly argued that Apple’s changes would impact small businesses that relied on Facebook ads to reach their customers. But it was not successful in getting any of Apple’s changes halted. Instead, the market is shifting to a new era focused more on user privacy, where personalization and targeting are more of an opt-in experience. That’s required Facebook to address its business advertiser base in new ways.

As the ability to track consumers declines — very few consumers are opting into tracking, studies find — Facebook is rolling out new features that will allow businesses to better position themselves in front of relevant audiences. This includes updates that will let them reach customers, advertise to customers, chat with customers across Facebook apps, generate leads, acquire customers and more.

The company earlier this year began testing a way for customers to explore businesses from underneath News Feed posts by tapping on topics they were interested in — like beauty, fitness, and clothing, and explore content from other related businesses. The feature allows people to come across new businesses that may also like, and would allow Facebook to create its own data set of users who like certain types of content. Over time, it could possibly even turn the feature into an ad unit, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

But for the time being, Facebook will expand this feature to more users across the U.S., and launch it in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.K.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook is also making it easier for businesses to chat with customers. They’re already able to buy ads that encourage people to message them on Facebook’s various chat platforms — Messenger, Instagram Direct, or WhatsApp. Now, they’ll be able to choose all the messaging platforms where they’re available, and Facebook will default the chat app showcased in the ad based on where the conversation is most likely to happen.

Image Credits: Facebook

The company will tie WhatsApp to Instagram, as well, as part of this effort. Facebook explains that many businesses market themselves or run shops across Instagram, but rely on WhatsApp to communicate with customers and answer questions. So, Facebook will now allow businesses to add a WhatsApp click-to-chat button to their Instagram profiles.

This change, in particular, represents another move that ties Facebook’s separate apps more closely together, at a time when regulators are considering breaking up Facebook over antitrust concerns. Already, Facebook interconnected Facebook’s Messenger and Instagram messaging services, which would make such a disassembly more complicated. And more recently, it’s begun integrating Messenger directly into Facebook’s platform itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

In a related change, soon businesses will be able to create ads that send users directly to WhatsApp from the Instagram app. (Facebook also already offers ads like this.)

Separately from this news, Facebook announced the launch of a new business directory on WhatsApp, allowing consumers to find shops and services on the chat platform, as well.

Another set of changes being introduced involve an update to Facebook Business Suite. Businesses will be able to manage emails through Inbox and sending remarketing emails; use a new File Manager for creating, managing, and posting content; and access a feature that will allow businesses to test different versions of a post to see which one is most effective.

Image Credits: Facebook

Other new products include tests of paid and organic lead generation tools on Instagram; quote requests on Messenger, where customers answer a few questions prior to their conversations; and a way for small businesses to access a bundle of tools to get started with Facebook ads, which includes a Facebook ad coupon along with free access to QuickBooks for 3 months or free access to Canva Pro for 3 months.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook will also begin testing something called “Work Accounts,” which will allow business owners to access their business products, like Business Manager, separately from their personal Facebook account. They’ll be able to manage these accounts on behalf of employees and use single-sign-on integrations.

Work Accounts will be tested through the remainder of the year with a small group of businesses, and Facebook says it expects to expand availability in 2022.

Other efforts it has in store include plans to incorporate more content from creators and local businesses and new features that let users control the content they see, but these changes were not detailed at this time.

Most of the products being announced are either rolling out today or will begin to show up soon.

Ford boosts spending to increase production capacity of its F-150 Lightning electric truck

Ford said Thursday it will invest another $250 million and add 450 jobs to increase production capacity of its upcoming F-150 Lightning to 80,000 all-electric trucks annually. The announcement comes after receiving more than 150,000 pre-orders for the all-electric pickup truck.

The additional funds and jobs will be spread out across its new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, Van Dyke Electric Powertrain Center and Rawsonville Components Plant, Ford said.

The announcement was made during an event at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, a 500,000-square-foot facility expansion that was part of Ford’s $700 million investment in its Rouge Complex. Gas-powered F-Series trucks are also assembled at the Rouge Complex.

Ford also announced that has started pre-production of the Lightning trucks. These prototypes will be used for real-world testing. The truck will be available to customers in spring 2022.

The all-electric pickup truck is a critical piece of the company’s $30 billion investment into electrification and one of a trifecta of Ford EV debuts and launches in the 18 months, including the Mustang Mach-E. The Lightning may be the most meaningful in terms of the bottom line. The Ford F-150 Lightning follows the introduction of the all-electric Mustang Mach-E and the E-Transit, a configurable all-electric cargo van focused on commercial customers.

The F-150 Lightning will be offered in four trims, which includes the base, XLT, Lariat and Platinum series, and two battery options. The truck, which has an aluminum alloy body, is powered by two in-board electric motors, comes standard with four-wheel drive and has an independent rear suspension. The base version will be priced at $39,974 before any federal or state tax credits, while the midseries XLT model will start at $52,974. All of these prices exclude the destination fees and taxes.

Submit your pitch deck now for live feedback at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 next week

The art of pitching is perhaps the most important art that a founder learns on their journey to unicorn status and beyond. And like any art, it helps to get some critical feedback along the way from the judges on the other side of the table.

That’s why every Disrupt, we host Pitch Deck Teardown, a panel of VCs who read and critique several pitch decks in a row to offer feedback on everything from the overarching narrative and story to the mundane details of format, typography and colors.

At TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 next week, I’m excited to be hosting Maren Bannon of January Ventures, Bling Capital’s Ben Ling and Vanessa Larco of NEA for our next iteration of this popular workshopping panel.

If you’re a founder and want to submit your deck for consideration, head on over to this trusty Google Form and upload a copy of your pitch deck in PDF format. Remember that this will be presented publicly, so make sure it’s appropriate for a live studio audience. We’ll be selecting roughly six of them for inclusion in the event, and we’ll notify the founders selected by email.

Come join us next week! And if you need tickets to Disrupt, we still have some available for all the virtual excitement across two stages and dozens of fireside chats and panels.

Fiberplane nabs € 7.5M seed to bring Google Docs-like collaboration to incident response

Fiberplane, an Amsterdam-based early stage startup that is building collaborative notebooks for SREs (site reliability engineers)  to collaborate around an incident in a similar manner to group editing in a Google Doc, announced a ​​€ 7.5M (approximately $8.8 million USD) seed round today.

The round was co-led by Crane Venture Partners and Notion Capital with participation from Northzone, System.One and Basecase Capital.

Micha Hernandez van Leuffen (known as Mies) is founder and CEO at Fiberplane. When his previous startup, Werker was sold to Oracle in 2017, Hernandez van Leuffen became part of a much larger company where he saw people struggling to deal with outages (which happen at every company).

“We were always going back and forth between metrics, logs and traces, what I always call this sort of treasure hunt, and figuring out what was the underlying root cause of an outage or downtime,” Hernandez van Leuffen told me.

He said that this experience led to a couple of key insights about incident response: First, you needed a centralized place to pull all the incident data together, and secondly that as a distributed team managing a distributed system you needed to collaborate in real time, often across different time zones.

When he left Oracle in August 2020, he began thinking about the idea of giving DevOps teams and SREs the same kind of group editing capabilities that other teams inside an organization have with tools like Google Docs or Notion and an idea for his new company began to take shape.

What he created with Fiberplane is a collaborative notebook for SRE’s to pull in the various data types and begin to work together to resolve the incident, while having a natural audit trail of what happened and how they resolved the issue. Different people can participate in this notebook, just as multiple people can edit a Google Doc, fulfilling that original vision.

Fiberplane incident response notebook with various types of data about the incident.

Fiberplane collaborative notebook example with multiple people involved. Image Credit: Fiberplane

He doesn’t plan to stop there though. The longer term vision is an operational platform for SREs and DevOps teams to deal with every aspect of an outage. “This is our starting point, but we are planning to expand from there as more I would say an SRE workbench, where you’re also able to command and control your infrastructure,” he said.

Today the company has 13 employees and is growing, and as they do, they are exploring ways to make sure they are building a diverse company, looking at concrete strategies to find more diverse candidates.

“To hire diversely, we’re re-examining our top of the funnel processes. Our efforts include posting our jobs in communities of underrepresented people, running our job descriptions through a gender decoder and facilitating a larger time frame for jobs to remain open,” Elena Boroda, marketing manager at Fiberplane said.

While Hernandez van Leuffen is based in Amsterdam, the company has been hiring people in the UK, Berlin, Copenhagen and the US, he said. The plan is to have Amsterdam as a central hub when offices reopen as the majority of employees are located there.