Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in ‘Jobs.’ Photo by Glen Wilson, courtesy Sundance Institute and Open Road Films.
It’s too early to tell whether the new Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher will join the canon of top technology movies; it opens today, so I haven’t seen it yet. However, you can join me in watching the Jobs trailer, which is embedded below. The movie’s very busy website is here.
I do know that the film’s release gives me a good excuse to take a breather from our usual Friday post of Oracle-related links and bring you instead my top 10 list of tech-related films you’re not going to see on anybody else’s roundup. If you’ve followed my blogging, you know this means they’ll be somewhat obscure, somehow elitist, but all eminently watchable. That’s if you can find them; I’ll include Netflix and Amazon Prime availability, and not just because it gives me an excuse to play with the big screen while I’m writing this post.
The upshot is that my list contains only one of the usual suspects. There’s no Tron, no Back to the Future, and certainly no Star Wars (not a fan). As for Star Trek, I’m a child of the Shatner/Nimoy era, and enjoy those movies, but you don’t need me to point you to them. (FYI, David Ellison, the son of Oracle’s CEO, is executive producer of the series’ latest iteration, Star Trek Into Darkness.)
As for ‘Jobs,’ Kutcher has an advantage in that he certainly looks the part. In real life, according to a recent interview he did with The New York Times, he has tech cred because he’s “An Actor Who Knows Startups.” He’s invested in several social and mobile ventures, and he told the paper: “I look for companies that solve problems in intelligent and friction-free ways and break boundaries.”
I’m familiar with Kutcher only in passing—as in, I used to pass by the TV set when my daughter was watching That ’70s Show. The sitcom, which ran for nine seasons beginning in 1998, seems to view the decade of Watergate and disco through the prism of a basement bong. It may be a trite truism that those who lived through the 1960s don’t remember the decade. However, I rarely joined my daughter, because those of us who actually grew up in the 1970s would prefer to forget them.
OK, so here’s the official Jobs movie trailer, courtesy Open Road Films:
Now it’s onto my list of great tech movies, in no particular order.
What’s the original big data movie? In my estimation, that’d be The Andromeda Strain. The 1971 film version of Michael Crichton’s book revolves around an extraterrestrial virus that finds itself in a small town in Arizona. It wipes out everyone, except for one old man and a baby. (But enough about Steve Guttenberg’s career.) A tiger team of scientists is dispatched to contain the disease, lest it spread to Hollywood and beyond. I detected the big data meme in an early scene where scientist Ruth Leavitt, played by the late Kate Reid, stares at a computer terminal to assess some molecule or other.
Lots of movies seem to portray tough technical problems as being amenable to solutions if someone simply peers really intently at a screen for prolonged periods of time. Those of us who’ve done precisely that know we’re more likely waiting for a slow page to finish loading.
I hope I’m not breaking the spoiler-alert rule if I tell you that the story’s denouement involves another theatrical construct that likewise doesn’t translate well into the real world. Namely, a nuclear device blows the virus, and the rather large research facility that proves unable to contain it, to bits.
Nuclear obliteration is also used to wrap up the plot of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. The downscale 1955 drama—Ralph Meeker plays déclassé private detective Mike Hammer—is often the next viewing step up for budding cineastes who’ve previously become enamored of Bob Le Flambeur. Like many contemporaneous movies, Kiss Me Deadly is infused with the Cold War mentality that screams it’s all about to end badly. And it does, via what I call “bad tech in a box.” Respinning a plot device that goes back to Lot and the Bible, someone can’t resist opening a container of unspecified provenance lurking in the corner. You know, the one they were told to stay away from. (An inability to keep the lid is also part of a pivotal scene in the 1999 romp, The Mummy.) You can guess what happens next, right before the credits roll.
Sometimes it’s a person who blows his top, psychologically speaking. That’s what happens to the laid-off defense engineer ably played by Michael Douglas in 1993’s Falling Down. I’ve long felt that this film has been underrated. I’ve secondarily attributed this to the fact that 20 years ago, Michael Douglas wasn’t the critics’ darling he is today.
But mostly, I believe it’s because of the way his character presents. William “D-Fens” Foster—he’s a defense engineer, get it?—wears a short-sleeved white shirt, horn-rimmed glasses, and a pocket protector. He’s so geekified that most audience members can’t relate to him, and those who can don’t want to be reminded of it. But the slow burn of the plot, the cinematography of a spent and sprawling Los Angeles, and the barely repressed rage expressed via Douglas’s performance combine to create a feeling that there’s a real character beneath the engineer-gone-postal plot. Supporting actress props to the always reliable Barbara Hershey as Foster’s ex-wife.
Paypal to allow users to buy, hold and sell four cryptocurrencies
“The shift to digital forms of currencies is inevitable, bringing with it clear advantages in terms of financial inclusion and access; efficiency, speed and resilience of the payments system; and the ability for governments to disburse funds to citizens quickly,” said Dan Schulman, president and CEO, PayPal.“Our global reach, digital payments expertise, two-sided network, and rigorous security and compliance controls provide us with the opportunity, and the responsibility, to help facilitate the understanding, redemption and interoperability of these new instruments of exchange. We are eager to work with central banks and regulators around the world to offer our support, and to meaningfully contribute to shaping the role that digital currencies will play in the future of global finance and commerce.”
This is great news for crypto but I’m told it shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected In June, there was a report that Paypal was working on direct crypto sales.
Nokia awarded contract to build 4G network on the moon
Nokia has been awarded a contract to establish a 4G network on the moon. The contract is one of several that NASA is awarding to companies as it plans a return to the moon.
The $14.1 million contract was given to Nokia’s US subsidiary and is a small part of the $370 million total awarded to companies such as SpaceX. The cellular service will allow astronauts, rovers, lunar landers, and habitats to communicate with one another according to Jim Reuter, the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space.
The 4G network that Nokia will build will be miles superior to the form of communication that was used during the early missions to the moon.
This is not Nokia’s first attempt to launch an LTE network on the moon. It planned to do so in 2018 in collaboration with PTScientists, a German space firm, and Vodafone UK to launch an LTE network at the site of the Apollo 17 landing but the plan never came to fruition.
Stripe acquires Nigeria’s Paystack for $200M+ to expand into the African continent
When Stripe announced earlier this year that it had picked up another $600 million in funding, it said one big reason for the funding was to expand its API-based payments services into more geographies. Today the company is coming good on that plan in the form of some M&A.
Stripe is acquiring Paystack, a startup out of Lagos, Nigeria that, like Stripe, provides a quick way to integrate payments services into an online or offline transaction by way of an API. (We and others have referred to it in the past as “the Stripe of Africa.”)
Paystack currently has around 60,000 customers, including small businesses, larger corporates, fintechs, educational institutions and online betting companies, and the plan will be for it to continue operating independently, the companies said.
Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but sources close to it confirm that it’s over $200 million. That makes this the biggest startup acquisition to date to come out of Nigeria, as well as Stripe’s biggest acquisition to date anywhere. (Sendwave, acquired by WorldRemit in a $500 million deal in August, is based out of Kenya.)
It’s also a notable shift in Stripe’s strategy as it continues to mature: Typically, it has only acquired smaller companies to expand its technology stack, rather than its global footprint.
The deal underscores two interesting points about Stripe, now valued at $36 billion and regularly tipped as an IPO candidate. (Note: It has never commented on those plans up to now.) First is how it is doubling down on geographic expansion: Even before this news, it had added 17 countries to its platform in the last 18 months, along with progressive feature expansion. And second is how Stripe is putting a bet on the emerging markets of Africa specifically in the future of its own growth.
“There is enormous opportunity,” said Patrick Collison, Stripe’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview with TechCrunch. “In absolute numbers, Africa may be smaller right now than other regions, but online commerce will grow about 30% every year. And even with wider global declines, online shoppers are growing twice as fast. Stripe thinks on a longer time horizon than others because we are an infrastructure company. We are thinking of what the world will look like in 2040-2050.”
For Paystack, the deal will give the company a lot more fuel (that is, investment) to build out further in Nigeria and expand to other markets, CEO Shola Akinlade said in an interview.
“Paystack was not for sale when Stripe approached us,” said Akinlade, who co-founded the company with Ezra Olubi (who is the CTO). “For us, it’s about the mission. I’m driven by the mission to accelerate payments on the continent, and I am convinced that Stripe will help us get there faster. It is a very natural move.”
Paystack had been on Stripe’s radar for some time prior to acquiring it. Like its U.S. counterpart, the Nigerian startup went through Y Combinator — that was in 2016, and it was actually the first-ever startup out of Nigeria to get into the world-famous incubator. Then, in 2018, Stripe led an $8 million funding round for Paystack, with others participating, including Visa and Tencent. (And for the record, Akinlade said that Visa and Tencent had not approached it for acquisition. Both have been regular investors in startups on the continent.)
In the last several years, Stripe has made a number of investments into startups building technology or businesses in areas where Stripe has yet to move. This year, those investments have included backing an investment in universal checkout service Fast, and backing the Philippines-based payment platform PayMongo.
Collison said that while acquiring Paystack after investing in it was a big move for the company, people also shouldn’t read too much into it in terms of Stripe’s bigger acquisition policy.
“When we invest in startups we’re not trying to tie them up with complicated strategic investments,” Collison said. “We try to understand the broader ecosystem, and keep our eyes pointed outwards and see where we can help.”
That is to say, there are no plans to acquire other regional companies or other operations simply to expand Stripe’s footprint, with the interest in Paystack being about how well they’d built the company, not just where they are located.
“A lot of companies have been, let’s say, heavily influenced by Stripe,” Collison said, raising his eyebrows a little. “But with Paystack, clearly they’ve put a lot of original thinking into how to do things better. There are some details of Stripe that we consider mistakes, but we can see that Paystack ‘gets it,’ it’s clear from the site and from the product sensibilities, and that has nothing to do with them being in Africa or African.”
Stripe, with its business firmly in the world of digital transactions, already has a strong line in the detection and prevention of fraud and other financial crimes. It has developed an extensive platform of fraud protection tools, but even with that, incidents can slip through the cracks. Just last month, Stripe was ordered to pay $120,000 in a case in Massachusetts after failing to protect users in a $15 million cryptocurrency scam.
Now, bringing on a business from Nigeria could give the company a different kind of risk exposure. Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa, but it is also one of the more corrupt on the continent, according to research from Transparency International.
And related to that, it also has a very contentious approach to law and order. Nigeria has been embroiled in protests in the last week with demonstrators calling for the disbanding of the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, after multiple accusations of brutality, including extrajudicial killings, extortion and torture. In fact, Stripe and Paystack postponed the original announcement in part because of the current situation in the country.
But while those troubles continue to be worked through (and hopefully eventually resolved, by way of government reform in response to demonstrators’ demands), Paystack’s acquisition is a notable foil to those themes. It points to how talented people in the region are identifying problems in the market and building technology to help fix them, as a way of improving how people can transact, and in turn, economic outcomes more generally.
The company got its start back when Akinlade, for fun (!) built a quick way of integrating a card transaction into a web page, and it was the simplicity of how it worked that spurred him and his co-founder to think of how to develop that into something others could use. That became the germination of the idea that eventually landed them at YC and in the scope of Stripe.
“We’re still very early in the Paystack payments ecosystem, which is super broken,” said Akinlade. The company today provides a payments API, and it makes revenue every time a transaction is made using it. He wouldn’t talk about what else is on Paystack’s radar, but when you consider Stripe’s own product trajectory as a template, there is a wide range of accounting, fraud, card, cash advance and other services to meet business needs that could be built around that to expand the business. “Most of what we will be building in Africa has not been built yet.”
Last month, at Disrupt, we interviewed another successful entrepreneur in the country, Tunde Kehinde, who wisely noted that more exits of promising startups — either by going public or getting acquired — will help lift up the whole ecosystem. In that regard, Stripe’s move is a vote of confidence not just for the potential of the region, but for those putting in the efforts to build tech and continue improving outcomes for everyone.
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