‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000

When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her out as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops, and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems onboard the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; Don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At under $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on) I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

Big revenues, huge valuations and major losses: charting the era of the unicorn IPO

We can make charts galore about the tech IPO market. Yet none of them diminish the profound sense that we are in uncharted territory.

Never before have so many companies with such high revenues gone public at such lofty valuations, all while sustaining such massive losses. If you’re a “growth matters most” investor, these are exciting times in IPO-land. If you’re the old-fashioned value type who prefers profits, it may be best to sit out this cycle.

Believers in putting market dominance before profits got their biggest IPO opportunity perhaps ever last week, with Uber’s much-awaited dud of a market debut. With a market cap hovering around $64 billion, Uber is far below the $120 billion it was initially rumored to target. Nonetheless, one could convincingly argue it’s still a rich valuation for a company that just posted a Q1 loss of around $1 billion on $3 billion in revenue.

So how do Uber’s revenues, losses and valuation stack up amidst the recent crop of unicorn IPOs? To put things in context, we assembled a list of 15 tech unicorns that went public over the past three quarters. We compared their valuations, along with revenues and losses for 2018 (in most cases the most recently available data), in the chart below:

 

Put these companies altogether in a pot, and they’d make one enormous, money-losing super-unicorn, with more than $25 billion in annual revenue coupled to more than $6 billion in losses. It’ll be interesting to revisit this list in a few quarters to see if that pattern changes, and profits become more commonplace.

History

It’s easy to draw comparisons to the decades-old dot-com bubble, but this time things are different. During the dot-com bubble, I remember penning this lead sentence:

“If the era of the Internet IPO had a theme song, it might be this: There’s no business like no business.”

That notion made sense for bubble-era companies, which commonly went public a few years after inception, before amassing meaningful revenues.

That tune won’t work this time around. If the era of the unicorn IPO had a theme song, it wouldn’t be nearly as catchy. Maybe something like: “There’s no business like lots of business and lots of losses too.”

I won’t be buying tickets to that musical. But when it comes to buying IPO shares, the unicorn proposition is a bit more appealing than the 2000 cycle. After all, it’s reasonably plausible for a company with dominant market share to tweak its margins over time. It’s a lot harder to grow revenues from nothing to hundreds of millions or billions, particularly if investors grow averse to funding continued losses.

Of course, the dot-com bubble and the unicorn IPO era do share a common theme: Investors are betting on an optimistic vision of future potential. If expectations don’t pan out, expect share prices to follow suit.

Week-in-Review: Google impersonates Apple and Bezos eyes the moon

After Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy mea culpa at F8 last week, Google got its turn at I/O to promise consumers that their data wasn’t going anywhere that they didn’t want it to go. In short: they aimed to take a page from Apple.

For Google, a clear strategy at the event was essentially highlighting how it wasn’t collecting user data in certain circumstances; those circumstances seemed to be largely focused on whenever the data wasn’t all that useful to Google to begin with.

Here’s everything Google announced at the I/O 2019 Keynote

Google received applause for “privacy commitments” on its new Next Home Max like not cloud-uploading a 3D mesh of a user’s face that’s used for tailoring information, as though doing it in the cloud would make any sense for the company to do. Keeping information on-device was still the exception to the rule at I/O this week, the cloud is still where Google keeps its sharpest wits.

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on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
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Are expectations so low that we expect Google to keeps everything that we enter on its services forever? While the company has introduced opt-out auto-delete features for information like location data and web history, Google still writes the rules for you handle your own data, specifying that you still allow the data to stay on Google servers for either 3 or 18 months, periods of time that still allow Google to hold onto the most relevant of your info in order to surface information.

Privacy is a product of tradeoffs when you’re online, but companies like Google often seem to communicate that trading information is an inevitability of getting a tailored experience.

Look at a product from Apple like News+, one would imagine that the only way a service could understand what you like to read is by handing that user information to the service owner and sending those suggestions back down. Apple instead handles this by sending users a package of articles and by using on-device processing, the company is able to suggest your next article without publishers or Apple knowing what it is that you’re reading across the network of sites.

Apple is of course reliant on a business model that’s focused on selling hardware not advertising, and thus they’re in a bit more understandable of a position when it comes to eschewing personal data collection in most circumstances.

The company made some partial progress towards righting privacy wrongs, but the biggest winner in the company’s privacy rebrand was meant to be Google.

My colleague Josh had a less cynical view on Google’s promises, though we both share the opinion that Facebook doesn’t deserve much trust in its new privacy “mission,” here’s his piece that runs counter to about everything above:

Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Bezos’ moon moonshot
    Amazon’s CEO is psyched about the moon but he’s not planning to put HQ2 on it, he wants his rocket company Blue Origin to plant its newly-unveiled lunar lander on the surface. At a dedicated event, Bezos discussed some of the company’s plans to turn the moon into a future home for humanity. “It’s time to go back to the Moon. This time to stay,” Bezos said.
  • No five-star rating for Uber opening
    After several weeks of headlines surrounding Lyft’s disappointing public debut, Uber got its turn Friday. The result was none too pretty, after opening at the lowest end of its range, the company still dove in first day trading ending the day with a share price of $41.50. The company has an uphill road to profitability, but as it looks to cut costs, some Uber drivers showcased at a protest that they were already feeling the squeeze.
  • Elon’s tweets land him in more trouble
    Elon’s tweet about the cave-diver, calling him a “pedo guy” is going to trial after all. You can peep the legal documents alongside out full story here.
  • I have you now
    This week, I wrote a feature on a tiny Czech game studio that’s built the most popular VR game on the market. It involves light sabers and EDM and a music-mixing CEO who had plenty to say about banking $20 million in revenue and opting not to raise any outside cash along the way.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Googlers want some acknowledgment from the top:
    [Google employees demand Larry Page address walkout and retaliation]
  2. Protestors take to the skies during Google’s privacy keynote:
    [Protestors fly banner-towing plane over Google I/O]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service continues to churn out some great pieces. We had a fascinating piece go up this week where my colleague Eric chatted with some of Silicon Valley’s most prolific investors about where the puck is moving on media investments. Here’s one tidbit from Sequoia’s Stephanie Zhan:

Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

At Sequoia, we see incredible potential for the world of gaming and entertainment. Among others, we are excited about: The next virtual third place where consumers are hanging out with friends. In the past, your local Starbucks or AIM would have been your go-to place to see and be seen. Today…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers, check out the read butting heads with growing discontent for office Slack usage…

  • Against the Slacklash
  • AWS remains in firm control of the cloud infrastructure market
  • Keyword research in 2019: modern tactics for growing targeted search traffic

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

A glitch is breaking all Firefox extensions

Did you just open Firefox only to find all of your extensions disabled and/or otherwise not working?

You’re not alone, and it’s nothing you did.

Reports are pouring in of a glitch that has spontaneously disabled effectively all Firefox extensions.

Each extension is now being listed as a “legacy” extension, alongside a warning that it “could not be verified for use in Firefox and has been disabled”.

A ticket submitted to Mozilla’s Bugzilla bug tracker first hit at around 5:40 PM Pacific, and suggests the sudden failure is due to a code signing certificate built into the browser that expired just after 5 PM (or midnight on May 4th in UTC time).

Because the glitch stems from an underlying certificate, re-installing extensions won’t work — if you try, you’ll likely just be met with a different error message. Getting extensions back for everyone is going to require Mozilla to issue a patch.

In a post on the company’s forum, Mozilla Add-ons Community Manager Caitlin Neiman writes:

At about 6:10 PST we received a report that a certificate issue for Firefox is causing add-ons to stop working and add-on installs to fail.

Our team is actively working on a fix. We will update as soon as we have more information.

Meanwhile, on Twitter:

Update, March 4th 11 AM Pacific: In a blog post, Mozilla says the issue has now been fixed in the standard desktop version of its browser, though some versions (like Firefox for Android) will need a separate update. The patch for the desktop version should apply automatically within a few hours. The company writes:

The fix will be automatically applied in the background within the next few hours. No active steps need to be taken to make add-ons work again. In particular, please do not delete and/or re-install any add-ons as an attempt to fix the issue. Deleting an add-on removes any data associated with it, where disabling and re-enabling does not.

Asto, the bookkeeping app from Santander, adds invoice financing for freelancers and SMEs

Asto, the Santander owned “upstart” developing financial tools for freelancers and SMEs, is adding invoice financing to its bookkeeping app.

The new offering, which potentially opens up so-called “micro-financing” to a much broader business market, comes hot on the heels of Santander Group acquiring Albert, an invoicing and expenses app for freelancers and micro-businesses. Albert’s functionality has now been integrated into Asto, with Albert co-founder Ivo Weevers becoming Asto’s Chief Product and Design Officer.

In a call, Weevers described Asto’s mission as wanting to create a “full-stack of financial services for self-employed people [and other micro businesses]. Financial services for SMEs is a “huge, fast-growing market,” he says, adding that Asto is innovating on the bookkeeping side, [while] other players on the market are working on the bank account side”.

“A lot of people are struggling with trying to understand and get access to finances that might help them in growing their business or overcoming certain periods of their business where extra cash would be really handy,” he tells me.

“What we’re doing now is providing a comprehensive solution where we help people with their daily tasks around bookkeeping and understanding where they are financially, but also connecting dots seamlessly with a financial solution. This is what this new micro-financing solution is all about”.

In a demo I’m given of the new invoice financing feature, it all feels relatively painless. After signing up to Asto and applying for the micro-finance option, you’re given an estimated pot of credit from which to drawn down on per invoice financed.

Invoices can be issued simply within the mobile app (or uploaded to it), which in itself is quite a time saver. Anyone who freelances knows that writing invoices and tracking them is a pain. Even more so is waiting to be paid.

Next to each invoice is a finance button. Clicking on it initiates the micro loan, with clear signposting on how much you’ll need to pay back and when. The timeframe is based on the payment terms of your issued invoice with a bit of extra leeway if needed.

“Micro-financing used to be accessible only for the larger SMEs, people with financial knowledge and have the time to go into a branch and talk to an account manager and wait for a few weeks to get a decision,” explains Weevers.

“One of the innovate steps we are trying to do here is we are making this option available for the smaller end of the SME market, which is by far the biggest and by far the most unserved. By doing it on mobile, which is their favourite device, and also doing it in a matter of minutes rather than having to wait for weeks,” he adds.

Meanwhile, I’m told that the credit itself is provided by Asto via owner Santander. Noteworthy, the invoice financing feature doesn’t for the time being use transaction data pulled in from bank accounts you have linked to the app. Instead, Asto is using a range of other data points and info you provide when first applying for the micro-financing option.

WorldCover raises $6M round for emerging markets climate insurance

WorldCover, a New York and Africa-based climate insurance provider to smallholder farmers, has raised a $6 million Series A round led by MS&AD Ventures.

Y-Combinator, Western Technology Investment, and EchoVC also participated in the round.

WorldCover’s platform uses satellite imagery, on-ground sensors, mobile phones, and data analytics to create insurance options for farmers whose crops yields are affected adversely by weather events—primarily lack of rain.

The startup currently operates in Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya . With the new funding WorldCover aims to expand its insurance offerings to more emerging market countries.

“We’re looking at India, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia. India could be first on an 18 month timeline for a launch,” WorldCover co-founder and chief executive Chris Sheehan said in an interview.

The company has served over 30,000 farmers across its Africa operations. Smallholder farmers as those earning all or nearly all of their income from agriculture, farming on 10 to 20 acres of land, and earning around $500 to $5000, according to Sheehan.

Farmer’s connect to WorldCover by creating an account on its USSD mobile app. From there they can input their region, crop type, determine how much insurance they would like to buy and use mobile money to purchase a plan. WorldCover works with payments providers such as M-Pesa in Kenya and MTN Mobile Money in Ghana.

The service works on a sliding scale, where a customer can receive anywhere from 5x to 15x the amount of premium they have paid.  If there is an adverse weather event, namely lack of rain, the farmer can file claim via mobile phone. WorldCover then uses its data-analytics metrics to assess it, and if approved, the farmer will receive an insurance payment via mobile-money.

Common crops farmed by WorldCover clients include maize, rice, and peanuts. It looks to add coffee, cocoa, and cashews to its coverage list.

For the moment, WorldCover only insures for events such as rainfall risk, but in the future it will look to include other weather events, such as tropical storms, in its insurance programs and platform data-analytics.

The startup’s founder clarified that WorldCover’s model does not assess or provide insurance payouts specifically for climate change, though it does directly connect to the company’s business.

“We insure for adverse weather events that we believe climate change factors are exacerbating,” Sheehan explained. WorldCover also resells the risk of its policy-holders to global reinsurers, such as Swiss Re and Nephila.

On the potential market size for WordCover’s business, he highlights a 2018 Lloyd’s study that identified $163 billion of assets at risk, including agriculture, in emerging markets from negative, climate change related events.

“That’s what WorldCover wants to go after…These are the kind of micro-systemic risks we think we can model and then create a micro product for a smallholder farmer that they can understand and will give them protection,” he said.

With the round, the startup will look to possibilities to update its platform to offer farming advice to smallholder farmers, in addition to insurance coverage.

WorldCover investor and EchoVC founder Eghosa Omoigui believes the startup’s insurance offerings can actually help farmers improve yield. “Weather-risk drives a lot of decisions with these farmers on what to plant, when to plant, and how much to plant,” he said. “With the crop insurance option, the farmer says, ‘Instead of one hector, I can now plant two or three, because I’m covered.”

Insurance technologyis another sector in Africa’s tech landscape filling up with venture-backed startups. Other insurance startups focusing on agriculture include Accion Venture Lab backed Pula and South Africa based Mobbisurance.

With its new round and plans for global expansion, WorldCover joins a growing list of startups that have developed business models in Africa before raising rounds toward entering new markets abroad.

In 2018, Nigerian payment startup Paga announced plans to move into Asia and Latin America after raising $10 million. In 2019, South African tech-transit startup FlexClub partnered with Uber Mexico after a seed-raise. And Lagos based fintech startup TeamAPT announced in Q1 it was looking to expand globally after a $5 million Series A round.

 

 

Nigerian startup Tizeti launches WifiCall.ng IP voice call service

Nigeria based startup Tizeti, an internet service provider, today launched WifiCall.ng—an internet voice-calling platform for individuals and businesses.

WifiCall is a VoIP—or Voice over Internet Protocol—subscription service that allows unlimited calls to any phone number, even if that number isn’t registered on WifiCall’s network.

Tizeti will offer the product in Nigeria for now, with plans to open it up to phone numbers outside Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy in 2020.

WifiCall was influenced by popularity of WiFi enabled voice services such WhatsApp, in Africa, and the continent’s improving digital and mobile profile.

With its new VoIP product, Tizeti looks to contend with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, and major telcos.

“On the low end we’re competing with the mobile providers. WifiCall gives you a real number and it’s cheaper. But we’re also offering enterprise options you would not get with a mobile connection or even WhatsApp,” Tizeti co-founder and CEO Kendall Ananyi told TechCrunch.

In addition to individual users, businesses and startups can use WifiCall for internal communications or open it up to developers to customize APIs for white-label, customer applications.

WifiCall is available online or for download for free under the “Basic” package. The entry level commercial “Business Unlimited Pro” package—that offers up to 10 users, call recording, and call analytics—goes for ₦15,000, or around $35 a month. 

Nigerian trucking logistic startup Kobo360 is already is a client. Ananyi sees prospective market segments for WifiCall as startups, educational institutions, hotels, gated communities, and “regular users anywhere they have tower coverage,” he said.

That last group ties into Tizeti’s core business, which is building solar powered towers that offer WiFi service packages and hotspots in and around Lagos and Ogun State, Nigeria. Since its launch from Y Combinator’s  winter 2017 batch, the company has installed over 12,000 public WiFi hotspots in Nigeria with 500,000 users. The startup packages internet services drawing on partnerships with West African broadband provider MainOne and Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi

Tizeti raised a $3 million Series A round in 2018, led by 4DX Ventures, and has $5.1 million in investment from firms including Golden Palm Investments, YC, and Social Investments.

Expanding its internet service to more countries in Africa, Tizeti raises $3 million

4DX Ventures co-founder Walter Baddoo sees Tizeti’s voice calling as a strategic extension of its connectivity business (noting WifiCall can be used with any IP).

“The core of the company’s mission is to bring down the cost of connectivity on the continent by leveraging mobile internet and data networks, WifiCall is a step in that direction” Baddoo told TechCrunch. “Africa is going to leapfrog a lot of the traditional call infrastructure…and WiFi calling…is giving individuals, small-businesses, and large businesses one-stop for much cheaper data-service alongside voice.”

Though Sub-Saharan Africa still stands last in most global rankings for smartphone adoption (33 percent) and internet penetration (35 percent), the continent continues to register among the fastest growth in the world for both.

Mobile providers in Nigeria—such as MTN and Glo—are shifting customers from buying anonymous data-bundles to registered sim cards and subscription services. WiFi voice services are also commonly used across the continent for calls. Per We Are Social’s 2018 Digital Report, WhatsApp is the most downloaded messenger app across Africa.

On its internet service business, Tizeti has already expanded to Ghana with a consumer facing brand, Wifi-Africa, and looks to offer WifiCall there as soon as it gains regulatory approval—something in process, according to CEO Kendall Ananyi.

The startup is building an LTE network, to compliment its IP network, and plans to expand further into Nigeria with 5G offerings in the near future, according to Ananyi.

Tizeti also plans to open up its WifiCall product to phone numbers outside of Nigeria starting in 2020.  “The way Africa skipped landlines and went straight to mobile, this is us saying the next level for our voice communications is to move toward voice IP networks,” Ananyi said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TurboTax and H&R Block hide their free tax filing tools from Google on purpose

Low-income Americans can file their taxes for free, but odds are they ended up paying anyway.

ProPublica found that tax-filing giant Intuit is deliberately concealing search results for its free filing service, instead pointing all consumers toward its paid products. While users visiting TurboTax’s homepage will be greeted with what looks like free tax software, the software’s parent company usually finds a way to charge anyone using the product. The manipulative design choice echoes recent conversation around dark pattern design and likely explains why free filing services remain underutilized.

Intuit’s true free filing software is called TurboTax Free File. Compared to the company’s main TurboTax portal, TurboTax Free File is much more difficult to find. That service, designed to make the process free for low-income filers individually making less than $34,000 a year, is part of an agreement between tax-filing companies and the IRS stipulating that a free option must be provided for lower-income filers. In the course of reporting, ProPublica found that Intuit competitor H&R Block uses the same tactic to bury its own free service, H&R Block Free File.

To effectively bury its free filing service, TurboTax included a snippet of code in the page’s robots.txt file instructing search engines not to index it. The code was spotted by a Twitter user Larissa Williams and Redditor ethan1el.

Screenshot via ProPublica

Instead of pointing users toward its free file tool, TurboTax funnels the vast majority of users toward its paid and premium services, whether they qualify for free filing or not. The Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat Ron Wyden denounced the tactic as “outrageous” in a statement to ProPublica, indicating that he intended to bring up the issue with the IRS.

WTF is dark pattern design?

Daily Crunch: Facebook faces new privacy investigations

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Facebook hit with three privacy investigations in a single day

First came a probe by the Irish data protection authority looking into the breach of “hundreds of millions” of Facebook and Instagram user passwords that were stored in plaintext on its servers. Then, Canadian authorities confirmed that the beleaguered social networking giant broke its strict privacy laws.

Lastly, and slightly closer to home, Facebook was hit by its third investigation — this time by New York attorney general Letitia James.

2. Movie subscription service Sinemia is ending US operations

Over the past few months, Sinemia has gone from promising MoviePass competitor to the source of frustration for moviegoers across the country.

3. Slack files to go public, reports $138.9M in losses on revenue of $400.6M

The company attributes these losses to its decision “to invest in growing our business to capitalize on our market opportunity,” and notes that they’re shrinking as a percentage of revenue.

CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 11: A sign hangs outside Walmart store on January 11, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

4. Walmart unveils an AI-powered store of the future, now open to the public

Walmart unveiled a new test grounds for emerging technologies, including AI-enabled cameras and interactive displays. This “store of the future” operates out of a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York.

5. Grocery delivery startup Honestbee is running out of money and trying to sell

The company has held early conversations with a number of suitors in Asia, including ride-hailing giants Grab and Go-Jek, over the potential acquisition of part, or all, of its business.

6. Amazon is prepping a high-fidelity TIDAL competitor

That’s according to Music Business Worldwide, which also accurately reported the recent launch of a free, ad-supported Amazon Music service for Echo device owners.

7. Zwift CEO Eric Min on fitness-gaming and bringing esports into the Olympics

The five-year-old startup has raised more than $170 million as a pioneer of fitness-gaming ― physical sport carried out in a virtual world. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

‘Avengers: Endgame’ is a very silly movie, but it ends in exactly the right way

With just a few days until the release of “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel fans everywhere are probably wondering A) Who dies?? and B) Will this actually resolve the cliffhanger ending of “Infinity War” in a satisfying way?

So, just to get it out of the way: A) I’m not telling, and B) Kind of? Mostly? It depends?

Certainly, if you’re like me and found yourself fatigued by the constant, overcrowded battles of “Infinity War,” the beginning of “Endgame” will come as an enormous relief. There’s a brief flicker of action, then we get plenty of time to deal with the fallout from “Infinity War.” (And if you don’t already know how that movie ends, why are you reading this review?)

We see that half the population of Earth, and the universe, really died after Thanos’ magical finger snap, leaving the original Avengers team and a handful of other heroes to try to rebuild and move on. There’s plenty about the aftermath that simply gets hand-waved away with a few shots of empty streets and grieving extras — but we get to spend time with characters like Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, to see how they’ve responded and changed in the wake of universal catastrophe.

Avengers: Endgame

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: ENDGAME ©Marvel Studios 2019

Of course, they’re not sitting around moping for the entire three-hour (!) runtime. Eventually, a plan is hatched to undo what Thanos has done. And while I’m going to stay as vague as possible about that plan, I think it’s safe to say that the results are textbook fan service.

After all, as its name makes clear, “Endgame” is meant to serve as the culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as a final act for some of its most famous heroes. The film’s middle stretch feels very much like a farewell tour, working overtime to remind viewers of everything they like about these characters and their stories.

Diehard Marvel fans, I suspect, will eat it up. Casual viewers may not be quite as satisfied.

Personally, I was delighted when I realized what the filmmakers were going to do. But as these sequences went on, and on, and on, my enthusiasm waned. By the time the grand finale began, virtually all the goodwill built up during the film’s opening had evaporated.

So by the simple metric of whether “Endgame” finds a way to reverse the ending of “Infinity War” in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or cynical, I’m afraid I’d say it’s a failure. And I’m not sure I can claim that the ending is any less cynical or sentimental.

For this viewer, however, that ending absolutely works — so effectively that it not only salvages the movie, not only helps me forgive the draggy bits, but even makes me think of “Infinity War” more warmly.

As the MCU has gone on, it’s become increasingly difficult to regard the whole enterprise without skepticism — to see it as something other than an excuse to create one guaranteed blockbuster after another, each one leading inexorably to the next. And although some of those blockbusters are very good indeed, Marvel’s weakest moments feel like obvious concessions to this strategy, with stories that either grind to a halt introducing new characters and subplots, or get dragged out needlessly in sequel after sequel.

But in the closing minutes of “Endgame,” I forgot all that. As our heroes arrived for a final, desperate battle, it felt like the triumphant climax that every single one of these films has been building up to.

And when the end came, it wasn’t an excuse to conveniently shuffle certain actors offstage. Instead, Marvel found a natural endpoint for the characters’ stories. And in one case — the film’s final shot — it didn’t just feel natural. It felt perfect.

There will be more Marvel movies. The Avengers will, inevitably, return — at least in some form. But I was thrilled and moved with the way some of them said goodbye.