Exclusive First Look Into Twitter's New Office In New York City

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Earlier this year, Twitter's New York City operation completed a move into a brand new office at 245 West 17th St. in the city's Chelsea district. The move brought together four disparate offices -- located in New York's Midtown, Union Square, SoHo and NoMad neighborhoods -- into a single, 12-floor headquarters.

After San Francisco, New York is Twitter's second largest office, so the new NYC HQ will likely be a critical home for Twitter's business for years to come. It's already home to the team building one of Twitter's most important forthcoming products: Project Lightning.

Moreover, the New York office is a way to keep the company grounded. Having a big domestic operation outside of San Francisco's tech hothouse helps the company in several ways, but is especially valuable culturally and when it comes to recruiting. It's easier to meet people who don't work in tech in New York, and, conversely, it's easier to hire people who do work in tech there. It's also not a bad city to be in when you're in the media business.

On Monday, Twitter invited BuzzFeed News into the office, the first time it had shown it to the public. Here's what we saw.

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Twitter (naturally) works in an open-plan setup. There are no cubicles and managers sit together with their reports at long desks. Every other week, the office comes together for a "Local Tea Time" an all-hands bringing the entire building together to share thoughts.

Now that the office is up and running, celebrities visit regularly. Last week, Donald Trump stopped by. On Monday, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg paid a visit. The celebs often speak with Twitter's employees in open sessions, helping foster a sense of community more common in smaller companies. BuzzFeed News watched Hanks and Spielberg, for instance, lead the crowd in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" after a Twitter employee asked the two to send their wishes to her mother, a big fan.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg address Twitter's New York office

Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed News

More than 80 engineers work in the office, led by Vijay Pandurangan, a Director of Engineering. In an interview, Pandurangan discussed the projects the New York team is working on, including Project Lightning, some machine learning efforts, and the company's location-focused projects. The location part was especially intriguing.

New York is a cramped, highly-populated city with lots of buildings, so it's a great place to work on location functionality since the margin of error is very small. Pandurangan offered one scenario of a possible location-focused project the New York team might work on: "One of the things that could be cool is, for instance, [if] there's an earthquake in San Francisco and I open Twitter, wouldn't it be cool if it were pushed to the phone that, 'Oh, there's an earthquake near you.'" Twitter has no specific plans to build this exact product, Pandurangan said, but the example shows the type of work his team is thinking about.

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Twitter New York keeps in touch with San Francisco and other Twitter offices via video conferencing technology, which is all over the office. "If you look around, I've worked strongly with the IT folks to really try and get it the point where it is ubiquitous," Pandurangan said. "It's enormously impactful in terms of our abilIty to execute."

Be careful, you may run into videoconferencing-Twitter-employee-robots too.

Vine, which Twitter acquired in 2012, is also in the building. The sub-50-person company-within-a-company sits on building's top floor. "We have many of the benefits of being a startup in that it's a small team, we have a big impact, we can move quickly, we have a strong culture, everybody knows each other," said Jason Toff, Vine's General Manager. "We also have the backing of one of the biggest tech companies in the world. We have access to their resources and knowledge so it's really the best of both worlds."

Jason Toff

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Vine's team is half engineering, Toff said, and then a mix of product, design, content, editorial, marketing, and operations. Vine relies on Twitter proper for some functions such as HR and Finance. It does not yet sell ads, so there is no sales team.

Instead of reporting into larger departments within Twitter, the heads of each department report into Toff and Toff reports to Kevin Weil, the Senior-VP of product at Twitter. "Kevin oversees design in addition to product and Periscope so it's more broad than what a normal product leader might encompass," Toff said.

Toff said living and working in New York City has helped him build a better product. "There's such a dramatic difference in the types of people that are on the team and that we encounter on a daily basis," he said. "In San Francisco, as much as I loved living there, I found that every single person I interacted with worked in tech, be it my neighbor, be it my Uber driver, be it my friends."

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

"It's been really refreshing seeing people on the team and people you interact with on the subway and your neighbors and your friends who don't work in tech who are much more representative of the world. I think that leads to a better product," Toff said.

Pandurangan also spoke highly of the benefits that come along with operating in multiple cities. "You can get access to talent that you cannot get in the Valley," he said. "Some of it is because everybody is trying to hire people in San Francisco and there's lots of contention. Some of it is because you look at what you see with housing prices around [San Francisco] and how difficult it is to sustain yourself. A lot of that stuff can be alleviated by going to different cities and hiring the best engineers who are there."

Matt Derella

Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News

Twitter VP of Sales Matt Derella met us in a simple yet elegant conference room for a quick discussion before our visit came to a close. "From marketing and media partners through to engineering talent and M&A opportunities, having a flagship office in NYC is of tremendous value," he said. Working out of New York provides easy access to the ad agencies of Madison Avenue, along with a line into the city's advertising technology industry, which works closely with Twitter.

Derella also brought us to a wall with a neon sign featuring a the hashtag #lovewhereyouwork. The hashtag, Derella said, originated in the company's London office, where a Twitter employee suffering from cancer tweeted it to thank her team for giving her her a knit blanket. Though the employee ultimately lost her fight with cancer, the hashtag lives on, Derella said. "We try to create a sense of family here."

At the elevator, we ran into none other than Mr. Steven Spielberg, who was also preparing his exit. The Academy Award winning director, who does not have a Twitter account, looked at the 'down' button before taking care of one last order of business: a smiling photo in front of the Twitter logo behind reception.


Lauren Zaser / BuzzFeed News

SoFi's Billion Dollar Funding Round Is One Of The Biggest Ever

The online lender is one of just six American startups to ever raise $1 billion in a single funding round.

AP

One of the superstars of the online lending industry has raised $1 billion from investors, in one of the largest funding rounds ever for an American startup.

SoFi announced today that it was raising the new equity from Japanese technology conglomerate Softbank — a new investor — along with existing investors like the the hedge fund Third Point.

This comes after a $200 million round early this year that valued the company at just over $1 billion. While SoFi didn't disclose a valuation this time around, the Wall Street Journal reported in August that the Softbank investment would value the company at about $4 billion, making it the most valuable privately held online lending startup.

There has only been 19 venture capital funding rounds worth $1 billion or more, according to Pitchbook, which tracks the industry. Four of those were for Uber; just six American companies, including SoFi, have ever completed a billion-dollar round.

On Tuesday, online lender Avant said it had raised $325 million in a funding round that valued the company at $2 billion. Prosper, which mostly does personal loans to people with good credit scores, was valued at $1.9 billlion in its most recent round. Lending Club, another online lender, went public in December of last year and, despite its stock sinking below its IPO price, has a market capitalization of almost $5 billion.

SoFi, which was founded in 2011, started out refinancing student loans. That can be a great business in a growing economy, as many college graduates may be considered risky borrowers by traditional metrics (they have no income, for instance, and can have very large outstanding debts), but actually have good job and income prospects. When SoFi was founded in 2011, the first loans were to graduates of elite business schools like Stanford, where its founder, former Wells Fargo trader Mike Cagney, graduated from.

SoFi also expanded into mortgages late last year and now offers mortgages in 23 states. It started offering personal loans in February, and has begun selling those loans to investors.

"We have an aspiration to change banking and create an alternative solution to allow people to check out of the banking system entirely," Cagney said, mentioning wealth management and insurance as possible areas SoFi could enter.

But that won't be happening in the public markets, for now. After the company raised $200 million and garnered a billion-dollar "unicorn" valuation, there were reports that the company was considering an initial public offering.

But like so many fast-growing startups (Cagney says SoFi has been profitable for two years), they were able to raise a massive round from a new private investor and stay insulated from the public markets.

Cagney described Softbank as a "long term, patient capital partner" that told SoFi it was able to grow even faster than the company previously thought. "Personal and mortgage loans were growing ahead of schedule and we needed incremental capital to support that growth," Cagney said.

Lending Club "went out there and raised $1 billion publicly and they have to deal with the public," Cagney said. "We could raise $1 billion from the private investor."

Jack Dorsey To Be Named Permanent Twitter CEO

An announcement is expected as early as Thursday, Re/code reports.

Getty/Kimberly White

Jack Dorsey will be named permanent CEO of Twitter as early tomorrow, according to report published today in Re/code.

The move will bring to a close a painful, months-long search for a permanent CEO at Twitter, which has been without a permanent leader at the top since the departure of its former CEO Dick Costolo in July. Dorsey is expected to continue to run Square, a payments company where he also serves as CEO.

Dorsey, in his short tenure as interim-CEO, has been pushing big changes. Under his watch, the company has tested a 'News' tab, widely rolled out a 'Buy' button and is in the process of rethinking the service's 140 character limit.

As Dorsey moved things forward, the Twitter board worked slowly, eliciting criticism from Twitter investors and Wall Street analysts. The naming of Dorsey should quiet those critics, at least for the new CEO honeymoon period. After that, Dorsey will be forced to prove he can grow the company's userbase and, along with it, revenue.

Twitter and Square both declined comment.

Video Profile "Pics" Are Coming To Facebook

Revamped Facebook profile features a video profile picture option, temporary profile photos, and room for a short bio.

Facebook

Starting Wednesday, the company is rolling out an option to post a video as your profile "picture." The feature will at first be only available to a small number of people using iOS in California and the United Kingdom. But Facebook hopes to launch it more broadly soon.

Facebook

They will also likely make people's appearance on the platform appear less polished — a nod to social media's raw revolution.


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Free Apple Music Trial Ends Today

Time to pay.

The much-hyped music streaming platform debuted with a three-month trial period during which Apple waived the $9.99 monthly fee it charges for the service. That offer was Apple's bid to get new users in the door, and pick up some market share from streaming music incumbents like Spotify.

Today, that free trial period ends for anyone who signed up for Apple Music on its first day, June 30. And it's time to decide whether or not it's worth paying for.

Apple is only going to charge you after a full 90 days.

Apple is only going to charge you after a full 90 days.

Apple

Here's how to determine when you signed up.


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Patients Are Helping Doctors Understand Asthma By Using iPhones

Since an asthma app built with Apple’s ResearchKit went live six months ago, patients are reporting that they’re exercising more.

Leventkonuk / Getty Images

Six months ago, Apple unveiled ResearchKit, an open-source software platform that helps iPhone users participate in clinical trials. The premise: People all over the country would download apps that periodically ask about their health, and scientists would study their answers. Given that there are more than 94 million iPhones in use in the U.S., ResearchKit was touted as a way to conduct clinical studies of potentially unprecedented size and scope.

Today, a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai revealed data that — while preliminary and not published in a peer-reviewed journal, as is standard in scientific research — suggests that the program may be working as intended. This group, along with app developers at LifeMap Solutions, were the forces behind an app for patients with asthma — one of the first five ResearchKit apps released in March.

Some 50,000 people downloaded the app and 8,600 of them enrolled in the study. Of those, about 2,000 use the app regularly, according to researchers. About 87% of users report living outside New Jersey and New York, where Mount Sinai is located (participants in traditional studies usually live close to where the study's being done). In addition, participants tended to report having severe asthma.

One of the most surprising findings: Patients have on average reported exercising more over the last six months, researchers said. While it's true the scientists have never personally witnessed these workouts, they say the participants' iPhones back up their claims. The devices' motion sensors continuously collect data on the user's walking, running, and other physical activities, provided that the user is carrying the phone or wearing a fitness tracker that feeds data into the phone. And the phones showed a significant increase in steps over the same time period.

"We capture a patient's vital signs at the doctor's office maybe once a year or every two months," Dr. Yvonne Chan, director of personalized medicine and digital health at the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai and principal investigator of the ResearchKit study, told BuzzFeed News. In contrast, with the app, "all of a sudden you could literally have millions of data points on their blood pressure — or whatever we're measuring — and for the first time we can capture the nuances and the fluctuations that occur from seconds to minutes to hours that have never been seen before. It blows my mind a little bit what we're able to do now."

The app reminds participants to take their asthma medications, notifies them about air pollutants in their area, and prompts them to keep a daily diary of their triggers, symptoms, and attacks. For patients, Chan said, the result of these combined interactions may be "greater insight into their own disease process," better management of their asthma, and better capability for exercise.

Like with any study, there are limitations. Only people who can afford iPhones, iPads, or iPod touches can use ResearchKit apps. So far, Chan said, participants skew toward being male and college-educated, with reported incomes of at least $60,000.

In the future, participants' electronic medical records may be built into the app so their doctors can see and react to their asthma attacks instantly, Chan said. Her team is currently testing an integration with Epic, the electronic medical record provider, with some Mount Sinai patients.

The Icahn School's asthma app is the first ResearchKit team to release preliminary findings. MyHeart Counts, which tracks heart health, expanded in August to users in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. In June, a team at the University of California, San Francisco, launched The PRIDE Study to identify and study lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer health issues. More than 14,000 people have enrolled since late June, researchers told BuzzFeed News.

Tesla's Model X Is Finally Here

Falcon wing doors and a very fancy air filter.

Tesla

It's been 3 years since Tesla released a new car, the apparently better-than-perfect Model S. On Tuesday night, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took the stage at the company's Fremont, California manufacturing plant to introduce its next-generation electric car — the Model X.

"It's important to show that any type of car can go electric," said Musk. "We did it with the sports car, the sedan, and, now, we're going to show it with an SUV."

The biggest change in the Model X from previous Teslas is size. Considerably larger than its predecessor the Model S, the X is a crossover car with three full rows of seats and entirely redesigned "falcon wing doors," which open vertically, kind of like a Delorean. It also comes with all-wheel-drive, like the latest version of the Model S, which scored 103 out of 100 in a Consumer Reports test published earlier this year.

Tesla

There seems to be little Tesla hasn't thought of in terms of vehicular perks and tricks. The Model X's front doors can open automatically. Its windshield is simply enormous. It has a front console that can charge nearly any kind of phone. The back seats automatically lean forward to make it easier to access third row of seats; they also have space under them to store bags and cargo without interrupting legroom. Those "falcon wing" doors? They can open to a near vertical position if you end up parked in a spot so tight you only have a matter of inches to open them. And then there's The Model X's extraordinary air filter. To Musk, that's a safety feature, because pollution "really affects life expectancy." It is, from the looks of things, a very fancy air filter. Musk likened it to "a hospital room in a car."

Like all Tesla cars, the Model X is first and foremost a luxury vehicle. It's fast (0-60mph in just 3.2 seconds); it's expensive ($130,000 to start), and it's exclusive (if this is the first you're hearing of the Model X, sorry, you're not getting your hands on one anytime soon).

The Model X may also be Tesla's last luxury car for a while. If Musk follows his previously laid out plan, Tesla's next vehicle will be aimed squarely at the mass market. Likely to debut sometime in 2016, the Model 3 is expected to feature a more mainstream-friendly price tag of $35,000.


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Online Lender Avant Gets $2 Billion Valuation

The company will use the proceeds of a massive $325 million funding round to expand its business of making unsecured personal loans over the internet.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Avant, the almost three-year old year old online lender that was once known as AvantCredit, is the latest startup financial services company to be valued at over $1 billion by private investors.

The company said today it has raised $325 million in equity from investors, at a valuation of $1.975 billion. News of the round was first reported by Fortune.

Avant largely makes unsecured personal loans to people with credit ratings that are better than subprime but below superprime — a niche it says the fast-growing online lending industry has overlooked. Companies like Prosper and Lending Club, which make mainly personal loans, tend to focus on lenders with very good credit.

Prosper has been valued at $1.9 billion in its latest valuation, while SoFi, which started out refinancing student loans, has been valued at $4 billion. At just shy of $2 billion, Avant fits between the two.

Avant mostly lends to borrowers with credit scores between 580 and 720, "the 45% to 50% of consumers who are not subprime and superprime," Al Goldstein, Avant's 34-year old cofounder told BuzzFeed News.

The loans have annual rates of between 9% and 36%, and Goldstein could eventually go as low as 5% to 6%. The average loan size is $8,000, but can get as high as $35,000.

The latest round of funding includes existing investors like RRE Ventures and Tiger Global Management, along with the venture capital General Atlantic, which lead the round (General Atlantic is also an investor in BuzzFeed). Avant changed its name from AvantCredit in April.

Avant / Via avant.com

Avant's focus on so-called near-prime borrowers puts more pressure on its underwriting software, which use over 1,000 attributes to figure out whether an applicant is likely to repay what they owe. The company also needs to pay close attention to loan servicing, which is done entirely in house rather than outsourced. Avant doesn't charge any fees on its loans and keeps about half of them on its own balance sheet, selling the rest to investors.

"We have skin in the game," said Goldstein, a former investment banker and real estate investor. "We take on the same kind of risk as our partners and marketplace participants."

Lending Club, the publicly traded online lender, sells off its loans to individual and institutional buyers, charging between 1% and 5% in origination fees.

Avant's massive funding round comes at a time when big online lenders are able to raise money at high valuations from private investors, but are losing favor in the public markets. Lending Club, which went public in late 2014, is trading at around $13.50, below its $15 IPO price, while OnDeck, which makes loans to small businesses, is trading at less than half its $20 IPO price.

"Lending Club is below its IPO price, but trades at rich valuation, it still is valued at an attractive price," Goldstein said. "We're very different, we're growing much faster, we have a very broad focus and a larger subset of consumers."

Because Avant keeps so many of its loans on its balance sheet instead of selling them off, it needs new money to grow. The company has raised over $650 million in equity and over $1 billion in debt; it has sold $1.8 billion in loans to investors.

Avant has originated $1.7 billion in loans this year, "faster than any marketplace platform," Goldstein says. Prosper has originated $4 billion in loans in nine years (although nearly all those loans were made after 2012). Goldstein says Avant is looking to originate at least $4 billion next year and says the company is cash-flow positive and will be profitable going forward.

Johanthan Krongold, a managing director at General Atlantic who will join Avant's board, said that all this growth is happening even as underwriting gets more conservative. "Despite having accelerated growth at scale, their loans and charge offs and defaults have fallen precipitously over the past few years and their underwriting has gotten more stringent and loss rates have fallen significantly."

The boom in online lending has come as the economy has grown steadily and unemployment has remained low, making it easier for borrowers to pay back their loans.

Goldstein said Avant's no-fee model, which keeps a sizable portion of loans on its books, creates more incentive to be careful in choosing who to lend to. "We're not going to originate for the sake of originations," he said. "The key to managing cycles is at some point you have to slow down, you have to manage your risk."


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In Schools, Google's Laptops Will Soon Outnumber All Other Devices Combined

Kevin Jarrett CC BY / Via Flickr: kjarrett

There will be more Google Chromebooks in American classrooms by the end of the year than all other devices combined, Google said today at a company event in San Francisco.

The figure is a striking indication of how quickly, and thoroughly, Google has come to dominate the massive education technology market. In 2012, Chromebooks made up just 1% of devices in American schools; iPads had a more than 50% market share. But by 2014, according to market research firm IDC, Chromebooks were outselling iPads in education.

About 30,000 Chromebooks have been activated every day since the beginning of the school year this September, mostly in schools, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said at the event. In schools, "by the end of this year, there will be more Chromebooks than every other device combined," Pichai said.

Chromebooks were able to overtake iPads in education because they're far cheaper — sometimes under $200 — have keyboards, and don't require additional software because they only run Google's Chrome browser.

When it began to make a push to sell its devices in schools, Google already had a strong foothold in many classrooms thanks to free apps like Google Drive and Docs. It also rolled out Google Classroom, a learning management tool that lets teachers collect assignments and give feedback using the company's cloud-based storage and word processing tools.

Google is also making a push to get its low-cost virtual reality viewing device, Google Cardboard, into classrooms. The cardboard viewers will allow students to go on simulated field trips and will be provided free to schools.

Flex Is Not Amazon's First Stab At The Gig Economy

Flex, Amazon’s on-demand delivery service, may be new, but if you think this is the first time the company has used digital platforms to experiment with a cheap, distributed workforce, you haven’t been paying attention.

Via Flickr: actualitte

On Tuesday, Amazon launched a new local delivery service called Flex. Starting in Seattle, the online retail giant will be relying on a labor force of contract workers to deliver packages around the city, sometimes in as little as 60 minutes. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of Flex's "quiet" rollout, said on Monday, "Amazon.com Inc. is joining the 'gig' economy."

But this is hardly Amazon's first foray into the on-demand space, and the company has relied on contract labor to accomplish all kinds of tasks for years. In order to dominate the online shopping market in the way that it has, Amazon owns warehouses all over the country. Some of these are staffed in part by Kiva robotics systems, but many more of them are staffed by contract workers. Amazon has been embroiled in a number of lawsuits over the treatment of these workers over the years, regarding both their treatment and their classification. Most recently, contract workers in a Los Angeles warehouse that works with Amazon (among other retailers) are striking, claiming unfair conditions. (While the striking workers don't actually work for Amazon, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board found that companies working with a contractor — known as joint employers — can be held responsible for work conditions if they exert a certain level of control.)

Amazon has also long relied on contract labor to power Mechanical Turk, a platform on which workers complete microtasks (such as transcription or answering survey questions) in exchange for, often, cents on the dollar. Mechanical Turkers work on their own time and can pick up gigs instantaneously, which makes them on-demand workers; the only thing that differentiates them from Flex delivery people is they aren't paid hourly and they don't provide local services.

But other Amazon contract workers do provide local services. Back in March, Amazon launched Home Services; through the platform, homeowners can select, say, a locksmith, book them for their services, and pay online immediately via Amazon. Home Services workers, who are prescreened, are yet another cheap, distributed, digitally procured workforce that Amazon relies on.

If "gig economy" is the term we use to describe a work arrangement in which geographically diffuse independent workers are paid piecemeal for completing tasks, then Flex is hardly the first time Amazon has taken a stab at it. What Flex is is a jab at local, on-demand logistics companies like Uber and Postmates — but, of course, Amazon is already a logistics company, so that's hardly a new thing.

Amazon has built its empire by constantly experimenting with ever more efficient arrays of couriers, drivers, pickers, packers, shippers, manufacturers, and various other stops on the consumption pipeline. Flex is just one part of a much larger engine that has for years been churning toward a more algorithmically perfect future model for the distribution and sale of goods and services. It's simply erroneous to pretend this is the first time Amazon has squeezed its labor force for even faster execution and lower costs.

And in fact, in an email, Amazon said about as much. "I would say we see this as no different than the myriad of technologies that Amazon has developed that empower success, whether that's Fulfillment by Amazon, which allows third-party sellers to sign up to sell on Amazon and we store their inventory and ship their products, or Kindle Direct Publishing, which allows any author to design and publish a book on their own," Amazon's Kelly Cheeseman told BuzzFeed News. "In the case of Amazon Flex, the service works in concert with the advanced logistics systems and technology that Amazon has been building since day one."

Snapchat's Newest Filter Is Kind Of Creepy And The Teens Hate It

It turns you into a yellow monster, for some reason.

The photo-sharing service just added some new ones.

One in particular is not going over well at all.

instagram.com


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Twitter Is Rethinking Its 140-Character Limit

A new product for longer tweets is in the works.

Interim Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in July that the company was questioning its fundamentals "in order to make the product easier and more accessible to more people."

Apparently, that statement applied even to Twitter's 140-character limit, which, according to a new report by Re/code, is being rethought.

The company is developing a product that "would enable Twitter users to publish long-form content to the service," Re/code reported. It's not yet clear what that product might look like.

Offering a bit more detail, Re/code reporter Jason del Ray tweeted: "Not saying 140-character limit is kaput. Reporting that Twitter will let users display more content beyond that limit."

Twitter declined to comment.

Google's Latest Chromebook Features A Detachable Keyboard And Runs On Android

Meet the Pixel C.

Google

Google added a new Chromebook to its arsenal on Tuesday morning: The Pixel C.

The C stands for "convertible," because the device is really a tablet. The Pixel C runs on Android Marshmallow and — like Microsoft's Surface and soon Apple's iPad Pro, as well — it blurs the lines between laptop and tablet. And by designing it to run on Android, a mobile operating system, Google has blurred those lines even further.

The Pixel C comes with an adaptable, magnetic keyboard that connects to the tablet via Bluetooth. The keyboard features a battery built to go two months between charges and is inductively charged through the back of the device.

The Pixel C is priced at $499 for a device with a 32GB hard drive, and $599 for one with a 64GB drive. The keyboard costs $149. The two can be bought separately, but it's clear that Google intends them to be a pair.

Google

Meet Google's New Chromecast

There’s a new Chromecast for your TV, and a Chomecast Audio for your speakers. They’re pretty.

Google

Google has (another) new way to watch TV and listen to music streamed from your phone. Oh, and you can play games too. At an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, it announced a new Chromecast device for the television, and a Chromecast Audio device for your speakers.

The original Chromecast device — Google's way to stream content to televisions — sold 20 million units to date. The update brings a new form factor, colors and capabilities.

The new devices are round, colorful, and come with a redesigned HDMI cord to make it easier to hide behind your television. Also, its Wi-Fi capabilities have been beefed up to handle more robust streaming requests.

Essentially, Cast-enabled apps run on your Android or iOS smartphone, and are broadcast to your TV. Fire up an app that's been optimized for casting, hit a button, and it streams the audio and video to your television. While video is streaming on TV, you can browse information on the device in your hand without disrupting what's on the big screen — for example, you could check other games in NFL Sunday Ticket if the game you're watching is a blowout, without having all that information show up on the TV.

The new Chromecast added Showtime and Sling TV to its lineup, and casting support for the NBA, NHL, and others is on its way. Additionally, games — like Angry Birds — can be made "cast-enabled" by developers, which means that mobile games can be easily played on your TV screen, using your phone as the controller.

It's available today, for the same price as the last generation: $35.

Google

Google also announced an entirely new device — Chromecast Audio.

It is more or less a Chromecast for your speakers; a way to plug a streaming device into an already-existing piece of hardware. In this case, home speakers. It connects through a 3.5mm audio cable — your basic aux cord, same as you use to plug in your headphones to a phone or car — but supports RCA and optical cables, for those with fancier speaker setups.

It automatically works with phones, tablets, and laptops connected to the home Wi-Fi, but it also has a guest modes if you've got someone over and don't want to give them your password. Google also announced that Spotify will be Chromecast Audio-compatible. The streaming service will also work on Chromecast.

Chromecast Audio is also available today, also for $35.


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How Google Changed The Smart Phone: A Deep History Of The Nexus Phone

Google’s vice president of Android walks us through how Nexus hardware and Android software influence each other and how they always have.

The Nexus 6P from Google and Huawei.

Google

Google announced two new Nexus handsets today, the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. Both run Android M, the latest version of its operating system, and both are as boss as Hogg. If you like Android phones, you're going to like these. Hell, even if you're iPhone-committed, they're worth seeing.

The Nexus 6P has a larger display, and thus is a bit bigger overall, at 5.7 inches. It also has a faster processor and is made of aircraft-grade aluminum — in case you want to, I don't know, fly it. It comes in aluminum (silver), graphite (black) & frost (white), and starts at a cool $499 for the 32GB model, unlocked and off contract.

The Nexus 5X is a device that Google refers to as "a sequel" to its popular Nexus 5, a phone that came out two years ago. At 5.2 inches, the 5X is a bit smaller than the 6P and it doesn't have quite as much kick to its processor. Its storage maxes out at 32GB, which is not a lot — even if Google does want you to keep all your data in the cloud. And rather than aluminum, the 5X has a smooth-touch painted plastic back. Having said that, it's a very nice device. It starts at $379 for the 16GB model, unlocked and without a contract.

This is the first time Google has rolled out two Nexus handsets at once. It's a real departure. And so a week before they launched, Hiroshi Lockheimer, VP of Android, ChromeOS, and Chromecast for Google, explained the thinking behind the two phones. In a windowless conference room at Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters, he walked BuzzFeed News through the history of Nexus devices and the origins of the 6P and 5S. There's a reason Google's doubling down on the Nexus this year.

The Nexus 5X from Google and LG.

Google

"Something that the original Nexus 5 and the Nexus 6 taught us is that Nexus is a thing," Lockheimer said. It's got True Fans. But many of the Nexus 5 fans were turned off by the larger Nexus 6 form factor. Meanwhile, the Nexus 6 kids just wanted their phablets. "So that's why this year we decided to do two."

The two new handsets are made by separate manufacturers: The Nexus 5X is made by LG (as was the Nexus 5), and the Nexus 6P is from Huawei — the first Nexus device from the Chinese manufacturer. But in both cases, as with all Nexus devices, the hardware is a reflection of the software on which it runs. The Nexus line is meant to be Google's purest expression of Android, a way for the company to offer its vision of what Android can be in physical form.

And in both phones that form is most evident in the two pieces of hardware they share. The first is a 12-megapixel camera with fat 1.55 micron pixels to compliment Android Marshmallow's faster, beefed-up camera app. These big pixels can gather more light, which makes them better for shooting indoors and in low light. The second shared feature is a fingerprint sensor, called Nexus Imprint, on the backside that lets people authenticate their devices with just a touch. The fingerprint sensor is made so that you can unlock the phone as you're pulling it from your pocket. Rather than placing it on the home button to be unlocked by the thumb — as Apple and Samsung have done — the Nexus 6P and 5S are designed to be unlocked by an index finger on the back of the device, in what Google thinks is a natural motion made when you grab a phone.

"Ergonomically, we thought that it actually made sense," Lockheimer said. "We just felt like you're holding it this way anyway, so why not put your finger there. Rather than doing that, you know, with your thumb." He theatrically moved his thumb down over the bottom center of his 6P, and then pushed it in his pocket. "So, literally, the way I use it, as I'm taking it out of my pocket, I press my finger on it, and done. It's just straight in. It's super-low latency — less than half a second."

The phone lights up, and it is, frankly, a gorgeous-looking device. Especially compared with the burly Nexus 6, last year's 6-inch model. The comparison is easy, because the Nexus 6 also sits on the conference room table right next to this new 6P. In fact, so does every other Nexus device the company has ever released — including the short-lived Nexus Q, and even a Nexus wireless charger.

Looking them over, what's so interesting about the Nexus line is that while these were all at one time flagship Android devices, Google didn't make any of them. When Andy Rubin, who ran Android for many years, introduced the Nexus One in 2010, he shrugged off complaints that Google had misled the press with statements that it wasn't working on its own phone. "I said Google won't build hardware," he argued.


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Here Are Google's New Nexus Phones

And a brand new Android operating system, Marshmallow.

Google has some new phones for you.

Google has some new phones for you.

Nexus 5X

Google

At a press event in San Francisco on Tuesday, Google unveiled the company's latest flagship Nexus phones — the 5X and the 6P.

The 5X, pictured above, is the more basic of the two phones announced today. It's the successor to the Nexus 5 — which was released two years ago — and retains a smaller form factor with its 5.2" screen. The 5X boasts a new, 12 megapixel camera, and comes pre-loaded with Marshmallow, Android's latest operating system. Its most glaring downside is the lack of a large memory option; there are only the 16GB and 32GB models, and neither will come with MicroSD slots to expand that hard drive space. Instead, you'll have to get acquainted with Google's many cloud services. You can, however, unlock it with your fingerprint.

Then there's the Nexus 6P.

Then there's the Nexus 6P.

Nexus 6P

It comes with a lot of new hardware features, including the same 12 megapixel camera that's in the 5X, a fingerprint sensor on its back, and the first all-(very fancy)-metal body on a Nexus. It comes in 32, 64 and 128 GB models.

Its camera comes with a smart burst feature — allowing it to make 30 frames-per-second GIFs on the run.

The 6P also marks the first time Huawei has been tapped to produce a Nexus device — and although it's released several models in the United States before, this is the Chinese company's first real high profile release.


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Ted Cruz Raises Constitutional Objections To The U.S. Giving Up Internet Governance

Republicans want Congress to decide if the Obama administration can transfer its oversight of internet authority to an international group.

Steve Pope / Getty Images

In the political contest to decide who will control the internet's foundational architecture, Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday introduced a new referee: the U.S. Constitution.

Joined by Republican congressional leaders in the House and Senate, Cruz wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office opposing the Obama Administration's plans to transfer oversight power of the web's domain name system to an international, multi-stakeholder group – on constitutional grounds.

For nearly 30 years that oversight power rested with the Department of Commerce. In partnership with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit institution that manages the technical infrastructure of the internet — the department has maintained a stewardship role over the web's domain names and addresses. This role, however, was to be transferred to a global, non-governmental group under ICANN. But last year, when the Commerce Department announced that the transition would begin, concerned lawmakers raised fears that without American oversight, antagonistic foreign governments like China, Russia, and Iran would seek to influence control over the internet.

Now, Cruz and his allies have put forth a new argument: that the Obama administration lacks the constitutional authority to transfer this oversight power. In the letter, released Monday and sent to the Government Accountability Office, Cruz, along with Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, and Rep. Dar­rell Issa ar­gued that the transition may vi­ol­ate the Con­sti­tu­tion­ because only Congress has the authority to transfer government property.

"If the contract governing U.S. oversight of the Internet is indeed government property, the Administration's intention to cede control to the 'global stakeholder community' – including nations like Iran, Russia and China that do not value free speech and in fact seek to stifle it – is in violation of the Constitution and should be stopped," Cruz said in a statement.

In the letter, the lawmakers asked the GAO to determine if the transition plan amounts to a transfer of property and if the president has the constitutional authority to follow through with it. If the GAO agrees with Cruz's interpretation, then the decision to give up American control over the internet's technical management would then rest not with the president but with the Republican-controlled Congress.

Charles Young, a spokesperson for the GAO, told BuzzFeed News that the letter is being reviewed but it will take a few weeks before any decisions are made.

ICANN and the Obama administration maintain that the technical management of the internet was designed to exist beyond the control of any particular nation-state. And the transfer of U.S. oversight, they say, is in keeping with the openness of the web, of ensuring access to global networks outside government rule.

ICANN's vice president of strategic programs, Jamie Hedlund, told BuzzFeed News he is confident that the Commerce Department "possesses the requisite authority to transition its stewardship role." In the meantime, he said, the IC­ANN community will continue to de­vel­op pro­pos­als to transition American stewardship.

LINK: U.S. Maintains Control Over Internet Governance For A Bit Longer


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Product Hunt Launches A Podcast Section

The new-cool-thing-discovery site will help people find new podcasts, as well as featuring live chats with podcast hosts.

Starting today, Product Hunt has a new section to help people find new podcasts to listen to, in addition to hosting podcaster live chats.

Starting today, Product Hunt has a new section to help people find new podcasts to listen to, in addition to hosting podcaster live chats.

producthunt.com

The section works sort of like the traditional Product Hunt for apps and tech, or the more recent games, books, and "live" (kind of like an AMA) section. Community members can recommend shows and episodes they like, and they can upvote other peoples' suggestions. The recent books section launched with a fairly tech bro-y lineup of authors for the live chats. Based on a look at the beta version of the podcast section, the community podcasts selections appear to go the same way ('casts about startups and tech dominate), but of course, that can change.

Erik Torenberg, a founding team member of Product Hunt, told BuzzFeed News that "the community will be able to post new episodes (not just shows), listen to them directly from the site, create collections of their favorite shows, and discuss them with other fans and the podcast hosts themselves."

Podcasts have been exploding in popularity in the last year, but it's notoriously tricky to discover new ones – people want to know if their friends recommend a good new podcast, but they don't tend to, say, post podcast episodes to their Facebook page. [Full disclosure: I host a podcast with BuzzFeed called Internet Explorer, you should totally check out out.] In this way, something that is specifically designed for community-suggested discovery like Product Hunt could work really well with podcasts.

Product Hunt will also have live ask-me-anything-style chats with podcasters, kicking it off with Alex Blumberg and Matthew Lieber of Gimlet, which puts out Reply All, Start-Up, and Mystery Show. Ann Friedman, host of Call Your Girlfriend did a live chat yesterday, and her co-host Aminatou Sow will also be doing an upcoming chat. Other upcoming chats include the hosts of Reply All, Manoush Zomorodi of Note to Self and Ophira Eisenberg of The Moth.

Flickr: zoomar

People With Limited iPhone Data Should Turn Off This New iOS 9 Feature

It could eat up lotsa data.

Apple has released its new mobile operating system, iOS 9. There's a new feature that data-starved people (~cough~ Canadians) need to know about — and turn off.

Apple has released its new mobile operating system, iOS 9. There's a new feature that data-starved people (~cough~ Canadians) need to know about — and turn off.

The feature is called "Wi-Fi Assist." It will automatically switch to the cell network for data if it detects an inconsistent WiFi signal.

It's a cool way to ensure you stay connected as you use your phone. But it can also eat up more data.

William West / AFP / Getty Images

(Remember, this is just for people who have upgraded to iOS 9.)

Open the Settings app on your iPhone.

Open the Settings app on your iPhone.

BuzzFeed Canada

Choose the Cellular menu.

Choose the Cellular menu.

BuzzFeed Canada


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The Definitive Ranking Of The Windows 98 Screensavers

Never forget that maze.

The Baseball Game

The Baseball Game

No doubt this one was thrown in last minute, when the computer nerds designing this shit were pressured to relate to the sport-loving PC owners. "This is what baseball looks like, right?"

Microsoft / Via youtube.com

The Flying Flag

The Flying Flag

Sure it's a classic, but it's also pretty terrible. Only the most basic of Windows 98 owners would choose this as their go-to screensaver. What is that flag even doing? It's like a weird, flag fish flopping around unattractively. Next.

Microsoft / Via youtube.com

The Forest Floor

The Forest Floor

The one good thing about this one was that sometimes your mom would scream at it, thinking there was an actual bug crawling across the monitor. Other than that though, who wants to see gross bugs when there are so many other great screensavers to choose from?

Microsoft / Via youtube.com

The Creepy 19th Century Scene

The Creepy 19th Century Scene

Does anyone actually remember this one? What the fuck is even happening here? Who is that man? This one made no sense, and the only reason it's this far down on the list is because it's damn fascinating.

Microsoft / Via youtube.com


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A Startup Bids Farewell To Its $15,000 A Month Desert Mansion

Zenefits, a Silicon Valley startup, rented the luxurious Arizona property as a crash pad for visiting employees. But the days of the “Zenemansion” are coming to an end.

Google / Via Google Maps Street View

For the employees of one Silicon Valley unicorn, the days of lounging poolside under a flaming desert sunset are coming to an end.

For the past year, Zenefits, one of America's most highly valued tech startups, has paid $15,000 a month for a luxurious home in a wealthy Arizona suburb, BuzzFeed News has learned. But the San Francisco-based Zenefits, which lacks profits and is burning its way through the $500 million it raised from investors in May, has decided it no longer needs the 5,000-square-foot dwelling.

Now, the landlord tells us, Zenefits is letting the lease expire at the end of October.

The five-bedroom property was intended as a crash pad for Zenefits employees from San Francisco visiting the company's office in Scottsdale, which it opened last year. The company says it rented the five-bedroom home rather run up frequent hotel bills.

The rental, located in the upscale suburb of Paradise Valley, was quite the crib. Real estate listings, as well as videos obtained by BuzzFeed News, show a palatial residence equipped with a pool, hot tub, grand piano, outdoor grill area, six bathrooms, a wine closet, and a games room with a card table, billiards table and bar.

Employees, who made full use of the house during a rollicking holiday party last year, affectionally call it the "Zenemansion."

But now, with the Scottsdale office up and running, Zenefits is building up a new facility in nearby Tempe, which eventually will house the majority of its Arizona business. And that means letting go of the Zenemansion.

"The house was used consistently by employees at all levels — including the CEO — and saved Zenefits tens of thousands of dollars on hotel costs," said Zenefits spokesperson Kenneth Baer in an emailed statement. "Zenefits is letting the lease expire because the company is moving the bulk of its Arizona operation to Tempe, and the house is no longer convenient."

BuzzFeed News

While not a household name to most Americans, Zenefits is a darling of the Silicon Valley establishment. The startup, which makes software to help small businesses manage their employee benefits, was valued at $4.5 billion in May, just two years after launching. That turned it into a "unicorn," the term for startups worth at least $1 billion.

Its investors include Hollywood celebrity Jared Leto, as well as a roster of prominent venture capitalists. The powerhouse venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has put more money into Zenefits than in any other startup in its portfolio. (Andreessen Horowitz is also an investor in BuzzFeed.)

But even its powerful friends acknowledge Zenefits is pursuing a risky course. It is using its pile of venture capital to expand at a breakneck pace, hiring lots of salespeople in an effort to win ever more small business customers. The hope is that Zenefits will finally turn a profit when it gets big enough — but there is no guarantee that this will happen, particularly if it grows too quickly to adequately serve its customers.

Despite its lofty valuation, Zenefits eschews some of perks, like free lunches, that are commonplace at other tech companies. The CEO, Parker Conrad, has said he won't consider job applicants who ask whether they'll be served free lunch.


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Apple’s Newest iPhones Are Really Hard To Bend

SquareTrade — a company that uses robots to stress test smartphones — says the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are significantly stronger than their predecessors.

SquareTrade

So much for Bendgate.

SquareTrade, a company that built a robot specifically to beat the hell out of new smartphones, is back at it again. On Monday, the company released durability test results for Apple's new iPhone 6S and iPhone 6s Plus, as well as Samsung's Galaxy Note 5.

The good news: It takes a lot of pressure to bend all three devices.

The good news: It takes a lot of pressure to bend all three devices.

SquareTrade

In SquareTrade's tests, the iPhone 6s withstood about 170 pounds of pressure, while the iPhone 6s Plus handled about 180 pounds of pressure. Both figures are more than 50% improvement over the performance of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus under similar testing. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 5 withstood about 170 pounds of pressure.


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Facebook Hosts Indian Prime Minister Modi As Silicon Valley Thirsts For India

When Zuckerberg was lost, Steve Jobs told him to go to India. Now he’s going back.

Via Facebook: zuck

Forget hoverboards or heartbeats on your wrist. The biggest tech shift of 2015 is Silicon Valley's landgrab in the developing world — it's the year when Uber raised additional billions just to compete in the Chinese domestic market and Facebook built a Boeing-sized drone to try to beam connectivity down to the 43.4% of the world who are not yet online.

In that context, the sound of Bollywood hits blaring across the social network's Menlo Park headquarters yesterday morning carried a note of portent. The sentimental playlist, including throwbacks from the '90s and late aughts, was background music for the thousand or so guests — mostly Indian or of Indian descent — gathered for a town hall–style Q&A with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nitasha Tiku / BuzzFeed News

Early Sunday, Hacker Square, an outdoor stretch of the social giant's campus with the word "hack" spelled out in concrete, was abuzz with tech workers in Facebook swag and sneakers who mingled with women in chic salwar kameez, men in Nehru vests over their button-down shirts, and a handful of kids who came with their parents for the historic occasion and couldn't help pointing to the helicopter circling overhead or the translators in their soundproof booths. As the row of TV correspondents in the back told their respective cameras, it's been 33 years since an Indian head of state visited California.

During his two-day tour of tech country, Modi has received the kind of "rock star" reception normally reserved for billionaire CEOs like Elon Musk — who himself gave Modi a personal tour of Tesla. Modi also met with the CEOs of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. On Sunday night, Modi sold out the "Shark Tank," a massive indoor arena in San Jose, where the crowd chanted "Modi" for hours.


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Apple Has Sold More Than 14 Million New iPhones Since Friday

It’s a new record.

Cole Bennetts / Getty Images

It turns out people still really like iPhones.

Consumers have snatched up more than 13 million new Phone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus devices since they went on sale last Friday, Apple announced in a press release today.

Even though it's an off-year, when Apple upgrades the existing model of iPhone rather than releasing a new generation designated by a higher number, the 13 million phones sold are still a record, according to the press release. The new phones feature Multi-Touch, which measure how hard you press the screen, and Live Photos, which animate pictures on the device.

Last year, the first weekend of iPhone 6 sales saw 10 million devices come off the shelves, while in 2013 Apple sold nine million of the then-new 5S and 5C in the first three days.

"The Black Procter & Gamble" Raises $24 Million

The investment will help Walker and Co. expand into Target stores starting next year.

Walker

The downtown Palo Alto office of Walker and Co., the two-year-old cosmetics company founded by former Foursquare exec Tristan Walker, doesn't look like much — white walls and few design flourishes, a tech-office standard open plan and affinity for Macs — but it smells incredible: Like lavender and black tea, with the faintest little hint of mango. It's less candle-store cloying than like a very elegant person's bathroom, and it is, to use an industry cliche, delightful.

Walker is certainly a tech guy — in addition to the Foursquare stint, he served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, and he's also long been a favorite at South by Southwest and on tech Twitter. But Walker and Co. is far from a traditional tech shop. His flagship product isn't software, or even hardware; rather, it's a very beautiful single-blade razor (plus attendant creams and accessories), called Bevel, that is designed to, in Walker's words, "eradicate shaving irritation" in coarse-haired (meaning mostly, but not entirely, black) men.

That's not, however, to say that Walker and Co. doesn't raise money like a tech company. On Monday, the company announced that it had raised $24 million in Series B funding; the round was led by Institutional Venture Partners with the participation of various valley VC firms — Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures, several others — as well as a veritable murder's row of celebrity investors, including basketball players Andre Iguodala and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Vine star King Bach, singer John Legend, and San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York. The company also announced that Bevel will be sold in some Target stores and on Target.com, starting next year.

Last spring, the company raised nearly $7 million in a Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz; according to Walker, he still has a lot of that in the bank, "so we didn't really need to raise." But he clearly has big ambitions for the company, which he is fond of likening to a sort of Procter & Gamble for people of color. This new round will help with a three-pronged expansion that includes the Target deal, a hiring push (especially in customer service and engineering), and, in 2016, a new brand. Walker was coy about the details of that new brand, but he stressed that — true to the Procter & Gamble vision — Walker and Co was never intended to be just Bevel but several different brands, all targeting consumers of color.

"The thing that we proved with our first brand is that we can actually develop a suite of products that solve a really important problem that has existed for 100 years and no one has solved," Walker told BuzzFeed News. "So we're going to continue to iterate on that. Each of these subbrands will have their own personality, but still have the Walker and Co. values. For example, a lot of women use our product. Could there be a better profile for that use case?"

There's clearly room for Walker and Co. to grow. Walker pointed out that while health and beauty is a $400 billion industry, it's one that has historically underserved people of color. Meanwhile, according to a 2013 Nielsen report, "blacks consistently place a higher emphasis on grooming and beauty categories and at the top of that list is Ethnic Hair and Beauty Aids (HABA), which Blacks purchase nine times more than others."

Which is certainly part of why Walker was able to attract this round of investment, but Walker says many of his investors had been fans of Bevel before opening their wallets.

"Most of those folks are also consumers of our product," Walker said. "One thing that's really important [with celebrities] is not just using them for their reach. What's great about most of our investors is, they all walked down the same aisles I had to walk down. They picked up the same dirty packaging that I had to pick up. And they're interested in solving the problem we're trying to solve."

"[The investor pool] is diverse because I want it to be," Walker, who is also cofounder of Code2040, a nonprofit that creates "access, awareness, and opportunities" for young African-American and Latino/a engineers, continued. "Walker and Co. is majority minority, majority women, all great leaders, and I wanted my investor base to reflect not only the diversity of our team but the diversity of our customers, too."

What about the smell, though? Is it a collective and uncommonly good sense of personal hygiene among Walker's staff of 20? Do they spray something in the air?

"I think," Walker said, joking, "it's just our being awesome."

Meet The Tech Entrepreneurs Trying To Take Back The Porn Industry

It’s a cloudless, mid-January day in Los Angeles, and I’m in a cramped, dimly lit hotel conference room off the Sunset Strip getting scolded by the star of Gang Bang Darlings 8.

“I hope you all feel really guilty,” Vicky Vette tells me and the 30 or so porn professionals gathered here for a piracy panel at the XBiz360 Adult Digital Media Conference. Vette is dressed in a tight but tasteful pink tank top with distressed flared jeans and peep-toe flats. Just moments earlier a man dressed in a flame-kissed bowling shirt à la Guy Fieri asked the crowd to raise our hands if we’ve ever streamed porn for free online. All hands, most of them white and male, went up. Now, after Vette's admonishment, he asks how many of us have shelled out for a $30 monthly subscription site.

I see one, maybe two, sheepish hands from men slinking in their seats. Even at porn industry conventions, nobody seems to be paying for porn.

XBiz360

The discussion is about how porn’s top directors and producers are coping with the scourge of piracy brought about by tube sites — the free, user-uploaded streaming porn video sites made in the image of YouTube — and tempers are rising. Midway through, an audience member wearing a golf shirt tucked into khakis adorned with a cell phone holster asks if the industry folk feel like they’re losing out to the glut of free porn on the internet, and a panelist cuts him off quickly: “No doubt. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.” One of the industry men on the panel tries to interject to extol the virtues of now-ancient-sounding DVDs, likening them to comic books as collectibles for the porn crowd. But as anyone who’s ever typed a risqué term into Google in the past 10 years knows, the kids aren’t buying and collecting dirty DVDs.

Colin Rowntree, one of online porn’s cadre of founding fathers, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, friendly, sunken eyes, and a Tommy Bahama print shirt, rattles off bleak stats from memory. “Since 1998, there’s been an average of 70% drop in revenue on standard pay sites,” he tells the room. “You simply need to diversify. If you work 10 times harder than you did in the ’90s, then you can get close to getting back to the old revenues but not quite.” The room nods solemnly in agreement.

“Well, what the hell are you going to jerk off to when we stop producing?”

To an outsider, this is a brutally honest portrait of an industry in crisis. How can the porn business, which has squeezed performers and studios so far to the financial margins that it has become openly hostile to new entrants, innovate and survive? As an art form? I summon the courage to ask the panelists this very question. But before they can respond, a performer in the front row turns to administer my second scolding of the afternoon. “Well, what the hell are you going to jerk off to when we stop producing?”

According to some estimates, 36% of all internet downloads are of pornographic material. And while there’s no way to truly confirm these ever-changing figures, some observers have suggested that roughly 12% of the internet contains at least some pornographic content. In 2012, YouPorn told Extreme Tech that the site pulls in 100 million page views per day; at peak that’s 4,000 page views a second. And in PornHub’s 2014 year in review, the sites boasted 18.35 billion total visits and 78.9 billion total videos viewed. That’s 11 videos viewed for every person alive. A casual observer would probably assume that the internet has been great for porn; in one sense, it has been. Never before have so many people had immediate access to this much adult content.

But inside the industry, porn’s relationship to the internet is fraught. The adult industry is credited — quietly — with frequently building and shaping new technologies, and technology has long been credited with creating the porn juggernaut. A 1986 Merrill Lynch study, dredged up by adult industry scholar Jonathan Coopersmith, shows that “X-rated tapes constituted over half of all sales of pre-recorded tapes in the late 1970s.” It took until the mid-1980s for the rest of the market to catch up; in the meantime, Deep Throat racked up nearly $100 million, most of which came from sales of tapes.

xtube.com

Major architectural foundations of the internet also owe a debt to porn, which helped to pioneer e-commerce and credit card billing through adult pay sites in the 1990s. Coopersmith cites “cybersex promoters” in the ’80s and ’90s with leading the development and distribution of CD-ROMs, noting that Penthouse’s Virtual Photo Shoot software “won praise for being one of the most interactive games then manufactured.” You can also thank porn for the popularization of webcams, which began their boom as early as 1995 in adult online forums.

But if porn helped to conceive and nurture the modern internet, the internet has turned its back on porn. Major internet companies like Instagram and Tumblr have hidden adult content from internal search, and Google has removed porn while de-prioritizing adult sites in its search algorithms. Facebook, arguably the internet’s most important destination, has banned adult content outright since its inception, and mainstream billing sites and financial services firms have shut their doors to adult companies, citing them as “high risk” clients.

If online porn was built by technically proficient, big-dreaming smut innovators, it's now under siege by, essentially, technically proficient, deep-pocketed, shell corporation–constructing scoundrels. Consumed and overwhelmed by the fruits of its own technological innovations, the adult world must once again return to its entrepreneurial, iconoclastic roots if it wants to reclaim its industry. If anybody has any clue what we're going to jerk off to in the future, it's probably these guys.

Brad DeCecco / Redux for BuzzFeed News

It’s a cold February night and I’m driving along the pitch-dark, blind-curved back roads of southern New Hampshire as Colin Rowntree tells me how he inadvertently went from being a classically trained orchestral conductor to a BDSM website proprietor. Rowntree's tastefully furnished New Hampshire McMansion serves as a set and editing studio for Wasteland.com — it has that classic unlived-in model-home feel, but with fewer canyon views, more Keurig instant coffee machines, and a friendly old golden retriever who looks like he’d unwittingly lope into the shot during a particularly vigorous spanking scene.

Colin, 56, and his wife Angie, 54, are both in the Adult Video News Hall of Fame, but after 10 minutes talking to them, a stranger might guess that they own a burgeoning Adirondack chair business or run an artisanal scented-candle operation. Instead, this founding father of online porn has a plan to take back at least some power from the tubes.

“It’s the culmination of our entire careers in this industry.”

Boodigo.com is their ethical porn search engine, a chance for them to regain some control of the adult internet. “It’s the culmination of our entire careers in this industry,” Colin says with a smile. He spent the last year building it with a couple of ex-Google engineers, and its premise is simple: a safe, secure search engine for adult content that doesn’t track users or mine any user data, algorithmically de-prioritizes free tube content, and actively weeds out deeply offensive and illegal content like child porn.

Boodigo is a direct response to Google’s tightening restrictions against adult content. In March 2014, Google eliminated adult advertising in its search products and largely cut access to the helpful Google employees who specialized in takedown requests from the adult industry. It’s also an attempt to curry favor with the growing legion of average porn consumers who are weary of having their most private browsing behaviors tracked. “Google is very, very good at what it does but it's not what you want if you're looking for something sensitive. Porn, fireworks, firearms. You want something naughty? Come to us and we won’t track your shit," Colin says.

Colin explains how online porn has changed since he and Angie posted a few images of women in leather fetish gear on the web as part of a promotion for a hodgepodge direct-mail catalog site in 1994, accidentally launching one of the internet’s first adult pay sites. Since then, Colin and Angie (who runs the porn for women site sssh.com), have experimented with all styles of content and technologies to keep their niche sites afloat. There’s “This Old Dungeon,” which teaches people how to build bondage furniture, and BDSMPad, a tablet porn app, which launched the same day as the iPad with the tagline “We flagellate, you masturbate.” But for all the innovations, gimmicks, and decades of experience, the Rowntrees have watched the tubes destroy porn’s middle class and technological edge.

Colin and Angie have managed to make a sturdy living thanks to the niche nature of their sites, but the glut of free tube porn has squeezed margins. "I've seen members inside Wasteland download 20 years of movies in their trial period, and I know for a fact those all go on the tubes," Angie says. As suspicious as the bulk downloads look, there's little the Rowntrees — or other adult producers — can do to prove it. "We've tried to search user names inside Wasteland to see if they're also there on PornHub, but they must have different names."

Essentially, the Rowntrees' proposition is that concerned internet users will eschew the convenience — and zero-dollar price point — of the tube sites in favor of privacy and peace of mind. So far it’s working, albeit slowly. Colin says Boodigo had 2.5 million unique daily visitors and 7 million queries at launch in September 2014. As of mid-August, the site was pulling in over a million more unique visitors per day, with 39% of visitors returning to the site. This past August, the site received 3.5 million uniques daily. “As long as the porn’s still there, they keep coming back because nobody is watching them,” Colin says. If it continues to take off, Boodigo could cut off some of the tube sites' revenue by stanching the flow of traffic to pages that make money from traditional banner advertising. Given the dominance of the tubes, it’s more of a first strike than it is a finishing blow, but it’s one that could extend a lifeline to porn’s more niche subscription sites.

Only a week after launching Boodigo’s equivalent of Google's AdWords module in January, Rowntree says he received his first five-figure ad buy, and since then Boodigo's advertiser base has consistently grown to now over 400 advertisers. The organic search results have surpassed over 10 million adult sites. As porn producers look to reallocate some of their Google ad funds, Rowntree sees an enormous opportunity. As we pull into the three-door garage he recently used to film a food-fight orgy scene for Wasteland, Colin says, “I think I might be able to retire off this one someday."

Streaming video, which was first introduced to the web in 1994 by the Dutch porn company Red Light District, enabled MindGeek — formerly Manwin and before that Mansef — to build the first tube sites, allowing users to upload scores of pirated porn videos. The company's origins, much like its legality, are murky. Some link the beginnings of the MindGeek dynasty to early 2007, when Matt Keezer, one of the founders of the major online porn studio Brazzers, bought the PornHub domain for less than $3,000. It quickly grew thanks to revenue from banner ads, launching new brands like Mofos.com and acquiring tube sites like ExtremeTube and Tube8. The company consolidated under the name Mansef, but after a Secret Service raid and asset seizure of nearly $9 million, the founders, suddenly paranoid, sold the business off to Fabian Thylmann, a German programming prodigy, for a reported $140 million.

Under Thylmann's management, ad revenues soared, and the company — renamed Manwin — nearly doubled to 500 employees by 2011. A New York magazine article suggests that Manwin's pretax earnings nearly doubled between December 2009 and December 2010. While Thylmann made overtures to clean up tube piracy — Mansef, under the Brazzers owners, had been accused of allowing its users to upload troves of illegal clips to the porn sites — adult producers found it nearly impossible to stop their content from spreading illegally onto the tube sites. All the while, Manwin aggregators made fortunes from simple display advertising, which, in turn, allowed the company to buy up bigger tubes like YouPorn in 2011, and major mainstream adult production studios like Babes.com, Digital Playground, Reality Kings, and Twistys.

In 2012, Thylmann was extradited to Germany for tax evasion; Manwin has changed hands once again and is now operated as MindGeek. According to some reports, MindGeek owns eight of the top ten tubes sites, creating, essentially, a monopoly. As such, the company has the financial resources and the reach to force studios, producers, and performers to cooperate in any number of partnership deals. In many cases, they join up and give MindGeek tube sites HD preview content for less-than-optimal affiliate traffic kickback deals rather than compete with the monster sites. MindGeek declined to address the company's checkered past, noting, “The current management cannot comment on alleged operations that took place years ago under previous leadership and owners.”

Even when worked up, most porn folks will admit the number of pirated clips on MindGeek-owned tube sites has decreased since the company bought many of the major adult studios. But the scourge is far from eliminated. In fact, there’s so much illegal material online that it’s created a cottage industry of copyright takedown entrepreneurs.

Nate Glass, owner of Takedown Piracy, removes thousands of illegal clips a week in his quest to right the piracy wrongs wrought by the tubes. His company just built a digital fingerprinting tool that identifies and flags stolen clips for copyright infringement takedown notices. He has eight studio clients on board and is confident that if all studios cooperated, he could drastically decrease the amount of pirated porn. “We took down 12,000 videos almost immediately for those eight clients who signed up,” Glass tells me, noting that the program has also identified 200,000 illegal videos as well as their copyright holders.

“When you sit down to rub one out, you're not engaging in critical economic thought.”

Glass worries that the viewer has no idea that their favorite, secretly bookmarked, banner ad–laden free porn repositories are contributing to the shrinking of the adult industry. In this way, the internet has ushered in a lost generation for porn: millions of young users who don’t just think paying for porn is for suckers, but don’t realize that porn isn’t free by default.

Recently Glass, along with adult performer Jessica Drake, went on a U.S. college tour to talk to students about stealing porn. It was dismal. “Many don't even know that the porn they're watching on PornHub is there without permission,” he told me. “When you sit down to rub one out, you're not engaging in critical economic thought.” Glass says he sees fans tweet to adult performers with messages saying, "I love this scene of yours on PornHub," only to have the performer tweet back that the clip is up illegally. “It doesn't even enter their minds. It's a different generational mind-set.”

Even some of porn’s established names sound weary describing the grind. “People think I make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which I don't,” Stoya, the raven-haired 10-year industry veteran best known for her near-ubiquitous internet presence, tells me over coffee on a snowy February afternoon near NYU. Stoya blogs frequently about the adult industry — on her own site and for The Verge, Refinery29, Vice, and occasionally for the New York Times — and is as exhausted with the state of the industry as she is eloquent about its shortcomings.

Like their production counterparts, performers often need to diversify by performing in cam shows, auctioning clothing like their bras and panties, making molds of their orifices and appendages for licensed sex toys, and interacting with fans through paid texts, snaps, and even online video games. Performers are increasingly required to book scenes without royalties and are subsequently required to promote them relentlessly on social media. “I’m just tired,” Stoya says. And yet she sees a business opportunity amid the chaos.

Stoya.

Courtesy Stoya